“If you give your life to music, it doesn’t necessarily go as you planned, but it still opens this path.”
Mia Doi Todd knows all the tortuous routes of an artist’s life and documents it all on Music Life, a collection of songs reflecting on motherhood, her musical life, and more fabled imaginings. “It’s juggling the uncertainties of life, making a living, supporting a family, raising kids—all those things—and in the context of being a musician, that for me is the arc of the album.”
Produced with Todd’s husband Jesse Peterson and recorded prior to the pandemic at Barefoot Recording in Hollywood, Music Life finds Todd in the role of composer for the first time, with a full house of Los Angeles musicians, guitarist Jeff Parker, bassist Brandon Owens, organist Money Mark, Andres Renteria on percussion, drummer Will Logan, and rhythm guitarist Jesse Peterson, along with Fabiano do Nascimento, Sam Gendel, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, and Laraaji.
Pulling from songs written over the course of more than eight years since the birth of Todd’s daughter, Music Life follows her last English language releases, 2011’s pop-fused Cosmic Ocean Ship and Songbook (2016), a collection of some of the artist’s favorite covers—including The Cure’s “Close to Me.”
Throughout Music Life, Mia Doi Todd meditates on the personal—motherhood, childhood, and traumatic events—and the more mythological lyrical visions extended from the coasts of Brazilian to the Rajasthan deserts.
Motioning through all these ruminations there’s the soothing refrain of Take me to the mountain / Where we can breath on “Take Me to the Mountain,” and an ode to nature’s healing elements, Brazilian novelist Jorge Amado’s “Sea of Death” gets a nod on the seafaring tale of “My Fisherman,” one of the earlier tracks Todd wrote in 2013, following the birth of her daughter.
“In ‘My Fisherman,’ the fisherman, he has to go out into the ocean, which is very dangerous, in order to make money to support his family, but it’s his love for the ocean, which for me, was like the artist and the muse and the mermaids,” says Todd. “That song kind of deals with what I was going through, through this allegory of the fisherman and the mermaid.”
A delicate tale of perseverance unravels in the subtle samba of “Little Bird,” while Indian folkloric beats swell around “Mohinder and the Maharani,” inspired by a camel ride into the desert with a friend during a trip to India. Todd swiftly digresses with a folkier cover of the Gregory Isaac’s 1981 hit “If I Don’t Have You” then returns to the movement on “Wainiha Valley” (the first track Todd wrote for Music Life in 2012), before closing on the nearly 10-minute epic run “Daughter of Hope,” Todd’s proclamation for her daughter and “prayer for the future.”
Music Life speaks to Todd’s musical path. Writing songs as a teen and getting singing lessons from a opera singer neighbor, Todd joined indie rock bands and started performing. “Gradually music came to consume most of my being,” says Todd of her journey. The opening track, “Music Life,” Todd says addresses the ups and downs of a musician’s life, in its clear message: If you give your life to music, no regret, don’t forget, I loved you.
“I wrote it the night I came home from a dear friend’s memorial service, another of several musician friends who have passed away at a young age,” shares Todd. “The song morphs organically through background vocals and psychedelic guitars and ultimately emerges as a celebration of life lived fully.”
Evident from her folk-driven debut, The Ewe and The Eye (1997), Todd has continuously explored many of her musical aspirations and inspirations, from her cinematic tales on 2018’s Music for a Midsummer’s Night Dream, an album she composed for the Casey Wilder Mott-helmed film adaptation of the Shakespeare classic, and further back to Manzanita‘s alt rock musings and several works in her native Portuguese.
Now, Todd says her daughter is closer in age to when she started thinking about a musical life and exploring writing and part of the album was returning back to that time. “I allowed myself to go back to that old part of myself that would just write these super long songs, verse after verse after verse,” says Todd. “It was cathartic, so I allowed myself to go back to my melancholy roots.”
Hoping to bring Music Life to a live setting, Todd is also releasing a remix album of Music Life later in the year. Still writing, Todd is also incubating another project around the idea of a Greek drama and is exploring Butoh, a fascination she’s held in the performance art since studying in Japan.
“I still have some need to express myself more like a director or like a choreographer or something,” says Todd. “I’m trying to gather my forces for making something more multimedia, not so much video, but more dance and music and more esoteric. I’m just open to anything.”