Mia Doi Todd has released seven records, on a myriad of labels including her own, City Zen Records. While her signature sound is organic and intimate, remixes of her music and collaborations with electronic artists have also produced inspiring results. In this interview, Mia discusses the shift in focus on her latest album, Gea, a more complex and instrumentally minded album than its predecessors, particularly considering that her first album was recorded in just one evening.
How do you feel about lyrics in music? Are they the focal point? Are they a distraction?
For me, lyrics are the focal point of songwriting. They are the hardest part and most time-consuming. I usually have a guitar part and vocal melodies for a long time before I figure out what the song could be about. The songs for Gea are a little less lyrics-dependent and more about the music than on some of my older work. I have started making instrumental music and that is very liberating. Words can be confining.
Do you draw inspiration from fiction, films, music? Do you often write autobiographically?
I draw inspiration mostly from my personal experiences. I write very literally about people, places, and incidents in my life, though I may disguise them in secret code and allegory. I’m inspired by stylistic elements in fiction and film and might try to borrow a mood in a song. Music definitely inspires me.
What is your approach to translating recorded songs to the live setting?
My songs usually start as live performance, so the first task is usually to translate the live performance, which feels free and infinite to me, into a single recording which can feel limited and finite. There is less pressure singing a song live than in recording, because it is one expression of the song, living and breathing, sometimes a flaw here or there. In recording, you can try for the perfect take and add many elements that might be difficult to perform live. I’ve been performing with a percussionist and sometimes a viola player. We don’t really try to imitate the arrangements on the record, but rather take it farther, maybe let it be wilder and unpredictable.
What music did you grow up listening to? Do you feel that your sound now incorporates the music of your upbringing, or denounces it?
I was a Cure fan as a teenager, and my music does share some of that dark, gothic element. Also The Beatles and Joni Mitchell. And traditional Japanese and Indian music. These are all gladly incorporated in my music.
Was there a particular album that made you first consider becoming a musician?
Not exactly. It didn’t occur to me to become a musician until I had been playing music for a while. Perhaps hearing one of my own albums, I considered the possibility. I do remember first hearing the music of Fela Kuti and wanting to participate in something like that.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
These days, being a decent person, not wasting things, moments, emotions is a good goal for everyday. My greatest accomplishment over time seems to be that I have continued to make my own very personal music, and offer it up to the outer world. I have written and recorded seven albums and toured nationally and internationally, performing these intimate, feminine songs for many people, planting seeds which might bloom in their heart-mind. That seems like quite a feat.
How did where you grew up influence your exposure to music and your tastes in music?
I grew up in Los Angeles. It is quite a culturally diverse place. I think that is reflected in my music. There’s a strong heritage of California folk/rock music that I feel a part of. Also, the spiritual element is strong here, and I strive for that in my music.
Is the concept of "the album" important, or are you more invested in songs as individual experiences?
I still think in albums, though that is becoming outdated. Music is very single-driven now, especially since people can choose one song from an album. I like to listen to the arc of a record, like reading a book from start to finish. I make records that way. I usually don’t start recording an album until I’ve finished writing all the songs and have an idea of the order that they should go in. It helps me to understand the songs better.
Is there anything about music as a business and industry that is off-putting to you?
The music business these days is all about quick trends. Music has become very disposable.
What have you always wanted to do, but haven’t yet?
Travel to Morocco, India, and South America.
What are 3 things that you love?
Gardening, sewing, hiking.
What makes you unhappy?
Traffic, weird social situations, feeling helpless about environmental degradation and US politics, really bad music playing really loud in public places.
What recent albums or artists are you enjoying?
Jose Gonzalez, Dungen, White Magic, Entrance Band, Blank Blue, Flying Lotus, Winter Flowers
Visit Mia Doi Todd on MySpace.
Identity Theory’s recommended listening: "My Room is White" by Mia Doi Todd and "Rock My Boat" by Dntel featuring Mia Doi Todd
Image courtesy of Theo Jemison