How Mia Doi Todd Built Her Music Life, Song by Song

Photo Credit: Azul Amaral

With more than two decades of experience in the industry, Los Angeles folk singer Mia Doi Todd can certainly wax poetic about dedicating her life to music. She dispenses those gems freely on “Music Life,” the title track to her stunning 12th album, depicting the lifestyle as both a blessing and curse: while it “opens up the path” to friendship and collaboration that transcends borders, it can also be a lonely endeavor that fosters self-destructive tendencies. As the track shifts from celebratory to something more like a cautionary tale, the chords darken; these shifts in tone and narrative arc play out again and again over the eight tracks that make up Music Life, Todd’s first collection of original songs since 2011’s Cosmic Ocean Ship.

Motherhood was partly responsible for the slowing of the once prolific musician’s output. “I had the work ethic and drive, but my daughter really didn’t like me to play guitar and hold her. It was like holding another baby – she was jealous of that guitar,” Todd says with a laugh. “She was much less competitive with the piano.” That’s part of the reason so many of the songs on Music Life are piano-driven – and certainly the reason why motherhood emerges as one of the album’s strongest themes.

In the interim, Todd has been navigating the practical side of how to live a music life, becoming adept at making the business of it somewhat sustainable, at least. She’s gradually taken control of all her independently released masters, making licensing that much easier (and more lucrative), and since 2001’s Zeroone has operated her own label, City Zen Records. While she’s produced records with Columbia (2002’s The Golden State) and various indies since founding it, everything she’s put out since 2008’s GEA has been on her own terms. She says this has been invaluable to her creative process, allowing her to take on pet projects like Floresta (an album of Brazilian covers released in 2014), Songbook (her 2016 album of covers revealing surprising influences, from Prince to The Cure to Elliott Smith) and the original soundtrack to Casey Wilder Mott’s 2017 adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which she played Titania alongside Saul Williams’ Oberon.

She’s also co-owner of eclectic Los Angeles venue Zebulon, part of a group responsible for bringing the club’s ethos to the West Coast from its original iteration in Brooklyn. “Because of Zebulon, I started producing shows and putting together bills,” she says. “I’ve very much been like a community organizer in music, so Zebulon opened up even more avenues to bringing together musicians.” Those connections form the backbone of Music Life, and tell Todd’s personal story – if not always obvious in the lyrical details, which borrow from mythology as much as personal experience, then certainly in the album’s guest appearances, which illustrate the rich and beautiful journey Todd has been on.

That journey began in Silver Lake, where Todd grew up – her father is a sculptor, and her mother (who lived in a Japanese internment camp as an infant) was the first female Asian American judge in the United States. A young Mia Doi Todd took lessons from an opera singer neighbor, then attempted to study astronomy and Asian Studies before songwriting for weekly open mic nights and residencies at now-defunct indie club Spaceland possessed her soul. Eventually she landed in a loft space in then-desolate Frogtown known as a reliable spot for touring musicians to crash, where parties and jam sessions could go uninterrupted late into the night. Money Mark, who had a hand in nearly every song on Music Life, also lived in the building.

“He’s like my cousin – for almost 15 years, he’s been a part of our family,” Todd says. “We’ve worked together and played together a lot, but this maybe was the first time he played on something that actually came out. Mark is amazing at making the hook – he did that for Beck and The Beastie Boys. Mark helped set up the studio time where we did the basic tracks for this whole record and a couple extra songs. It was very ambitious, time-wise.”

Recorded over a week-long session at Hollywood’s Barefoot Studios (formerly and perhaps more famously known as Crystal Sounds), Todd played the same grand piano Stevie Wonder recorded on. Instagram posts from that period, before COVID upended the music industry, show Todd laughing and smiling, arms around a cast of dear friends who’ve meant so much to her career and her life, and happen to be some of LA’s most impeccable musicians. Like her relationship with Money Mark, these connections forged over her entire adulthood lend special touches to each of the songs on Music Life.

For instance, “Mohinder and the Maharani” brings together Syrian-Jewish oud/bazuki prodigy Asher Levy (who’s played at Zebulon), drummer Will Logan and Todd’s longtime percussionists Alberto Lopez, Allakoi Peete, and Andres Renteria; Money Mark not only plays keys, but arranged the bright Middle Eastern horn section led by Tracy Wannomae, with Sam Gendel on saxophone, Sean Okaguchi on trumpet, and Jon Hatamiya on trombone.

In fact, the brass and woodwind sounds throughout the album are incredibly diverse, adding an incredible variety to the songs. On “Take Me To the Mountain,” a soaring lament for city dwellers that picks up where “All My City” leaves off, Wannomae’s flute flutters woozily over the whole composition; the orchestral arrangements lend a mystical power across nearly ten plus minutes on “Daughter of Hope.”

Notably, many of the album’s most prominent players are of Japanese descent, like Todd herself. “You don’t think of Japanese Americans as being musicians – Asians get stereotyped for being mathematicians, or doctors,” she says. “I really wanted to show the beautiful faces of these Japanese American musicians playing the songs.” Perhaps most poignant of these was non-album stand-alone single “Take What You Can Carry,” released last year but recorded in the same session. While the song centers the experiences of Todd’s family during World War II, it also hints at the plight of Central American immigrants caught up in the border crisis, the panic of the California fires, and backlash toward Muslim Americans in the aftermath of 9/11.

Todd is particularly adept at transforming trauma into triumph; on Music Life track “Little Bird,” a breezy samba overtone – leant some Brazilian authenticity by Fabiano do Nascimento’s nylon guitar and feathery strings courtesy Miguel Atwood-Ferguson – belie darker themes of escaping childhood abuse. Lines like “Martyr, you suffered more than your share/Your mother, said he wouldn’t dare/Doors closed; it happened all the time” are juxtaposed with carefree responses like “Why not go live in London?/Go out and see the world! Come on, you’ve never left LA!” and “Little Bird, our nest was all broken/But spread your wings and know that you can fly!” Todd says the light-hearted samba represents “the feeling that on the surface everything’s okay… you’re managing, you’re keeping it light, you’ve got it under control. But then underneath and in the belly of the song there’s this change, and that’s the secret hidden in the song.”

She says that watching her daughter grow up, and wanting to protect her, has made her reflect on memories she’d buried within. “You reconsider all the stuff that happened when you were young,” she says. “My daughter is closer now to the age I was when I started songwriting, so I see everything through a different lens. You see how things that happen in your youth have such a long-term effect.”

“Daughter of Hope” ends the record with the a promise – Todd traverses an ocean of tears, pain, fear, life, death, time, and breath, layered with swooning strings and choral vocal rhythms almost reminiscent of the techniques pregnant women learn in Lamaze class. “I haven’t done that on many of my records – I usually just concentrate on the lead vocal. But some of this Steve Reichian [repetition], I’m into that,” Todd says. “Live, it is a Herculean effort vocally to get through that song – there’s hardly a place to breathe, it just keeps going and going. It was such an ode to my daughter, and all my hopes, really acknowledging limitations. That one was so epic – I wrote such a long song and I just could not edit out any of the words. I had a lot to say!”

Todd says she got in the habit of writing longer compositions when she was studying abroad in Japan during her college years. “I didn’t have much outlet for English language conversation so I made a lot of really long songs. It developed my style a lot, ’cause I was in such a vacuum,” Todd remembers. “Being in this last ten years of motherhood and [having] a big shift in my life, there’s something that called me back to those early years of myself, and [this album] was kind of a return [to] some of the long songwriting that I did in my early work.”

She recently experimented with a similar style of vocal layering on a remix of Laraaji’s “Ocean Flow Zither.” Todd became acquainted with the ambient legend as his rediscovery by industry tastemakers led to multiple California tours. He and his partner “prefer to stay in a cozy family environment,” says Todd, so a mutual friend introduced them; the couple eventually became godparents to Todd’s daughter. “They just came to stay with us over and over again on their tours, and I had a bunch of events here introducing him to young musicians, and having jam sessions in the studio, him playing the piano and singing for everybody,” she says fondly. Laraaji had a chance to return the favor by playing zither on “Waniha Valley,” the oldest of Todd’s songs on Music Life, written when he daughter was still an infant.

“Laraaji was coming through and we were trying to figure out what which song might be in the key of his zither – he has to tune it up to a certain key and doesn’t want to detune it too much on tour, it takes a long time to tune it. That’s the most ethereal track on the album, so that one was perfect for the zither,” Todd says. “I remember writing that song on the ukulele – I had like half of an hour where [my daughter] was taking a nap. I remember singing to the waves, just working it out.”

Soon after, she wrote “My Fisherman,” based on Brazilian writer Jorge Amado’s novel Sea of Death. In the song, she takes on the persona of Yoruba ocean deity Yemanjá, who has been an ongoing muse. Both “Waniha Valley” and “My Fisherman” retain Todd’s folkloric sonic sensibilities. But Todd’s attraction to mythologies from all cultures – referenced quite clearly in the cover art for Music Life, a self-portrait of Todd rendered in Grecian amphora style – isn’t just about storytelling. “I always just have this in my framework, that we’re living these archetypes, they’re operating around us,” she explains. She says she’s drawn to the way Ancient Greeks viewed music and dance not as entertainment, but as spiritual practice. “I can see the greater things in motion, even though I live a very mundane, simple life. I like to feel connected to the spiritual world and the ancient world, and we’re not so far from that in the great scheme of things.”

Todd’s next burst of creativity came when her daughter entered kindergarten, attending the same school as Tortoise alum Jeff Parker’s daughter; he also plays on Music Life, his jazzy guitar unravelling through the title track. Another significant contribution came from Brandon Owens, who plays bass throughout the record; “Music Life” was partly inspired by the untimely death of Owens’ brother, Mars Volta keyboardist Ikey Owens, “so it was nice to have Ikey’s brother Brandon playing bass on the track,” Todd says.

But perhaps the most significant of Todd’s contributors is her husband, Jesse Peterson, who plays guitar on the songs and painstakingly co-produced the album in their home studio, a converted two-car garage. “We did a lot of the other overdubs here at home. This is probably one of the more orchestrated albums I’ve made,” Todd says. “You do a bunch of passes [in the recording session] and then you have to go back and find the little bits and edit them all together into a seamless, natural sequence, so that takes a long time. I did some of the editing; one thing I learned in those early producing sessions was that you have to edit what you do before you start recording the next instrument, so you can base one decision off of the last. If you wait to sort it out at the end it’s just a mess. You really need to have some arc in mind; it doesn’t just magically fall into place. [It] took a lot of crafting, and that was on my husband’s part. He is very good at that – I don’t like mixing.”

The ability to fit everything together like a puzzle, to envision that narrative arc – these are strengths than not only inform Music Life, but the principals by which Mia Doi Todd has operated in LA these last few decades. Like the remix album that followed 2005 LP Manzanita – remarkably featuring the inaugural track from none other than a young Flying Lotus – Todd’s planning a remix album for Music Life for later this year. “That’s another way that I’ve collaborated, where I do my part first and then somebody else takes it in a totally different direction, making an entirely new environment for it,” she says. No matter what shape her collaborations take, she says they always help her get outside her songwriting structure and explore.

“I have these tiny hands and I don’t have a lot of actual formal music training on the piano or the guitar – I feel my musical limitations. So working with other people breaks those down and there’s all different sorts of possibilities. It just opens up so much,” she says. “I really like getting outside of my genre, so if I’m invited to sing on like, some hip-hop song I embrace the chance. I’m thought of very much like a songwriter folk artist, but in an improvising, kind of casual jam sessions type of musical sense, I’m very open – that is where I feel most comfortable, really. Collaboration is just so natural among musicians, and I relish that.” She says she’d love to make a reggae record, and even covers Gregory Issacs classic “If I Don’t Have You” on Music Life, her way of adding one “true love song” to the album.

While she says that her folky path has, in many ways, given her a long-term viability that many pop artists don’t have, she’s come to appreciate the songcraft of her daughter’s personal favorite: Taylor Swift. “I’m not a pop music person but I can really appreciate Taylor Swift’s songwriting, and I appreciate the genius of a pop hit. I’ve never listened to as much pop music as I have the last two years,” she laughs, noting that she thinks the closest she’s personally come to writing something perfect is “Summer Lover.”

“Music Life” ought to be a close second though, and it’s resonated with many of her peers. “It definitely captures some feeling about being so grateful for this rich life that we have – it’s like living with the sacred, but there are a lot of sacrifices,” Todd says. “I don’t really encourage my daughter to take up the artist life. For me, I think there was not so much alternative. So if you can do anything else, I think it’s a wise choice. But if you cannot, like, the urge is just all-powerful, then you’ve got to try and answer the call. And I’m glad I did; I’m in it for the long haul… I feel like I keep growing. It’s a path. And I have all these things to show for the path along the way.”

Follow Mia Doi Todd on Instagram for ongoing updates.

RSVP HERE: Shelley Thomas Livestreams via YouTube + MORE

Shelley Thomas composes and produces lush orchestral arrangements that she has dubbed “world chamber pop.” She has figuratively and physically gone around the world with her compositions, traveling to 17 countries and studied with over 40 music teachers that have influenced her style that melds Balkan, Arabic, Hindustani, African, and classical music. She can sing in 15 different languages and plays the oud, which is like a short scale pear shaped lute that has been used in Middle Eastern, North African and Central Asia for thousands of years.

Shelley’s latest single release, “Mirror,” guides you through a sonic journey to the beautifully haunted side of yourself. Her vocal harmonization traps you in a trance that eventually leads towards acceptance and healing. If that isn’t enough to meditate on, her recent video for “Cancer Moon” captures her immense live band while boiling down all the intense emotions the moons of this past summer have ushered in. The next chance you’ll have to catch Shelley making her world music magic is September 25th at 1pm via YouTube. She also does a livestream from her Patreon on the last Friday of every month. We chatted with Shelley about the transformative power of music, what rituals inspire her and shaman drums.

AF: What got you into the oud, qanun and composing world orchestral music? 

ST: I grew up with a classical pianist mother, and took dance, piano, voice and guitar lessons as a youth. I studied World Music Performance at CalArts (BFA ’08), where I had a six-piece band called Blue Lady I wrote songs for. I got into Arabic music shortly thereafter via a vocal class. I fell in love with the style, and picked up the oud a few years later to accompany myself while singing Arabic music. Then another few years later, I felt inspired to start composing again after years of only singing traditional music – but with a bigger vision, for more instruments, including strings and qanun, because I love the delicate and emotive textures. After many years of absorbing and learning from masters, the music started pouring out of my mind. And that’s the album I’m working on now. I’ve always felt that music is the soundtrack to my life, and enjoyed profound journeys and transformations through listening. I hope to give listeners such an experience.

AF: Can you tell us some stories about some of the countries you’ve traveled to and music teachers you’ve worked with?

ST: Two of my incredible vocal teachers were Rima Kcheich and Ghada Shbeir, whom I studied with in Lebanon and also at Simon Shaheen’s Arabic Music Retreat in Massachusetts. Rima taught me to pay attention to the details and sing maqam, and Ghada taught me to improvise and add different vocal timbres to my toolbox. Simon himself teaches me passion, discipline, and affirms music as my greatest love. I spent about six months in Lebanon and loved the culture, nature, and its music especially. I also studied Manned drumming from Guinea with Jebebara ensemble there. 

My mentor at CalArts was Alfred Ladzekpo, a Ghanaian chief and master drummer. I was obsessed with Ewe drumming, and my friends and I spent all of our free time playing and learning those rhythmic compositions. He taught us to know when we’re “OFF!” While at CalArts, I also studied Bulgarian choral music with Kate Conklin, and Hindustani music with Swapan Chaudhuri and Aashish Khan. Aashishji said, “You can’t sing both rock and Raga.” 

I’ve traveled to Morocco several times, also toured with Vlada Tomova’s Bulgarian Voices Trio in Canada, Mexico, Cuba, and Russia. I’ve studied Fado singing in Lisbon, Portugal, and Bulgarian Folk Singing at Plovdiv Academy of Folk Music. I sang with Petrana Kucheva, a fantastic vocalist and mentor whom I met there, for a few years. I’ve toured with Black Sea Hotel in the states, Sweden and Denmark and performed at Emirates Palace in UAE with Mayssa Karaa. I’ve been to Turkey, where I witnessed Ottoman music in the otherworldly cave-chimneys of Cappadocia, and Oman, where I saw an exquisite concert of Amal Maher singing Oum Kalthoum at Muscat Opera House. I’ve studied oud with Charbel Rouhana, Wassim Odeh, George Ziadeh, and Bassam Saba, a dear mentor and Artistic Director of the NY Arabic Orchestra. Bassam has taught me style, taste, humbleness and soul. 

AF: What’s it like learning to perform a song in a language you aren’t fluent in? What language do you enjoy singing in the most?

ST: It’s a fun challenge. Language lights up my brain. Just as an opera singer learns to sing European art songs well, I study and dedicate to the linguistic nuances the same way. I’d say it’s 80% listening, and 20% translating that into your body. I watch old-timey videos of singers and study the shapes of their mouths. I had a fantastic Arabic diction teacher, Dr. Iman Roushdy-Hammady. I’ve dedicated a lot of time to Arabic and Bulgarian singing, but I am now enjoying the most singing my own songs in English. You have to learn to lighten up, let go of perfectionism, and not take yourself so seriously. It’s okay to make mistakes! At the end of the day it’s about following your heart to what’s interesting, and joyful expression through music and cross-cultural understanding.

AF: What types of symbolism and ritual inspire your music? 

ST: I love psychology and Jungian symbolism of the shadow and the divine child archetype, also expressed by Carolyn Myss. I love the artwork of Alex Grey, which portrays us as multidimensional beings, and I’ve performed in his sacred space at CoSM. I’m fascinated by many rituals around the world, from Amazonian ayahuasca healings and their beautiful icaros songs, to the adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, to West African dance drumming, to Episcopal church services with epic organ arrangements, incense and flags, to sound baths and crystal energy healings. Drumming is very important to me and I maintain a strong rhythmic element to my music. Drums and shakers, in particular, have been used in healing rituals since ancient times. When I’m around drums, I can hear them speak, and feel them cleansing my body and shaking energy up inside. Also language, poetry, and the power of the spoken word, with sound and intention, is an important element of ritual. Julia Cameron’s The Artist Way is my anchor, and I write morning pages regularly. Essentially, I’m interested in the all ways humans have created meaning, healing and transformation, and connect to higher realms through music and sound.

AF: What’s the most inspiring thing you’ve seen this month?

ST: The most inspiring thing I’ve seen this month is the sun setting over the ocean, and the sea’s iridescent colors of dusk; the way they work together to create something more beautiful than they could be individually.  

AF: What would you want listeners to take away from your latest release?

ST: “Mirror” is specifically about shadow work and integration of all parts of yourself into one loving whole. The more we can accept and understand ourselves, the more we can begin to accept and understand others. Transformation begins from within, and it takes time, patience, and humility. The way forward to a better world, in my vision, is with greater compassion, sensitivity, and this knowledge of self, which can be catalyzed by music. So we can become less violent and reactionary, and more inspired, loving and proactive. We are creative beings, meant to create, meant to shine, and meant to enjoy life, not just to suffer. We can heal, we can let go of our old stories. We can become friends with ourselves and create a life we don’t need to escape from. It’s up to us to choose joy in each moment, to make the best of our current situation and find a positive way forward, and to choose to be willing to move towards this healing with honesty. When we make this choice individually and then come together, with all of our gifts and solutions and ideas, that is the power of community. Then, we can truly live and flourish in harmony, and fulfill our potential.

AF: What is your livestream set-up like?

ST: I use the streaming platform Stage Ten, link it to my Youtube Live, and press go. I have a BOSS RC-300 loop station that I improvise with and program vocals into with some beats. I have a Shure Beta-58 microphone, my oud with pickup mic attached, and various percussion like shaker, frame drums, and riq, which I layer with the looper. I have a Fishmann Loudbox Mini amp, so I plug 1/4’ cables from my loop station into that. I plug the mic and oud directly into the loop station.

AF: What are your plans for 2020 and beyond? 

ST: I am in pre-production for recording my first full album of original music with a ten-piece microtonal chamber ensemble! I’m finishing the scores, arrangements, and parts in Sibelius, and planning to launch a crowdfunding campaign to support this work. First I’ll record and make a music video for my next single, “Dreamtime.” Once the world opens up again, I’ll be touring a lot with this ensemble.

My ultimate goal is to open an artist retreat & performance center with music and photo/video production studios. This space will be available to artists from around the world from all socio-economic backgrounds to come and create the art that’s meant to be made through them, in a supportive, inspiring, and unpretentious atmosphere. 

RSVP HERE for Shelley Thomas livestream via YouTube at 1pm ET. To pre-order the upcoming album, email 

More great livestreams this week…

9/25 Langhorne Slim, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Mt. Joy & More via Philly Music Fest. 7pm ET, RSVP HERE

9/25 Modern English (Live from London) via AXS. $15, 8:30pm ET, RSVP HERE

9/25 Long Neck, Baby Grill, gobbinjr, Oceanator via Twitch (Around the Campfire). RSVP HERE

9/26 Angel Olsen, Beach House, Big Thief, Blood Orange, Charli XCX, Solange, Wilco & More via Hotel Figueroa (Pitchfork Drive-In). $39, 10pm ET, RSVP HERE

9/26 Oh Sees via Seated. $15, 8pm ET, RSVP HERE

9/26 Reggie Watts, John Teida, Girl God, Shannon Lay, Ramonda Hammer, & more via Echo Park Rising. 12pm ET, RSVP HERE

9/29 Pom Pom Squad, Charlotte Rose Benjamin via (Neon Gold Presents). 8pm ET, RSVP HERE

9/30 The Nude Party via Rough Trade UK Instagram. 1pm ET, RSVP HERE

9/30 Laraaji (Sun Piano) via NoonChorus (LPR Presents). $10, 9pm ET, RSVP HERE