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Deau Eyes (Ali Thibodeau) poses in a white jacket against a bright blue backdrop.
Lucienne Nghiem
Deau Eyes, aka Ali Thibodeau

Deau Eyes on 'Legacies,' journeys and philosophies

The Richmond indie-pop musician performs April 21 at Brambly Park in Scott's Addition.


Local pop musician Deau Eyes (Ali Thibodeau) just won the Newlin Music Prize for her Richmond-produced album Legacies. She sat down with VPM Music hosts Annie Parnell and John Porter to discuss the album, her journey from musical theatre to songwriting and her creative philosophy. Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Annie Parnell: You just won the Newlin Music Prize for your 2022 release Legacies. How do you feel?

Ali Thibodeau: It's so cool. I'm really honored to be recognized in this community full of so many talented artists.


AP: I first encountered your music through a Tammy Wynette cover a couple of years ago with the Spacebomb House Band. Legacies blends some of those country and blues sounds with this really strong current of indie pop. What influences were on your mind while putting it together?


I'm always carrying the stories of these classic country folks on my back. But also, I grew up around so many different styles of music. My mom was a dance teacher and she owned a dance studio, so there were just walls of CDs and different artists of every style. My influences don't live in one place or one genre.


When making this album, I was thinking a lot about Emily King. I love her and I love her songs. Fetch the Bolt Cutters [by Fiona Apple] — that record was so important to me in quarantine. Just this sort of grit, but also a coolness. And then, there would be moments where we were in the studio, and we're making Legacies and I'm like, “I really just want this part to feel like The Prince of Egypt” — orchestral, because there's comedy and also comfort in this theatrical, huge, melodramatic vibe.


I was thinking a lot about time and what it means to be an artist and a human being. With Legacies, it's like, “I want a love like the legends all have spoken of.” Generation after generation, there's just this undying, burning passion and love — for a person, or life or whatever. It's a combination of everything that I have ever heard in my life that has given me that spark of love.

John Porter: When we first met you were one of the great ingenues of the local theatre scene. Now, you've gravitated toward music completely. What led you to switch?


A lot of things. I think the main thing was that I feel like I really had a full theatre life. I started so young — I was 14,15 years old when I was doing professional theatre and pretending like I was older than I was, in a lot of ways. When I was about 22, 23, I moved up to New York after doing theme parks and regional shows around the country. I was going to school at Broadway Dance Center, doing a work study program, dancing all the time and working all the time. I was finding myself just so exhausted when I would get to auditions at 5 a.m. — go figure.


You know, I think this goes for everyone that moves to New York: You're forced to be faced with who you really are and what you're really passionate about. And I was really passionate about theatre, but I was more passionate about telling stories and having my voice be heard. When you're a young woman going at something like that, it has a lot to do with how you look. You're waiting tables at night, and you're having to smile through a lot in customer service — I think all of that really led me to feel like “you know what? I care more about my writing — I care about the songs that I write in my room when I get home at night.”


I was so terrified to sing my own songs and to be my own person, because I'd always played a character, but it became that I didn't have enough money to live. So I decided to start busking and to learn one of my songs. And it turns out that when you're on a subway, you only really need to know one song because it's three minutes until the crowd changes. So I just learned one song, and I would repeat that song over and over again and I made enough money to buy lunch, you know. And then lunch became also dinner, and then also dinner became a little bit more to put toward my rent. Really, how I learned how to play was in subway stations.


A good friend of my older brother’s, Dean Fields, who's also a songwriter from Virginia — he and Lucy Dacus were the only other people I knew that were doing music at all. And he told me the way that you get good at this is doing open mics, so I started putting myself out at open mics. And then from there, I moved back to Richmond, because I realized you could make more in a brewery than you can in the subway station.

AP: What was the one song that you learned?


I want to say it was a song called “Silver Linings” that sounds so different from anything that I make now. It's very Dolly. That was my silver lining: Things are so hard and I'm rejected every day, but at least I have this junky guitar and I can sing my song.

JP: What is the philosophy that you use to approach any new song that you're writing?


With new songs, it can really come from anywhere. There's kind of this sixth sense, this feeling that I get, and I can't even pinpoint it. But when I'm ready to write a song — most of the time, I don't even know what's going to come out. And a lot of times something will come out, and then it'll take me like several hours, sometimes weeks or days. Every now and then, it'll be like a year. And I'll come back to a voice memo and be like, “Oh, that's what I was saying.”


But I really believe that it's something outside of myself, and my body is just a vessel for whatever wisdom the universe is trying to tell me or whatever feeling I need to really examine. I think whatever it is that we need to do in our lives, whatever that sort of compulsion is — mine is songwriting. I think whatever that is, we should do that as much as we can. Because I think that's what we're here to do: Create.


AP: The new album was produced locally by DJ Harrison and Scott Lane, and it came together a little differently than Let it Leave, which was recorded over a few days. What was the production process like this time around? 


Oh, it was so awesome. Scott Lane and DJ Harrison are both just brilliant local artists that I've had the pleasure of getting to know over the course of several years.


Scott, he was managing me at the time. He was building a studio at his house. It was like a shed in the back of his house — he's brilliant with making the most of small spaces. And he had a similar thing going on near Hardywood [Brewery]. Before quarantine was even a thought, we had started on some demos to take to South by Southwest in 2020. We started on “When,” and it was a really cool drum pad beat with my guitar riff, and I was like, “I'm working with this guy. This is gonna be so fun, because he's just so spontaneous.” We’re really good at working together and riffing off one another. It's super easy, and that's really rare to find.


And I feel the same exact way about DJ Harrison. I think we had seen each other at a show in 2019 and there was a passing comment of “we should make something together someday.” And I was like, “What? Yeah! Are you kidding me? Like, yes, let's do that.” So when the whole shutdown happened, I just reached out to him like, “Hey, I've got this track that I really want to run by you and talk to you about. I think you would be perfect for making this with me.” (It was “Haven’t You Had Quite Enough.”)


We had a two-hour conversation about the song, and he made it sound like exactly what was in my head and some. That's the cool thing about working with people that you really trust and already love their style: They're just going to take your idea and make it 10 times your wildest dreams.


It was really different from Let it Leave, because we had so much more time. I would be working all day at the restaurant that I was working at at the time, and then I would go to Scott’s studio and we would work all night. He had a newborn baby, so the only time he could work was in the middle of the night. And so [on] the album, you can feel that moody lighting. We had very vibe-y, deep blue and purple lights on all the time. ... We would just stay up nights and talk about life and love and the depth of what we experienced over time, and just made sounds all through the night until it was done.


[With] Let it Leave, the magic of it was that I was feeling so raw about where I was in my life and this horrible breakup that I gone through, and just feeling the need to start and have a record. So we just ripped the Band-Aid off and had session musicians and just threw all the ideas at the wall and kept them. It was fast and furious, and that's what it needed to be at the time. But I'm grateful for the second experience of having months to work on a record.

AP: How you would say Let it Leave and Legacies are in conversation with each other? It sounds like the production process reflected that.


Definitely. “Let it Leave” was the crash and burn, and “Legacies” was the aftermath: you’re in this apocalyptic space, what do you do with that, and the feelings that you have in that? And that love that you want so badly, but you're not quite there. I hope that the next album will be a continuation of the rebuild.


AP: You’ve got the Newlin Music Prize, and you've also had a ton of live shows in the area. What's next?

A lot. There's so much that I want to make. I've written so many songs and I can't wait to make them. I'm going to take my time, though. I really want to produce this next album prominently by myself, just because I think that's where the story is headed. I'm really excited about learning more about production, and engineering and the sonic landscape that I can create alone.


I've also been playing a lot with Charles Owens, who inspires me so much. He's just an amazing jazz musician and saxophone player and a legend around here. His life philosophy is just everything — I’m so inspired by it all the time. Just serving the music, creating and taking stock in what you have to say and what you have to create.

Deau Eyes' album Legacies is available now. Her next performance is April 21 at Brambly Park.