Play It Forward: The Multiplicity Of Mia Doi Todd

Nov 12, 2020
Originally published on November 18, 2020 12:24 pm

On the last edition of Play It Forward, All Things Considered's chain of musical gratitude, Philly-bred multi-instrumentalist Laraaji spoke about Los Angeles singer-songwriter Mia Doi Todd.

"And so I got to know Mia's voice — soft, gentle — and got to know some of her album work. One of the songs that sticks out very clearly when I think about her is 'My Baby Lives in Paris.' Her sweet, silky, soft, patient, kind energy has transformed my experience of California," Laraaji said.

Todd knows exactly what Laraaji means. "I've spent so much time with him and it's been so wonderful. We've actually got to make music together and he's such an enlightened being and just being around him, you get this great aura. He makes you laugh, he's such a comedian too."

She spoke to NPR's Ari Shapiro about the Los Angeles music scene, her forthcoming album and an artist she's grateful for: Thundercat. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read on for highlights of their conversation.


Interview Highlights

On multiple meanings in her latest song, "Take What You Can Carry"

My mother and all of our family was interned during World War II in the Japanese-American internment camps. It had a big impact on our family, of course, so I wanted to make a song about it. And there was some legislation in California that recognized the California legislature's part in that unfortunate thing that happened. I wrote a reggae song — reggae's traditionally a kind of protest music — so I wrote a reggae song called "Take What You Can Carry" about the internment camps, and this amazing dub musician, Scientist, did the mix on it.

I really loved that track. I wrote the song, actually, right after there were some big fires in Malibu and some friends, they lost their homes, and it was really another take what you can carry situation. So that message, pertaining to the Japanese-American internment camps, actually has a wider range 'cause there'll be so much displacement with the state of the environment. There's going to be a lot of migration in the future. And then when the unrest started to develop in L.A. this year and there was looting, it reminded me of the riots we've had in L.A. when I was in high school. It was another take what you can carry moment where people were looting stores and, so that phrase pertains to a lot of different things.

On creating romantic music

I've made a bunch of romantic albums. I think my world view is full of pink glasses. You have a lot of romance in my music. Though my new album deals with motherhood and maternal love, so it's ventured away from purely romance.

On an artist she is thankful for, Thundercat

[He's] truly a musical genius and he's someone from L.A. like myself. He is an amazing bass player, first and foremost. I have a soft spot for the bass; as a singer, your body is the instrument and when you sing, you can feel the tone in your body. For me, as a soprano, it's mostly in my head and my chest, but bass frequencies, they move the heart and the core.

Thundercat is a genius bass player. Super lyrical like Jaco Pastorius. And then he started singing with that sweet tenor voice and putting out records of songs that are so heartfelt and honest and funny, too. [His] music is cosmic; it's about growing, about being human, living up to our natural potential, accepting ourselves, how we are in the moment. Thank you for shining so bright, Thundercat.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY BABY LIVES IN PARIS")

MIA DOI TODD: (Singing) My baby lives in Paris.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We're back with another episode of Play It Forward, where musicians tell us about their work and the music that inspires them. Last week New Age pioneer Laraaji explained why he's thankful for the singer-songwriter Mia Doi Todd.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LARAAJI: So I got to know her work - soft, gentle. And one of the songs that sticks out very clearly when I think about her is "My Baby lives In Paris."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY BABY LIVES IN PARIS")

TODD: (Singing) The night brings us home.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SHAPIRO: Well, we're going to go to Mia Doi Todd next, and so what would you like to say to her?

LARAAJI: I'd like to say, (vocalizing).

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Is that a code? Is she going to know what that means?

LARAAJI: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

LARAAJI: And I'd say that her sweet, silky, soft, patient, kind energy has transformed my experience of California.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY BABY LIVES IN PARIS")

TODD: (Singing) J'aime, j'aime, j'aime, j'aime.

SHAPIRO: And Mia Doi Todd is with us now from Los Angeles. Hello there.

TODD: Hi, Ari. Thanks so much for having me on the show.

SHAPIRO: You know, in more than a dozen episodes of Play It Forward, I have never heard someone deliver quite so strange a message as that, like, rasberry from Laraaji (laughter).

TODD: I know exactly what he meant. I've spent a lot of time with him, and it's been so wonderful. We've actually got to make music together, and he's such an enlightened being. And just being around him, you get this great aura. And he makes you laugh. He's such a comedian, too. And he likes to break through feelings of awkwardness with just, like, a raspberry to make you laugh.

SHAPIRO: I love that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNDER THE SUN")

TODD: (Singing) Maybe we should spend some time together under the sun.

SHAPIRO: When he talked about your music, he described it as romantic. Is that how you think of it?

TODD: Yes. I've made a bunch of romantic albums. I think my worldview is full of pink glasses, you know? You have a lot of romance in my music, though my new album deals with more motherhood and, like, a maternal love. So it's ventured away from just purely romance.

SHAPIRO: You also released a new track called "Take What You Can Carry."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE WHAT YOU CAN CARRY")

TODD: (Singing) Take what you can carry. Take what you can carry.

SHAPIRO: I understand it connects with your own family's experience.

TODD: Yes. My mother and all of our family was interned during World War II in the Japanese American internment camps, and it had a big impact on our family, of course. So I wanted to make a song about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE WHAT YOU CAN CARRY")

TODD: (Singing) Look at sister Mary with a baby in each arm, another in her belly. How will she keep them from harm?

There was some legislation in California that recognized the California legislature's part in that unfortunate thing that happened, so I wrote a reggae song. Reggae's, like, traditionally a kind of protest music. So I wrote a song called "Take What You Can Carry" about the internment camps, and this amazing dub musician Scientist did the mix on it. So I really love that track.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE WHAT YOU CAN CARRY")

TODD: (Singing) By order of the president, so-called president of the United States, to hell with the environment, environment. We'll no longer regulate.

I wrote the song, actually, right after there were some big fires in Malibu. And some friends, they lost their homes. And it was really another take-what-you-can-carry kind of situation.

SHAPIRO: Oh, wow.

TODD: So that message of - pertaining to the Japanese American internment camps actually has a wider range because there'll be so much displacement with the state of the environment. So there's going to be a lot of migration in the future.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

TODD: And that take what you can carry - and then when the sort of unrest started to develop in LA again this year and there was looting, it reminded me of the the riots that we'd had in LA when I was in high school. And it was another take what you can carry moment where, you know, people were looting stores. And so that phrase, it pertains to a lot of different things.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIA DOI TODD SONG, "SUNDAY AFTERNOON")

SHAPIRO: Mia Doi Todd, I don't know if you're aware of this, but you and I were in college at the same time. And you were a couple years...

TODD: Are you serious?

SHAPIRO: ...Ahead of me. And I have a really...

TODD: Oh, my God.

SHAPIRO: ...Vivid memory of sitting on the floor of a chapel and you playing music on a guitar and this just really beautiful, quiet, meditative moment.

TODD: Oh, that's amazing. Yeah, I used to do concerts in Dwight Chapel at Yale.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

TODD: And I think I started a whole movement to use that space in that way, and it carried on after I had graduated.

SHAPIRO: Amazing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUNDAY AFTERNOON")

TODD: (Singing) Close the curtains. Let's stay home after all.

SHAPIRO: Well, Mia Doi Todd, it's your turn to play it forward and tell us about someone whose music you're thankful for. Who would you like to introduce us to?

TODD: I would like to bring up Thundercat.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK QUALLS")

THUNDERCAT: (Singing) I just bought a crib on top of the hill. And I bought a brand-new ride. Am I keeping it real?

TODD: Truly a musical genius, and he's someone from LA like myself.

SHAPIRO: What inspires you about his music?

TODD: He is an amazing bass player first and foremost. I have a soft spot for the bass. As a singer, your body is the instrument. And when you sing, you can feel the tone.

(SOUNDBITE OF THUNDERCAT SONG, "BLACK QUALLS")

TODD: For me, as a soprano, it's mostly in my head and my chest. But bass frequencies, they move the heart and the core. So I just love the bass. And Thundercat is a genius bass player - super-lyrical like Jaco Pastorius. And then he started singing with that sweet tenor voice and putting out records of songs that are so heartfelt and honest and funny, too.

SHAPIRO: For listeners who aren't familiar with his music, what track of his would you like us to play?

TODD: Let's play "Them Changes." That's the quintessential Thundercat jam.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THEM CHANGES")

THUNDERCAT: (Singing) Nobody move. There's blood on the floor, and I can't find my heart. Where did it go? Did I leave in the cold? So please give it back 'cause it's not yours to take.

SHAPIRO: We're going to go to Thundercat next, so what would you like to say to him?

TODD: Hi, Thundercat. It's Mia. I hope you're well these days. Thanks for being so awesome, so original and honest, realizing your artistic vision, following the way of the warrior on the music path. You're really inspiring. I put on your records, and I don't feel lonely. Even in these crazy times, I feel like everything's going to be OK. Thank you for shining so bright, Thundercat. I wish you the best.

SHAPIRO: Well, Mia Doi Todd, it's been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you very much.

TODD: Thanks so much for having me.

SHAPIRO: Her new album, coming in early 2021, is called "Music Life." And we'll talk to Thundercat in the next episode of Play It Forward.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THEM CHANGES")

THUNDERCAT: (Singing) Somebody tell me how I'm supposed to feel when I'm sitting here knowing this ain't real. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.