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Dreams So Real 

Wednesday, Jan 26 2000
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Haden, Jesse Frohman; Michael, Andrew MacPherson; Hucknall, Lorenzo Agius; Gartside, Eddie Monsoon

Petra Haden wasn’t like the other girls. While her peers in mid-‘80s L.A. worshipped at the altar of Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, Haden’s idolatry was channeled in a slightly more off-kilter direction. ”I‘ve always wanted to be the female Pat Metheny,“ she says, sipping from a can of Coca-Cola with a straw at a Santa Monica cafe. ”He sings with his guitar. I just admire that, and I want that, and I’m going to do it.“

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That‘s not as left-field as it seems: The jazz-guitar virtuoso has played frequently with her father, bassist Charlie Haden, and is also a family friend. Still, Petra’s always been a bit off, a cherubic, heavenly-voiced enigma lost in her own personal Imaginaryland. Since the dissolution of her band That Dog, however, she‘s begun showing signs, albeit tentative, of embracing adulthood and the reality of her musical career. Though still a thrift-store pixie in appearance -- she wears a vintage dress over blue jeans -- Haden’s words are focused rather than frivolous. Now it seems that there‘s a there there.

Petra Haden’s evolution began, strangely enough, on a stage with the Foo Fighters in 1995. Touring with the Foos as a member of That Dog, she regularly sat in during their sets, adding twisted violin shadings to the band‘s post-grunge rock. One night, Dave Grohl’s voice was more shredded than usual, and he asked Haden to sing the lead vocal on the band‘s encore. ”I was like, fucking-a, man, I am so there,“ she remembers. ”I sang ’Floaty,‘ and I was in a dream. Because I felt like I could finally hear my voice. That’s when I knew that I was an individual. I saw myself doing this for a long time in front of a big, big audience. I felt really strong.“

Soon after, she released the mostly a cappella Imaginaryland. The 1996 indie release was a wide-eyed wonder of wordless vocals in which Haden‘s multitracked voice soared like a one-woman Bulgarian female choir, the sound of a frustrated girl let loose inside a 16-track candy store.

She listened to Imaginaryland while on tour with That Dog as a means of comfort. ”It actually did help me a lot,“ she says. ”It gave me a little boost of confidence. I realized, God, I’m doing something no one else is doing, and I gotta move forward with that.“

Though Haden‘s sparkling harmony vocals (with sister Rachel) anchored That Dog’s topsy-turvy adolescent pop, her limited role in the band became even smaller with the recording of 1997‘s Retreat From the Sun. ”It came to the point where Anna [Waronker] was doing almost all the singing, and I was playing the tambourine. I wasn’t even playing the violin.“

When the band combusted that same year, Haden was finally free to follow that inner voice -- the one that told her to become the female Pat Metheny. Instead, she became tentative, unsure about what to do next. She busied herself with session work, harmonizing with everyone from Victoria Williams to Bette Midler to Mike Watt. ”I was too afraid to do my own thing. I wasn‘t sure how I wanted to approach it,“ she says. ”I remember thinking, a ’Okay, this is the time where I want to be in a big band and be a singer.‘ But I didn’t write songs. I only could write with other people.“

Slowly, she crawled out of her shell, collaborating with accordionist Alicia ”Miss Murgatroid“ Rose, resulting in last year‘s precious, nuevo-classical Bella Neurox, followed by a short tour. But it wasn’t a totally satisfying experience: The singer took a back seat to the violinist.

Her latest project, which she‘ll unveil at McCabe’s on January 28, hits closer to home. A collaboration with guitarist Woody Jackson that she calls ”dreamy jazz desert music,“ the songs are moody and emotional, shaded with rootsy and jazzy textures that highlight Haden‘s elastic vocal skills. Working in fits and starts over the past two years, Haden and Jackson completed more than a dozen tracks, some of which even have lyrics, a first for her. ”I feel like a snail when it comes to lyrics,“ she says. ”I want to say words now. I want people to relate to me now. I don’t want them to be confused by what I‘m thinking inside.“

In the meantime, she’s stressing the McCabe‘s show. Although her dad was initially scheduled to join on bass for a few songs, recent shoulder surgery has kept him on the disabled list. But if she gets wigged out onstage, she could draw inspiration from that day she fronted the Foo Fighters. ”When I did that, I was thinking I want to be like Barbra Streisand.“ And if that doesn’t work, she can always channel her personal Jesus, and ask: What would Pat Metheny do?

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