Interviewed by Harry Kaplan
I spoke to Mia Doi Todd about her latest album Songbook, touring, recording and her plans for the future. She is a very accomplished composer and musician and Songbook is her 10th studio album containing standards from other artists such as Prince, The Cure, and Neil Young.
TwangriLa: I want to congratulate you on your new album Songbook. How long did you have the idea of doing an album of what I’ll call “modern standards”?
Mia Doi Todd: It was a few years in the making. I did an album of Brazilian songs a few years ago called Floresta and as soon as I finished that I started thinking about making an album of English language songs. It also has a Japanese song on it as well. I did it for a Japanese label originally, which is why it has a Japanese song on it. And I did a song by Sachiko Kanenobu, who is like Joni Mitchell of Japan. So it was kind of appropriate to include her. So it was a few years in the planning and some of the songs I have sung for a long time in my live shows and it was fun to record them.
TwangriLa: You did a really good job, the songs sound fantastic.
Mia Doi Todd: Thank you!
TwangriLa: So getting back to your last album, Floresta, I guess you speak fluent Portuguese or did you have to learn it for the album?
Mia Doi Todd: I learned it for the album, mostly. I spent a little time in Brazil and I can get by, but I speak very poetic things only because I have learned all my Portuguese through songs. But, I had to really digest all the lyrical content in order to be able to sing those songs. So I had to really understand what I was singing.
TwangriLa: Your covers for Songbook are so diverse from the Average White Band, Prince, The Cure, Elliott Smith, Townes Van Zandt, and Neil Young to name a few. How did you decide what songs you were going to put on the album?
Mia Doi Todd: The Japanese label that commissioned the album had some ideas on what songs they wanted me to record. So we started from that. They wanted things through the 20th century, as much as possible. But not specifically 60s songs or 80s songs and they wanted a contemporary song also so that’s how we chose TV On The Radio. Some of them, like the Elliott Smith song, is a favorite of mine. The Neil Young song I used to sing live so that was a natural one to choose. The Ned Doheny song (A Love Of Your Own) that was one that my husband and the label suggested. I chose the Prince song long before we knew of Prince’s passing. When Doves Cry is one of my favorite songs ever and that was a very ambitious choice. Not too many people cover Prince songs because they are very difficult to do, besides the songs he wrote for other people. But the songs that he is known for, it is a pretty tough order to cover. I tried to do it in a different style and tried to honor the songwriting, more than anything.
TwangriLa: I think you pulled it off.
Mia Doi Todd: Thank you. Honoring the songwriting and the emotion I think is my strongest suit to be the embodiment of emotion and make that come through in the songs.
TwangriLa: I hear a lot of that smooth silky sound on Songbook, similar to Samba like The Girl From Ipanema sound. Is that what you were going for?
Mia Doi Todd: My husband produced the album, but we didn’t set out with anything in particular in mind. But maybe working with a Japanese label we suited it a little to meet those tastes since Samba is quite popular in Japan. So maybe that’s why it leans in that direction, also having just spent so much time in Brazil may explain it.
TwangriLa: Well, whatever it was, it worked very well.
Mia Doi Todd: Good, glad to hear that. Thanks.
TwangriLa: So you mentioned the Prince song, When Doves Cry. Were there any other songs that were challenging to record and interpret?
Mia Doi Todd: Some were challenging to sing. I learned a lot by singing and recording them. The Prince song was probably one of the harder ones to sing. Also, Careful You, the TV On The Radio song, that one was challenging. It had just come out a few months before we decided to cover it. So it wasn’t in the cannon of songs and as well established as the other ones.
TwangriLa: I really liked that song. That was the song that started out in French.
Mia Doi Todd: (humming a few bars of Careful You in French) I love Willie Nelson so Pancho And Lefty, the Townes Van Zandt song, that was really fun to do. That song was completely my idea. I figured out how to play it on guitar and then went and recorded a demo of it. I think we ended up using the first vocal and guitar that I did. I believe songs like to be sung. They exist, and they like to be sung today and pass through the lungs as human beings. So if you can sings a song, you should just try to sing it. It doesn’t have to be the best rendition ever. Or even wanting to be compared to the original, it was just me trying to give them life and honoring the songwriting across the board.
TwangriLa: So you said your husband produced Songbook, did you have any influence in the production?
Mia Doi Todd: Yes, I was there the entire time. Some of my friends played on it as well. Money Mark, he is a good friend of mine, almost a family member and he helped produce, record, and engineer the drums. Our friend, John Herndon, who is in Tortoise, played drums on it. Alberto Lopez and Alfredo Ortiz played percussion. There were two people I met through recording Songbook, that were friends of Jesse’s (Mia’s husband and Songbook producer), but mostly I pulled in my frequent collaborators.
TwangriLa: As far as musical influences, you mentioned Prince and the Cure. Are there any other artists that that have influenced you and really shaped your music?
Mia Doi Todd: Historically, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen Nina Simone. I really love Gregory Isaacs. He is one of my favorite singers and songwriters. I would have to add Ravi Shankar and Alice Coltrane to the list.
TwangriLa: That’s quite an eclectic mix. So speaking of Leonard Cohen, have you heard his new album yet?
Mia Doi Todd: No I haven’t
TwangriLa: It’s called You Want It Darker and it seems to be about his own death. It is quite a morose topic, but if anyone can pull it off, he can. So do you have any plans for a tour in support of the album?
Mia Doi Todd: I played some shows in Japan earlier this year. And I had a show on October 21st at the World Stage in Leimert Park. But no real tour plans. I am currently producing and writing a score and soundtrack to a feature motion picture so I have been very busy with that. After that, I am working on a collaboration album with Dntel. He is an electronic artist and we have collaborated in the past. He was the producer behind Postal Service. So I am keeping really busy with recording, not touring much these days.
TwangriLa: So are there any other plans for future projects?
Mia Doi Todd: So the next album will be the Dntel/Mia Doi Todd album. And I have some songs that I am writing for a new Solo album but those are separate from this project with Dntel. The Dntel album will be coming first because we have been talking about this for a while and we are finally going to do it.
TwangriLa: So when you are writing, do you have a process that you go through?
Mia Doi Todd: Usually, I come up with a little guitar pattern or piano pattern and then I find a melody that it goes with. And then the lyrics come. And the lyrics are always the hardest part. Finding just the right thing to say, but once they come, they usually come altogether in sort of a stream of consciousness. I prefer songs to write themselves in a day or so. The guitar part, I can have for years, then one day the lyrics will just come to me. Working with tracks for example with this Dntel record I find that the first hot melodies I come up with are quite sensual so I try to move quickly with them. And trust instincts and move forward. I have a nice little home studio so I can just record myself.
TwangriLa: Do you consider yourself more of a studio musician or a live performer?
Mia Doi Todd: A live performer……But becoming a studio musician. Lately, I haven’t been performing as much and I have been recording a lot. For a long time I really felt like a live performer and not a studio musician and my recordings were just capturing live performances, but, lately I haven’t been performing as much….I have been recording a lot….So, I am making the transition…becoming a recording artist. Especially becoming a producer as well.
TwangriLa: I guess learning that end of the process creates some new challenges.
Mia Doi Todd: I like to record elsewhere. Sometimes it is nice to leaving it all to someone else. I enjoy performing and not having to engineer also. But, I have become proficient at engineering. I started with Pro Tools (musical editing and engineering software) when it first came out in 2000. So I feel pretty comfortable with that. Not as many women took that on. It was perceived as more of a man’s field so I am quite happy that I embarked on that path early on.
TwangriLa: So you are a bit of a trailblazer.
Mia Doi Todd: Yeah, pretty much (laughter). I really respect highly qualified studio engineers and I do not profess to be that. But it takes a lot of patience and a good pace. I have learned a lot engineering this movie score. I have made the jump into recording drums. I had never done that before. That is the final hurdle. Recording a drum kit (laughter). We made the transition during the recording of Songbook. We started recording the drums in the beginning at Mony Mark Studio and then towards the end of the recording process, we had transitioned recording the drums at our studio. I am still getting the hang of it. But I made the leap.
TwangriLa: I would think drums would be tough to record because of all the different drums having different sound levels.
Mia Doi Todd: Well that is mixing, and mixing is another thing. I still leave that to someone else. I am not a mixer.
TwangriLa: So if you weren’t a musician/composer what profession do you think you would have chosen?
Mia Doi Todd: Probably a visual artist. That would have been following the family business because my dad is a sculptor. That would be what came most easily to me. After that, archeology maybe (chuckles).
TwangriLa: Can you tell people where to get Songbook?
Mia Doi Todd: ITunes and Amazon are the best places.
TwangriLa: I want to thank you for spending time with me and I wish you much success in the future.