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, actually, clocking in at 10-and-a-half minutes — a pretty odd way to start a record, but a typically original way of proceeding for the beautifully idiosyncratic Todd.
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Mia Doi Todd: Her lyrics are as penetrating as those eyes.
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 last year.
“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 Nino, 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.
“Alice Coltrane 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 for everyone.'”
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 — 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 landscape.”
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 — 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 too.
Mia Doi Todd opens for Jose Gonzalez at the Wiltern on Tues., March 25.