Skipping Stones, Glad to Be Home: The Mia Doi Todd Interview
Mia Doi Todd, a Los Angeles native, has just finished her ninth album, Cosmic Ocean Ship. On May 17, it will be released on City Zen Records. On this record, she embraces a full sound highlighted by her smooth voice. Cosmic Ocean Ship also finds Todd singing in foreign languages, something she infuses with warm empathy even if listeners can’t understand the lyrics. This is arguably her most upbeat album to date, by her own admission. Deeply sensitive and self-aware, Todd opens up here about her spirituality, voice, and innocence regained.
ELM: I was wondering how your opera training affected the music you make now.
MDT: My opera teacher definitely formed my voice. My voice is very bell-like; it’s very round and pure in tone. It’s not breathy; it’s not pop at all. I’m not a belter. I’m very classical and not operatic; I’m a very small person and I learned very early on that I was not going to be an opera singer. But that classical training definitely formed my voice. And now I feel like it’s more almost like “prahna yama,” (it’s like breath exercises in yoga); I can reach, because of the purity of my voice and classical training, it’s almost like breath exercises. Singing is almost like a spiritual exercise, like a yoga.
ELM: You haven’t had any formal training with the guitar, and I was wondering how that informs your songwriting process, if it does.
MDT: It definitely does. I’m a little limited. My hands are also really tiny and I haven’t had any guitar training. I don’t have access to the chords and jumping around that some people do who have big hands and a lot of training. I often tune my guitar outside of standard tuning to help me find new chords that I live. My songs can be very repetitive and only use a few chords because when I’m focused on singing, it’s better for me not to have to worry too much about my guitar playing. Sometimes the guitar is drone-like. This album, I try to use more chords, and the songs tend to be a little more traditional in their song structure. Verses and choruses and bridge, but definitely using simplified chord structures.
ELM: Do you think your love of alternate tuning ties in with your love of Joni Mitchell at all?
She definitely affected me in my teen years. I was very impressionable, and her dissonant guitar tuning sounded very natural and resonated with me, so I tend to use those for sure. Also, I like Indian music a lot, so open tunings, I use a lot of drop-D, and it gives a certain ragga-like quality to the songs.
ELM: What’s your favorite Joni Mitchell album?
MDT: Maybe Blue?
ELM: Mine too. On your new record, what does it conjure up for you as far as how is reflects the time in your life in which you were making it?
MDT: I’m always going through a lot of personal stuff, and it’s often reflected in my songs. I felt like over the years, I’ve written a lot of melancholy songs, and for myself I wanted to write happier music. And so in singing songs over and over again, as you do, writing all those melancholy songs, although it helped me through those melancholy circumstances, it definitely kept those things coming back around into my consciousness. I wanted to write more positive music so I would start to feel more positive about everything. All the songs definitely come from specific experiences in my life; they’re usually dedicated to certain people or to groups of people. I write songs over time so sometimes things are gathered a little bit here and a little bit there. Feeling the shift out of the Bush years into the Obama years definitely affected my attitude and was reflected in the songs. They’re definitely aware of the forces and the challenges out there now that we are facing with the environment and the political upheaveals all over the world. All of that is a subtext to the record, but I felt like it was my mission to make positive music and the overall feeling to be one of love.
One song in particular, “The Rising Tide,” that’s the only song where the subtext rises to the surface and it’s more concretely and obviously about what’s going on in the world. As an individual, it’s hard to know in the states where we are taught or not taught to be very aware of what’s going on, it’s easy to ignore everything, like this big crisis in Japan. “The Rising Tide” is more straight to the heart of these ideas. And it’s about how those things, those bigger issues can affect you personally. I know before 2010, I very much felt internally the outward political landscape. It made me feel not very hopeful for the world. Then I could feel us evolving, and it made me feel like I could write positive music and that it would be meaningful, and that music does have that capacity to change people’s perceptions and open them to growing, both personally as a whole. Now personally, what was going on with me with all these different songs…maybe I’ll keep that private.
ELM: Throughout your career, lyrically, there’s often been a sense of disenfranchisement, a loss of innocence.
MDT: Hmmmmmm. Yes. Yes, yes yes. My first record was recorded in 1996 and those songs started my loss of innocence. That record in particular is about first loves and loss of innocence. And then for a few albums after that, it was very dark in my perspective, and I don’t even know why. By the time I got to the age of 30, I felt very put down by the world, very crushed, and touring as I am a very sensitive person playing kind of folky music. I did several tours opening for loud rock bands over America. I did not identify so often with the crowds because we were in these loud rock clubs and everybody’s drinking and I felt disrespected and thought about retiring from this early career of mine because it was causing me a lot of unnecessary pain and anguish, which shouldn’t necessarily be what your creative outlet gives you. It should give you release.
So, a loss of innocence definitely characterized up until I was 30, and I feel like this record is me finally turning it around. This record is me finally regaining my innocence. Now I feel very innocent. Who was all about finding your innocence? William Blake. I definitely regained my innocence. And traveling the world in the last five years, I’ve tried to see as much as possible. I should have answered that for your question. I’m definitely traveling as much as I could, not for music, as much as seeing the world, and that always restores one’s wonder, and that can get you out of your own experience and show you a wider range of happiness and sadness and other people’s experience so that you don’t take your own for granted as much. So I feel very open, much more open these days than I did ten years ago.
ELM: How do you feel like your spirituality and creativity are intersecting right now?
MDT: They are very aligned. I have come around to the idea that my role in this life is very much involved in music and my creativity and that is a way I can share and take part in life and it comes and goes. I go through a lot of ups and downs emotionally, and some days I really cannot handle feeling responsible to music or to performing, and I just want to shut down entirely. But music, now, it gives me comfort, it is just a real path through life that opens up and it’s invisible and it’s totally a sacred art form and I feel so blessed to have encountered that and to have been doing it all these years so that I have it so deeply ingrained in me so that I can rest assured of certain things, and music is like a fabric of my life now. Creating things with other people musically gives this real sense of communion and getting outside of oneself and one’s own personal goals and ambitions. I really don’t feel personal goals and ambitions very strongly when I think about music. It feels like a sacred art form that I am a part of and I am just a vehicle for, so that makes things more clear and less upsetting when, well, fame and fortune are really elusive, and music is not about those things.
ELM: “Skipping Stones” is my favorite song on the album. Can you tell me more about that?
MDT: Ah! Very good! Yes. So I fall in love now and then. And I go far out to follow these men around the world and try to make things work. And I usually give up a lot of myself in following them, and then it always comes back around where I rediscover myself and find my center again. That song, “skipping stones, glad to be home, I’m still alive” [is like] “I made it through another one.” Also in touring, going out and playing shows, coming home is always a great thing. I’m a Cancer, so I love home. I’m all about cozy homeness, so I’m always glad to come home. After many cycles of coming home and going back, and going out and coming back, I start to recognize my own habits and recognize myself more and quit beating myself up and just try to be who I am. So very much all the songs are more like that, trying not to be critical of myself for this or that; this one is kind of accepting how I am. So “Skipping Stones” is about me coming home and appreciating my life here and talking on the phone to someone I’m just completely in love with and that enabling me to realize myself even more rather than it taking away from me and me losing myself, and about the challenge of meeting someone who makes you want to be a better person than you are and greater together than you are separately. So that’s what that’s about. But confronting that in a long-distance way and having to deal with oneself. Is that what it’s about for you?
ELM: I haven’t decided yet. What’s it like for you when you sing in foreign languages?
MDT: I love singing in Portugese and Spanish. They’re more romantic and more kind of sonic than English. English is a very practical language, and I love English, and I can really only write songs and lyrics in English because it’s my main language. French is my second. I also love to sing in French. Spanish and Portugese, though, there’s something very musical about them for me, and for everybody I think. It’s so fun to sing in Spanish and Portugese–I never studied those languages in school or anything, so learning those songs has enabled me to learn those languages more. In the past few years, I’ve learned a lot of Brazilian songs, and it’s helped me learn Portugese. Which I still don’t speak, but can understand. Last night I was listening to some Brazilians speak and just because I’ve learned all these songs in the last year, I could really understand what they were saying. I can’t really put it together to speak to them, but I can understand it. I can sing in those languages and it’s freeing, in a way, because it becomes more about the vowels and pronunciation and tone, and they’re more passionate in a way than English can be. It’s a challenge to make the emotion come across. Even if someone can’t understand the lyrics, if I can, through my voice, make someone understand the meaning of the song, that is really great. I feel the artistic triumph of it, like the feeling that goes across without the words even though I always learn the meaning of the words when I’m singing. It’s hard to memorize songs if you don’t know what they mean.
ELM: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?
MDT: I’m shooting a video for “Canto de Iemanja”, and we started a Kickstarter campaign. It’s up through May 19, and I don’t know when your article will come out. I’d love anyone to check out our Kickstarter campaign.
We’re shooting next weekend in Baja, Mexico for “Canto de Iemanja”, which is by Vinicius de Moraes and Baden Powell, and it’s one of these Afro-samba songs of theirs from the sixties. Iemanja is the goddess or the orisha of the ocean in Brazilian, Afro-Cuban religion. She’s the goddess of the ocean and we’re making a big offering to the ocean and to Iemanja. And my friend Kimberly Michelle Mullins, who is a dance ethnologist and dancer, she’s choreographing the video. Gabby and I who sing the song on the record are dancing with her and there’s fifteen of us going down to Baja to shoot it. It’s going to be a real sacred happening and we’re excited about it. So we started a Kickstarter campaign to raise $3,000 for gas and food and accommodations. I love to sew, so this has been fun for me to sew these fun costumes, and that’s what I’m all about right now. And I’m producing the thing! I’ve never produced a music video before. I’ve produced music albums before, but this is my first video or film project that I’m producing, so [it's] pretty fun. And I definitely feel like it’s bringing us together in a community and empowering us and it’s all for Iemanja. And the ocean so needs our help these days. It needs our prayers and good thoughts because it’s being attacked by us people. So, that’s all!