home listen a- z back next
Mia Doi Todd

A Conversation with Mia Doi Todd (continued)

PM: And I think GEA is really amazing. In fact, on GEA, speaking of that last and beautiful record, I can't recall the last time I played a record that began with an 11-minute song.


MDT:  Yeah. Maybe a Ravi Shankar record.

PM: Yeah, right. But I did love how it placed one immediately in the world where this music was going to be taking place.

MDT: Yes, exactly.

PM: As soon as the harmonium and the voice and the guitar ring together, immediately you're in that place where the river song--the "River of Life/The Yes Song," is going to take place.

MDT: I think so, yeah. It really takes you on the journey, and you're transported into like a world that I want to exist, and that exists through art. That's the amazing thing about art.

PM: Maybe you'd talk to me, please, about both the conception and the recording of "River of Life/The Yes Song."

MDT: Yes. Okay. First, before I think of recording, I like to have songs quite finished. I'm kind of traditional that way. I start on the guitar, I make these guitar licks and see how they fit together, and just play forever. And I bought the harmonium a couple of years ago. There's a local India Sweets & Spices--it's like an Indian fast-food place almost. They import a lot of things from India. And I had been coveting this harmonium. So one day I just went and got it. And I play it with my foot. I peg down the keys, make my own drone, because normally the harmonium is a drone in D sharp. And I have some songs in D sharp, but it's not the most flexible key.

PM: You mean this harmonium's basic tonal center is D sharp?

MDT: Yes. But the way harmoniums work, it has a bellows like an accordion.

PM: Right.

MDT: And if you pull out all the stops--like on an organ--if you pull out all the stops and pump it, a lot of them are based in D sharp. This must be some foundation of Indian music that a lot of instruments are tuned, because a lot of harmoniums I have found are in D sharp. But if you push in some of the stops, that cools off the D sharp, its natural drone, then you can play it like a record keyboard, and pump it with other stops open. So I developed a thing where you can put quarters under the black keys to hold down some of the white keys, and you can make your own drones like in C or in D, any of the keys that are white. It's harder with the black ones because you can't hook the quarters under anything else.


MDT: You can if you get weights. You can do anything. But anyways, I figured out this method to weight down whatever chord I wanted to. A lot of my songs are in D. Like I think Cesaria Evora, all her songs are in E, because that's where her voice likes to be. I have a lot of songs in D because that's where my voice really just finds it likes to sit. C, also. And I have a lot of D tunings. So I peg down this D chord. And I put the harmonium on the ground, and I play it with my bare feet. And in Indian music it would be really disrespectful to play an instrument with your foot. But I really have respected instruments, so I think it's okay. I sit on a stool and I pump the harmonium with my foot, and I play guitar, and I can sing.

PM: Amazing.

MDT: So it's truly a one-man band thing. And my friend Andres [Renteria] has been playing percussion with me for three years now. Manzanita was a very external record. I was bringing in a lot of different elements and people together. And after that, I went through this more internal period. In GEA, there's this unified core, but it's more kind constrained, you could say. But it's through those constraints that you make discoveries. So finding the harmonium gave Andres and I this tripod, a third leg, which really made our stool stand firm.

PM: The power of the drone.

MDT: Yes. The drone just glued everything together.

PM: It's like a sitar without a tamboura, it's not the same thing.

MDT: Exactly. I love tamboura. And I was borrowing one. Before I got the harmonium I was playing tamboura. But you can't play guitar and tambura at the same time because they're both stringed instruments. But finding the harmonium, which gives me a drone that I can pump with my foot, was fabulous. So "River of Life," and the whole sound of the album, really, was born in finding this instrumentation. It gave us this warmth--not that the harmonium is so warm sounding, but it just makes this atmosphere arise in the room, and transports you and really brings you right there into the moment. So "River of Life"--I have this guitar, and it enables me to play guitar in a new way because something with my foot, it's like you're playing high-hat with your foot also because you have this rhythmic element going on. So my guitar playing really went forward, and I got into Jimi Hendrix. I also really love Ravi Shankar--and those two masters gave me the inspiration.

PM: You play very well. I think that your nylon string technique is very fluent. There's a quiet strength there that's very good.

MDT: Thanks for that.

PM: Who is playing steel string on "Night of a Thousand Kisses"?

MDT: Me.

PM: That's really good stuff.

MDT: Thank you.

PM: Yeah. Those are big chords. Oh, but now I see, those are big chords born of special tunings.

MDT: Yes, they are.

PM: Because I was hearing that chord in regular tuning, thinking, wow, that's a 7 fret stretch, she looks like a small person. But yeah, I can see how you do it with special tunings. But it sounds fantastic.

Would you tell us, please, about your co-producers on this outing, Carlos Nino and multi-instrumentalist arranger Miguel Atwood-Ferguson?

MDT: Yes. Carlos and I have been friends for a long time. He's a little younger than myself. He started as a DJ on KPFK, Pacifica Radio, here in L.A. In L.A. he is famous for his amazing musical taste. He is an extreme vinyl collector. And he just knows everything about jazz and rock and he's always coming upon new things. He is an extreme music lover. It's his birthday today, actually. I'm going to his birthday party after this interview. He started producing records a few years ago. A lot of soul, and jazz.

Carlos introduced me to Miguel, who went to USC. He's a composer, and he plays viola and violin, keyboards--he can play anything. But his main instrument is viola. And he wrote beautiful arrangements. Carlos introduced us, and he came over, and I played him all the songs with the harmonium and guitar as my only accompaniment. And I told him that even if we weren't going to take the harmonium and play it on every song, which was fine, that I wanted the arrangements to still evoke the mood that the tamboura or the harmonium created. And he did that, and so much more. It's not at all the most obvious instrumentation. There's a lot of brass, for instance.

PM: Right. There is some very unusual, beautiful woodwind and string interactivity.

MDT: Yes. And a lot of dissonance, close tones, which I like in my guitar playing and singing. So he really hit it on the nose, I felt.

PM: Well, I think some musicians really place a high value on the tension in music and the close notes and that kind of dissonant or tense atmosphere that close chords produce.

I hear, Mia, that you've been touring with Jose Gonzalez. Is that still going on? Tell us something about him, please.

MDT: It hasn't started yet. It starts in two weeks. It's a nearly 30-city tour of North America. We start in Miami, zigzag cross North America and end in Vancouver. I'm really excited about this tour because I think our musics are very compatible.

PM: Strikingly so, I would say.

MDT: I've done a lot of touring with rock bands, and have had hard times finding my place in the musical genres, and this just seems really like it's going to go well. Yeah, I'm excited about it.

PM: So who put that dual bill together? That was a brilliant stroke.

MDT: Yes. I know his booking agent, Tom Windish. I've done some tours opening for other acts of his. So I saw up on his roster that Jose was planning to tour in March. And that was when my album was coming out. So I proposed myself for Jose's tour, and Jose got my record and liked it. Also, Jose and I have a mutual friend in Prefuse 73. And Prefuse has another side project called Savath and Savalas, whose record came out on Anti last year. It didn't move a lot of units, or make a big splash, but it's a quality record. Jose sings on one of the tracks, and I sing a little intro track on it. So my friend, Prefuse, he said, "Oh, Jose likes your music." He was singing one of my older songs to Prefuse, he said.        

And so I thought, "Oh, he knows my music. Oh, wow." And that was a while ago. So I guess I sent my new album to Tom Windish, and he passed it on. But Jose liked it, and he chose me to open. He's been quite successful, and he's quite popular, so he had a lot of acts to choose from. I was very flattered that he liked my music. Best of all, I think it's a good match.      continue

print (pdf)     listen to clips      puremusic home