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Petra Haden Sells Out

Petra Haden: She swallowed an orchestra.

Puffy-fluffy clouds billow past, green grass gently sways. The sun beams benevolently, a little car tootles along as a glorious carpet of sunshine voices bips and bops and tweedle-dees. And you find yourself thinking, Um, I’m enjoying this.

It’s officially cool and okay to hum along to TV commercials, especially if they’re scored — like the Toyota ads currently seen on the tube (and YouTube) — by one Petra Haden. She’s the multitalented, environmentally friendly voice behind those joyfully surreal images in a series of recent Prius ads, doing all that wondrous, melodic tapestry weaving with nothing but her vocal cords and an ear for harmony.

Haden, some might say just like the Prius, seems to make the flowers bloom as she tra-la-las down the road. A longtime presence on the L.A. scene, she boasts a vocal prowess and modernist musical taste that cast her as the obscure spawn of Enya, Björk and Pauline Oliveros; in real life she is the singing and violin-playing daughter of jazz-bass legend Charlie Haden, and one of triplet sisters, the other two being Tanya and Rachel, also musicians. Her brother Josh is of the band Spain.

We first got a glimpse of Haden’s unusual talents with her band That Dog, which graced the indie charts in the early ’90s. She went on to collaborate with Beck, Foo Fighters, Green Day, Bette Midler, Laurie Anderson and Sean Lennon, among scads of others. These include her singing on ØØ Void, by metal merchants Sunn O))) and Goatsnake. There have been collaborations with the Decemberists, and in her duo, Miss Murgatroid, with accordionist Alicia Rose. There’s the series of pieces with jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, and the works she and her siblings made in tribute to the music of her father, perhaps best known as Miles Davis’ longtime bassist. Let’s not neglect her all-woman choir, Petra Haden and the Sellouts.

Haden has a deceptively informal air about her when she describes what she does and how she goes about her work. The Prius spots happened when she got a call from a music supervisor who had heard her a cappella version of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” Haden doesn’t even drive, but she had a vague idea about what might fit the eco-friendly hybrid.

“I wasn’t thinking about Prius, I was thinking about the music,” she says. “‘Let Your Love Flow’ [a cover of the Bellamy Brothers hit], I was thinking, I could re-create this. That song was fun, it was easy, like the Journey song.”

Haden was given free rein in her musical interpretations of oldies standards for the Toyota commercials; the corporate-exec types merely suggested doing the songs slower here or in higher harmony there. For the song beneath the “Solar” ad, which touts the Prius’ use of solar-powered air conditioning, “I was thinking about the Beach Boys’ ‘God Only Knows,’ and I did kind of a variation on that.”

The commercials’ elaborate weaves of vocal harmony are created through a process similar to — though obviously more advanced than — the one she developed for her 1999 a cappella album, Imaginaryland. “When I got my first four-track cassette for my birthday, I just started singing. I don’t play piano, I don’t play drums, I don’t play guitar. I play violin, but I didn’t know at the time how to plug it into the four-track. So what I did was, I had a microphone and I just sang everything that I heard in my head.”

The Bach-worthy flourishes in Haden’s Toyota choral work shouldn’t surprise, considering what she’s accomplished in previous a cappella projects, including Imaginaryland and her spectacular 2005 cover of the entire The Who Sell Out album. (Yes, that’s right, the whole record, the voices, guitars, bass and drums, all performed with her mouth, and so accurate in pinpointing the harmonies and rhythms that it makes your head spin.)

Haden’s upcoming projects are as many-tentacled as her vocal creations. They include her ongoing If By Yes project, a collaboration with Yuka Honda of Cibo Matto and Japanese composer Cornelius, which comes out on the Chimera label in the fall. Then there’s her new a cappella record of favorite film scores, the selection of which is typically Petra-esque in scope and unpredictability.

She name checks the music in 8 1/2 and Big Night, but traces her tastes back further: “Maybe the journey to playing violin owes to my love of films like E.T., and Superman, which everyone knows is my favorite movie. The strings, the cellos, this big sound that I love — there’s a part in Superman where I thought when I was a kid, ‘I’m gonna play that part.’ ”

The charmingly self-effacing Haden, who also blows a mean hand-ocarina, seems to chase those desires as an adult, too, without regard to the so-called marketability of a project. “It’s very important to be true to yourself,” she says. “I think about it every day. I feel like I was born to do music. And if it’s commercial, that’s fine.”

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