Gently plucked guitars and a droning harmonium introduce “River of Life/The Yes Song”, off Mia Doi Todd’s new Gea CD, and when the singer’s hazy voice comes in you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve just stumbled across Nick Drake’s long-lost sister. With its upright bass, clipped congas, and sonic clarity, Gea resembles a classic Joe Boyd production from the late 1960s or early 1970s, and its introspective songs would sit well alongside the collected works of John and Beverley Martyn or the Incredible String Band.
But there’s even more here than initially meets the ears. The record—which chronicles the life and death of a love affair—unfolds like a novel, with clearly defined characters and a central dilemma: how do you continue when everything’s ending?
For Doi Todd, a resident of Los Angeles with six previous albums to her credit, the answer is to find salvation in the healing power of music. Gea is purely autobiographical, she says, and the relationship it limns was hers.
“All my songs originate in really specific occurrences,” she explains, reached at a Chicago tour stop. “Maybe I disguise them through language, but they’re pretty much directly from my experience. And singing, for me, is definitely kind of a cathartic action, so with ”˜River of Life’ and ”˜The Yes Song’ I was trying to propel myself into a new frame of mind, towards a more positive world-view.”
She adds that she’s been studying Zen meditation, which accounts for the incantations that underpin Gea’s 11-minute-long kickoff track: they’re rooted in Buddhist sutras, which are often chanted in a kind of half-sung ritual mode. Doi Todd is also an accomplished actor, dancer, and choreographer—skills that undoubtedly assisted her in establishing the soft-but-spooky atmospheres that abound on her latest release.
“I’ve studied a very unusual dance form called butoh,” she relates. “And another influence was [French playwright and philosopher] Antonin Artaud. His system was called the Theatre of Cruelty, and although I’m not really a cruel songwriter, I do feel like my goal in a song is to shake the foundations of an emotional experience, and that’s the same thing Artaud thought theatre should do. So when I go to perform, the goal is to transform the audience—and that, I think, has a lot to do with my theatre background.”
She laughs, and admits that transformation “is a lot to expect from a little song”, but that remains her goal. “I hope Gea will open up underused channels in people’s emotional being,” she says. “The modern world has crushed a lot of subtlety in the human sense-mind apparatus, and so I hope to kind of burst open some of those channels. A lot of my songs are very emotional and sensitive; they get right to the heart of the human condition, and sadness and longing. Those are things that people often try to shy away from. They’ll distract themselves with things like text messaging and video games. But I’m hoping to expand people’s consciousness.”
Mia Doi Todd plays St. Andrew’s–Wesley United Church on Monday (March 31).