A Conversation with Mia Doi Todd
Puremusic: How are you today? Where do I find you?
Mia Doi Todd: I'm good. I'm at home, in the living room. It's chilly outside, so I feel it in my house.
PM: To set the stage we're on, perhaps you'd tell me about the home and the atmosphere you grew up in and when music first took a hold of you as something that would direct your life.
MDT: I was born in Los Angeles. For the first year, we lived by the ocean near San Diego. My dad is a sculptor, and he was teaching sculpture at UCSD. We lived on a cliff above the ocean. I really loved the California coast, and that set in very early. I think some songs on this album definitely have that feeling.
PM: I hear you.
MDT: Then we moved back to L.A. where my mom is from. She became a judge when I was three years old. She was the first Asian woman to become a judge in the in the United States.
MDT: She was appointed by Jerry Brown. So my parents are very different. My dad is an artist, and my mom is a judge. So that definitely had a big and direct influence on me. I grew up in a very aesthetic environment with art all around. My dad was the easygoing one, I got to play all day. I'd spend the summers in his studio just hanging out, watching him paint and sculpt. I'm an only child, so I spent a lot of time by myself: drawing, making things, writing stories, just amusing myself. My parents worked very hard, they didn't have tons of time to play, so I developed my own little fantasy worlds [laughs] and wrote things. I loved school as a child. Because I didn't have a lot of playmates, school and learning were really fascinating to me. I loved history and language, and studied really hard. In the summers I always just really looked forward to school starting again. [laughs]
MDT: But I was surrounded by art all the time, and going to gallery openings and museums--not things that I really enjoyed as a child, but in retrospect it gave me a real appreciation for art and the striving to make beautiful things.
PM: And was there any music in your household?
MDT: You know what? Not so much. My mom likes to sing and she likes to play piano now. But they didn't listen--it wasn't the happiest household on earth. They both worked very hard, and they married for a long time, so it wasn't like a joyful musical house at all. But my next-door neighbor was an opera singer.
MDT: And she started giving me private voice lessons when I was about 12, 13. So all through my teen years I studied classical Italian vocal methods.
PM: And did you like that kind of music, or were you just taking good advantage of your neighbor's talent and willingness?
MDT: I wasn't a big opera fan by any means, but I definitely appreciate that virtuosity. And it gave me such a real strong foundation in my voice. My voice teacher passed away a couple years ago. I have him to thank for my voice, my enunciation, my diction, which really have guided my songwriting. And my take on meter and things like that, I think I owe a lot of that to him. But opera--I don't have a big voice, I'm a really tiny person, also. So [laughs] I don't have a big voice. And classical music--I'm quite a creative person, I get filled with all these ideas I want to realize out in the world, so I wasn't really satisfied with learning music. And I sang also in a lot of choirs when I was a teenager, and also in college. Partly because I'm an only child, I really like singing in choir, but it's also not completely satisfying to me because I have such a singular vision, like a solo artist. So songwriting really enabled me to pursue and to find my own voice and creative method, and my own aesthetic.
PM: So did you start playing music yourself, say, on the piano or the guitar in high school, in college, or even before?
MDT: My mom had, and I still have, her beautiful Martin nylon-string guitar that she bought new in the '60s.
MDT: So when I was about 16, I started plucking around on that. And I never had any guitar instruction. I still haven't.
PM: Is it a very small body Martin nylon string?
MDT: Yes. It's beautiful. I love that guitar.
PM: Wow. You so rarely see those little Martin nylon strings. I'll bet that's a fantastic guitar.
MDT: Yes, yes. It's not a big sounding guitar like a big classical Spanish guitar, it's very tender. I think it's very feminine. So I actually bought--I found another old Martin nylon string that is a little louder, and that's the one I play live. My mom's, I like to keep it at home. I don't take it traveling with me. A slightly different model with a slimmer waist, but very close to my original one.
When I was about 16, I wrote my first song using that guitar. And I knew two chords. My particular guitar style has kind of evolved from my limitations. My hands are really tiny, so I can't play a lot of bar chords, and I don't change--make big--using like four or five fingers. I use simple chords. And I have a lot of tunings, my own tunings. I saw this interview with Joni Mitchell--oh, I was very--I was a big Joni Mitchell fan. But I didn't--a lot of people learn how to play guitar and sing folk music by singing songs that exist.
MDT: I didn't. I just started writing songs.
PM: And you started making up your own tunings.
MDT: I started making my own tunings. I saw this interview with Joni Mitchell from a long time ago, that I just ran across again recently. The interviewer asked her why she tuned her guitar all those crazy ways. And she said that those tunings and those unresolved chords kind of reflect her emotional landscape. We have a lot of unresolved emotions, and she found those chords that kind of mirrored her emotions. And I think it was the same thing with me: normal standard tuning and chords didn't sound like myself to me. So I started tuning the guitar and finding little nuances that reminded me more of myself.
PM: When I was reading about you recently, I was struck by the journey you seem to be on as an artist. There's more than a series of records or bands. Maybe you would say something about this more than a decade-plus recording journey you've been on, the arc of it.
MDT: It's true, yeah. Hard to believe that this is my 7th record. And each one is a child to me. I think I've evolved a lot. My music has changed, and my voice, I found my voice more. But I really like my first album. Those songs are really precious to me. Songs are like tattoos--Joni Mitchell says that in a song. And so you really carry all those experiences, and you don't forget them, because you can remember, really, when you wrote a song, like it just calls it up in your emotional memory very clearly--
PM: Who was involved and where, all that and more.
MDT: Yeah. The albums all reflect different periods in my life and my personal growth. And it's also the songs, for me--I mean, hopefully they'll reach other people and serve them well, but for me they help me understand stuff that I'm going through, and maybe overcome some difficult situations.
My first three records were all just acoustic, me with a guitar. I started going out to an indie rock club, and I started following this local band called Further. And I ended up dating one of those guys. And I started writing songs more seriously in college, and writing a lot of songs. And I came back to L.A., and they recorded some demos for me.
PM: Further did?
MDT: Further, right. They are not a well-known band, but at a certain moment in L.A., they were just awesome. And they had a very funny little garage studio. So I went in to record demos for an album that we were going to make. And then I got sick, and I wasn't able to record anymore. So the demos that I did just really captured what I was doing, and this young woman's strange musical adventure. So we put that out.
PM: That was lucky that you got sick and couldn't finish it, because the demos probably were the record anyway.
MDT: Exactly. But that timing, that led me to make two more just solo acoustic records. So that's pretty random. I don't know, it definitely set me off on this solo path. And then I got signed to Columbia, and by that time I really did not want to make another solo acoustic album. And I worked with producer Mitchell Froom, who taught me a lot. He taught me about decision making and moving forward. These days, like with Protools, you can record 27 guitar takes, and 53 drum takes. But if you don't decide one thing, it's hard to move on and do the next--the flute, because--so he taught me about decision making, and making decisions quickly and when you know what you are hearing and what you are listening to. So on the Columbia album I got to work with people with a lot more experience than myself. In ways it was scary and not easy--the music industry tries to wrap women up in little pretty boxes.
MDT: And not that they were trying to do that to me, because they knew already [laughs] my music was not mainstream, and they weren't trying to make it any more mainstream. But that was a very interesting process. I was young, and it was a good thing to go through. At that point, if I had not done that, perhaps I would have had to get a regular job, and I might not be doing music today. So I really thank that period, and Columbia for giving me confidence to pursue music further. In the eyes of my family it was a real validation. That was very important just to give me the initiative to keep going with it. I got dropped pretty rapidly because I'm not--
PM: Sufficiently mainstream.
MDT: Yeah, yeah. And I knew that. So I didn't have grand expectations about it, by any means.
PM: But that was the first of several more-orchestrated records, right, before you got more simple again in your approach?
MDT: Yes. The next record, Manzanita, was a big shift. I worked with my friends, more my peers. On Columbia, I was working with people a lot older and more experienced than myself, and people they met that day who came into the studio with me--though Nels Cline was a great guitarist, who was a friend of mine, he played on it, and another friend. But it was more Mitchell's world. And so for Manzanita, I hand-chose everybody who worked on it, all friends, colleagues. One guy's in Further who recorded my first album, he actually helped me produce Manzanita. So it's a little bit all over the place, and I love that about it.
One of the tracks is a reggae song. My friend's reggae band played with me. It was so much fun. It was me getting to express and explore my musical heritage more. And it was a lot of fun working with my peers. I was much more in control of it. So that was that one.
And then on the next record--a lot of my friends are DJs, and Manzanita actually came out on an electronica label. And we knew we wanted to make a remix record. So after Manzanita was finished, I gave the tracks to a lot of friends of mine, and they did remixes. And that became La Ninja, which is my most recent record before GEA.PM: Right. continue