Mia Doi Todd — Making her own rules

Mia Doi Todd (photo courtesy of Azul Amaral)

In the barrage of tributes that followed the passing of Prince earlier this year, one cover song was avoided pretty noticeably, which made “When Doves Cry” the obvious choice for Mia Doi Todd’s latest album, Songbook.

“It’s almost taboo to cover some songs because they’re just so untouchable,” admits Todd, who also performs selections by Townes Van Zandt, Neil Young, The Cure and TV On The Radio on the record, which follows up an equally daring album of Brazilian songs, Floresta.

Notice a pattern from the Californian?

“I’ve really just followed my own muse and have not made any concerted effort to change styles,” she said. “My first three albums were solo acoustic, me singing and playing guitar, and at the time, that really seemed like my style. But in retrospect, that seems like it was the beginning of my self-education in music. I think a big change happened with my album, Gea. Miguel Atwood Ferguson did these really gorgeous orchestral arrangements, and that kind of changed everything and started me thinking more beyond folk, beyond rock, and more into jazz. And I think trusting my instinct to follow Brazilian music taught me a lot about rhythm and melody and harmony and really widened my scope.”

How wide? There really aren’t any limits at this point, yet as she admits, “There was a little arm twisting to do this record. It was a Japanese label that commissioned me to do this album and they wanted something that was accessible for the Japanese market, so they thought an album of covers was just the sing. I had just done Floresta, so I didn’t think it was quite the thing I wanted to do. I thought I should spend all this time writing songs, but then it really turned into a learning thing and really breaking out the boundaries of what I was allowed to do. With writing my own songs, I’m a lot more precious about it and how it should be produced and recorded. With this, I was much more relaxed about it and not so precious, and it did help me let go of some hang-ups about how things should be recorded. It was quite liberating. It was a fun record.”

And a learning experience at the same time.

“I was never someone who learned how to play guitar by covering songs,” Todd said. “For the life of me, I cannot play a Beatles song on the guitar. I was a self-taught guitarist and I learned my very limited fingerpicking style with a lot of detuning the guitar in different ways so that I could achieve some things. So learning the structure of these classic songs was a good learning process for me, and taught me about what makes up the perfect song.”

After hearing Todd’s interpretations of the classics, it adds even more anticipation for her next original project. But as she explains, there is a good excuse for sticking to covers over her last two albums.

“I haven’t written as many songs in the last two years because I’m a new mom and that has been my number one priority,” she said. “So I started doing these cover songs because there are so many beautiful songs to be sung, and they want to be sung, so I started working on that. And I haven’t had as much of the interior time to work on my own songs as much. But that is one of my next upcoming things.”

Not the first though.

“This year I’ve been working a lot on a soundtrack to a movie. I was asked to be in a movie and to write a couple songs that I sang in the movie. So I wrote those and then they hired me to do the whole soundtrack and score, so this year I’ve been working on that a lot. And the next thing up to bat is a collaboration record with Dntel, an electronic artist I’ve worked with over the years, and he and I have been wanting to do a duet album for ages, and we finally started on that. So my own folky, motherhood album is still a little bit off (Laughs), but it’s coming.”

For more information on Mia Doi Todd, click here

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