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Mia Doi Todd's Beautiful Collaboration

For her last album, 2002's The Golden State, singer/songwriter Mia Doi Todd was surrounded by longtime recording industry professionals, including label personnel at Columbia, which was releasing the album, and producer Mitchell Froom, whose resume includes work for Los Lobos, Elvis Costello, Richard Thompson and Suzanne Vega. This time, for the lovely, evocative Manzanita (Plug Research), Todd found herself surrounded by friends.

"I had a lot of anxiety when I was writing The Golden State, because I was working with people who were so successful in a show-biz kind of way. I felt like I was a child in this situation... that these people were showing me the way," Todd remembered in a recent phone interview. "Whereas this was my peers, working with my peers, and the songs just really found their own voices. Everybody helped."

Manzanita, first and foremost, showcases Todd's songwriting skill, with her pure, flute-like soprano leading the listener through minor-key rock anthems ("The Way"), Joni Mitchell-esque ballads, East European-tinged folk songs ("Tongue Tied") and even a reggae song ("Casa Nova"). Todd says that her inspirations are many — from Ravi Shankar to The Beatles and Bob Marley — but the comparison that seems to stick best is Joni Mitchell. Both her voice, with its breezy timbre and jazz-folk intonations, and her very literate, elliptical songwriting are strongly reminiscent of this iconic voice of the 1960s and 1970s.

Todd says that Mitchell has, indeed, been very important to her, as a personal and musical influence. "I think I heard Joni Mitchell first when I was 15 or 16," she remembered. "Her concept of womanhood and relationships... I had no idea about any of those things yet, but her work really affected me, my evolution, you know, at a critical moment in one's growth."

Moreover, Mitchell's songwriting style had a profound impact on Todd, which she says you can see, particularly in "The Last Night of Winter." The song develops thematically in its three verses, its tale of lovers who keep missing each other evolving around a series of metaphors — a letter, a dream, a map — just as Mitchell's classic "Both Sides Now" draws changing meanings out of a few simple motifs. "When [Mitchell] sings 'I've looked at clouds from both sides now,' in each verse the meaning of what she's talking about evolves," said Todd. "That method of making verses change — using the same words but altering their meaning so that they turn themselves around and finally connect the first verse to the last one... I use that a lot."

Todd's songs also connect personal issues to the larger world in an exceptionally subtle and artful way. For example, "The Way" starts with a macro view of a troubled world, divided by war and trashed by overconsumption. Yet, unlike many traditional protest songs, it circles back to the individual, connecting personal decisions, like using too much fuel, to larger issues like war in Iraq. "I think it's impossible to talk about these huge trends in the world, on a macroscopic level, without exploring from the microscopic level as well, because everything starts with two people," she explained. "When our nation is trying to bully some other nation, that's the macroscopic view of my boyfriend trying to bully me or me trying to bully my boyfriend."

The song includes a Buddhist prayer, "Namu Amida Butsu," a nod to Todd's Japanese background (her mother is Japanese and she spent a year studying Butoh dance in Tokyo). Todd says her exposure to Japanese culture and music has shaped her art, giving her a tremendous appreciation of space and silence within her work. That culture has also influenced her worldview. "In Japanese Buddhism, you have a home shrine. You put a bowl of rice before the Buddha and sound the bell, and you say 'Namu Amida Butsu,' which is a chant, 'Oh Holy Buddha, Oh Holy Buddha, Oh Holy Buddha.' You say it a bunch of times," she said. "'Gomen' [which follows in the verse] is another Japanese word, not associated with 'Namu Amida Butsu,' meaning 'excuse me.'" In combination, the two phrases sum up her reaction to Western excess. "It's because we use so much gas in our cars and so much plastic. We all commit these fatal karmic actions in this world that we have created and that we live in, so it's like, 'I'm sorry, forgive me for this.'"

In terms of Manzanita's recording, two artists — Brent Rademaker (Beachwood Sparks, Frausdots), who produced the album, and Rob Campanella, the engineer, who had worked with a number of West Coast indie artists in Todd's circle, including The Tyde and Brian Jonestown Massacre — were key. Her relationship with Rademaker, in particular, had been long and productive.

"Mia came up and sang guest vocals on my Frausdots record... on the song 'Soft Light,' and we had dueted on 'Ponce Deleon Blues' on the last Beachwood Sparks EP," Rademaker explained, adding that he had also produced Todd's first-ever EP, 1997's The Ewe and the Eye. She had subsequently issued two other solo acoustic recordings, Come Out of Your Mine in 1999 and Zeroone in 2001, before signing with Columbia. "I think she wanted to return to familiar ground, so she asked me to produce... and I was thrilled, because I had a demo of the new songs and I thought they were her best ever."

With Campanella, the two formed the core of Manzanita's musical collaboration, bringing in like-minded contributors from the Beachwood Sparks, The Tyde, Dead Meadow, Brian Jonestown Massacre and L.A.-based rock-steady band Future Pigeon.

She is supported, except on a couple of solo acoustic tracks, by a rich and varied array of instrumental sounds, lovingly provided by the musicians she calls "her community." The opening rocker, "The Way," borrows a little of the psychedelic sprawl of DC's Dead Meadow, as Jason Simon and Steve Kille briefly stopped into the studio to lay down guitar and bass tracks for this politically-charged rocker. The good vibe contributed to the temporary reunion of the now-defunct Beachwood Sparks, with "What If We Do?" drawing sounds from Rademaker, Chris Gunst, Farmer Dave Scherr and even sometime touring partner Neal Casals. And it was Gunst who, hearing a demo of "Casa Nova," pulled Todd aside. "This is a reggae song," Todd said she remembers him remarking. "He said, 'Listen to the upbeats.'" So Todd and her friends enlisted Future Pigeons to give the track an authentic Kingston beat.

Throughout the recording, at Campanella's home studio, Todd was astonished at how smoothly the collaborative process worked. "It was amazing to me how easily it came together," she recalled. "Like on 'Tongue Tied,' we didn't know what we were going to do with it. It was one of the last songs we had to record. We just started, and in two hours it was done. On the first take, we had no idea what we wanted, and two hours later it was done."

In addition to her own album, Todd has recently worked with Jimmy Tamborello on a new Dntel album, as well as with the experimental hip-hop artist DJ Nobody. She has contributed vocal tracks to Prefuse 73, too. Many of her friends and collaborators are currently working on a remix album for her. She is currently touring the West Coast with The Books and playing a series of shows in Germany with Bart Davenport in June. Her new Video " for "My Room is White" (which incorporates ideas from Butoh dancing) has just been completed. For complete tour dates or to view the video, visit her Web site. — Jennifer Kelly [Friday, May 13, 2005]

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