background sounds, part two — plus a chat about "Music Life"
an "ambient" conversation with Mia Doi Todd
This mixtape delivery service strives toward exploration. One way is through experimentation with format. So, this post is a deeper dive into the instrumental, ambient playlists I shared in late January.
I thought it’d be interesting to converse with a musician who has dallied in the world of lean-back instrumentals1—both as a creator and a participant in a scene whose musicians attend to the form. My chat with Mia Doi Todd appears right after the playlist.
# of Tracks: about 200 recordings
Length: about 17 hours
Themes: ambient music with bite ~ that bite is created with the tooth of rhythm & tongue of melody ~ this is my subjective edit of the ‘best’ music from my much much (much!) longer ambient reservoir playlist at the bottom of this post
Apple Music version
click here —>
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The playlist includes songs such as…
^ Ryuchi Sakamoto: “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence”
^ John Cage: “In A Landscape”
A Conversation with Mia Doi Todd: about music, a life in the arts, and time spent with Flying Lotus (early in his career) and Laraaji (more recently)
# of Questions: 6
Length: about 1,750 words
Theme: how a “California folky” detours into ambient, electronic, and Brazilian music
I met Mia in college. We went to the kind of school whose graduates aspire to become President of the United States of America. It’s more embarrassing to admit nowadays than it was in the late 1990s.3 But looking back, I still think of it as a fortifying experience. When your classmates are aiming to run the world, they probably don’t really give a damn about the art you like (much less the art you make!).4
Anyway, to make art when surrounded by these sorts of people shows real strength of character. I like to think that folks like Mia and myself5 forged our generative willpower in that peculiar furnace—and, to extend the metaphor, that we came out of the experience a bit steelier. Also, with a better sense of humor and a real intention that art deserves a place in the world, even if the world may be largely indifferent toward it.
Question: What is music for? Would your answer differ if I added the adjective “ambient” and instead asked “What is ambient music for”?
Answer: Music is for tapping into another plane of awareness that is less linear and more free-flowing than our everyday awareness of time and existence. Ambient music even more so than pop. Music can send us traveling in the default network of our brains, where we process our emotional life and memory. Music makes us feel more and get in touch with ourselves.
I'm getting ready to teach a course at Occidental College, "Intro to Songwriting." Because of that (and these questions!), I've been thinking more about the role of music. What is it for? As a musician, music has been the fabric of my life. So much of my quality social interaction has revolved around music. I feel very connected to the tradition of the bard, the singer-storyteller whose role was to recount the tales of the people, the heroes and their adventures, to entertain the folk and build a sense of history, continuity, meaning. I consider all that to be part of my role as a singer-songwriter, to keep all this emotional history alive in my songs, to give shape and meaning to life. I love to sing; it gets my whole being tuned in to a single purpose. And I'm very much a lyricist, but language need not limit the scope of songwriting. (I learned that through my love of Brazilian music.) So somewhere along the way, I ventured into ambient music.
Q: You also released one of my favorite songs of 2021—"Music Life”—which isn’t ambient music at all. At the climax, there is a refrain that is almost Mad Libs-like in its structure: “If you give your life to music, ________” In the song, you fill-in that space with words and phrases such as: sacrifice, a price, excess, burning the candle at both ends, hotels and hospital rooms. Maybe I'm wrong but it felt like the song largely dwelt on the toll a music life can take on a person. It feels like a plainspoken confession. (Or at least a clear-eyed analysis?)
Outside of the dramatic space of a song lyric, how would you characterize a life in music? Do you feel good about the choice you've made to have that life? Or, more philosophically, do you think a life in music is something we choose or more of a calling? Is it a fate we cannot avoid.
A: "Music Life" is a heavy duty song! Many musician friends have told me how much they identify with the lyrics. I wrote the song the night I came home from my dear friend's memorial service. He was a great musician that I had grown up with. Other musician friends had also recently passed away at a young age. Writing the song helped me to process those events and envision myself as a survivor. I have two children; I want to live a long and healthy life, so that I can take care of them. Being a musician is not really for the faint of heart. For me it was a fate that I could not avoid. I had a great need to express myself which led me into my path as a musician. Songwriting was the most direct means for me. I do not regret that choice or any of those that followed. It's been a rich life, full of mystery and discovery and many good times. I've learned to balance the intensity of music life with my responsibilities as a mother.
Q: Getting back to the topic of ambient, can you talk a bit about your 2009 album Morning Music. It’s a wordless, instrumental recording—clearly a detour in your career. If I’m being honest it’s also the album of yours I find myself returning to most often. This interview is for a blog post where I collated the ambient albums, compilations, and tracks that I’ve spent the most time listening to. Morning Music made that list.
A: There's a lot of ambient music being made these days. When I released Morning Music in 2009, it was pretty far out in left field :)
I remember I made the album at a time when I was questioning my purpose. I felt I had written enough melancholy songs. I did not want to perform and relive all those tough emotional landscapes. It seemed like I was perpetuating those feelings. But I still had so much music inside. Those Morning Music recordings reflect that space of gentle unfolding, releasing, allowing myself to be. That album definitely allows you room to think. It's good for washing dishes, et cetera.
Eventually I did make my next singing album Cosmic Ocean Ship in 2011, which is probably my most upbeat record. People play those songs at weddings! But what came before may have left a mark. That album Cosmic Ocean Ship has tons of lyrics and singing, but it does some of the job of more clearly defined ambient music. People use it in their yoga classes for example.
Q: I will certainly encourage AHB's Goodies readers to check out the rest of your discography! For example, I return frequently to the Flying Lotus remix of your song "Room Is White" which reminds me how often you've often been 'early' on various emerging artists and trends.
A: True true. I think that remix of my song "My Room is White" was Flying Lotus' very first release! It happened because I was part of the beginnings of Dublab, an internet radio station based in LA. I was the only woman represented on a compilation they released in 2001, Dublab Presents: Freeways, which kind of codified a music scene that was in its germination phase. Madlib, Dntel, Daedalus, Carlos Niño and others were all on that compilation. I was this kinda California folky girl with a lot of lyrics. But Dublab has been a supporter of eclectic music, and somehow we all found common ground. I think my early work with Dntel was a precursor to a lot of electronica music that came out later.6 I was ahead of the curve on various things, which often meant that I did not catch the big wave! But I feel that has enabled me to evolve without getting caught up in a style that would have been defining or limiting. I've remained true to my own artistic course.
Q: If I’m providing a listening guide to you I’d also highlight the Cosmic Ocean Ship song "Summer Lover" which you played at your recent Brooklyn gig. It's beautiful, timeless songwriting with "good bones" and worthy of being covered—a thing which also feels a bit off-trend/ahead-of-the-curve in this era of "songs" constructed in a studio by 10 or 20 different people. And as a forest bathing fan,7 last year I had your "Walking With Trees" track on repeat.
A: Yes "Walking With Trees" is a collab with British artist Bobby Lee. I love it! The label made a few remixes too which are fun to hear—very Euro, club style. It reminds me how I could have gone in a more Dido-esque direction, but instead kept to my roots. I still play nylon acoustic guitar, and generally I write songs that I can perform live on the guitar or piano. That has been my set of songwriting parameters.
Q: Ok, back to the ambient and instrumental music theme. One of the pioneers of the form, Laraaji, sometimes stays at your place in Los Angeles. You’ve built a friendship with him in recent years.
How do you think he would answer the question 'What Is Music For?' I don't expect you to put words in his mouth—but I know very little of his story, and am always interested in the perspectives of our elders....
More importantly, have you and he taken any selfies?
A: Laraaji has been a big presence in our family and music life for the past five years. He and his partner Arji have been staying with us during their Southern California touring sojourns. It has been a real blessing to have them in our lives; they set great examples for how to live with positivity and inspiration. Laraaji can speak eloquently and very hilariously on the role of music. He is a true comedian. He might say that it gets you into the flow of life in the universe. His classic album Essence/Universe was the soundtrack to my son's birth last year. The nurses would come into our hospital room and say, “Wow it's really nice in here!” The music created a completely different atmosphere from the sterile environment outside our door. It was our little space ship embarking on new life with Laraaji as the pilot. I also did a remix for his song "Ocean Flow Zither" that I was really happy with.
As for pictures, here is a little Polaroid of me and Laraaji at Jungle Cafe in Brooklyn. It was very nice to see him in New York. In the past, we had only hung out in LA.
Though I had this chat with Mia all the way back in October the last artist we discussed, Laaraji, has been having a bit of a moment. Numero Group just released a new, well-regarded, four album box set of his ambient music from the late 1970s, leading to profiles in fancy places like The New Yorker and The New York Times. The digital version is only $10 on Bandcamp. Do it. 👉 🛒
Mia also recommends…
Surya Botofasina: Everyone’s Children: “He inherits Alice Coltrane's legacy. He grew up on the ashram and carries on her sound. This album was recorded at our home studio.”
Turn On The Sunlight You Belong: A project led by Mia’s life and creative partner Jesse Peterson.
Photay with Carlos Nino: An Offering: From a foundational member of the Dublab community.