Interview: Mia Doi Todd

It’s hard to imagine singer-songwriter Mia Doi Todd originating from anywhere other than Los Angeles. In her varied output, you can hear the melting pot of Southern California: Laurel Canyon-inspired vocals, South American rhythms, cameos from local music heroes Money Mark and Jeff Parker, and experimental hints of her old stomping grounds, the LA indie rock scene of the ‘90s.

Todd released Cosmic Ocean Ship to great acclaim in 2011. After a long hiatus where she focused on being a new mom, she recently released its follow-up, Music Life. As she tells us, its origins stretch back to a Hawaiian vacation some seven years ago when Todd penned “Wainiha Valley” on a Pono ukulele while her baby napped. Slowly, she’s been carving out time to craft and record each of the album’s intricate songs. Though the completed project – recorded at Los Angeles’ Barefoot Recording – isn’t necessarily guitar-centric, her trusty uke and 1966 Martin 00-16C had integral roles.

We’ve followed Todd for a while and wanted to hear about the making of the album, how she’s balancing motherhood with music and more. Order Music Life via her Bandcamp page.

Fretboard Journal: Congratulations on the wonderful record. I couldn’t help but notice the long break between your albums. How did this record come to be?

Mia Doi Todd: Yeah. My last album of my own songs was Cosmic Ocean Ship in 2011. On that one, I really wanted to make happier songs. I’ve made so many melancholy records, I really wanted to make an uplifting record. I told myself I couldn’t make a record unless it was sort of uplifting. That was my goal for that one, and I feel like I hit that mark.

And then, the next year, I had my daughter. My working method really changed. I had such an independent life before that. I had to just find a new working method. This album, Music Life, is kind of me finding balance between the creative life and motherhood. It was a process.

The first song I wrote on this record was “Wainiha Valley.” My daughter was about six months old when I wrote that. We were staying in Hawaii for a while…

I just love songs… they bring me back to that moment of inspiration.

I used to have all the time in the world, it felt like. With motherhood, I really have to condense my working time into very short bursts. And they come somewhat infrequently, but I’ve learned how to be very efficient. On “Wainiha Valley,” I felt like I had about 30 minutes. Maybe she was resting? And I wrote the song. As with a lot of my songs, I have some guitar part and melody. And then it just comes very quickly.

So that was the first song. And then [came] “My Fisherman.” I had been working on a big project about the Orixá in the Brazilian canon. It’s Yemanjá, the ocean goddess. I sing from the perspective of the mermaid goddess, Yemanjá, to the fisherman. Yemanjá is the patron saint of the fishermen, and she protects them, but she also lures them out into the ocean, and into the perils of the sea.

For me, this was an analogy that kind of sums up the whole album about music and the lure of music life and the creative spirit that calls me. For the fisherman, it’s fishing that calls him, and Yemanjá is calling to him, and he has to do his fishing to feed his family… but it’s also the thing that takes him away from his family.

When my daughter started kindergarten, I got more productive, song-wise. “Music Life,” the title track of the album, I wrote coming home from my very good friend’s memorial service.

A lot of my musician friends have passed away, quite young. They’ve lived life fully, and that song addresses the musician’s life… people living life to the fullest and maybe living haphazardly, or too fully. Because I’m a parent, I have to survive. I don’t have that option. I’ve got to figure out how to balance a music life with motherhood. So that’s the basic theme of the record.

“Daughter of Hope,” the final track on the album, is like a ballad for my daughter and all my hopes for her. It addresses the state of the world. In my records, I usually have one song that references some political, or environmental turmoil in the world and, for me, “Daughter of Hope” is the one on this record. On Cosmic Ocean Ship, it was “The Rising Tide.”

Fretboard Journal: How old is your daughter now?

Mia Doi Todd: She’s eight.

Fretboard Journal: So this record has taken place over her entire life… since that Hawaii trip?

Mia Doi Todd: Yep, she’s not a big fan of the record. [laughs] But she’s proud of me. She knows that it’s where my mind goes. And I talk about that in “Daughter of Hope.”

On this record, I do a lot of piano songs, because she was very jealous of the guitar. I would hold the guitar – you hold a guitar like a baby, you know? – and she just really didn’t like me holding that guitar. As a result, I made a lot of piano songs for this record.

Fretboard Journal: As a parent, I know how hard scheduling can be. Do you find yourself being more productive because your days have a strict structure now? I have three hours to get this done before the next thing on my schedule…

Mia Doi Todd: Eventually, yes. I think I figured that out. At the beginning, I really just couldn’t get my head around the time limitations. I had so much independence and music as a kind of job is very free-form. You work a lot at night; I was naturally a night owl. I had to really change that and become more of a morning person Now, I really like the morning and I can be really productive during those hours when she’s off to school.

So with these songs… I had a lot to say. And I let myself say it. And then they just flowed out, very quickly… all the lyrics just poured out, because I knew I only had a little bit of time. And it’s also a bit of a return. I was finding… I don’t know about for you, but for me, having a child really brought back all these memories of my childhood, that I had really not thought about at all. That made its way into the songwriting. Especially a song like “Little Bird.”

That’s kind of about stuff that happened to me and some of my friends when we were young. It’s hidden inside a samba, easy going, everything’s-going-to-be-okay kind of attitude. And that’s how one has to go about things to get through life, but inside,  in your core, you have all these wounds from your childhood… and being a parent, trying to protect your child from those wounds. My own experiences from that time came up to the surface so much and made their way into the songs.

There’s some in “Daughter of Hope,” too. I started pretty young with music, so it was all kind of wrapped up together. My daughter is much closer in age now to when I was getting into songwriting than I am.

Fretboard Journal: Did you grow up in a house filled with music?

Mia Doi Todd: Not particularly. My mother was a single mom and she was a career person, so she was out working most of the time. I was raised a lot by my neighbor, who would pick me up after school and took me home.

I went to a Christian school, not that my family was particularly Christian. My mom’s family is Buddhist, but it was on the way to my mom’s work. It was in a very big, beautiful church in downtown LA. The First Congregational Church, and they have a school. So we had choir all the time. And we sang in the big church. I think it has the biggest organ in the United States, something like that. Every Wednesday, we sang for the service. I’m sure that that is why I got into music.

And then, when I was a teenager, my neighbor was an opera singer, and gave me private vocal lessons in his living room. It was very happenstance. And then, being in LA in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, and indie rock coming out… I just became like an indie rock groupie [laughs]. I just fell into it.

At that time, I was into performing. Growing up in LA, you’re always faced with Hollywood stuff. I pretty much knew when I was 20, I was not quite the look of the mainstream media at that time. Being a bi-racial person, at that time, was not something to be in the media. Now it’s totally different. You see mixed race people all over the media, but, 20, 25 years ago, that wasn’t so much the case. So I knew that if I tried to be an actress, I wouldn’t get roles. I found my creative source in writing my songs, you know? I just started to make my own way.

Fretboard Journal: How much of the album was done right in the thick of COVID?

Mia Doi Todd: Very luckily, we did six days at a nice Hollywood studio, Barefoot Recording. It used to be called Crystal Sound and it’s where Stevie Wonder recorded a bunch of records. That’s how we chose it, because we had all these piano songs. They have this nine foot Yamaha grand piano that Stevie Wonder recorded all these albums on. Part of the album is this homage to music life, so recording in this old studio on this special piano that had been touched by special fingers was, kind of, part of the process.

My good friend Money Mark had been working there. So in March or April of 2019, we did six days of tracking. It was very ambitious, time-wise. We tracked ten songs in five and a half days. I was like the line producer on it, really keeping us going. All of the basic tracks were recorded there, and some of the vocals. And then we took it home. We did all the overdubs at our studio and most of the mixing.

The final mixing we did with Mario Caldato, Jr., who’s a really great mixer, at the beginning of 2020, right before the shutdown. We wouldn’t have been able to do that with him at the studio if it had already been COVID times, so it was really good timing with that.

Right after we finished the first mixing sessions with Mario, COVID shut us all down. Luckily, I had recorded all that band stuff in 2019. If not, it would have been so hard to get everybody together to do it safely. It’s like a little time capsule from the way it was… a relic of a past life.

And the artwork is of this Greek vase painting; I drew it myself. It’s an artifact of the past, because I don’t know what music life will be like going forward.

This is like a remnant of how it was. For me, music is quite a spiritual pursuit. The one difference between ancient Greek culture and then the transfer to the Roman culture, is that the Greeks were very close to early society… and music and dance were really closely linked to the spiritual nature of things. They were ceremonial and the actors, or the musicians, were transformed into the gods. It was like a spiritual pursuit, music and dance. Whereas going towards Roman times, it became more like entertainment. And I feel like I am aspiring more towards the spiritual attitude toward music than the entertainment side.

So that was another reference point in the artwork. Bringing together this idea, like a Platonic ideal of music life.

Fretboard Journal: Incredible. I know you had Jeff Parker play on the record for some tracks. Did you play any guitar on it?

Mia Doi Todd: Yes, I play the nylon guitar on “My Fisherman,” “Little Bird,” “If I Don’t Have You,” and “Wainiha Valley.” I’m the rhythm guitarist. I’m the one who tracks with the band, because I write all the songs. I’m like a bard. I play the instrument and sing at the same time, and I’m very rhythm-oriented.

Fretboard Journal: Is that a ‘60s Martin nylon string that you play?

Mia Doi Todd: Yes.

Fretboard Journal: On that pivotal trip to Hawaii eight years ago, where you wrote the first song, did you have a guitar with you?

Mia Doi Todd: I had a little [Pono] ukulele. I had that with me and both “Wainiha Valley” and “My Fisherman” were composed on the ukulele.

I have a lot of songs that translate onto the ukulele. Touring-wise, I started to use the guitar like a ukulele… if you put the capo up on the fifth fret, and only play the higher four strings, it’s like a tenor ukulele. That’s the way I usually translate all those ukulele songs.

Fretboard Journal: The songs on Music Life songs are so sprawling and beautiful. Has this opened up a floodgate of creativity? Do you feel like you’ll be releasing more records, more frequently?

Mia Doi Todd: I wouldn’t say so. You know what? Actually, I’m having another baby!

Fretboard Journal: Congratulations! You’re going to start this whole cycle over again!

Mia Doi Todd: Yeah, I am expecting to take another break. But I have a lot of ongoing projects. Small things. I’ve become very realistic with my time, and I don’t try to do too much. I’m doing some music for a little short film. I have got the remix project going. People have been asking me to do vocals for songs. I’ve got some things on my plate, but no grand ideas at the moment.

Fretboard Journal: Did you time this album’s release knowing that was on the horizon?

Mia Doi Todd: No, I was not expecting this. But I guess my body thought that. All of my records are like little babies to me. This one needed its time, but I’m sure I’ll make more records. I’m just not planning anything. It was quite an achievement to get this done and out in the world.

Fretboard Journal: Well, I’m glad you’re back in action, for a brief period, at least.

Mia Doi Todd: Yeah, that’s one thing about my trajectory, as I just kept to my own style all along. I feel like a lifetime artist… it’s not like pop music, where it’s only for when you’re young.

I’m just now in the peak of my voice. I’m definitely going to keep singing.