Jesse Harris and Petra Haden find beauty and chaos in collaboration with John Zorn

By Rebecca Slaman

Thursday, September 7, 2023

This September at National Sawdust, John Zorn and Jesse Harris will present their latest work Love Songs, featuring acclaimed singer Petra Haden. For Harris, working with Haden was an easy decision, “because we love Petra, she's a phenomenal singer.” The musicians have a mutual respect and appreciation for each other’s talents as the root of their collaborations. Said Haden, “when I hear his songs, I just feel really good. It just makes me feel positive.” She adds, “he’s a very creative writer musically and lyrically.”

Previously, the trio worked together on The Song Project and Songs for Petra. Haden, as the longtime muse, first joined this project recording demos for Harris to write to. “I don't write from a score because I need to be able to hear it. I need to sing along to it and count it out, you know, and see how it flows.” 

Both musicians have found great success in collaboration across many genres and with many partners. Haden prioritizes patience as the most important quality in a collaborative partner. “That’s what makes it enjoyable for me, because it takes me a long time to sit with the music and work with it.”

She also clarified that for her to agree to a project, she has to feel confident in herself as well as in the material. “Number one is that I like what I do because when it comes down to it, I have to be happy with what I'm doing when I'm working with someone.”

Both Harris and Haden are excited to be working with this new music by John Zorn. Haden waxes poetic about how his music makes her feel: “I feel like I'm in a boat in the middle of the ocean. And then to my right, there's a storm, but then to the left, there's a sunset and so it's like beauty and chaos all at the same time.”

Harris thinks these new compositions from Zorn will not only impress people but even surprise fans of Songs for Petra and The Song Project. “Some people will recognize his style; there's some atonal pieces and some odd time signatures and stuff. But there are also some very classic melodies that sound like they could be 100 years old. And I've never heard him write like that.”

With this being their first theater piece, the collaborators are exploring their creative process in new ways. It started with a collection of love songs. “[Zorn] said the songs sounded like they belong in a musical,” said Harris, “So I started writing the book and developing that, fusing that with the songs that we had written. And then I did some revisions on the lyrics along the way as the story took shape.” However, this won’t be like your typical tourist fare, as Harris expressed disinterest in the more corporate functions of Broadway: “Zorn does not adhere to the rules of the commercial world.”

Haden doesn’t know if she feels confident to fully commit to performing in theater full-time, but she sometimes dreams of it. While she loves to sing, it’s taken her a while to overcome the nerves of acting. “I used to tell people ‘Oh, that's why my name is Petra, because I'm petrified.’ But now I'm really starting to enjoy it. Even the butterflies and the nervousness. It's a good nervous now.”

Many songs have been written by Zorn and Harris to showcase her soaring voice. In rehearsing Love Songs, she’s starting to find herself in the character too. 

“As I was practicing the song, I was feeling like, wow, this character. I feel like she's starting to love herself and be hopeful.” In this piece, Haden, as well as her character, are learning lessons about “just feeling confident, and who knows if that means you have a love in your life. It doesn't matter I think. For me, I'm learning in life that it's really important to love yourself to love someone else.” 

About Rebecca Slaman

Rebecca Slaman is a freelance writer, podcaster, and editor. She has a BA from Fordham University in English and Classics. Her writing specializes in performance, music, and fan communities. She has been cited as a Bob Dylan expert in speaking engagements at University of Tulsa and Florida International University.