Swinging Modern Sounds #104: Paradise
Mia Doi Todd’s music is work of subtlety and immense power, gentle at first glance and then, upon exploration, remarkably strong, expansive, even insistent and, more often than not, emotionally overpowering. Her remarkable development over a long career of consistent excellence is particularly instructive and illustrative—it tells us directly and indirectly about how music has changed in the last twenty years.
Todd began as a somewhat conventional singer of the popular song, in the sense that she was clearly influenced by folk music and by the indie variety of rock and roll that was often found in the 1990s on the left of the dial. These influences were not unknown in the field. And yet, even then, in the indie times, there was the remarkable fact of her voice, which conceals rigor and training beneath an accessible veneer. Todd lands cleanly everywhere, and rounds her vowels in a satisfying way, and also retains the authority of her chest voice even when she goes high in her range. She enunciates with perfection; you can always hear the end of a “t.” She doesn’t gasp at the mic. Her voice is a beautiful instrument, graceful and sophisticated, and even in the context of indie folk, she seemed and seems now wholly ancient, from another time, recalling Terry Callier or Buffy Sainte-Marie or other singers even more immemorial like Nina Simone or Tim Buckley. Also, even in the early recordings, Todd’s lyrics were arresting, both offhanded and deeply incisive, unpretentious but dramatic, and very focused on the expression of feeling and the ability of music to render and express feeling in ways that regular language cannot.
All of this would be admirable enough. A fine relationship to songcraft, guitar skills with which to accompany oneself, and a bewitching and powerful voice. But that is not where the story ends. Todd’s development since her early albums has moved in startling directions: into instrumental music, into band arrangements, into grappling with and repurposing vernaculars—like tropicalia and soul music and reggae and spiritual jazz—that are almost as far from indie folk as one could get. The transitional album was the remarkable Cosmic Ocean Ship, of 2011, which somehow managed a sly and sophisticated borrowing from some of Brazilian music’s methodological program without ever sounding reductively Brazilian, without overstepping the borrowing. The album, on which the lyrics are stripped down until they achieve something both emblematic and heavily symbolized and allegorical, retains the deeply personal aspect that seems to undergird Mia Doi Todd’s entire relationship to music while also seeming spectacularly musical. The songs are “true” but also feel like they have been cleaved from mythology. Also, Cosmic Ocean Ship is much more about groove, about finding a groove and sticking with it. It therefore eschews conventional verse-chorus-verse-chorus songwriting, and stays much closer to a jazz model, a jazz expansionist model. Cosmic Ocean Ship owes more to a Van Morrison approach, the Van Morrison of Astral Weeks, than it does, say, to Joni Mitchell, and having achieved this more free and joyful approach, Todd has never looked back. It bears mentioning that Cosmic Ocean Ship, in its themes, is also perfectly adult. It addresses adult relationships, grief, childbearing, childrearing, joy, regret—all of these aspects of her work since 2010, which means that she is making music for the entirety of the audience, not just the youth at the forefront of the popular music audience.
Since Cosmic Ocean Ship, it seems that there is no idiom Todd cannot crack in some genuine way. She has loaned her voice out to electronic music, to hip-hop, she has remixed by Flying Lotus (indicating, if it were not already obvious, some relationship to the prior model of the Coltrane family, in particular the spiritual jazz of Alice Coltrane), she has done a remix herself of the venerable ambient musician Laraaji. She has played, it seems, with a large portion of the available musicians in Los Angeles, and has worked across every genre. And, her writing has grown immeasurably. The songs are less self-conscious, less compacted, and there is less need to be a magnetic charmer at the center of them. While they have a self, they are never selfish. The songs are more outflowing, more comprehensive somehow, more emanating.
This brings us to her most recent record, Music Life, just finished at the time of this writing. The vocabulary and strategy is similar to the Mia Doi Todd sound since 2011 but at a much more relaxed pace, and featuring, it should be said, a darker and more worried—even afflicted (on the title song)—gaze at the world. Everywhere the sound is perfect, and perfectly organized, here a bit of zither, here a nylon-stringed guitar solo, some Arabic-inflected strings, even; often it sounds as thought it could have been made during the 1980s by Caetano Veloso, but the lyrics, as always, run at some notable crosscurrent against the lovely, exceedingly musical surface, with anxiety about sexual assault, environmental degradation, worrying across the image of the overdose. The songs are about love, but not merely carnal love—also the enormous swelling of agape in the face of grief and growing older. The lyrics at once seem like ideas plucked out of the air, out of current events, and like effects of the music itself, and, as in the case of the title song, with a purgative aspect lodged in the out-choruses of the composition, available to those with real attention.
It has been such a great opportunity, for this writer, to get to watch the unfolding of Mia Doi Todd closely, with her faultless ear, her restlessness, her superabundant musical compassion. She represents a wholly admirable and powerful example of contemporary music, in her ability to continue to change and grow and to incorporate new sounds, all while continuing to uphold a sort of Platonic ideal of music as a form, in which the difficult immensities of human emotions can still be entrapped, described, and deeply felt. She’s as singular a songwriter, and as fine an exemplar of contemporary musicianship, as we are liable to find working today.
This conversation took place by email in the snowless winter of 2020, with myself in Rhode Island and Todd in Los Angeles.
The Rumpus: Do you improvise the lyrics? Or, do you write notes and then kind of improvise on the notes?
Mia Doi Todd: I never write the lyrics first like a poem. I used to keep notes in a notebook and gather ideas. I don’t seem to do that as much lately.
I usually noodle around on the piano or guitar or ukulele until I have a pattern that I like. Then I find a vocal melody that fits in there. Then I find some words that fit in that rhythm and melody very naturally, as if it were spoken. Then the first verse or chorus will write itself. Then I guess I do improvise to see where the other verses will go. I write it down along the way. Once I have the melody, I can sing and write without playing the instrument. The guitar riff and melody can hang around for a long time before the words start to come, but once the words start, usually I write it all quite quickly, then edit it later. Once the verses and chorus become clearer, I look for a bridge to break up the repetition. I still like to rhyme. These songs on Music Life are very long. I can be wordy like a rapper. I tried to edit out some of the long lyrics, but I couldn’t do it. We might do some radio edits.
Once in a while, I will sing something first, then find the chords that go with it.
Rumpus: How did you end up doing your Laraaji remix? Were you interested in that variety of ambient things back when Laraaji first appeared in the 1980s? Or did you find him later on? And, how did you approach your intervention in the case of “Ocean Flow Zither?”
Todd: Ah, Laraaji!
A few years ago, after the much lauded rerelease of some of his earlier music, Laraaji was on tour and wanted a place to stay in LA for a week of downtime between shows. Our mutual friend Carlos Niño suggested that he stay at our house, and thus began a great friendship with Laraaji and his partner Arji. When they come to town, they often stay with us and have become like godparents to my daughter Ynez.
I made an instrumental album called Morning Music in 2009. It is not quite ambient, but it’s good for listening to while housecleaning. I was not yet familiar with Laraaji’s music at that time. It was through the reissues that I became familiar with his music. The year before I met him, I saw Laraaji perform solo at a beautiful former church in Highland Park. That was a sublime show; it brought me lots of tears and catharsis. His music really gets to me. So it was a big honor to have him stay with us and then for him to become like a kind uncle in our family. His partner Arji is a healer and therapist; she is always a great listener, counselor, and joyful presence.
Carlos Niño was in charge of gathering the remixes for that album and asked me to make one. We often have fun jam sessions here at the house, especially when Laraaji comes to stay. He enjoys meeting and playing music with new people, so we sing together sometimes. It was quite a natural thing for me to make one of the remixes. Laraaji is really funny. He will make you laugh. I had a light-hearted attitude towards making the remix, because I knew Laraaji would find the project fun and amusing. Laraaji is very encouraging as a human being. It was a joy to interact with his recording. I was concerned about sullying something so perfect and complete on its own, but then I just dove in with a sense of humor.
I listened to the various tracks and chose “Ocean Flow Zither,” because I could hear how I could fit in there, and I really like to sing with tamboura. I recorded a vocal take for the beginning and it seemed right. I tried a bunch more takes, but I liked the first one best. Then I started the oo-oo-oo-oo pattern and hahahahaha eighth note Steve-Reich style treatment, which established the tempo grid. I layered more vocals in there. I also looped one bit of Laraaji’s playing; it’s a quick, high downward plucking riff in the middle of the track. That added more pulsing scintillation. My vocals are not looped.
Laraaji has done some recording at our home studio. He likes to play the baby grand piano here. He plays zither on the song “Wainiha Valley” on my new album. Just thinking of him makes me smile. Thanks for asking about that. If you ever have the opportunity to go to one of his laughter workshops, it’s very worthwhile.
Rumpus: Your mention of Steve Reich’s vocal stacks and likewise your reverence for Laraaji and his work suggests some real familiarity with recent American experimental music and its history. (I should say, in this regard, that I have listened to and really love Morning Music.) I’m wondering how much this work at the edge of contemporary popular music has seeped into what you listen to and highly regard. From the beginning, as a listener to your work, for example, I have wondered if you were interested in Meredith Monk or Diamanda Galás, the great women singers of experimental music. Despite the attention to songcraft, which is present throughout your output, there often seems to be an impulse which forces the work out toward the edge of what might conventionally be called a song. Sometimes this has a Meredith Monk aspect to it; other times, you seem clearly engaged by music from the non-Anglo-American world, whether it’s Indian (on Morning Music), or Brazilian (on Cosmic Ocean Ship). You also mentioned devotional music in your remarks about Laraaji, which led me to thinking about, for example, Alice Coltrane’s World Spirituality Classics. What is your relationship to all of this non-pop material? Does it represent a direction you might explore further? Or, do you see experimental music primarily as a flavor in a slightly more conventionally ambitious popular idiom?
Todd: I have often felt like a performance artist posing as a folk singer. I have supreme respect for songcraft and have aspired to the simplicity, mass appeal, and transcendence of the perfect popular song. The closest I have gotten to that is my song “Summer Lover.” I have heard a great cover of it. The song stands on its own. Most of my songs are too idiosyncratic or monotonous to behave like a proper pop song. Some of that might come down to my limitations as an instrumentalist. I have been so much grounded by being my own accompanist on the guitar or piano; I have set that as a limitation to what I can perform. Limitations can be very useful; otherwise, the playing ground is so vast. I made a conscious decision many years ago to pursue pop music as my artistic channel. I let go of other interests, thinking that it was a practical decision. In retrospect, I’m not sure what would have been most practical. Graduate school in performance studies might have been more lucrative!
I am familiar with some of Meredith Monk’s work, and I saw her perform once, maybe fifteen years ago. Other people had compared me to her, and I was curious to see her. I feel a kinship with her, but she has not been one of my music superheroes. I should revisit her work. Leonard Cohen is an idol of mine. His songs function in the world of pop music but also allude to a spiritual world and a higher plane of art music. I love Indian classical music. If I had to choose a marooned on a desert island album, it might be one of Ravi Shankar’s. Ravi Shankar is a superhero of mine, as is Alice Coltrane. I love Alice Coltrane! She was able to translate Indian music and spirituality into jazz music. I have friends who study Indian classical music. I can only appreciate it as a foreign language. I feel closest to Alice Coltrane and to Nina Simone and to Joni Mitchell. And the great Brazilian songwriters! Milton Nascimento and Joyce and, of course, Caetano Veloso. In my music and in my physical appearance, I didn’t fit into any easy categories, so I began to pursue my own worldview as a kind of protective bubble. That led me away from pop music and towards jazz and “world” music. I am not a music historian, nor am I a record collector. I have stumbled like a pebble onto certain artists that I love. I might not be familiar with all their work, though.
The secret key to the esoteric nature of my music is probably Butoh. (You might have heard of Butoh, that avant-garde dance form that started in Japan in the 1960s.) I was into theater in high school, and music and dance. My theater teacher introduced me to Butoh video tapes. She knew I was part Japanese American and that this might capture my imagination. I veered away from theater studies in college. It wasn’t my social scene, and I quickly realized there wouldn’t be much room for someone like me in the type-casted reality of early 2000s TV and movies. I’m from LA. I didn’t have much faith in the Hollywood machine. I was always trying to be practical. I started writing songs at that time. At least that way I could write my own parts.
My indie rock high school life soon superseded my theater interest, except for Butoh. I was an East Asian Studies major at Yale, and I wrote my senior thesis about Hijikata Tatsumi’s Ankoku Butoh (dance of utter darkness) as a realization of Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty. It was still hard to gather information about Butoh at that time. Based on my essay, I received a post-graduate fellowship from Yale to study Butoh in Japan. I lived there in 1998 studying dance with Kazuo and Yoshito Ohno, Min Tanaka, and many of the great Butoh dancers at that time. It was intense, physically and mentally. As a result of this study, my idea of what performance should entail is more akin to Butoh than to pop music. Delving into the “utter darkness” was the starting point of the creative process. My favorite kind of venue for performance is still a medium-sized rock club, where things can get raw and real and not be too precious. In my way, I also experiment with Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty in my live performance. It’s in the safe genre of singer-songwriterdom, but I am going for an emotional impact that might shatter, for a moment, the banality of everyday life. Laraaji gets right in there with beauty. I am a proponent of beauty, but not in a slick and perfect way, more in a fragile human way, much akin to Butoh.
These days, I do feel myself on the brink of departure from traditional songcraft. I might let myself get more abstract in my future releases. I have reserved that form of musical expression to the improvisations that happen among friends and in guest vocals on other people’s records. At the time I made Morning Music, I was really tired of hearing my own voice. I didn’t have any positive words to contribute. I felt like my music was all sad and melancholy, and it made me sad and melancholy to perform those songs and hold onto those memories. I wasn’t going to make another record unless it could be uplifting. That’s how Cosmic Ocean Ship came into being. The ten years since have been another odyssey of self-discovery, dealing more with the archetypes of wife and mother. I have been longing to make an opera, a dance-music-drama of some sort. I’ve alway been into gods and goddesses and that kind of thing. Greek drama, Japanese Noh theater, Butoh, Gagaku, Steve Reich, these might be the starting points.
Rumpus: You mentioned the domestic archetypes, and I wanted to ask about that a little bit. I have noticed in my own creative life that, thematically speaking, the births of my two children have been cataclysmic in terms of their effects on work, but I also think that the change was essential and important and something to be cherished. Some of their effect has been on the sheer mechanics of output, and I do wish I could make more. But at the same time I feel like my emotional life has changed dramatically and in ways that make for better art, I think. I’m interested in how you find the parent archetype in the context of being a performer, especially, because I know, for example, that it’s really hard to go out on the road and play when one is a parent. But I’m also interested in how your daughter has changed the flavor of the work itself. Can you speak to these questions a bit?
Todd: I have one daughter, who is now almost eight years old. Lately, she has been quite supportive of my work. She gives me words of encouragement, which are so precious. On the other hand, she really doesn’t like the time and thought that my work takes away from her. When she was a baby, I would try playing guitar and singing for her, but she really hated the guitar and would physically combat the instrument. The guitar was something that I was holding and paying attention to instead of her. This had quite a big impact on my creative method. Maybe it’s one reason I started playing the piano more.
I am naturally quite a nurturing kind of person. I always wanted to have kids. I was an only child and often daydreamed of a busy household with many children. Instead, I have one child, and it’s probably as much as I can handle. I am utterly grateful for her existence. I love her so much. I had opportunities in my twenties and early thirties to have more kids, but I was not in stable relationships at the time, and I was touring for music. My song, “Music Life,” confronts some of the dilemma of the touring musician’s lifestyle and its aftermath. Many female friends my age have chosen to focus on their own lives and careers, rather than deal with the travails of motherhood. I consciously tried to get to the heart of my personal exploration early on, so that I could eventually devote myself to motherhood, without feeling regret or resentment for the things I would no longer be able to do. Easier said than done! My life underwent such a drastic change; I’m still recovering from the shock. I was so independent and free-flowing before. Now I live by the clock and the needs of others. I spend a lot of my time cooking and cleaning. I enjoy them both sometimes. But it gets to be very repetitive and futile like Sisyphus and his rock. I spent some time at a Zen monastery in Northern California called Green Gulch and developed a fondness for cleaning the bathroom, which was usually my assigned task there. Every day activities can be the jumping-off point for meditation. I joke that it’s my karma yoga. I don’t get to yoga classes much anymore. But I plan to!
In the meantime, I have become much more efficient in carrying out tasks, songwriting included, except that it can fall quite low on the priority list. When it comes time to write a song, I have written them very quickly and effectively in the last several years, but I have only written a few in that time, compared to my track record before motherhood. My worldview has changed altogether. Whereas most of my previous work dealt with romance and heartbreak, my songs since my daughter’s birth are mostly about family, responsibility, and an overwhelming maternal love. Life is much more rich and deep now. I would never go backwards. I come from a big family despite being an only child. When my daughter was born, I felt like I was finally accepted into the family tree for real, like a supportive branch coming out of the big trunk, rather than like a fallen acorn uncertain of whether or not it would take root or decompose. It was my duty to take on some of the matriarchal lineage of my family. This takes time and energy. I give as much as I can, and it leaves less personal time and attention than I was accustomed to before. Most mothers would say these same things. In particular, singer-songwriters can be so self-reflective and self-absorbed. Motherhood really pushed me out of that nest. I am grateful for the chance to serve and nurture, though I do get cranky sometimes.
In the first few years of motherhood, I tried to maintain aspects of my old life, but that has gradually worn away. The dichotomy, which had been brewing, has given way to a family life full of music. I have tried to create community among my music friends who have kids. Life has changed a lot for all of us. It’s fun to see us parents growing up together, finally. My husband and I helped to start a new music club in LA. It’s called Zebulon. Our partners had a venue of the same name in Brooklyn. That was like a second child for us. It took a lot of time. It is just around the corner from where I grew up, so it was really something for my neighborhood and my family. Making the venue was a creative musical act but on a more social scale. I really like earthworks as an art form, like Andy Goldsworthy. Building Zebulon was a bit like that. It has its own life now. We are much less involved than we were in the first few years. It has been time for me to get back to my personal work.
Motherhood factors largely into my new album. I wrote the song “Wainiha Valley” when my daughter was eight months old. We had justified a trip to Hawaii as a working vacation. My husband and I were working on songs for another project mainly, but I really wanted to finish a song of my own. I had the chords on the ukulele and the first few lines, but I wrote the rest of it in a half-hour period, singing to the waves for a bit of privacy, while my daughter was resting. The song captures for me the sweet simplicity of early family life. Songs are so great that way. I can totally recall that time and those feelings through the song. This brings up the issue of privacy. For me, I really like to be alone to work on songs. I am totally insecure about my singing and playing and word choice. I really don’t want anyone around to hear me searching. I like to present the songs finished, complete. There’s not much privacy in my life these days. I grab a little here and there, so efficiency is key. On the other hand, I’m totally okay with improvising in a group and having fun with music. I love that. I’m not shy about biting the bullet and putting myself out there in a jamming situation. I can handle embarrassment. It’s just not the way I like to write songs. I like to focus on one thing at a time until completion, but motherhood is much more of a multitasking balancing act, so I’ve opened myself up to different ways of getting things done and to patience. I used to be a night owl. Performing in nightclubs contributed to that sense of time. Now I appreciate the morning also. I like the quiet time before everyone else wakes up, when I pack her lunch for school, get breakfast ready, drink tea.
The song “My Fisherman” on my new album deals with the conflict between the work and family life of a fisherman. The mermaid Yemanja is calling to the fisherman to come out and play. The fisherman goes out to sea; he must, as that is the way he feeds his family. But the sea also takes his life. This is all very fatalistic. It’s just a song. I took my daughter to see Coco. It’s about a musician that leaves his family. It turns out he was killed; that’s why he never came back. My daughter was so traumatized. She cried though the whole thing. She hates movies. She likes cooking shows.
“Daughter of Hope” is an homage to my dear one, my daughter. It starts as an apology from this “mother of fantasy,” “always in my head, when I should be with you instead.” I found that having a child made me relive my own childhood and adolescence with fresh eyes. Some of the challenge of new motherhood was dealing with all those conflicting emotions and memories that surface. My daughter was born when Obama was president. It was a hopeful time. “Daughter of Hope” signifies all my hopes for my daughter’s well-being and affirms my fight for survival as a parent. If my music helps me feel more fulfilled, it’s good for her, too. It’s important to hear testimonial from strong women figures these days. Hopefully the songs on Music Life can find their way to where they can be useful by adding a bit of beauty or solace or a singular perspective in the flattening world.
Rumpus: I was listening to Orchestra Baobab yesterday, who released an album a while back called Specialist in All Styles, and as a result I started thinking of you in this way, as an artist who could write a song in virtually any style, and therefore I am really interested in this new song, “Take What You Can Carry,” because it’s sort of an outlier in your oeuvre in that I can’t think of another song entirely in the Jamaican style, and especially not with a dub aspect to it. Can you talk a little bit about how it fits in Music Life as a whole? And further, I’m interested in its relationship to wartime oppression of Japanese Americans, which seems to be the subject?
Todd: I wrote the song “Take What You Can Carry,” about the Japanese American internment experience and its relevance today, in a reggae style. This is definitely outside of the main stream of my own creative output, though I did put out a song called “Casanova” on my album Manzanita in 2005; that song is more of a rocksteady. The LA band Future Pigeon was my backup band for that track. They were awesome. I got a decent amount of flack for including a reggae song on Manzanita, which hindered that album’s flight into the world. What can I say? I’m a reggae fan. There’s generally a feeling that you must be Jamaican to be a reggae artist. I understand that. My attempts are more in the domain of homage, but some serious reggae connoisseurs have been encouraging me to make a whole reggae album. Reggae is a powerful music. It transcends race and nationalism and deals with the spirit. I particularly love the voice and songwriting of Gregory Isaacs; he is more on the lover’s rock side of things, but his songs often deal with life in the ghetto where he lived. There’s a cover of his song, “If I Don’t Have You,” on Music Life, which functions like a bridge to my own dub track.
Reggae emerged from ska and rocksteady as a protest music. By invoking the reggae spirit, I felt I was lending my voice to the eternal protest of the oppressed against the oppressor. Such a heavy and unfashionable subject as the Japanese American internment camp experience needed as much groove as possible. I was hoping the song would be catchy and thereby get out into the world and be better equipped to do its job of educating people about the internment camps. Asians and Asian Americans are not that often associated with groove. I was also defying that annoying stereotype. Most of the band on “Take What You Can Carry” was Japanese American: Tracy Wannomae on saxophone, Jon Hatamiya on trombone, Sean Okaguchi on trumpet, “Money” Mark Nishita on organ, Will Logan on drums, and myself on piano and vocals. I wanted to make a music video for the song with all of us Japanese American musicians, defying stereotypes. That is my style of humor.
“Take What You Can Carry” starts off very literally with Executive Order 9066, which President Roosevelt signed in February of 1942. The order and the subsequent “Instructions to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry” in April of that year lead to the rounding up and incarceration of over 120,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast of the US, including my infant mother and all of her family living in LA. Both of my grandparents were born in California and were therefore US citizens, but this made no difference. The order was presented as a counterterrorist act to fight the threat of espionage, but it was basically a land grab designed to take back much of the land that the Japanese Americans had been farming on the West Coast. Germans and Italians did not receive the same treatment. It was a purely racist anti-Asian proposition. These days, Arab Americans and immigrants from Latin America are facing some of these same threats and challenges, so the Japanese American internment is very relevant today.
In the second verse of the song, things start to get Biblical. “Sister Mary” is my grandmother who went into camp with my newborn mother and her older son still only two years old. At the time of the evacuation, my grandfather was on the East Coast of the US, as a migrant laborer doing chicken-sexing, a difficult task which many Japanese American men knew. My grandmother had to abandon most of their belongings and take only what she could carry (mostly, her two children!) on what would be a four-year odyssey of imprisonment. Her family spent a month in a horse stable at the Santa Anita racetrack (very Biblical), then were sent to Heart Mountain, Wyoming, and eventually to the internment camp in Tule Lake, California. The evacuees from southern California were not prepared for the cold, windy winters of the deserts in Wyoming and northern California. My eldest uncle got very sick in camp and suffered some brain damage, which left him developmentally impaired for the rest of his life. And, as if camp wasn’t bad enough, Japanese Americans returning to civilian life in post-war America faced so much prejudice. My aunt’s first memory is of their Filipino American neighbors throwing fruits and vegetables at them, telling them to go back home. My aunt was born in the Tule Lake internment camp.
By the third verse of the song, I begin to reference contemporary issues, particularly the US government’s inaction on fighting climate change. The destruction of the environment will lead to more human migration. The gist of the song is that in the new world that is beginning to reveal itself, anyone may be forced to take what they can carry and evacuate. Things are getting quite apocalyptic, especially here in California with all the wildfires and mudslides. In the last couple years, many upscale homes in Malibu, Brentwood, and Montecito were lost in natural disasters, and wealthy people were on the street or in the evacuation centers, taking what they could carry. This presents an opportunity for empathy toward people coming from other countries, seeking asylum and safer, better lives in the US. The world is getting hotter and more unstable. It’s just a matter of how we will move forward. California is the world’s sixth largest economy and has been making big strides towards energy efficiency. That will not be enough however, especially with all the greed and inaction on the national front.
I had the great opportunity to work with the Jamaican dub artist Hopeton Overton Brown aka “Scientist” on the dub mix of “Take What You Can Carry.” He liked how traditional the song was. He brought some authentic Jamaican artistry and depth to the track. This was another hope for the song to resonate with more truth and clarity. He couldn’t really understand the lyrics, but it didn’t matter. He got it to groove just right.
Rumpus: What about “Mohinder?” In a similar way, it’s kind of a pitch-perfect rendering of a Middle Eastern form, or at least I think it’s Middle Eastern (it might have a little Central Europe in there, too). Can you describe the way in which this song came about? Did you start with this Arabic melody and build the arrangement around the melody? And how did you find musicians who could do this in a genuine way?
Todd: Several years ago now, I went with my good friend Nadine to India. I had always wanted to go to India. As I’ve said, I’m a huge fan of Indian music, art, culture, food, aesthetics. First, I spent some days exploring Delhi, then went to see the Ganges and the ghats at Varanasi, the cradle of civilization. Eventually, Nadine and I took buses and trains around Rajasthan; we met fun travelers along the way and stayed a few extra days in Pushkar, a sacred pilgrimage town built around a lake. Nadine and I look like sisters, and people jokingly began calling us the “Maharani.” I had decided to only wear bright-pink traditional Indian women’s attire, out of modesty and respect for local custom. Nadine always looks great wherever she is. She has hiked all over the world, in Patagonia, Alaska, the entire John Muir trail all by herself. I was always trailing behind her tiny backpack with my rolling bag and a duffle bag full of saris, wooden sculptures, and mirrored textiles. It was quite comedic, especially when we set out from Pushkar in the wee hours of the morning, accidentally getting on the local bus for Jodhpur instead of the tourist one. We picked up all the children on their way to school, and the chickens en route to market, and in the afternoon, we picked up all the children from another village on their way home from school. It took a long time but we eventually got there.
The highlight of the trip, for me, was the stunning fortress town of Jaisalmer in the Thar Desert, near the border with Pakistan. I wrote the song “Mohinder and the Maharani” to memorialize those fun times for Nadine and I. We went on a “camel safari” out into the desert around Jaisalmer, and our camel driver’s name was Mohinder. Thus the title, “Mohinder and the Maharani.” This little experience was pure magic. The camels all wear bells around their necks. As you travel together across the sand dunes, they all jingle together so melodiously. Some of our fellow travelers decided to head back early, but Nadine and I signed on for extra days. It was magnificent sleeping out under the stars on the soft sand dunes. One evening, we were sitting around the campfire and started to hear more jingling. A shepherd came with his flock of goats, all belled and bleating and jingling. He was friends with Mohinder and joined us at the fire. The cooking pots turned over and became tabla, and we danced around the fire. The stars are bright out there on the border with Pakistan, almost too bright to let one sleep. We met groups of gypsy people in Rajasthan, quite different in culture and appearance than mainstream Indians. There was a freedom out in the desert, where the tight caste culture of the city did not prevail as heavily. I have sensed a similar freedom out in the Mojave Desert, east of Los Angeles, and danced around a fire there, too. In the last verse of the song, the traveling party is somewhat forlorn to leave behind the freedom of the desert as they arrive into the fortress gates and bustling town of Jaisalmer with its cultural confines. The band switches to a 6/8 time signature, and there’s suddenly the noise of a crowd. The city also has its charms.
I wrote the song on the piano and played upright on the track. I thought of it as a Bollywood orchestral nightclub ballad, but I wanted a kind of gypsy feeling. There was a Gabor Szabo track that came closest to how I thought it should be. Our track didn’t go quite in that direction. It found its own peculiar way. Money Mark wrote the horn line that starts the song. He helped produce the album. Mark is like my cousin. He is also half-Japanese. We were housemates for a while. He lives in my dad’s building in the Frogtown neighborhood of LA. Mark is a master of the hook, the catchy part of the song that defines the whole thing. He did that for Beck and the Beastie Boys. We had the same Japanese American horn section that I mentioned earlier play the line that Mark had written on the organ, along with my husband Jesse Peterson on violin and the awesome saxophonist Sam Gendel (who has a record coming out on Nonesuch this spring). We wanted an outrageous sax line to spring out of the group horn section. Sam is quite avant-garde and was not comfortable playing a sax solo in such a traditional trope. Tracy Wannomae, who plays saxophone, bass clarinet, and flute all over the album, totally nailed the solo sections. There’s an amazing young Syrian Jewish musician from LA named Asher Levy. He seems to have a very old soul. He is a master of the oud and many other instruments; he knows many traditional Syrian songs and is pursuing a PhD at UCLA in the music of the Middle East. He plays saz and bouzouki on the track. There’s also an Indian stringed instrument called a goobgoobi played by our great friend and sitar virtuoso Paul Livingstone. Another frequent collaborator of mine, Alberto Lopez, plays qarkabeb (Moroccan castanets) in the track. When we were rehearsing we were finding common ground with Brazilian forro music. Andres Renteria drives the whole song on the triangle along with a forro rhythm on the drum kit from Will Logan. There was some concern among the producers that this was all getting pretty far away from India and the Thar Desert where the song was supposed to take place, but then we were bolstered by the fact that musicians of all creeds were employed to perform in the royal courts of India and the Middle East. Multiple musical references are interwoven through the song. It’s my romanticized fantasy version of my own experiences.
Rumpus: I want to go back and pick up the Butoh thread a little bit, because I have spent a bit of time reading and studying up this week about Butoh (which, I’m afraid, I didn’t know much about, though I went to a lot of dance performances as a younger person and was always really taken with Eiko and Koma, who certainly seem to know their Butoh). I’m really interested in how this influence of Butoh plays out in your work now, some years removed from your earnest practice of the form. Can you discuss some of the history in a little more depth? I’m especially interested in what it was like working with Kazuo Ohno.
Todd: My first two albums, The Ewe and the Eye and Come Out of Your Mine, were recorded while I was a college student at Yale University. On graduating, I received Yale’s Parker Huang Fellowship to pursue independent studies in Asia, though not without the protest of one longtime faculty member who accused me of getting involved in the cult of Butoh. Perhaps even because of his objection, I received the grant and spent a year studying Butoh in Japan in 1998. This really changed the path of my life, my relationship to art, and my songwriting.
I am half Japanese American, and as a twenty-one-year-old, I was definitely searching for my cultural identity. My cousins are all full Japanese American, and as a child, I felt different from my family. This is no longer the case. All of my cousins married out and have mixed kids like me. Nevertheless, race has been an issue for me since I was very young. I had studied Japanese language in college and was somewhat proficient. I was looking for my own Japanese-ness in Japan, but on arriving in Tokyo, the first thing I realized was that I was not Japanese and could never be. I was American. Culturally and linguistically I could understand things in a way that other Americans in Japan might not, but I was still looking from the outside in, and would never be anything but a gaijin, or foreigner. I had a little apartment in the Komagome neighborhood of Tokyo, and once a week, I would head to Kamihoshikawa Station in Yokohama to Kazuo Ohno’s dance studio for his dance improvisation class, which was open to anyone who came. Ohno-sensei, who was ninety-two years old at the time, would often show us paintings of hungry ghosts in Buddhist purgatory. This was the spirit of Butoh. He was also interested in the idea of carrying your ancestors on your back. He would blast some Western classical music or shamisen music, and we would all move through the studio space with the feeling that we were carrying our ancestors on our back. Both Westerners and Japanese people came to study with Kazuo Ohno and his son Yoshito. Kazuo Ohno and Hijikata Tatsumi were the ones who had started this dance movement called “Ankoku Butoh” in Tokyo in the 1960s. It was a rejection of the Western dance tradition and a search for a personal dance true to the Japanese spirit and body. It was very much a reaction to the horrors of World War II. There’s an early film of Ohno-sensei called A Portrait of Mr. O in which his skin, painted white, seems to be dripping from his body like those who experienced the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On his Wikipedia page, there is a quote from Kazuo Ohno: “The best thing someone can say to me is that while watching my performance they began to cry. It is not important to understand what I am doing; perhaps it is better just responding to the dance.” My work as a singer-songwriter shares this emotional core. Lyrics are very important to me, but it’s the feeling in the music that counts most; it’s an outpouring of pure emotion.
January 1998 was a good time to arrive in Tokyo to study Butoh. In Japanese Buddhism, anniversaries of deaths are celebrated, especially certain years when the soul is thought to proceed towards the next stage in reincarnation. Hijikata passed away on January 21, 1986, and so there was a big celebration for his twelfth death anniversary in January of 1998, just after I had arrived in Japan. All the different Butoh groups came to pay homage to their teacher at a fabulous masquerade ball. Hijikata and his wife Akiko Motofuji had a dance studio called Asbestos-kan in the Meguro neighborhood of Tokyo. Motofuji-sensei hosted a series of dance workshops in conjunction with Hijikata’s memorial service. I had the chance to study with many of the great Butoh dancers, the first generation who had danced with Hijikata. In 1998, the internet was still in its infancy. It was not easy to find information about things, especially Butoh, which was and still is a very underground art form. I did much detective work to find out about Butoh classes and performances. Luckily, Asbestos-kan became a real hub of Butoh activity all that year. The presentiment that Butoh was only for Japanese dancers was strong, and this led me toward studying with Min Tanaka. Min was one of Hijikata students who had garnered international acclaim. By 1998, he was no longer calling himself a Butoh dancer. He felt that term to be very limiting. Min left Tokyo the year that Hijikata died and started a dance commune farm in Yamanashi-ken Prefecture, called Body Weather Farm. In the summers, he invited students to come train and work on the farm with him and his principal dancers and held performances and art events on the weekends. I went in the summer of 1998 to study with Min. In my year of Butoh studies, it was really the time with Min Tanaka that left the greatest impression. He utilized some of the same body imagery as other Butoh dancers, but he had developed a very rigorous training regimen called Body Weather. My body and my mind were really put through the ringer. I injured my knees from so much jumping, and it brought about a new awareness in me of my human frailty. I have never been so strong or experienced so much physical pain as during that summer. Besides the dance training, we were expected to work on the farm several hours in the morning and afternoon and to live, cook, and eat together communally. It was a profound learning experience. Min and his collaborators had built several stages in beautiful, natural locations. I got to see Min perform with the percussionist Milford Graves that summer on the mountain stage with the trees, mountains and valley as the backdrop. Nature is very strong in Japan. Most people think of the metropolis of Tokyo when they imagine Japan, but the city stays in the city and leaves the farmland and forest very ancient and pristine.
While I was living in Japan that year, I had little opportunity to speak English, so I poured all of my English-language thoughts into writing songs. The songs became longer and more abstract than my previous work. Whereas I had been using a model of pop and folk songs, I no longer followed those ideals. I started to develop my own particular style in a void. I was very isolated and made big strides in developing a sense of my own creativity. When I returned to the States, I got the first version of ProTools that had just come out, and I recorded all those songs from Japan. I put it out on my own label, City Zen Records. The album was called Zeroone. There’s a song on that album called “Can I?” in which I carry my grandmother on my back. It was a Kazuo Ohno-ism.
For a few years, I danced with Body Weather Laboratory, a group in Venice, CA, started by Roxanne Steinberg and Oguri, who were students of Min Tanaka. Eventually I gave up that kind of dancing and focused my efforts on music. (I would often injure myself in dance workshop.) But all the ideas of Butoh were embedded in me. Hijikata’s form of choreography is actually like poetry. He would write a series of images and would choreograph the dancers to move through these images. They would embody the poem of the dance. In the same way, I really visualize all the imagery in my songs, and when I sing, I am embodying all those thoughts, ideas, and emotions. In traditional Japanese Noh theater, the dancer is transformed into the character they are portraying. Before the actor’s foot touches the stage, they first appear from backstage, process behind the stage, and then enter the scene. During the time that elapses from backstage to the scene, the actor is transformed. They leave their human body and become the god or demon or prince of the play. Butoh adopted this same phenomenon of transformation. This was also the case with ancient Greek theater. In my modest way, I aspire to this kind of transformation in my singing and performance. I treat the rock club with the same veneration as a sacred Noh stage and honor the aspect of performance which separates it from normal everyday life. For me, performance is a conversation with the sacred and timeless, the sublime. Songs—simple, accessible, easy to digest—can act like Buddhist koan, or riddles, to unlock greater truths, deeper wisdom. That’s my goal anyways. I do not adopt a stage persona; it’s just me. I’m definitely a singer-songwriter in that way, revealing my personal self through music. On Cosmic Ocean Ship, I sing “Canto de Iemanja,” by Baden Powell and Vinicius de Moraes. That song gives me the chills. I identify a lot with Yemanja, the Yoruban goddess of the ocean, though she is outside of my own cultural heritage. In my song “My Fisherman” on Music Life, I sing as the mermaid aspect of Yemanja. When I sing “My Fisherman,” I feel like I am visited by Yemanja and really embody an aspect of her. This is not in an actorly way, more like a momentary spiritual trance.
One thing one might notice first off about Butoh dance is the difference in its temporal aspect from other forms of dance. It’s slow, takes its time. It is not operating in the pace of normal life. My songs can be very long. On Music Life, I feel I have returned to some of my own natural rhythm that I discovered during that isolated year in Japan more than twenty years ago. I like long songs, which take their time to develop, and have multiple parts, not just the familiar verse chorus, verse chorus, bridge, verse, chorus. I tried to write songs in that archetypal form for years. Cosmic Ocean Ship was all about the bridge for me and trying to achieve a perfect pop song. But maybe because I am getting more mature and don’t care as much about the forms, I returned to my own sense of timing. Several songs on Music Life clock in at eight-to-ten minutes. That was the general norm for this album. That’s some Butoh timing!
Rumpus: I’m also interested in how Artaud sits in all of this for you now. I was a keen student of The Theater and Its Double as a young person, and have written about him a bit, and especially about the agony (for me, anyway) of later Artaud. I feel like the Theater of Cruelty is an argument about the meaning of performance, rather than a recommendation about how to perform performance. It’s like Nietzsche, to me, it’s about the shape of the argument, more than it is a kind of proscription, although I take very seriously the idea that what is live should be performed as though it were live. It is a sad truth of contemporary life that the live aspect of live theater is mostly unexploited. So how does Artaud connect with these ideas of performance that you received from Butoh?
Todd: I haven’t thought about Artaud in a long time, but this discussion has brought him back to the surface. I was also a big fan of The Theater and Its Double when I was first forging my way as a performer. His theories are definitely difficult to practice, especially as a folk singer. The year I lived in Japan, Min Tanaka premiered Artaud’s The Conquest of Mexico with a cast of Brazilian and Japanese dancers. It was brilliant, like a sword cutting through time, exposing the catastrophic misfortune of the conquest in a physical and beastly way. It was like my college thesis in action. At the time of its inception, Butoh was revolting against the rapid Westernization that overtook Japan from 1868 through the aftermath of World War II, so Artaud’s “Conquest” could also be seen in the context of Japan’s colonization. There was a directive in Butoh to upset the staid conventions of society at large through shocking physical performance. This was basically Artaud’s theory put into practice. In songs, you can open up a can of worms, make people uncomfortable. Over time, I’ve come to think that this can be done most effectively by casting the ideas or emotions in a pleasing, beautiful form, so that the listener gradually opens themselves up and undergoes psychological transformation almost unaware.
The song “Little Bird” on the new record behaves most in this fashion. The song deals with the aftermath of child abuse but it is hidden in an easygoing bossa nova style. There is violence and cruelty concealed in the bridge of the song, but it hides it behind a veneer of everything-is-okay! everything-is-okay! In several of the songs on Music Life, there’s a recurring threat of early death: in “Music Life,” in “My Fisherman,” even in “Daughter of Hope.” Besides a biographical song that I wrote called “Hijikata” with the line, “He danced on his deathbed, and so performed his final dance for friends, family and lovers…” I had not much broached the theme of death in my songs. I have often sung “Gracias a la Vida” which Violetta Parra wrote a year before she committed suicide. That utterly divine song is definitely an instance of dancing on one’s deathbed, which is a theme in Butoh. When I sing that song, I must carry so much human emotion, all the joy, all the sorrow. That song is like an Artaud masterpiece to me. It is totally devastating. For me that’s the goal, to dissolve in music, caste off the malaise of everyday existence, bathe in wonder, joy, rapture, crisis, sorrow, feel human experience to its fullest. That seems like what Artaud was going for, though he most likely would not have recognized his ideas at play in my work.
Rumpus: Can you speak to your overall ambition for Music Life? How do you think it sits with the other albums, and what do you want it to accomplish at this point, more than twenty years into making records?
Todd: Music Life seems to me a natural progression from my other albums. It reminds me somewhat of my album Manzanita, which started with a very serious song called “The Way.” The title track on the new album is similarly heavy-duty. This new album also plays with a few different styles, like Manzanita. I hope people will like it! I have some fans out there. It’s been almost ten years since I put out an album of my own songs. I hope my fans will find the new record and like it, and that it might find some new ears as well. Hopefully, I’ll get out there and play some shows. It has been a while since I toured. I’m excited for the record to be released. I sit on my eggs very vigilantly, almost holding my breath, so it will be a big relief to see the record go off into the world. I’ll take some time to let the light in, absorb nature.
Photographs of Mia Doi Todd by Azul Amaral.