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In a Foreign Land

Singer-songwriter Mia Doi Todd is rising in a world she knew little of: pop culture

September 01, 2002|STEVE HOCHMAN

Mia Doi Todd gathers up paint supplies from a small rug in her loft overlooking the Los Angeles River. Hanging on the wall is the project she's working on--a life-size painting of the very rug that's on the floor.

The work will be used as the backdrop for her concerts on a tour she'll be commencing soon to spread the word about her album "The Golden State," which comes out Tuesday. "That way I'll have something of my home to take with me on the road," she says in a voice that's little more than a whisper.

Todd, 27, has been away from home before. She spent four years at Yale as an East Asian studies major, a year living in New York and another year in Japan on a grant to study modern butoh dance.

But most of her childhood was split time between Silver Lake, home to her mother, California Court of Appeals Associate Justice Kathryn Doi Todd, and here in the adjacent neighborhood known as Frogtown--which offered a perfect home and work space for her father, sculptor Michael Todd. (Her parents divorced when she was 8.)

That she wants to have a reminder of those roots with her on tour is fitting. The music on "The Golden State," her major-label debut for Columbia Records after three independent albums, is as singular in nature as her home.

Her lyrics are often intensely intimate--sometimes almost uncomfortably so, sounding like pages from a personal journal not meant for others to read, from the declaration of strength that is "Independence Day" to the startling post-sex poetry of "Poppy Fields."

"Sometimes I feel 'Poppy Fields' is too much," Todd says. "But when I get to perform it, it's a real gift to share."

The music is just as arresting, generally eschewing the standard pop verse-chorus structures. Rather, with her drony acoustic guitar as the foundation, it unfolds and evolves in snaky melodies, with minimalist accents and ornamentation designed by producer Mitchell Froom. At the center is her remarkable voice, a full, round instrument that shows her childhood operatic training and seems all the more stunning coming from this slight, meek-seeming woman.

A key element in her artistic development may well be something she didn't have much of growing up: exposure to pop music.

"She has no musical influences," says Yves Beauvais, the Columbia vice president of A&R who signed Todd to her record contract.

"She developed her sound completely in her own way."

Todd says that's not entirely so but acknowledges that her influences are very limited.

"I grew up in something of a vacuum in pop culture," she says. "My parents did not listen to [pop] music anymore by the time I came around. My father listened to jazz. But they had a stack of records in the corner."

As a teenager, a curious Todd thumbed through the ignored collection and found herself particularly attracted to the first few albums by Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen.

"Joni Mitchell was such a fine craftswoman in songs and lyrics," she says. "And the mood of Cohen, the dark humor and simplicity, meant a lot to me."

Not long after that, she stumbled on music by Nico, the one-time Velvet Underground singer who in the '60s and '70s made dark music sung in her cold, German-accented delivery.

She regards Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar and jazz singer Nina Simone as her idols, and at Yale she sang in a choral group focusing on the often dissonant 20th century classical repertoire. So although her initial music orientation was in the singer-songwriter format, her sense of aesthetics veered to other styles. "I didn't pick up any folky mannerisms along the way," she says.

At Yale, she began as a theater major, with the goal of becoming an actress, but found roles in plays limited, she says, because of her "ambiguous race" identification (her father is of Irish heritage, her mother Japanese).

Leaving theater, she started writing songs and performing them in small clubs and coffeehouses. Soon she joined a rock band, taking up electric guitar with a distortion pedal, then she played drums with another group.

All of this came into play as her style evolved over the course of three independent albums: "The Ewe and the Eye" in 1997; "Come Out of Your Mine," made in a late-night solo session in a Yale chapel in 1997 while she was living in New York; and last year's "Zeroone," which showcased several songs that have been rerecorded for "The Golden State."

It was while Todd was living in New York that Beauvais became a fan. Officially employed by Columbia's jazz division, he discussed finding a way to work with her and ultimately fashioned a deal with the label's pop wing last fall.

"There is such a glut of pop product that I think labels are looking for original voices," Beauvais says. "Do we see Mia as an immediate, mainstream success? No. We think of her as someone who will be around for a long time and someone with an original point of view. Her originality is undeniable."

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