Her grandfather was ‘The Great Toddini’ – an expert in escapology and ufology, and she was parented by an Elvis impersonator and visual creative artist. Unsurprisingly, the rebellious Maylee Todd was never likely to take the road most travelled. Her unconventional approach to music has resulted in wildly eclectic albums, drawing influences from pop, indie-rock, funk, neo-soul, jazz, and electronica.
In the studio, Todd is an amorphous experimentalist with a taste for analogue synths and exotic instruments such as the Paraguayan harp. On-stage, she looks to collaborate, marrying her flair for musical experimentation with 3D projection mapping and performance art.
MUSIC AS ESCAPISM
I’ve always been drawn to Brazilian culture and music. I grew up listening to a lot of Gilberto Gil and Astrud Gilberto, and the first instrument I picked up was the classical guitar. Learning those beautiful Bossa Nova chords was really fun and felt like a natural way for me to play. I learned to read tablature in seventh grade, but also had a video camera when I was young and used to love Hole and Courtney Love. I filmed her on MTV unplugged and would study where her fingers lay on the fret and replicate it on my guitar.
With my music, I know there’s a lot of genre jumping and I’ve had some criticisms on that, but my priority is to put stuff out without overthinking it too much. My second album, Escapology, moved things away from a bedroom studio to a bigger studio working with musicians and was definitely at the higher end in terms of audio processing. Right now, I’m sub-letting a house and working on a show called Working Mums for CBC, but a lot of my gear is here because I’m still recording other pieces of work.
LOVE OF THE HARP
The harp is kind of like using a classical guitar, and I already have this natural bossa picking style. One of them is the Paraguayan harp and it’s very therapeutic to play. I love travelling with harps. One time I was in India and I just sat a harp down. The wind was blowing through it and all the strings were resonating in the chamber- it just sounded so beautiful. I’ve sampled them quite a bit and it’s really cool what you can do with those samples in MASCHINE, even if you’re just using it as a MIDI controller.
I’m very much an analogue lady. I was in a band called Arp Analogue, and shlepping all that stuff around was pretty intense. My favourite synths used on Acts of Love were the Ensoniq TS12 and Roland MKS-7 rackmount. The TS12 is a synth from the ‘80s. I love all the bell sounds and industrial drums, so I sample a lot of that stuff. It’s also fun to play the harp and run it through analog effects pedals. Depending on your pickups, it can be a feedback nightmare, but if everything’s controlled and tweaked right it can create these magical loops. What I’ve noticed learning the harp and all these different instruments is that MASCHINE is really cool for freeing up your muscle memory, because you can make a sequence out of anything you’re drawn to using the pads.
TENORI-ON – A GATEWAY TO MASCHINE
The Tenori-On is really cool for polyrhythmic sounds and sequencing. For people that are into software but can’t wrap their heads around that interface, it’s great to use because it’s so visual. I used to compose and arrange songs in the Tenori-On and then MIDI all the audio files through different racks into Ableton and started building templates using VSTs. That led me to using a Roland SP-404 for sampling all the vocals and beats, although I found it slightly limiting in terms of space and editing. But MASCHINE is great because you can edit, duplicate, modulate and add effects very freely.
ACTS OF LOVE
My latest album, Acts of Love, was very inspired by MASCHINE. I would sample the TS12, vocals, harps, and guitar and programme them using the pads. There’s a certain intuition to using it, so although there’s definitely a learning curve, with a little perseverance one thing leads to another and before long you’re laughing. It really is as simple as just recording a beat or vocal, and pitch-shifting or changing it slightly, and in terms of playability it’s extremely intuitive. There’s no theory involved necessarily, for me it’s about being able to see and hear your craft and the tones you can create right in front of you.
Every track is different. Some of the drums are built in MASCHINE and then changed and manipulated in Ableton, which is kind of the brain of it all. That’s where I do most of the recording. But MASCHINE is a handy tool for performance too. As a controller it gives an interesting hand in terms of short chord sequencing, whether that’s an intro, chorus or bridge. Instead of using arrangement mode where everything is married to a linear timeline, I love the idea of chopping things up to find out where things fit best. It’s a whole different way of writing and performing, because when I put things in MASCHINE I’ll not only create a loose structure by dividing song parts up, but it’s changed my premeditated ideas of what I thought a chorus or bridge is, where it should be or when it should be played.
Just to give some context, my album Acts of Love is based on psychology. Historically, I’ve written songs that were always passing the blame, but I was interested in being a little more introspective this time. The album is paired with a conception show called Virtual Womb, where people walk through a large vulva and return to the womb where there is no label, limits or anything that has defined you. The idea of the womb is kind of like a mushroom trip [laughs]. Visually, it’s like a musical planetarium; people bring in blankets, lie on the ground and watch projections that I’ve made with one of my collaborators, and there’s a portion of the show where an audience member writes down their act of love. There’s 3D projection mapping, a form of dancing called ‘waacking’ – note the spelling, and I have my tech station where I use harps and electronics so I can paint a musical picture and do some dancing along with the live feed.
During the show I’ll use MASCHINE, a Novation Launchpad, a tiny keyboard, and a laptop, so it’s pretty self-contained and mobile – all I need is a small suitcase and my travel harp. Let’s say I’ve got 17 tracks with drums, including broken down drum parts, bass and keyboards, they’ll all be stemmed out to the MASCHINE on separate tracks. I’m also launching videos in Ableton Live, so everything needs to be running perfectly in tandem. If I have a string section, I can mute and play it on the MASCHINE, or if my vocalist doesn’t show up for whatever reason, I can unmute the backup vocals and they’re all there digitally, which gives me a lot of freedom to make editorial choices on stage. With the MASCHINE, I’m not married to the sequence of the set list, and it’s great for effects too.
Apart from all the VSTs, Native Instruments makes so many pieces of great hardware that I want to dig into. The next thing I’m looking at is the MASCHINE MIKRO, which would be great for touring as I only have two outputs, and I need to stem out a lot more to my sound technician.
photo credits: Joseph Fuda