Born on June 30, 1975, in Los Angeles; daughter of a Japanese-American judge and an Irish-American sculptor. Education: Graduated from Yale University, B.A. East Asian studies, 1997. Addresses: Record company--Plug Research, 4519 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90029, fax: (818) 773-1754. Website--Mia Doi Todd Official Website: http://www.miadoitodd.com.
Coming from a longstanding tradition of Los Angeles-based singer-songwriters, Mia Doi Todd gained prominence in the late 1990s as one of the city's most inspired new voices. Melding influences of Los Angeles's folk scene with her East Asian heritage, Todd's subdued, uniquely toned voice has been the driving force behind her numerous albums and has earned her a remarkable underground following.
Born in 1975 to a Japanese-American judge and an Irish-American sculptor, Todd grew up in the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles. Between the two strong cultures of her parents and the divergent fields in which they practiced, Todd's upbringing intricately balanced law, art, and the cultural East/West dichotomy. At a young age she began studying music and art, and took to origami and plaster sculpting, two art styles that would later complement her adult hobbies of clothes making and designing.
With her early music studies, Todd concentrated primarily on cultivating her rich vocal talents. In her late teens she frequented a number of Los Angeles clubs, attending shows by the numerous touring bands that came through town. She spent time at the all-ages venue Jabberjaw, and with the city's indie rock scene in full swing, she eventually picked up a guitar and taught herself to play. The first song she wrote was based on a book by Italo Calvino, and she later credited the song as being a prime element in her search for a distinct musical voice.
In 1993 Todd moved to New Haven, Connecticut, to complete her undergraduate degree at Yale University. After a semester studying astronomy, she switched her major to East Asian studies in order to better understand her Japanese heritage. Her senior thesis focused on a modern Japanese dance form called Ankoku Butoh, and its creator, Hijikata Tatsumi.
During her time at Yale, Todd began writing songs. The East Coast provided her with a wealth of new experiences, many of them involving nature settings, and her songs reflected these changes in her life. She studied poets like William Blake and Leonard Cohen, and as she delved into the folk-rock musical tradition, artists like Joni Mitchell and Nico began to have an influence on her growing body of work.
Todd began gigging around New Haven and New York City, playing to small crowds in cafes and clubs. She released her first record, a vinyl single entitled "Digging and Planting," late in 1996. Her first solo album of voice and guitar, 1997's The Ewe and the Eye, was released just before she graduated from Yale. Recorded with the help of Brent Rademaker and his L.A.-based band Further, at the band's Spaceshed studio, The Ewe and the Eye came out on Further's Xmas label and started Todd off on a successful recording path.
After her graduation in 1997, Todd moved to New York City and immersed herself in the city's indie rock scene. Artists like Palace Brothers and Elliott Smith had an impact on her songwriting style, and later that year she recorded Come Out of Your Mine, although it would not be released until 1999.
Todd received a fellowship in 1998 to continue her Ankoku Butoh studies, and she spent the next nine months in Tokyo. There she studied other forms of dance, theater, and modern performance art, such as noh and kabuki. "Being only half-Japanese made me want to explore what it is to be Japanese, and the art and culture of Japan," she told the website Halvsie.com. "I had only half of an identity, so I had to go searching for the other half." She found that since her Japanese language skills were rather rudimentary, her personal expression in Japan was hindered, and she began to focus intently on the way in which she crafted songs in English.
After moving back to New York City in 1999, Todd began performing alongside indie rock heroes like Smith and Sebadoh's Lou Barlow. She preferred to play before or between louder rock bands, acting as the quiet temper to over-the-top sonic madness. Occasionally she performed with her own band, Los Cincos (later Syncopation), but they never recorded any material. That year also saw the release of Come Out of Your Mine on Communion Records. LA Weekly's Michael Simmons praised the record's stylistic merits, and noted Todd's search for existential meaning. "The 24-year-old Angeleno identifies the ugly spirit that pervades our time in 'Strange Wind'.... yet insists on emphasizing life over death," he wrote. "Accompanied solely by her own guitar, Come Out of Your Mine is a timeless work by an unapologetic aesthete who's apparently unconcerned with the attitudinal fashions of her peers."
Todd's third album, Zeroone, a self-produced disc recorded on her home computer, came in 2001. Released on her newly formed City Zen record label, Zeroone also received its fair share of attention in the underground media. Scott D. Lewis commented in Signum Press, "With nothing more than an acoustic guitar, voice, and Macintosh G4, Todd has crafted ten songs of compelling mystery and wild solitude. Her voice lies directly between that of Joni Mitchell and Cat Power, but she has a way of rounding out her words and scooping out the middle that is beautifully haunting---and all her own."
Franklin J. Bruno echoed that sentiment in the LA Weekly, writing that "the basic elements of Todd's intimately scaled art remain unchanged: cautious but sturdy acoustic picking, ambiguously confessional lyrics and, most of all, her rich, impossibly mannered voice." That year Todd also contributed a remixed track, "Digital, Version 2.1," to Dublab Presents: Freeways, and it became one of her best-known songs.
After years of jumping indie labels, Todd signed to Sony/Columbia Records in 2002. Her major-label breakout album, The Golden State, was a collection of older songs taken from past albums that was re-recorded with the help of producers Mitchell Froom and Yves Beauvais. Explaining his attraction to Todd's work, Froom wrote on her official website, "When I first heard Mia's music, I didn't get it. But it stuck with me. It hooked into me. You have to pay attention to her work. In that way, her music is more aggressive than anything else you could do today. It's as big of a punk statement as you can make. Mia demands more." The record had a special meaning to Todd, outlining further her involvement with Zen meditation. Tracks like "88 Ways" and "Digital" examined nature's ability to unite as well as divide, and "Hijikata Tatsumi" was written as a tribute to the Butoh founder, whom she studied exhaustively.
The record was a critical success and brought Todd many new fans, as well as to all corners of the world on its requisite tour, but Sony/Columbia decided not to renew her contract. Todd retreated to her home studio, where she went back to writing songs for herself. With Rademaker on board as a consultant and producer, the two went through all of her demo tracks and assembled Manzanita at a studio in Lake Hollywood, with members of Dead Meadow and Beachwood Sparks assisting on the record. After the 2005 release of Manzanita, Todd continued to record music, enjoy fashion design, and participate in numerous Japanese dance performances.
by Ken Taylor
Mia Doi Todd's Career
Took voice lessons from a young age; attended Yale University and began writing songs; released first single, "Digging and Planting," 1996; released The Ewe and the Eye, 1997; Come Out of Your Mine, 1999; Zeroone, 2001; The Golden State, 2002; and Manzanita, 2005.
- Selected discography
- "Digging and Planting," Self-released, 1996.
- The Ewe and the Eye Xmas, 1997.
- Come Out of Your Mine Communion, 1999.
- Zeroone City Zen, 2001.
- The Golden State Sony/Columbia, 2002.
- Manzanita Plug Research, 2005.
- LA Weekly, July 22, 1999; March 1, 2001.
- Halvsie.com, http://www.halvsie.com/musicians/mia_doi_todd.html (October 28, 2004).
- Mia Doi Todd Official Website, http://www.miadoitodd.com (October 28, 2004).
- Signum Press, http://www.signumpress.com/Issue9/detritus/music-review/mia-doi-todd.html (October 28, 2004).