September 23rd, 2011 | Interviews

Photo by Grace Oh

Some people seem transported from a parallel universe, sent here to make this world a little more magical or strange. Like Mia Doi Todd—she seems out of place standing on a street corner. She should be floating on a carpet, leaving a trail of flowers, or accompanied by a river that washes the city clean of all the creeps and malevolent vibes. Listening to her latest album, Cosmic Ocean Ship, a little bit of cosmic energy seems to seep in and that parallel universe becomes visible. Suddenly, you wish you lived in France or Brazil. This interview by Daiana Feuer.

Would you be able to kill a cow?
Single-handedly I could definitely not kill a cow. No. And I’m OK with adopting a more vegetarian diet. I’m almost a vegetarian. I am allergic to shellfish but most anything else I eat.
What about a chicken?
If I could corner it and catch it, I could kill a chicken. Or a rabbit. If I needed to feed my family. I think I could kill a chicken or a rabbit. I’m a rabbit.
You are?
In the Chinese horoscope.
What does that mean about you?
It’s the lucky sign and you know how rabbits propagate so rapidly … it’s known as a fertile sign. I have not produced any offspring but I have made many albums which are like babies sent off in the world. We’re easygoing too. We’re pretty smiley in general. Andres Renteria, who plays percussion with me, is also a rabbit.
How many of your own albums have you released?
I started a label for my third record, Zeroone. I returned to putting out my own records with Gea in 2008. My first record was very limited-edition press, so I reissued that. So Gea, an instrumental record with Andres [Renteria], Morning Music, and Cosmic Ocean Ship. This time I’m partnered up with Virtual Label in New York, so they’re helping me with distribution. This is different because I have a broader independent distributor. Up until now I was with Revolver, which is a great company in San Fran.
And you’re on the radio.
KCRW has been supporting the album so much. I’m so local, they’ve watched the whole process of my singer-songwriter becoming. The new album is the most accessible so far. They asked me to play at the Hollywood Bowl this summer. It’s a soul tribute. I feel honored to be a part of that. My music is super soulful, but with the stereotypical definition of soul … it’s not what you’d think of my genre as.
What is your genre?
It’s hard to define. I’m really multi-genre. I feel very soulful—soul, jazz, singer-songwriterdom is my main category—Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan. I’ve mostly written my own songs but I have started doing more covers and Brazilian music. I’ve gotten more jazzy and more world music. I have also collaborated with electronic musicians over the years. I have songs that are trip-hop—but that’s an outdated term. I even recorded vocals on hip-hop albums. And my meditational music that Andres and I made, that was new age music. You could play it in yoga class—not that I like to hear music in yoga class.
Does your music reflect the interests you’ve taken up in other areas of your life?
Being a multi-ethnic person, I was always looking for myself. I have to keep redefining myself and that has contributed to my interest in world cultures—trying to mix everything together within myself and my music. I’ve been traveling a lot in the last few years, Brazil, Cuba, India and Mexico—gathering those influences and trying to digest and make it more a part of myself. This record is more Latin-music-based than my previous one. There is a song dedicated to Paraty, a town that is between Rio and São Paolo. There’s a song dedicated to Havana, in Cuba. The influence of Cuban music is really strong inside of me. And I had a chance to digest it.
How has this translated into your music?
Working with Andres, we’ve been playing for six years now, and his experience with AfroCuban music and percussion has definitely influenced my songwriting. Going to Cuba and Brazil, it’s all about the drums. All the percussion. Being around that more makes me think differently about music and sing differently, try to play guitar differently. I am stuck in my patterns still and I come from a North American tradition. I’m trying to blend all these things—to try to create a new world culture. See, I imagine … I dream to participate in that and be a source of inspiration to others. Things get overlooked, like nature, with all the development that’s happened in the last 100 to 200 to 1,000 years. There’s a lot of nature here in L.A., but you have to drive through big cities to find it. In Brazil and Cuba nature is still more left on its own. I have been learning Brazilian songs about nature spirits. One thing that’s interesting about Central and South America is that all the cultures have collided there, they’ve all met there and mingled and that creates music that is so inspiring to me. In Brazil, indigenous music has very much mixed with African and European music.
Where are you from?
I’m from right here! Being of mixed culture, I definitely feel like I had to go search for myself and find myself in things. I am half Japanese and half Irish and I identify with both—but being mixed I identify a lot with Latin culture too, being a place of mestizos.
So there’s no Latin in you?
Well, Ireland was Roman at some point. In my family nobody speaks Spanish. But growing up here in L.A., you can’t help but absorb the Latin culture that’s all around. That’s another reason why I identify with it.
Why do you hang out in nature?
Every time I drive to the desert or the mountains at the Angeles Forest I spend just a few hours listening to the creek or the birds in the trees, where it’s free. The birds actually love it here by the L.A. river, but going out farther out of the city I always feel a great release. I can hear myself more and it’s invigorating, refreshing, and helps me come back to the city. It’s about that. I love L.A.
Why do you love Los Angeles?
My family is here, and it’s very hard to leave for long periods of time because we all rely on each other a lot, and so many friends, my musical community. I respect the city and I love my city. I can buy amazing kale and I can also grow it, but there’s so much variety here—culturally, artistically. I like man-made things too. I am such an appreciator of the arts: sculpture and music and film and art. That’s more common in the city. That’s one great factor in favor of cities. That’s where people can see things. You can be out in the country to make those things. I want to find a balance between the city and nature. I have grown up so much in the city and I think it would be great to be among the wind and trees and hear more sounds other than the 5 freeway.
How can a city develop but keep in touch with nature?
That’s a rough one. That’s the crisis of the 21st century—how to reestablish a balance. We’ve become so populous. How can we cooperate with Mother Earth so we can blossom rather than kill each other? And feel nature? Hopefully it’s part of the new culture we’re building—the village. Last summer I spent in France living in a village where I had to bike to get groceries and produce was coming from the fields right there. The meat, the eggs, everything was more local. It’s cheaper.
Do you think civilization will collapse?
It’s possible. It’s very possible but it will take a while. If natural disasters like the tsunamis and earthquakes, fires … if they begin to swallow up coastal cities and destabilize the status quo—if New York was hit by a tsunami, life there would have to change drastically. But maybe those buildings are strong. A friend was in Japan on the 21st floor of a skyscraper during the tsunami, and it shook so hard back and forth for five minutes, and it was terrifying and life-changing, I think. If more things start to rock our cities, they might have to fall down. The U.S. was large-scale built on the car culture, whereas in Europe, agricultural land is still more interspersed within the cities. Once gas prices reach astronomical levels and we haven’t tapped into solar power as much as we need, people won’t be able to get water and food the way they could if they lived in villages. Villages of the world will have a leg up on the cities. They have a smaller structure. All the people coming to the cities in the last 30-50 years, going to cities for work, it’s probably going to reverse. Water will be the big situation in L.A. We live on more of a desert plain. Maybe we’ll sort it out and the cities will be fine—if we can work out water desalinization and solar power. I am always trying to plan my escape route.
Where will you go live then?
Perhaps somewhere in California. I have been dreaming of Ojai, which is still close enough that it’s almost like home. They have a long history as a spiritual center. I imagine Native Americans who lived here before found Ojai to be as beautiful as we did and hung out a lot. Ojai has some of the best new thinking. Krishnamurti has a center there. In Ojai, it would be easier to get food from close by.
Do you find you have become more new agey with time?
Yes, yes. I don’t feel sooo new agey. I am not a burner. What’s it called? I’ve never been to Burning Man. I don’t know exactly the definition of new age but it often pops up that I’m a new age artist so I guess I am.
When you and Andres were sitting in the artist area at the Silverlake Jubilee around all those other people, did you feel that you two came from a different planet?
Yes! And it’s only in situations like that in which I realize that I’m pretty far out. Someone who was organizing the Jubilee came up to me and Andres and she had to tell us some stuff about loading in and schedule and she said just talking to us and being around us for a minute really helped calm her down. Growing up in L.A., people hardly think I am from L.A. because they associate it with Hollywood. Or what else is L.A.? Maybe beachy? Not exactly Andres and I. We are so L.A. though. It’s a bit hidden, our L.A. I worry about people that come to visit for a few days in West Hollywood. Come hang out with me and you get a vision of the secret L.A. It’s all about the secret woodsy parts. We have great parks in L.A. Especially here on the east side. Griffith Park and Elysian Park and the Angeles Forest. Central Park in New York is amazing but it’s man-made. The parks here in L.A. haven’t been as controlled by man. With the big fire in Griffith, they’re letting nature take its course.
At your house you host late-night jam parties with big groups of musicians. Did you ever attend the ones Jonathan Wilson did in Laurel Canyon?
No, I didn’t know anything about that. Laurel Canyon is far from my neighborhood. I never went over to those music jam parties. He came over to my house for a party and I didn’t even meet him that night. He was friends with a girlfriend of a housemate of mine. Money Mark and I share a compound and he was playing drums with him. I have fun parties where musicians come and play together casually, all night usually. I definitely remember saying hi to him.
What led to recording Cosmic Ocean Ship with Jonathan Wilson?
Gabe Noel, my bassist, had been playing with him. He recommended I record at Jonathan’s. I had written all these songs and I needed a place to record. He asked me what size shoe do I wear, and I said, ‘five and a half, six.’
Wow, you’ve got small feet!
Sometimes old things fit me because things used to be quite small. So I go over there to show him my songs and he came out with these cowboy boots that were my size. It was a sign that we should work together. We recorded the whole album all very much live in his amazing room. He is so skilled as a musician and engineer. He plays different instruments on all the songs. He played drums, guitar and bass and percussion, piano, organ, and he just knows exactly what a song needs. That’s his great producer mind and then he can play it. He lives near my house so it was convenient and felt homelike.
What did he bring to the album?
He brought more of an American roots tradition to the record. North Carolina, hippie North Carolina. He brought a more American Southern tradition to the record—to Andres and I, who are more California-Latin based. We synthesized somehow. One track is more doo-wop, doo-wop-a-doo—‘Summer Lover’ is more like that. Jonathan helped bring out a little more country aspect to my songs. He totally understood where we were coming from. Another thing—that first day, I had barely met him. I just said, ‘Can I come over and play my songs?’ It’s easier to play your songs for strangers in a small place. He was a stranger to me then. I played the songs, he gave me the boots.
Why did he have little cowboy boots in your size?
He had gotten them at a thrift store, not knowing who they were going to fit. I think he goes to thrift stores and looks for precious items.
The album cover you’ve reenacted for our poster is very provocative.
[Gal Costa’s] record cover for India was very provocative when it was released, and still is today. Not too many people put a full cameltoe crotch shot on a cover. I am more modest, but I look a lot like her and identify so much with her album, her music, so we wanted to pay homage to her. My album Cosmic Ocean Ship also celebrates American culture. India was very orchestral in parts but it celebrated the Native American. That’s a piece of my record as well, what I was trying to put out in the world. I feel very native to L.A.
Do you feel like a babe right now?
I will probably get fat. I hope I do. So it was a good time to take those pictures and celebrate my womanness, my womanhood, and the universal creative mother spirit and beauty. It’s a good thing to celebrate naturalness—the human body is a part of that.