Who is Mia Doi Todd

3 Feb 2010 Posted by Meg Wells in Who is..., Music

mialeadphoto.jpgPhoto by Marla Aufmuth

Mia Doi Todd is a singer, songwriter, artist, dancer, creator and on occassion, a master seamstress of rainbow colored garments. Last December at our Flux Screening Series at the Hammer Museum, we premiered her brand new video, Open Your Heart, directed by none other than the talented Michel Gondry. Doi Todd performed a live set after the screening and entertained the audience with her personal, powerful and melodic songs. We enjoyed ourselves so much that we wanted to know more.

Tell us about yourself, your background and what inspired you to become a musician and artist?

I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California. I started singing and performing as a child in theater and choral groups. My neighbor was an opera singer and teacher, and he gave me private vocal lessons. This shaped the tone of my voice. As a teenager, I discovered Joni Mitchell and the Beatles and began to write my own songs. My first solo acoustic album, “the ewe and the eye” was released in 1997. I graduated from Yale University as an East Asian Studies major and lived in Japan for a year studying the contemporary dance form Butoh. I moved back to New York and then LA and continued to make music and dance and paintings. I’ve released eight albums and am currently at work on the next one.

img_1348.JPGPhoto by Javier ValdezMia Doi Todd on the set of her new video Open Your Heart, directed by Michel Gondry.

What were some early influences (films, art, and music) from your childhood that had an impact on you?

My father is a sculptor. He was influenced by Zen calligraphy, and his work deals with space and the cosmos. I spent summers on the couch in his studio and passed the time making drawings and watching him at play. He took me to a Richard Serra opening when I was four or five, and I was scared of the massive steel pieces. Now I love Serra’s work. I’ve always had lots of beautiful art and architecture around me. We lived in a Rudolph Schindler and then a John Lautner home when I was growing up. It turned me into a very aesthetic and spiritual person. My mother is Japanese-American and has a big interest in Asian art. She helped to bring kabuki and Noh and Butoh performances to the Japan America Theater in Los Angeles. The costumes and makeup and masks and powerful slow music of the Noh left a lasting impression on me. Also, there was a performing arts festival in the summer of 1984 when the Olympics were hosted in LA; it marked the beginning of an era of cultural exchange. I remember a beautiful day of shadow puppets and gamelan on the grass at UCLA and meeting the dancers and musicians afterwards.

I read that you lived and studied in Japan. Can you tell us a little bit about that and also share your creative process?

I spent 1998 living in Japan, studying with different Butoh dancers. Butoh is a dance form that started in Tokyo in the 1960’s as part of the greater cultural revolution taking place across the world. I studied with Kazuo and Yoshito Ohno and at Hijikata’s Asbestos-kan Theater and with Min Tanaka at his Body Weather Farm. I wrote my album “zeroone” that year. Songwriting comes in cycles. When a new album is released, I usually tour in support of that record for a year and fill journals with ideas and drawing, without attempting to write any new songs. Back home when I’ve had time to rest and drink tea and cook and water my plants and digest some new experiences, I will surprise myself and write five new songs in a month. There is often a span of desert in between writing cycles when I feel like a dry river with nothing to contribute to the world. In the past few years, I’ve been traveling to places without a touring agenda, just to soak up the a greater spectrum of life and fill myself with new breath.

miaguitar.jpgPhoto by Marla AufmuthMia Doi Todd, live performance at the Flux Screening Series at the Hammer Museum, December 2009.

Let’s talk about your music. Your songs tend to play with language, utilizing puns and poetry, orchestrating lyrical imagery. How do you think music videos capture and express on your artistic vision?

My music is very personal and intimate, and all of my songs start from a specific experience I’ve had. On the other hand it strives to be universal also. When I find some simple words that have great meaning to me and yet could apply to the macrocosm as well, it is like a key to solving a mystery. People have told me how they really identify with a certain song of mine and how it has helped them through a difficult time. That makes me feel that it is a worthwhile pursuit and that I should carve some new songs out of the void. Music is an invisible art and gets woven into the fabric people’s lives. I feel like a weaver or a medium of human experience or like a giant liver. I love language and like to play with rhyme and rhythm and alliteration. I find beauty there.

I have music videos for a few of my songs. In my experience, the process of making a video has been very loving. Some were casual and took a few hours or a day to shoot, but all parties were perfectly present in those specific moments and the time shared was somehow made special and elevated outside of everyday experience. The new “Open Your Heart” video was more elaborate and took months of preparation and two long days of shooting with quite a big cast and crew. I think everyone involved had an amazing experience creating something beautiful and vital together.

Making a video for a song definitely brings it new life and marks it in time. I’m always changing and evolving in pursuit of elusive beauty and satisfaction, and this path or struggle is recorded in songs which exist a little bit outside of time. So it’s something special to capture a song in a physical form, and also to collaborate in the creative process.

miaband.jpgPhoto by Marla AufmuthMia Doi Todd, live performance at the Flux Screening Series, Hammer Museum. Michel Gondry on drums.

We recently premiered your new music video for “Open Your Heart” with the original song that you wrote. It is so vivid and the level of craft that went into that piece is impressive. Can you share how was it working with Michel Gondry on this project? What were some of the challenges and was it a fulfilling collaboration and one you would do again?

Making the “Open Your Heart” video was epic. Michel had had the color concept of the video for many years but hadn’t managed to realize it yet. He proposed the idea to me, and I took up the challenge to write a new song that would be vibrant, upbeat and universal to match the visual palette. I wrote “Open Your Heart” and recorded a demo version with Money Mark. Meanwhile, Michel had assembled a rainbow of clothing and along with a great costume team, we sewed all the 100 outfits for the video. I designed and sewed my own dress. Michel and I went out location scouting around my neighborhood, looking for unassuming urban settings with interesting or else very mundane architectural elements. We knew that concrete surroundings would show off the colors of the costumes, and we wanted to find staircases where we could assemble our rainbow. LA is such a driving city, that the landscape is often out of human proportion and gets lost in the rush. The video would bring the human element back to those spaces. I have lived in LA most of my life, and its images are deeply imprinted in me. It was a great opportunity to share with Michel some of the hidden city. The days for shooting were quickly approaching, and we did not have a final version of the song. We decided to go ahead with the shooting schedule and make a new challenge for Jon Brion. He would produce and orchestrate the track after the video was edited and customize the sounds and arrangements to the images.

Mia Doi Todd’s Open Your Heart video, directed by Michel Gondry. Click the icon in lower right for full screen. Full credits for the video on Partizan.

Of course the two day shoot landed right in the middle of a heat wave. My mother and two aunties helped with craft services and had the great idea to distribute cold hand towels from ice chests at the hardest, hottest time of day. I was concerned about sweat stains on my dress, so I had made two identical versions just in case I needed a fresh one. We were sewing costumes until the night before the shoot. Everyone working on the video was doing so out of love for their work and respect for Michel. It was a great team effort. The two days of shooting went so smoothly. While everyone was assembled at the Metro station, Michel decided spontaneously to use the green taxis and yellow buses passing by.

img_0693.JPGPhoto by Javier ValdezMia Doi Todd on set for Open Your Heart

Probably the most magical, surreal moment was at the enormous spiral staircase at the 5 and 110 freeway interchange. There are pedestrian walkways up there that are out of the way and mostly forgotten; the cars drive by at 60 or 70 miles an hour only a few feet away. The entire rainbow of 100 people were lined up and we walked up and down the stairs and along the concrete channels, creating this amazing double helix. All the care that had gone into preparing the event had created something grander than we had imagined.

img_1338.JPGPhoto by Javier ValdezThe cast in vivid color against L.A.’s backdrop

Another special moment was the last shot at City Hall. The Riverside Community College Marching Band who we had recruited to be in the video along with a dozen of my close friends had been working hard all weekend, standing and dancing in the hot sun. We had to coordinate the the most complicated section of the choreography for the finale on the staircase, and we were all exhausted. At first, the camera angle was not right, the sun was so blinding the colors were washed out, and morale was falling. Then Michel and Sean (Kim) the D.P. found a better angle, and we all managed to pull though. The fellow behind me in the last shot nearly collapses a second after we finish the song. It’s the most endearing moment in the video. When we were planning, it seemed that the colors would dominate and make everyone very uniform like a LEGO block, but I think the opposite happened. Everyone’s individuality came out.

It was a very fulfilling collaborative process. I would love to work together with Michel again.

What has your favorite project been, so far and why? Any new projects we can look forward to?

This video was probably the most fun thing ever. I’m working on recording a new album now. “Open Your Heart” is one of the songs. Hopefully we can make a video for another song as well. A friend of mine has written a musical screenplay and wants me to play the main character. We are trying to make that happen. Realizing this video from start to finish gave me more confidence to imagine larger projects that bring together music and dance and film.

img_0304.jpgPhoto by Marla AufmuthFilmmaker Michel Gondry with Mia

What are you most looking forward to in the new year? Any resolutions?

I’m playing Tuesday nights in February at Spaceland. I am looking forward to the spring and the summer! I’m going to be vegetarian this year.


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Love her music… would like to see it more… I don’t listen to CDs or much for music - much prefer live performances and she is one of our favorites! Everyone should look for her schedule and see a performance! Must see!!

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