Ali Thibodeau, otherwise known as Deau Eyes, changed the location of our interview the night before it took place. She’d picked up a last-minute gig, and asked that I meet her at 11AM at the Valentine Museum downtown. I showed up 15 minutes early with Hourglass Sessions co-founder/director Tyler Scheerschmidt by my side. Soon after our arrival, he broke off to acquire some shawarma from a nearby food truck. However, he returned quickly — he had forgotten his credit card, and asked me if he could use mine.
Thibodeau was performing a solo acoustic set at noon for the lunch crowd that frequently gather in the Valentine Garden behind the main museum building. As Tyler and I settled in, and I began setting up, scores of future doctors began streaming in with their own shawarma, which they had acquired from the same food truck or a similar adjacent one. Thibodeau arrived shortly after Tyler had gobbled the last of his rice. After a few interruptions for soundcheck and greeting various petitioners, she began telling me a little about herself.
Having grown up in nearby Mechanicsville, Thibodeau was no stranger to Richmond. At the age of 12, her brother bought her a guitar as a Christmas present. Thus began a secret hobby of sitting in her room writing songs that she was too embarrassed to share with anyone. Throughout her teenage years, she publicly developed a talent for dance, and eventually attended Old Dominion University (as well as three other schools) for dance before deciding that the classroom wasn’t the place where her skills and abilities were best being applied. She packed up and moved to New York City, where she began auditioning for Broadway shows while supporting herself nannying, waiting tables, teaching dance, and doing just about anything else that earned an honest paycheck.
After a short-lived job that took her to Orlando, Florida, Thibodeau returned to New York City and began making connections with the music scene by performing in and organizing open mics in the East Village. Cutting her teeth by busking in the New York subway, playing the same song over and over, Thibodeau also formed a group with a few friends called Modena Loves You. However, that endeavor was soon interrupted by an interesting offer of a job aboard a cruise ship. For ten months, Thibodeau performed as a country singer on the high seas. After disembarking, she took up with a paramour and busked around Europe, eventually recording an album in Ireland. She thought it would be a big deal, but it fizzled as the couple split, and she made her way back home to Richmond. Upon return, she began creating music and cultivating an audience for what would eventually become the project known as Deau Eyes.
Listing Fiona Apple, Carole King, and Shania Twain among her influences, Thibodeau gave her first Deau Eyes album, Let it Leave, a classic indie rock sound and a spastic energy that is indicative of its two-day recording schedule. Signs of the rushed process of creation peek through in the moments when Thibodeau’s voice breaks on “Paper Stickers,” but this doesn’t stop the record from soaring out of the gate and all the way to the closing track. Let It Leave is a dynamic album that offers contrasts and versatility; a perfect example is the heavy bass lines and affected vocals of “Miner and Raven,” juxtaposed against the very next track, “Parallel Time,” which features nothing but acoustic guitar and Thibodeau’s beautiful, tight harmonies.
Deau Eyes’ second album, Legacies, was released earlier this year, and shows a different side of Thibodeau. A far more laid-back, ethereal sound permeates most of the tracks. Many of the tracks feature minimal instrumentation, with songs such as “Moscow in Spring” consisting of not much more than Thibodeau’s voice, a synthesizer, and a drum machine. However, she can’t seem to quite help herself, as the energy, guitars, and catchy hooks of Let it Leave do show up in a few tracks, including “Haven’t You Had Quite Enough” and “Another One Comes Around.” This proves that Thibodeau has control over her craft, bending her musical style to her will, rather than the other way around.
Deau Eyes collaborated with Hourglass Sessions to create a psychedelic powerhouse of a video for her song “The Bow.” You can watch this collaboration on RVA MAG TV, or above. Read below for our interview with Deau Eyes, where we chat about crowdfunding, vinyl releases, and the effect of environment on the creation of art.
What’s your songwriting process like?
I’ve always compulsively written songs, but I never really memorized them or put too much stock into them. Just sort of wrote them to process whatever emotion or what was happening in my life. It’s a sort of journaling that I’ve been doing for a very long time.
How do you think growing up here in what is the undeniably the American south influenced your songwriting?
You know, it’s so funny, because growing up I was so anti-country music, and such an artsy kid — I wanted to be a modern dance choreographer. I liked absurd stuff, and got really into The Postal Service when I was in sixth grade. I thought that was very edgy and cool, which is funny in hindsight. For Mechanicsville, it was very out of the box.
I was surrounded by country music. I’ve got a lot of family in Arkansas, and the music my grandma would listen to is Carter Family and old-time music like that. I’ve always had a place in my heart for that, and had a secret absolute love for Shania Twain and Dixie Chicks and stuff, but kept it really close to my chest. Then when I graduated and I ended up moving to New York for a few years, I found myself really drawn to that music, and it was a very comforting thing to go back and be like, “Hey, actually this storytelling is dope, and this is actually cool.” So I could carry pride about being from the south in this place where no one’s from the south. From there, I got a job singing on a cruise ship as a country singer, and I really dug deep. [I] learned over 200 classic country songs, really studied that music, and went on a real journey of researching all the greats of that time. That’s really informed the way that I write songs and the way that I tell stories, and whatever we do sonically with production… the foundation is really informed by country music. It’s fun to have that kind of backbone, and it’s fun to also color my sonic choices and production team with different styles, other than the usual lap steel and things like that.
What do you think of the Richmond music scene?
Oh my God, the Richmond music scene is so vast, and there’s so much happening. It’s endlessly inspiring. My music, when you listen to it, it’s kind of all over the map, genre-wise, because I’m so inspired. I want to create a sound that kind of encapsulates this time and place in Richmond. There’s these up-and-coming songwriters and artists, and Butcher Brown is from here. There’s just so much happening, and so many veterans in this scene that have been doing this for such a long time, to guide you through the business. Just down-to-earth people who make the time for you.
I feel like I’ve had so much help from so many people in this community, whether it’s, “you want to borrow this guitar for a little while and play around with it?” Or just getting coffee with you and telling you about their experience with everything. I mean, the music business is such a DIY create-your-own-adventure that having people around who have been doing it a while — and also people who are just starting out — it’s so important. It’s the most important thing to talk to people and gauge what’s working, and what isn’t working. Just for your own sanity, because otherwise you get lost in this huge mess of a world. This city… there’s a great show happening every night, and you can be watching a country band and then watching an up-and-coming rapper that are equally as incredible. In the same night, just a block away from each other. It’s a great time be here.
A surprisingly eclectic and large scene for a somewhat small city.
Lots of people who have time to create and time to express themselves. New York is just… these big cities, I found it hard to survive, let alone collaborate, and have the time to cultivate a sense of community. Some people have that built into their cities, it just depends. For me, Richmond is that, and I love it so much.
I wanted to talk to you about the way that you released your first album; I saw that you funded it through Kickstarter, which is not something that I’ve seen a lot of musicians do. I see a lot of filmmakers do that, and a lot of video game developers, but not a lot of musicians. What inspired that, and how did it go?
At the time it felt like Kickstarter was what I was seeing the most — I know that there’s IndieGoGo and things like that. I had a pretty small ask: I asked for $5,000 which, when making a record, it’s a lot more expensive than that. I was funding it up until a point, which is kind of the way that all my music is gone, where I’m just working for jobs at the time, and I was trying to just put everything into it honestly. But I don’t recommend that.
I made the record in Nashville with some friends, and I got a pretty great rate for recording, and we tracked it in two days. It just is a testament to the absolute genius and competence of Collin Pastore and Jacob Blizard, who worked on it. I think the Kickstarter was essential to getting the music out into the world, and paying Jake and Collin a very humble amount. That time was also just a very different time than it is now. Things just fell a lot cheaper than they are now. It was definitely something where running up to Nashville for a few days didn’t seem like a big deal. Then the Kickstarter set me up with t-shirts to sell on the road, and got us on our first tour. We took this rusty old van that you literally had to open the hood to start. With no AC and no radio. We took it down to New Orleans and back on tour, and we camped the whole way. We didn’t pay for lodging, we wild-camped. That was fun. We were sweaty, and we looked super dirty and tired. That Kickstarter set me up with that part of it, getting it all out into the world, and it took a couple years to get the actual physical record out into the hands of people. And of course, that’s when the pandemic started. We had just gotten Egghunt [Records] on board, set up a release plan, and we had to alter our plans then.
I noticed that you released that first album sort of out of nowhere. I didn’t see any singles or much before that.
There were a couple singles before that. “Paper Stickers” was a year, maybe two years, before the record came out. Because it was done. We were sitting on it for a long time. But [the album’s release] was happening right when COVID was starting, so it was hard to get it out into the world. The internet was so saturated. Luckily, we did get a feature on American Songwriter with “Parallel Time.” That’s when I started making DIY music videos, right when all that happened — because I wanted to be able to put something out, since I wasn’t touring.
Do you think that vinyl, and trying to create a physical experience, leads to better music creation as opposed to just single releases on streaming services?
That’s a very good question. I honestly don’t know what it will do in that regard, but it is a very sought-after thing to have — it gets you through tour. Selling records is how you pay for gas. I personally love tangible things, being able to feel it and commit to it. I think it expands our attention spans in a time when we really need that. I think it promotes a piece of work that someone has taken the time to artfully craft. I’m very grateful that people are buying records, because it means that people are listening to this in full, which is how it’s intended to be listened to. But also, the singles game is cool too. I want all these songs to stand alone, and be able to be ear candy. I love pop music and [it] informed a lot of my choices when it comes to making this ear candy, kind of oddball stuff, but also catchy, and something you want to listen to over and over again.
I did notice that for your second album you released pretty much everything as a single before the album came out. You released “Haven’t You Had Quite Enough” back in 2020, but the album it’s on, Legacies, didn’t come out until 2022. When did you first realize you were making an album, and when did that start to coalesce?
The album was planned, but I was in this place of waiting to release stuff. Because the first album was so anticipated, and then the pandemic happened, and it was out of our control. None of the things that we expected to happen happened. So, with this album I made it a mission to make a song and put it out. I just want to get it out to people, because I’m tired of holding these messages and songs for so long, and then having them feel stale when I release them.
With “Haven’t You Had Quite Enough?” it was a thing that I needed it to be out by the election. I needed that for my heart and soul, to get that out into the world. There’s this self-aggrandizing that we all do as artists, of, “This is my message and it has to be out!” But also, simultaneously, it’s a drop in the pool of whatever message you want to come across as artists. We’re working with this company called Tone Tree; they pump out singles out of Nashville, but it’s for playlisting purposes essentially. It’s really cool and fun, and I’m always so grateful we’re placed on something, or someone gives a shit at all. It’s more so that I think I was eager to get these songs out to the people who have been following me all this time, and waited a long time to hear the first record. I’m just gonna put these out, who cares? We’re in 2022, this is the wild west out here. I just want to put this stuff out.
When the whole thing was out, in context, there is a beginning, middle and end; the title track [and] the song “Ends” weren’t released as singles. And they’re both kind of the overlying blanket of what the whole record’s about, which is our time on this planet, and the legacies that we leave behind, and the weight that you put into that journey of leaving something behind rather than being here and now, or the significance and insignificance of tradition — the climb to success. There’s so much [time] we had away from the world — away from the public — that forced us all to dial into what we really care about, and what we want to do with our time on this planet. And our own mortality. And I think that when we’re in the goal mindset, of hitting these mile markers — all these expectations we put onto ourselves and each other. Leaving a legacy… for who and what, when our planet has an expiration date? Lots of light stuff [Laughs].
I wanted to represent this mindset, that there’s so much comedy. Like in “Another One Comes Around,” there’s this hilarious calling-out of a fuckboy in Richmond. These are things that we can put weight on, or that we can completely strip ourselves of and get a little tongue and cheek with. “Safer Love” is this thing of, “I know that there’s this person that’s bad for me, but I’m gonna do it anyway because it feels good,” instead of, like, “I need to it to be my husband” kind of vibe.
Deau Eyes’ latest album, Legacies, is available on vinyl and digital formats from her Bandcamp, and for streaming just about anywhere that you get your music.
Top Photo by Lucienne Nghiem