Published Nov 29, 2010"I was always into being natural and organic but that's all changed in the last five years," says madcap Toronto chanteuse Maylee Todd. As Canada witnessed in her cross-country tour last month, Todd combines comedy, theatricality, callisthenics and soul into a true spectacle. But the centre of the action is her unique musical sense animated by gutbucket jazzy grooves and cosmic interludes.
Todd's kaleidoscopic first album Choose Your Own Adventure was the result of her exploration of the Paraguayan harp and a digital looping station. "When I got a harp," she recalls, "I wasn't thinking 'OK, now this is how I'm supposed to play it.' I'm more like 'how many different sounds can I get out of this instrument?' The instrument dictated the songwriting. Everything [on the album] was written with the [Roland RC20] looping station and the instrument. Because I'm not a schooled musician and I can't read music, the looping station would help. I could do bass lines and beats so [the band] could get a general idea of how it should sound and obviously put their spin on it."
Todd's multi-part songs sound like a suite of patterns for the harp and the band, but retain a verse/chorus pop sensibility throughout. Her often dreamy voice and penchant for bossa nova rhythms is filtered through baroque flourishes and a psychedelic Tropicália point of view. The Brazilian influence on her music goes way back to her origins as a classical guitarist in thrall with the characteristically Brazilian nylon-string sound.
But her current musical identity got sorted out around five years ago. After the sudden dissolution of Toronto indie pop favourites Henri Faberge and the Adorables, wherein she played electric guitar for the first time, Todd started exploring the potential of the harp. "I got into the harp by being inspired by people like Joanna Newsom and classical players. I started looking up different types of harps, and I noticed the Paraguayan harp bass notes were nylon so they sounded like a double bass in the way it resonated. Even the way [it was played] was pretty much like a flamenco guitar, using nails and going back and forth and doing little trills. Playing chords, but holding down a rhythm with amazing, awesome bass lines. Very percussive, but very melodic. So I got a cheap harp for 200 or 300 bucks, but it was a good intro for sure. Then I bought a harp from Paraguay. It's light ― it's 20 pounds ― but it's huge. I have to play [standing up] but I bought a smaller lap harp that I can take on my bike. They do have Paraguayan harps that small but I'd have to go to Paraguay to get it. Next time when I'm in the hood I'll pick it up."
She treats her harp like the electro-acoustic music workstation. "I bow my harp, put paper in the harp to get as many different sounds as I can in musical contexts. It's great to make beats with the harp, to use the sound box as a drum."
Todd has recently become still more electronically oriented. She speaks excitedly about her imminent shopping trip for a vocal pedal, and has recently become obsessed with Yamaha's Tenori-on, a Lite Brite-emulator/electro-party touchpad. The Tenori-on is a good fit for Todd: it's a fun electronic instrument that accommodates spontaneous ideas and looks good on stage. Surprisingly, one thing that's going to play less of a role in the immediate future is the trusty looper that was so important to the creation of the album. It's been a pain to sync loops with the band onstage, and Todd acknowledges "I've always written songs but arranging for a big band is really new." Given the band's ever more intense slate of live work, such activity will no doubt pay exciting and unexpected dividends.
One thing is certain: Todd has a knack for making the most creative use out of any situation she finds herself in, musical or otherwise. "I'm definitely not a technical musician," she says, "but for me it works, cause I'm always coming from a creative place."