Ali Thibodeau had a moment of clarity the day of her grandmother’s funeral. She and her brother Michael had been drinking margaritas all day to cope with the loss. On top of everything, Ali was still reeling from the cancellation of SXSW; her musical project Deau Eyes was about to head from Richmond, Virginia to Austin for the event, along with a few more tour dates to celebrate the release of her debut on EggHunt Records, Let It Leave. Sidelined by the impending pandemic and mourning all at once, she turned to her brother and said, “I’m gonna make a full video album.” The two spent the rest of the day coming up with ideas they could execute as the quarantine descended, like flying an enormous paper airplane off a hill. “We’re just doing these kind of outrageous, giant crafts that we don’t really know how to do, but we’re making it work and it’s turning out to be one of the truest-to-vision pieces I’ve ever done,” Thibodeau says. “Without that, I have no idea how I would cope with any of this at all.”
One of those videos, premiering today on Audiofemme, is for a song called “Full Proof,” one of the grungier cuts on Let It Leave, with jagged guitars and confrontational vocals that range from bourbon-sweet falsetto to hungover growl. There’s an latent rage to the song, which Thibodeau wrote while processing the sadness, frustration, and anger of bitter heartache. “It’s like the stages of grief, you know?” Thibodeau remembers. “I’ve kind of been feeling that in this time as well – it’s funny how songs transcend different time frames in your life. They just keep becoming more and more alive and carrying so many different stories.”
For the visual, which perfectly recalls the angsty aesthetic of ’90s MTV with its cross fades and chaos, Thibodeau started collecting free stuff from Facebook Marketplace that she could basically destroy: and oven, a television, a re-painted piñata. At one point she even smashes a guitar – while her brother, an actor and playwright whose love of film, Ali says, made him a natural director, filmed it all. It feels spontaneous, but even Thibodeau’s outfit was fully-thought-out symbolism.
“Writing for me has always been a tool in transitional periods in my life,” Thibodeau says. “‘Full Proof’ was written at a time when I was feeling like I was starting to become a fuller version of myself, like this phoenix.” Toxic people in her life once made her feel small, but “aggravated the beast” in the process – so that’s what Thibodeau becomes in the video, mixed with a little of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’.” “I wanted to represent that, so I just like, made more denim fringe and put it on the back of my jacket, and teased up my hair, and my makeup’s gonna be more dramatic and I’m gonna be a little bit madder.”
The costuming goes deeper, too, than simply representing Thibodeau’s metamorphosis. “There’s lots of Easter Eggs throughout these videos,” she hints, noting that the words bedazzled on her t-shirt are actually lyrics from “Paper Stickers,” another song that will appear on Let It Leave. It’s all meant to tie the videos together thematically, even if the songs on album rarely remain faithful to a single genre. “Parallel Time” is a wistful acoustic ballad about appreciating lingering memories, no matter how painful; “Dear Young Love” builds to ecstatic pop rock, and will get a one-take dance-oriented video; “Some Do,” boasts a twangy swagger that Thibodeau picked up while singing country music covers on a cruise ship somewhere between Alabama and Mexico.
It was in unlikely places like this that Thibodeau found her voice over and over again – from writing diaristic songs as a form of therapy in her bedroom as a teenager – ones she never wanted anyone to hear and says she “forgot about” as soon as she finished singing them – to busking in the New York City subways when musical theater auditions proved to be soul crushing. As formative as these experiences were, it was three important lifelong friendships that would become instrumental in bringing her solo debut to fruition, once she returned to Richmond: Jacob Blizard and Collin Pastore — known for their work on Illuminati Hotties’ Kiss Yr Frenemies and Lucy Dacus’ No Burden and Historian — came on as producers and helped her complete the tracks that would complete Let It Leave, while Dacus herself encouraged Thibodeau every step of the way.
“We grew up together and she was kind of the person that I would play my songs for, if I ever played them for anybody. She was like the only other person that I knew that wrote songs,” Thibodeau says of Dacus, who had signed to Matador just as Thibodeau was contemplating her next move. “Every time I’d get coffee with her she would always just be like ‘I think it’s time you moved back.’ Finally, after like four or five visits back home, I decided to, and I’m so glad that I did because I’ve been submerged into this incredible, loving, accepting community that’s so generous. That’s kind of where I started to really build these songs.” When it came time to finish the record, Dacus, Blizard, and Pastore encouraged Thibodeau to come on a weekend trip to Nashville to record at Trace Horse Studio. “That’s when everything changed,” Thibodeau says. “That was two and a half years ago. I feel like my whole life since then has been completely about this record coming out. It’s wild. I’m so grateful for them, and it’s just really serendipitous that we’re all kind of on the same path and in the same place at the same time. It’s really beautiful.”
Of course, it’s unbelievably disheartening to spend two years leading up to a debut release, only to have it thwarted by an unexpected quarantine. But Thibodeau admits she was “starved for this time to just live and be myself and make the thing I need to make,” though she admits she feels guilt that others are suffering, and has, of course, been grieving herself. But creating the visual element of the album has given these songs a new life, since touring behind the album is unlikely to happen. Thibodeau says she’s in “no rush” to get back on the road and “sleep in people’s basements,” and instead will likely focus on putting out the album and a half’s worth of material she’s written since recording Let It Leave – after she releases some eight more videos for each of its tracks, that is.
Moving on to the next thing, like a shark that has to keep swimming, is in Thibodeau’s blood. Moreso than any one genre, that idea ties Let It Leave together. “This album as a whole, if I could pick one word as a theme, it’s resilience,” Thibodeau says. “I think it’s just [about] knowing that the only thing we can really count on in this life is change, and knowing that we’re gonna be okay through it all, no matter what’s happening, even if it’s heartbreaking.”
Follow Deau Eyes on Facebook for ongoing updates.