The Bear Who Loved Steve Reich: Petra Haden Talks ‘Imaginaryland’ and ‘The Who Sell Out’

The Bear Who Loved Steve Reich: Petra Haden Talks ‘Imaginaryland’ and ‘The Who Sell Out’

Anyone, bear or human, who hears the reissue of Imaginaryland should be knocked out

“It’s all just because I love it,” says Petra Haden, speaking from her home in Los Angeles between gigs with recent collaborator Jesse Harris. This year has brought a flurry of activity that includes new releases and as well as reissues of Imaginaryland (1996) and Petra Haden Sings The Who Sell Out (2005).

“I didn’t think millions of people would get those records,” she adds, acknowledging the reputation that her newly reissued albums have among those whose tastes run counter to the mainstream. Haden’s distinct a capella approach won the approval of The Who’s Pete Townshend, who praised her interpretation of his songs as “a gift,” noting that she had given him the chance to hear it as though for the first time. She found a more lucrative gig covering The Bellamy Brothers’ “Let Your Love Flow” for a Toyota commercial. (“I wish I’d get more of those jobs,” she says), and took on the Journey classic “Don’t Stop Believin’” for a covers compilations titled Guilt By Association issued in 2007. Some have suggested that her arrangement inspired the one heard on the hit show Glee not long after.

The performer has been in great demand, logging hours with Foo Fighters, The Rentals and others, and fans have rediscover That Dog, the band Haden and her sister Rachel formed with Tony Maxwell and Anna Waronker. In 1995 the quartet released two albums and toured almost endlessly. In her downtime from the band Haden began to experiment with the a capella that would define a significant portion of her solo career.

“I was working on these melodies and recording them on a four track that my dad [jazz bassist Charlie Haden] had gotten me,” she recalls. “I didn’t know what I was doing, really. I didn’t play guitar so I didn’t have anything to create a basic track. I just sang everything. I’d sing a bass line, then try to sing a guitar chord.”

What began as a way to fill a little bit of downtime became her primary focus, and soon she had a dozen or so pieces. She played them for her friend Tom Grimley, who had produced the first two albums by That Dog, and he encouraged Haden to release them on his own WIN Records. Imaginaryland ultimately boasted nine originals and four covers, one each from Bach, Enya, Charlie Haden and Miranda Sex Garden. However, all the compositions were connected by single thread: a stuffed bear.

Tanya Haden had come into possession of the animal after a child who frequently visited her mother’s house left it behind. Not long after the bear came to live with them, she began performing puppet shows with it. The bear was a central figure in those performances. “Tanya had this voice for the bear. She’d say, ‘I’m Imaginarybear from Imaginaryland.’ She created this whole puppet show based on Imaginarybear with her friend Sarah. So I named all the songs after things you’d find in Imaginaryland: ‘Apple Juice’ and ‘Moonmilk.’ The song ‘Red’ is about Little Red Riding Hood. So it’s kind of like a kid’s album but not,” Haden says with a laugh.

The original release came with a story printed on the CD.

The bear graced the album’s cover and, on the original release, told a little of his story on the CD face. “I was interviewing Imaginarybear, asking what Imaginaryland was like. But if you haven’t met Imaginarybear hard to get the whole thing without having a real conversation with him,” she says. Sadly, that became an impossibility some time ago as the bear has vanished. “It’s really sad. Tanya told me a few years ago that she couldn’t find him. So I thought that maybe I could find another Imaginarybear if I Googled him.” Some collectors circulate similar bears called Nosy Bears, but the specific model the Hadens knew appears to be out of circulation even in the online toy-buying community. “He’s got to be out there somewhere,” she says.

Anyone, bear or human, who hears the reissue of Imaginaryland should be knocked out, even 20 years later. The wordless pieces are hypnotic and enchanting. One can forget that they’re listening to a human voice; at times it sounds like an orchestra of instruments that fall outside the realm of established music.

Haden found particular inspiration in an ensemble that first came to attention in the ’70s thanks to Swiss ethnomusicologist Marcel Cellier, who first recorded the choir known as Mystère des Voix Bulgares in 1975. With an ethereal beauty these Bulgarian women performed compositions that celebrated the nation’s musical diversity, using diaphonic (sometimes called parallel) harmonies and dissonance.

“I fantasized about being in that choir,” Haden says, “because I loved all the dissonant notes they would sing. And I just loved the repetitiveness of the vocalists that Steve Reich would use. Then I would think, ‘I’ve got to meet Steve Reich and work with him!’ His music was just in my head all the time.”

Reich’s compositional techniques inspired her to record Bach’s “Prelude No.2 in C Minor,” which she performed largely from memory. Her ability to build harmonies came almost as easily. Having sung alongside her sisters since childhood, finding two and three part harmonies became second nature. She and her sisters would often accompany their father on old country songs by Stanley Brothers and Carter Family.

“I always had a sister by my side and if we wanted to sing something one of us would choose a harmony right away,” she says. The effortless sounds of The Haden Triplets would make their way onto record via their father’s Rambling Boy album and, later, their own Ry Cooder-produced self-titled release. “Singing with our dad on songs like that was always a lot of fun,” she says.

Among those taken with her a capella compositions was Haden’s friend Mike Watt. He and childhood friend D. Boon had fallen in love withThe Who Sell Out and brought some of The Who’s reckless energy to their own band, Minutemen. It was Watt who suggested that Haden re-record that album in the style of Imaginaryland, giving her an 8-track recorder and a cassette with The Who’s classic on one track and left the other seven empty. The bassist encouraged Haden to replicate all the instruments—even Keith Moon’s frenetic drum fills—with her voice. Always up for a challenge, Haden took on the project.

It fell in line slowly, as Haden was still recording and touring with That Dog. The Who’s compositions provided further challenges. “Rael,” for instance, was a sprawling piece with different moods and movements and rich instrumentation that required more precision than some of the other tracks. Haden was also sidelined for several months after being struck by a car, though once she recovered her work took on a new life. When the album was finished, she played it for a very enthusiastic Watt. According to Haden, he said, “’Ah, it sounds great, Pet! Now put it out!’ I thought, ‘What? I thought I was doing this for you!’”

Haden found an ally in friend and journalist-broadcaster Jennifer Sharpe, whose curatorial site served as an early launching ground for the music. Sharpe “was doing a show about instruments that sounded like voices and voices that sounded like instruments,” Haden recalls. “She said that ‘Armenia City in the Sky’ would be perfect and so I said, ‘Yeah, of course!’”

The song landed in the right ears and Haden eventually inked a deal with Bar None to release the record in 2005. Although she felt the album sounded murky at times, the label felt that it added to record’s overall charm. “Then,” she recalls, “Pete Townshend heard it and loved it. I was in shock. But his support helped the record a lot.”

Critical reception was overwhelmingly positive, though, Haden says, there were some who misunderstood her intentions and some of the statements she’d made about her lack of familiarity with the legendary English band. People “thought I didn’t like them… I became a Who fan because of recording the album.”

The album ushered in a long line of releases including a collaboration with Frisell that featured covers of songs from Stevie Wonder, Coldplay and Tom Waits. In 2013 she issued an album a capella renditions of music from films titled Petra Goes to the Movies. It was around that time that she met Jesse Harris, who collaborated with her this year. Seemed Like a Good Idea, billed as Petra Haden Sings Jesse Harris, spotlights her affinity for the New York-based songsmith’s smart, timeless compositions. She recalls that they met when they both guested at an Anthony Wilson gig in L.A.

“It was at the Blue Whale,” Haden says. “Jesse played some of his own songs and I loved them.” She was keen to make another solo record but wanted to focus on songs and not, in her words, “wordless a capella stuff.” She asked Harris to produce the album which led to a few a writing sessions but Harris, who is based in New York City, had to go home for a while. The deadline for recording was approaching and so Harris offered her pick of songs he had not recorded yet.

Some of them, she says, reminded her of his LP Borne Away, a record she’d already fallen madly in love with. Harris returned to track the material at Woody Jackson’s studio in Los Angeles and the pair emerged with a record that didn’t feel entirely like a Petra Haden solo effort. They settled on a co-billing that spotlighted his role as composer and hers as performer. Supported by a cast of players including the NYC-based duo Star Rover, good friend Jon Brion, string arranger John Moose and pianist Aaron Parks, Haden says she couldn’t be happier with the results, despite some initial concerns.

“We recorded so fast,” she says, “I wanted to add more vocal stuff and maybe experiment with different sounds but I think it ended up sounding really, really great.”

Haden has no plans to return to That Dog, although reunion sessions have already been recorded. “I have a lot of other things going on,” she says. These include live performances with her brother Josh and his band Spain and various other supporting roles. And, yes, maybe spending more time looking for that long-lost bear.

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