COVID-19 has been particularly hard on the lives of working musicians, and Mia Doi Todd is no different. “The pandemic really brought all of it to a halt,” Todd tells PopMatters. “The whole cycle of putting out an album and then touring, playing shows, and then writing new songs for your next show — everything I’ve been doing for years and years — and suddenly the whole world changed.”
Todd’s music has a whole world within it. Languid and jazzy, with tropical overtones and hypnotic strains of folk and pop, it lulls the listener into a daydream, as though encountering a beguiling stranger you hope to run into again. Her albums feature an array of exotic instruments such as marimba, wooden flute, and electronic saxophone, as well as a wunderkammer of percussion. At the center of it all is Todd’s voice, all rounded vowels and enunciated syllables, each sitting squarely on the beat, clear and open.
On Music Life (City Zen), Todd’s first album of original solo material in ten years, her worldly menagerie serves a more inward-looking purpose. The eight songs on the album form a portrait of the artist as a songwriter, singer, arranger, and, for the first time, a mother. The birth of Todd’s daughter made her reassess the musician’s life of constant creating, touring, and, as she says, “pursuing the muse as the ultimate goal.”
Todd wrote the title track after returning home from a fellow musician’s memorial service. Its lyrics speak to the dark side of a life in music, but the airy melody keeps it from becoming maudlin or moralizing: “Chances are you’ve got a few friends / Who burned the candle at both ends / And every day was a weekend / Until the dark night came for them.”
“Musicians tend to live life to the fullest. I think I’ve benefited from that way of life. So I was trying to pay homage to that, but also have some concern for survival,” Todd told us by phone from her home in Los Angeles. Citing the deaths of some of her peers in the music industry, she says, “Becoming a parent, you really have to dig in and commit” to staying alive, a sentiment that has resonance now more than ever.
Todd gave birth to her daughter nearly a decade ago and says there’s more of a sense of balance in her life now, even if she has to catch the muse where she finds it rather than chasing it. “One thing about becoming a mother is that my time was divided,” she notes, “and I had much less time to ponder the infinite. When it came time to write a song, I would have to work quickly and just open myself to it.”
“The whole record for me was about becoming a mother and balancing that with my creative life.” She interjects here that being a mother is creative in its own right. “This way of life that I led for many years [she released her first LP in 1997], it’s a whole lifestyle, putting all of your energy into this creative force, and I don’t know why, but I was consumed by it early on … so I just followed it.”
Todd cites her 30 years of experience singing in coffee shops, sleeping on couches on the road and, “all of that weird stuff that I went through in my 20s that gave me so much experience.” While she wouldn’t necessarily recommend it, she says that it informed her songwriting and gave it pathos and a wide range of emotion. “I got to take advantage of the last little breath of the old music industry. I got to make an album on a major label (2002’s The Golden State) in a nice studio, and I learned a lot about production, and I just kept growing on my own path. I didn’t let that stop me when it didn’t work out to all of its dream potential. I just kept to my voice.”
Following her voice has served Todd well. She discovered Brazilian music through the compilation albums put out by David Byrne in the 1980s and 1990s. “I couldn’t believe how intricate and beautiful it was. It was like discovering the Beatles times ten! There were all these bands that you didn’t know about that were just like infinitely gorgeous.” She’s spent time in Brazil and handles the language and rhythms with such facility that it prompted one reviewer to erroneously note her “native Portuguese” (Todd, born and raised in Los Angeles, is a native English speaker).
Given the journeys into world music and film scoring (she composed the soundtrack for a 2018 adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream), I asked Todd whether she still considers herself a singer-songwriter. “I do. That’s definitely where I’ve come from. Like Joni Mitchell — I still consider her a singer-songwriter, but she went away from that towards jazz, and I think I have followed a similar path naturally. But I am still in it for the singing and the songcraft. For a while, I didn’t really like the title of singer-songwriter, because there were so many of them, and they mostly veer towards Americana. And my music veers towards world folk music, and I identify more with Violeta Parra, Mercedes Sosa, Miriam Makeba, and other international singers who embody emotion for the people.”
When asked about her songwriting process, she says, “Sometimes I feel like a medium; like the songs are already written, and you’re just a channel. For me, melody is really easy. That just comes. I’m always singing, and my daughter is like, ‘Jeez, can’t you just shut up!’ But it’s the lyrics — like finding the perfect lyrics that embody that melody. That can be the tricky part for me, finding the perfect thing.”
“I feel that with this album, I was tapping into some of my early songwriting, with some of these long songs like I did on some of my early records. I wasn’t trying to please an audience so much, as I was trying to be true to my medium. I’m still aspiring to write the perfect song in all its ideals that would be the catchiest song ever, but I’ve kind of accepted that my creative way is not in pop music. But I’m still all about melody and great lyrics.”
In a streaming world, Todd is also still about the long-player: “I’m still making albums, and I’m still hung up on the arc of the record. I still think about song writing as storytelling, and the songs as a cycle.”
Todd created the album artwork as well, saying, “I’m still into the album as an object, and doing the artwork and the whole thing myself it just puts more and more of my personal feeling into the object and makes it like a work of art itself. I keep those vinyl collectors in mind, and this object has some kind of special spiritual feeling.” She chose the Greek vase motif because it “represents the relics of a life. For the Greeks, music was part of their spiritual life. My music aspires to the more spiritual side, rather than just pure entertainment.”
The Greek theme carries through on her latest music video, for the song “Take Me to the Mountain”. “That song was sort of based on the Oracle of Delphi. I wrote it before last year, but it’s about trying to get away from the city. On a lot of my albums, I have this theme, I try to get away from LA. [laughs]”
All joking aside, Todd’s words seem prescient: “The lyric ‘where we can breathe’ became very important in 2020 with all the police brutality. It was written in a different context but it kind of applied to what was going on.”
Referring to the album’s nine-minute closing track, Todd says, “The song should operate on both in microcosmic level, and also on that bigger theme. So ‘Daughter of Hope’ addresses the plight of the world and its environmental struggle. But through the lens of a mother trying to raise her child to the best of her ability, with all their own feebleness and frailness and imperfections.”
Todd arranges the songs for recording but keeps the process collaborative. “I usually give a lot of freedom to the players. I’m not trying to control anybody, or tell anybody what’s best, you know? We usually find it together. But I know when it’s not working. But we try to move together towards what’s working, you know, the ideal.”
Moving toward the ideal seems to be what Music Life is all about. Todd is still following the muse, albeit not with the blind fervor of a younger musician chasing a dream but with the wide-open clarity of an artist who has lived it.