Richard Thompson once told me his theory, rooted in an early devotion to the Everly Brothers, that there is nothing quite like the sound of blood relatives singing together. Tanya, Rachel and Petra Haden might be a case in point.
They were born in New York on October 11, 1971 to Ellen Haden and her husband Charlie, who had come to prominence as the double bassist with Ornette Coleman’s great quartet of 1959-61 and later as the leader of his own Liberation Music Orchestra. I’ll never forget the first time I heard Haden’s classic solo on Ornette’s “Ramblin'”, from Change of the Century, and over the last 40-odd years the Liberation Music Orchestra has been one of the great positive forces in the music.
Charlie was born in Iowa; at the age of two he started singing with his family’s band, who performed country songs on radio and at country fairs. When polio ruined his voice at 15, he switched to the double bass and developed an interest in jazz. Later he moved to Los Angeles, and the rest is part of jazz history. A few years ago he explored his roots in a fine album called Rambling Boy.
His triplet daughters, born (like his son Josh, who leads the band Spain) to his first wife, grew up surrounded by music. On visits to their father’s parents in Missouri, they learnt the country songs of his childhood. At home there was usually something good playing — “whether it be our mom playing Billie Holiday and Nina Simone records, or our dad playing Keith Jarrett and Ornette Coleman in the living room,” as they write in the notes to their first album together, The Haden Triplets. They’ve all worked in music for many years, with credits including the Foo Fighters, the Queens of the Stone Age, Beck, Green Day and Todd Rundgren. Almost 10 years ago Petra recorded a acappella album called Petra Haden Sings The Who Sell Out, which was exactly what it said and earned Pete Townshend’s admiration.
Here’s a short promo film for the sisters’ album, which is released on Third Man Records, Jack White’s label. Perhaps a little confusingly, Tanya Haden’s husband is the actor Jack Black, and the album was recorded — at the insistence of Ry Cooder, who produced it — in their house, with one microphone for the singers and their accompanists: Cooder on guitar and mandolin, his son Joachim on drums and Rene Camacho on bass, with occasional touches of fiddle from Petra and cello from Tanya.
The bulk of the repertoire is drawn from hallowed country and bluegrass sources: the Louvin Brothers (“Tiny Broken Heart”, “My Baby’s Gone” and “When I Stop Dreaming”), Bill Monroe (“Voice from on High” and “Memories of Mother and Dad”), the Carter Family (“Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?”, “Single Girl, Married Girl” and “Oh Take Me Back”), the Stanley Brothers (“Lonesome Night”) and Kitty Wells (“Making Believe”). It suits their voices very nicely: while none of the three seems to be a particularly distinctive singer, together they make close harmonies that are appropriately plaintive. When they step outside the idiom, with the poppier “Slowly” or Nick Lowe’s “Raining Raining”, the results aren’t quite as convincing, although never less that pleasant.
On the best songs the sense of intimacy is very appealing. The Haden Triplets has the atmosphere of music made in the family parlour, for their own enjoyment and for that of their circle of friends, of whom we are made to feel a part. And sometimes, as with the glorious “Voice from on High”, you just want to lift your own voice and join in.
* The photograph of Rachel, Petra and Tanya Haden is from the inside cover of The Haden Triplets and was taken by Jo McCaughey.