|Mia Doi Todd at the Trails Café in Griffith Park|
Having first heard of Mia Doi Todd upon the release of her fifth album (Manzanita) in 2005, the singer-songwriter has been on my radar for almost 10 years. She has continued to create beautiful songs that showcase her uniquely soft yet powerful voice on four additional full lengths, making appearances on numerous compilations and soundtracks for films like Mood Indigo, the latest from Michel Gondry, who directed Mia’s colorful video for “Open Your Heart” in 2010.
I’ve always felt a little kinship with the L.A. native since she is also half-Japanese and has a keen fondness for nature, so it wasn’t that surprising when she happened to pick one of the places that I love most in the city as her own favorite, Griffith Park. We meet just south of Griffith Observatory at the Trails Café on Fern Dell Drive, order a biscuit with honey for her and her 2-year-old daughter Ynez and a strawberry lemonade for me and begin to talk about growing up in Los Angeles and Mia’s upcoming album, Floresta, which releases next week and was inspired by Brazilian music and culture.
“I grew up in Silver Lake, so I’ve been coming to Griffith Park since I was little,” Mia shares. “[Riding the train and carousel], that’s what we would do for my birthday.”
At this, Ynez reminds her mom that she would like to ride on the ponies later on their way home to Glendale. It’s quite heartwarming to see the two ladies interact, and I’m sure that Mia feels quite fortunate to be able to share the places where many of her own childhood memories occurred with her daughter. She also considers herself fortunate to have been able to expose Ynez to the person she looked up to most in life, her grandmother.
“Luckily my grandmother was alive when Ynez was born, so she was able to meet her bachan, her great-grandmother before she passed away. My grandmother was my idol; she was such a hardworking, gentle lady,” Mia reflects. “She was a seamstress for a living, so she taught me to sew when I was 4 or 5. She worked at a lingerie factory with silk and lace – the hardest materials – so she could sew anything, doing very detailed and beautiful work. My mother and aunt had the most beautiful prom dresses when they were in high school because of my grandmother.
Mia continues to sew a lot of her own clothes and even some dolls for Ynez. One of the fabric stores she often frequents is in Downtown’s Garment District, Michael Levine, Inc. http://www.lowpricefabric.com As a result of her father being a sculptor and painter, both Mia and Ynez love to draw and paint.
“[Growing up,] I was always drawing, sewing and doing crafty things in my room. I wasn’t very athletic, but I was really into school,” she says. “There was a lot of music in my grammar school, which was awesome. My teacher played guitar and sang. We would go around the room and get to choose our favorite song from a songbook to sing. That was really my first experience with singing.”
At around 8 or 9, Mia’s mother – who is an Associate Justice for the state of California (She was the first female Asian-American judge in the country.) – took her to her first concert, Michael Jackson at Dodger Stadium.
“It was raining that night, and the show was so scary because it was the Thriller tour. I was totally freaked out,” she laughs. “I don’t know if I had ever been in such a big crowd. After that, the first concert I chose to go to that I got my mom to take me and some friends to was the Cure in 1989, also at Dodger Stadium.”
Mia’s own voice training began around this time. The family’s next-door neighbor was an opera singer and gave her private vocal lessons in his living room throughout her teenage years.
“That’s where the tone of my voice comes from,” she offers. “I started dancing in high school, too. We could take dance instead of P.E., so I did that.”
Although she didn’t start dancing until adolescence, her interest in dance and theater was sparked by her immersion in Japanese culture from a young age.
“My mother was on the board of the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center (JACCC), so we went to a lot of performances and art shows there. We went to see kabuki and Noh there,” she recalls. “My interest in Japanese culture definitely stemmed from all of that.”
Mia was so taken with the culture that she went on to major in Asian Studies (with a focus on Japan) at Yale University, becoming immersed in the country’s history, religion and art. She was especially drawn to Butoh, Japanese dance theater and eventually received a grant from Yale to study the art form in Japan.
“When I was back east, I saw Kazuo Ohno perform at Amherst College. I had already been into Butoh, but seeing him live really heightened my interest in it. He was already 92 or 93 when I was studying under him in Tokyo; he was there, but his son, Yoshito, was leading a lot of the workshops,” she remembers. “I also studied with Min Tanaka, whom I consider a great teacher, during my year in Japan.”
Going away to college and then traveling to Japan were the first experiences Mia had away from Los Angeles, and this definitely had an impact on her.
“I wrote my first song at the end of high school, and by the time I was in college, I was writing a lot of songs. There’s the whole first generation of songs that I only have on a tape, and they’re really funny,” she laughs. “Then there’s the second generation of songs that were recorded in 1996 and released on my first record, The Ewe & the Eye. Those were written around when I was 20 years old.”
“Going to the East Coast I could definitely see myself as a Californian more because it’s not until you go away that you see where you’re coming from, what’s behind you. I found out I was definitely a California girl, I didn’t know until,” she continues with a smile. “There are other places I would like to live but I have such a strong community here, roots, family and friends. It’s so hard to leave. We have such beautiful parks in Malibu, here at Griffith Park and we live really close to Angeles Crest at the top of Glendale. I find great comfort in nature and am always trying to find it.”
Nature has always figured greatly in Mia’s work, and she feels that it relates to the fact that growing up in the city, she was constantly surrounded by asphalt. A longing to be in nature is always inside of her, it manifests itself even in the title of her albums. Her latest effort is called Floresta, which is Portuguese for ‘forest.’
“Flore is flower, so in Portuguese floresta mentions the flowers of the forest not just the trees. The rainforest in Brazil is so rich, abundant and teeming with life, so Floresta captures that feeling,” she tells. “We made a video for ‘Cais,’ the last track on the album, in France, and it’s about nature being our path to salvation. That characterizes the whole message of the album. I’ve found so much solace in nature.”
Mia has also found much comfort in Brazilian music. She was originally introduced to the genre via a compilation put together by David Byrne, Beleza Tropical.
“Caetano Veloso, Milton Nascimento, a lot of huge Brailian stars are represented on that compilation; hearing that for the first time was like discovering the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen. I listened to that CD for years and gradually became more familiar with all the different artists on it,” she says. “Over time, Brazilian music became more popular in the states, and a lot of my DJ friends collect the original vinyl, so I got to hear the albums that the singles came from – so much amazing music. My love of Brazilian music has just continued to grow.”
As her fascination with Brazilian music and culture flourished, she decided to travel to the country to play some shows and became acquainted with drummer and percussionist Mauricio Takara.
“I got to play at Circo Voador, this amazing venue in Rio opening for Marcelo Camelo who is like the Beck of Brazil just by chance. Immediately, I was so accepted by all the people I met in Mauricio’s community. They would be surprised that I wasn’t from São Paulo, while here in Los Angeles, it’s the opposite. People are always asking me where I’m from,” she laughs. “I felt so accepted in Brazil, and it started to be less of the ‘other.’ I spent six weeks there, went back later that year and made lifelong friends.”
Upon returning from that first trip to Brazil in 2009, Mia began working on material inspired by the culture with guitarist and arranger Fabiano do Nascimento. After going back to Brazil last November to work on a track, “Jardim do Amor,” with Takara for the Red Hot + Bach compilation that released this summer, Mia finally found the perfect place to record the songs she and do Nascimento had been putting together for the past four years.
“Mauricio’s family had moved their studio into an amazing new location that was built in the ‘80s by an Argentinian architect. It’s the most beautiful studio that I’ve ever been in with lots of Brazilian hardwoods, paneling all over, modern architecture,” she gushes. “I had been wanting to make this record, Fabiano and I had been working on this material for four years, and it was getting to the point here we need to record it, capture it or else just move on. Once I found that studio, I said, ‘OK, we’re going to do it!’”
Floresta is comprised of compositions by some of the Brazilian masters who first inspired her, Nascimento and Veloso, as well as Joyce, Tom Zé, Cadeia, Tom Jobim, Dorival Caymmi and Dércio Marques. There was just one hurdle that Mia had yet to overcome: All of these songs have lyrics composed n Portuguese, and she doesn’t speak the language at all.
“In order to learn the songs I had to know what I was singing, so I do understand all the lyrics. The way I chose the songs had a lot to do with the lyrical content, so I just have to convey the emotion of the songs, the feeling of them, through the music for the listeners in the states,” she admits. “A lot of the interpretations of Brazilian music that get to us in the U.S. are more club oriented, lounge music or jazz with a lot of production, that are more slick. I approached the songs like folk songs. I was aiming for a more roots-y album; that’s what I could bring to it. There are way better singers who could perform these songs in a super fabulous way, but I wanted to go to the core of them because they’re just beautiful songs.”
While several of the songs deal with sad subjects, Mia says that transforming that sadness into something sublime is “the joy that pierces through the cloud.” Beauty can be found in even the saddest of places. Music gives many people solace, a diversion from their troubles. Throughout the recording of Floresta, Mia had her own doubts about being worthy of recording songs by such legendary musicians, but the power of the music itself was undeniable.
“As a songwriter I just love Milton Nascimento and Caetano Veloso, so I grappled for a long time, 'why should I be doing this,' 'can I do them justice?' Even while we were recording, I was still wondering, ’why am I doing this,'” she says. “But I learned so much, it was so fun. I love these songs, and to be able to play them, sing them is just a dream. I hope that joy is contagious in the songs. And for me, on my path of growing as a musician and songwriter, digesting this material fuels my own songwriting.”
I can’t wait to see what’s going to come next from Mia Doi Todd.
Floresta will be available Sept. 16. Mia Doi Todd performs at Floresta’s release party Sept. 15 at the Blue Whale in Little Tokyo. For more information, visit miadoitodd.com.