There's a moment in
the opening track of Mia Doi
Todd's new album, Gea, where
time seems to stand still. The song is called "River of Life/The Yes
Song," and it's a long moment, clocking in at 10-and-a-half minutes Ñ
a pretty odd way to start a record, but a typically original way of
proceeding for the beautifully idiosyncratic Todd. Recently released on
Todd's own City Zen Music label, Gea is the seventh in a series of near-shockingly intimate and
musically intrepid works in which this quietly mysterious heroine of
progressive music in L.A. has, with finely plucked acoustic guitar and an
alluring voice like cut crystal, brought the tone of private pleasures and
pains to resonantly rich new territories.
Not altogether the
fragile flower she can appear to be at cursory glance, Todd is nevertheless
a very finely attuned woman, an artist whose best work has come apparently
at the expense of a lot of deeply felt experiences whose catharsis simply
must be addressed. Gea's
cocooning/nurturing aura has a bit to do with Todd's rough handling by
impatient crowds in an opening spot on a tour with Swedish rockers Dungen
"It was not
necessarily the most appropriate match," she says with a laugh.
"They're like a loud, psychedelic-rock band, and I was opening solo,
so it was hard for me. But everything leads to the next thing, like, after
that I got very internal, and I didn't want to share my music, because I
felt it was very threatened by all those kind of abusive crowds. I became
very protective of my music."
On Gea, the songs feel very, very private, yet the album has a parallel warm and
inviting air, partly due to the fuzzy-blanketness of a droning harmonium
alongside Todd's precisely fingerpicked acoustic guitar, the discreet
pitter-patter of Andres Renteria's percussion and the unobtrusively
engaging horn/winds/strings settings provided by Miguel Atwood-Ferguson.
Produced by Carlos Ni–o, Gea has a welcoming vibe that owes heavily to this small family of like-minded
friends Todd surrounded herself with for its recording.
"I chose Andres,
the percussionist, because he and I have been playing together for three years
and have built up our trust for each other," she says. "And I
didn't want to play solo anymore, not after the Dungen experience. With
Andres, or if you have a band, whatever is going on in the audience, it
doesn't matter, you have your camaraderie onstage, and just the music, you
share it with someone, so suddenly it's much easier. Or it's larger."
Todd found the
simplicity of her new songs, and the process of recording them, a
comforting experience, and the discovery of that aforementioned harmonium
played a big part. Indeed, its enveloping sound on Gea seems as if fated, so immediately perfect is it
for the bell-like timbres of Todd's voice. The record sounds like it was
done as a means of personal catharsis.
passed away last year, so musically I was trying to go toward more a
transcendental, almost New Age kind of jazz, music that could be
healing," says Todd. "That's what I needed from music. And
there's little messages in it. In 'River of Life,' it's 'Freedom from repression/self-expression
Todd's oeuvre has long
been that of the delicate, musing thrush, a folksinger with a new kind of
folk on her mind, albeit one who explores almost embarrassingly intimate
feelings, often in gently avant-garde musical settings. Interestingly,
she's long been associated with the DJ/electronic scene in L.A., having
collaborated with the likes of Dntel, DJ Nobody and Flying Lotus.
Meanwhile, her music is
deceptively lovely. If you listen closely, you'll hear that Mia Doi Todd
never plays by the normal rules of songwriting, and she's got very quirky
ideas about how to get her music across, one of which is to superload it
with pictures, a sense of time and place, that can be wildly colored and
ripe with metaphor. "Big Bad Wolf & Black Widow Spider" is a
darkly comic tale of a nocturnal meeting of two kindred souls, and an
amazing song for the freely kaleidoscopic way Todd put its parts together.
"Big Bad Wolf," for example, has a singular sound. "That
song has its own tuning," she says, laughing. "I have not managed
to write another song in that tuning. It's its own thing.
"I saw this
documentary on Joni Mitchell," she continues, "and the
interviewer was asking her, 'Why do you use all these strange tunings?' And
she said, 'I tune the guitar until I find the chord that resembles my
emotional landscape.' And most of my chords are unresolved Ñ so I look for
chords that resemble my emotions; straight chords don't really speak to me,
so I tinker with the guitar until I find chords that resemble my emotional
In fact, there are no
standard tunings on the songs of Gea; a lot of them, such as "River of Life," "Sleepless
Nights" and "Esper Es Caro," use a modified drop-D tuning.
Others, like "Old World New World," "Night of a Thousand
Kisses" and "Borrow You," use a C tuning, but one where Todd
messed around with it to adjust it to her own personal, well, alpha waves.
All this going on about tunings isn't to bore you, but to give you a sense
of how Todd is among a rather rare number of contemporary musicians who
have the ability to hear a different way of music making. Todd takes her
idiosyncrasies to some interesting extremes, such as the very structure of
a "pop" song itself.
"A lot of people
learn to play the guitar by learning songs by the Beatles or something like
that," she says. "But I just started writing songs, and I didn't
really know how they should be, so I never followed those templates. My
last album, Manzanita, was me
discovering the bridge; before that, my songs had mostly gone A-B-A-B-A-B,
etc., and that was enough for me. Most of the evolution of the song came
through the lyrics. But then I came around to the bridge, A-B-A-B-C-A-B,
and that was more like a traditional song. So I went through a phase of
trying to explore that element, the bridge."
But on Gea, Todd has let the songs dictate how they want to
be, and she listens to their wishes very carefully. In the bewitching
"Sleepless Nights," the "catchy" part only happens one
time Ñ it really should be the chorus, were she concerned with making a
splash at the top of the charts. But no: "It makes it more precious to
me," she says, "that it only happens one time."
The landscape on Gea is generally characterized by a Zen-like resolve
found in tracks such as "River of Life," in which Todd sings,
"The present moment is revealed to contain all that is real."
It's a theme she returns to again and again on the album, along with songs
that explore the rawness resulting from love gone dwindling and/or the
daggers hurled in the (non)act of noncommunication.
And over and over, she
asks, What does one do with one's love if it's not reciprocated? The slow
and stately "In the End" ("My inhibition, your
indifference") is all the more painful to experience for the
matter-of-fact way she delivers the affair's final notes.
Yet Todd chooses to
emerge from her wound-licking in the dark, restating the golden
morning-music glow of the opening track with the album's harmonium-wrapped
closing, "Old World New World," in which "I devise a better
way to be."
"It's a new
world," she sings, and by album's end, you've come to believe it