A crisp January day in the boho Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles found singer-songwriter Mia Doi Todd in warm spirits. She was ready to release her new album, the earthy, organic Gea, on March 4. She was releasing it on her own City Zen imprint (“which gives me the potential to keep what little an artist makes on album sales,” she quipped). And she’d just been announced as the opening act on Jose Gonzalez’s upcoming eco-friendly North American tour that starts in late February. With so many happy developments, Todd was happy to talk about the elements that went into making the new album, her multi-faceted artistic life, a big influence that just passed away, and another that she just met.
With the album finished and about to come out and the tour about to start, what is this time like for you? Are you anxious about how the album will be received and how the tour will go, or are you relieved that the album is done and excited to take it on the road?
I’ve been anxious about the album for many months. The prospect of it coming out soon, and getting on this tour is a big relief. Things are starting to flow, whereas it has been hard to have the album ready and not get it out. It’s going to be a big relief to get the album out and have a bunch of shows.
How long has the album been done?
It was recorded a year ago. It’s kind of normal for albums to take that long to get out, but it’s still trying for the artist to have to wait. I was thinking about putting it out last fall, but I wasn’t ready with all of the aspects of it, so it was a good business decision to wait until the spring. And spring is a good time to start new things. So March 4 is the U.S. release date, and it might come out a bit earlier on iTunes. I also licensed it to a label in Europe and a label in Japan. All of this stuff makes me excited rather than anxious. This is the part of it that I like to do.
Tell me about the album’s name. Is it related to the word for the earth, “Gaea”?
Yes. I took the prefix “geo” and made it “gea” to emphasize the female aspect of the earth. The whole idea of the album came from the regenerative nature of the earth and the female creative aspect, the self-healing qualities of the earth.
Your last album, Manzanita, was very scattershot. You did a hard-rock song with Dead Meadow and a reggae song with Future Pigeon. Now Gea seems to be much more focused an earthy, folky sound. Was that the goal going in to making the album?
Definitely. It’s related to the way that life goes in cycles. Manzanita was more of an expansive time when I wanted to work with different people and find creative outlets for my friendship. That was so fun, recording a reggae tune with Future Pigeon and having Dead Meadow come in. Following that cycle I had more of an opposite feeling, where like a cell goes out and expands and then contracts and looks inward. I felt like I needed to find all my creative vision within my small spectrum. I worked with (percussionist) Andres Renteria for maybe a year before recording, so he and I developed a very unified creative relationship. I felt more inward looking, not comfortable with a lot of outward stimuli. Then I brought in Joshua Abrams, a bass player from Chicago.
I was trying to create my own sound by putting the pieces together, and I really feel like with this album we created this sound that isn’t quite like anything else. The harmonium is the key. Discovering that instrument really brought everything together and propelled us forward and helped us find where we were going creatively. The harmonium gave the music a very droning atmosphere.
Another big influence on this album was Alice Coltrane and where she was going musically before she passed away last year. I was so influenced by her and what her contribution to twentieth-century music was. I was trying to home in on that because it was a very positive and feminine contribution to music
“The Way,” the first song on Manzanita, was very angry politically, whereas Gea seems more at peace with the world. Do you think that change came from a lot of us in this country going from being very angry about what was going on around us to trying to deal with it in a less negative manner?
It’s definitely part of the personal evolution from that time where everybody felt the angst of that era to now. I was trying to write songs about it, which turned into a kind of hopelessness with the inability to affect politics or the environment. Creatively, I’m very sensitive to the world, so I got really bogged down by those external factors. So Gea was my attempt for myself to look toward the positive nature, the healing, positive aspect of the earth. I’ve written a lot of sad songs before, but now I was trying to write a hopeful record.
Is the “river of life” you sing of on the first song any specific river? I guess I’m wondering if, like many other artists here, you’re involved at all with the L.A. River conservation movement.
Actually, I do live right on the river, and it’s been a big part of my life. I’ve lived there since I was eight years old. It’s good to see that the river is evolving its own ecosystem; it’s getting better after being dirty for so long. So, yes, the song is a metaphor for how nature can reclaim territory, since the river is a home for birds and fish now. It is inspiring that such a dirty place can regenerate itself.
Also, last year I traveled to Africa and was at the place where human life started and where the animal kingdom still rules over the land, so that trip was a big inspiration. It feels very ancient there. I had been writing this song before I went to Africa and when I came back it really came together. The “purple Rocky Mountains” lyric came from being on tour near the Rockies a couple of years ago. Having toured a lot, I’ve seen quite a bit of this country and really love the beauty of America.
I really like the line in that song, “We stumbled into our reflections.” Is there any certain story behind that lyric?
There were some mirrors on a tour bus I was on to make the bus look bigger, so very early one morning some others on the bus and I literally stumbled into our reflections in those mirrors. I like when something can be interpreted in a very physical sense and also a metaphysical sense.
Was it your decision to start with a ten-minute-long song? That’s certainly not the easiest way to invite listeners into your album.
For me I have an idea of how things should be before we start recording. I knew that one had to go first. I don’t think the song’s length is a bad thing. It could be a quick thinning of the herd for those who won’t like the album! I was really into Jimi Hendrix and Indian music at the time I was writing this, so for a song to have a ten-minute arc expands your awareness. People are so fast these days and want bam bam bam, so by putting that at the beginning, if it can seep into you, maybe you can slow down so that you’ll be more receptive to the rest of the album.
Is the song “Big Bad Wolf & Black Widow Spider” based on an actual fairy tale or is it something you came up with?
It’s something I came up with. It’s a metaphor. I’m the black widow spider and someone I know is the big bad wolf. We don’t have the best track record with relationships, so the story is two people meeting who are both scary in their own way, two people who can identify with each other. Most of my songs come from personal experience that’s not very far below the surface.
“Kokoro” is the perfect song to ask about the relationship between music and lyrics. Did the rhythm of the title give birth to the guitar part, or was it the other way around?
Usually I write the guitar parts first and I have to find what I can sing with that, because it’s not the easiest thing to do together. A lot of my guitar playing is very rhythmic. If you’re not playing guitar at the same time you can sing out more, but if you’re playing you have to find something that fits so you can write the song. Sometimes that takes years — I have guitar melodies I’ve worked on for years that I still haven’t found what works with them.
I love Brazilian music, like Caetano Veloso, so that really influenced that song. And this was the first album where I completely shifted to nylon guitar, which is softer. I like it more than steel guitar. So those strings also dictate how you play guitar.
“Kokoro” is a Japanese word that means “heart.” I wanted to have a lot of different languages on this album so as to represent the people of the world. So I sing in English, Spanish, and some Japanese and Portuguese.
Do you think of making music as the most important of the arts you practice, or just one of many?
It’s definitely the primary one that I’ve spent the most time on. I don’t know if that will always be the case. I always knew I needed to do it when I was young, because touring can be really hard. I think I’ll always sing. Music is nice but hard because how it’s received can be very hard. It takes so much energy. At the end of touring for Manzanita, I had given all my energy away, so I felt like I needed to enrich myself personally. The world isn’t going to do that for you. But performing music live can also give you a lot of energy back.
As for other things, I’m taking a dance workshop before I start the tour. So I’ll be a student in that for the next month or so.
Did you create the artwork for the album yourself?
Yes, I did that.
Gea is coming out on City Zen, which is your own label. How much day-to-day activity do you have with the label?
Quite a lot. I reissued my first record on it, and put out my third record on it. The music business is really a chimera, a strange dragon. I’ve been on major labels and indie labels. The little bit of money that you do make can be swallowed up by those labels. So self-releasing Gea was a very organic and transparent way to put the album out.
Do you plan to sign other acts to the label?
I could see signing other acts. We’ll see. I also recorded an instrumental album last year, so if Gea does okay I could see putting out that record. I could see putting out other people’s records if they want me to.
You’ve been good friends with Jimmy Tamborello for a long time, and you sang on one of the tracks on his Dntel album last year. Do you have any inside scoop on the progress on the next Postal Service album?
No, no scoop on that. I did just see him the other day, though. All of our friends always tell us they want us to make a whole album together, so maybe that will happen.
You mentioned Alice Coltrane as a big influence. I definitely hear a lot of Joni Mitchell in your music as well. So I was just curious if you’ve ever met her, what with both of you living in Los Angeles.
That’s funny because I did just meet her. I was somehow invited over to her house where she has gatherings once in a while. It was a very small gathering. My friend told her I was a musician and she asked, “How can I hear your stuff?” I just happened to have a copy of Gea with me. She grabbed it and put it on, which was very nerve-racking. I don’t like to listen to my music in front of other people, but I’m not going to stop Joni Mitchell. She’s a very funny and gracious person.
Will you be joined on tour by the same people who you recorded the album with?
It will be just Andres and I for most of the shows. On a few we’ll be joined by Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, who I haven’t even mentioned yet. He did all of the instrumental arrangements for the album, which are so great.