At 28, Mechanicsville native Ali Thibodeau has already been through quite a musical journey. But in her eyes, she’s only just getting started.
The indie singer will be opening for Lucy Dacus on June 28 at Friday Cheers on Brown’s Island, but to Thibodeau, the Richmond icon is more than a fellow performer— she’s a childhood friend. There’s something reminiscent of Dacus in Thibodeau’s live performances, but she also brings an energy of her own earned busking in subways, traveling Europe in a camper van, and touring the Southeast and Midwest.
Her stage name is Deau Eyes, and she’s got an independent album coming soon, preceded by the single Paper Stickers, available now on Spotify. After a dynamic performance at the Valentine on June 6, I caught up with Thibodeau, and we had a chance to talk about her upcoming album, where she’s been, and her philosophy of experiencing as many mutual life-giving moments as possible.
DHR: So, you’re from Richmond— what part of Richmond are you originally from?
AT: I’m from Mechanicsville— I went to Lee Davis High School.
DHR: How did you get started in the music industry?
AT: I’ve been writing songs since I was about fourteen. I’d always done it in my room as a kind of therapy.
Earlier in life, I was more into dance and musical theater. I moved to New York City to pursue that. I was living the classic New York City grind— theater auditions every day.
I decided I was tired of that intense, constant rejection. New York is a huge, humbling place, and it’s cool to be a small cog in the machine of people working to find their place as an artist. I’d find myself starting to write while I was in audition waiting rooms, and dreaming about songs, and I finally got the courage to take my guitar to open mics.
Then I started busking in the subway stations. The reason I was able to start playing guitar in front of people is because, in New York, you’re playing in front of people that you’ll never see again. A lot of times I would get on the subway, and I’d ask everybody, “Hey, do you mind if I practice?” And they’d be like, “What? Of course you can practice.” And I’d play and watch them fall asleep on their way home from work. A lot of times people would tip me and say, “I really needed a good nap.”
DHR: Where did you go from there?
AT: Lucy Dacus and I are childhood friends, and every time I’d come to Richmond, I’d check in with her and get coffee. Around that time, she was starting to turn music into a career here. She said, “You know, you could do the same thing you’re doing in New York, but in Richmond, and it would be a lot easier to survive.” After months and months of her reiterating that— “I’m playing all the time, and you could totally do it”— I decided to make the move.
I’ve been here just grinding away. I worked on a cruise ship as a country singer for a while, and I wrote songs on the cruise ship, intending to produce them into an album.
Something that really changed things for me was this show we used to do called the Nine Singer Songwriter Showcase at the Tin Pan. That’s where I met Hannah Goad, who’s my musical partner in crime, and Angelica Garcia, who I could say the same thing about. We created a band called Whatever Honey and played our songs as a trio.
The Nine was this event where you showed up with a new song and nine songwriters would contribute what they want to contribute. It all happened on the same day. So you don’t really know each other, and you’ve got an hour to figure out everyone’s songs and contribute your piece. Besides Hannah and Angelica, the Nine also introduced me to Landon Elliott, Eliza Whitmire, Erin Frye, Kielan Creech— basically my friend group in Richmond.
That sucked me into the Richmond music community. It’s such a rich scene, and people are so willing to collaborate. In New York, everyone is on a “time is money” clock.
DHR: Is the slower pace more productive?
AT: It is more productive for me personally. I can easily get swept up in a million different directions and work a ton of weird jobs and get lost in the moment. I’m a Gemini— my extrovert takes over.
I’m grateful that I happen to be from Richmond, because otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have known about it. I’m still finding all the different directions, but my main focus is getting a band together and getting my album out.
DHR: So there’s an album on the way?
AT: Yes— I just recorded an album in Nashville.
DHR: Is the music on the album comparable to that kind of punk/indie sound on the single Paper Stickers?
AT: I like to call the music on the album a sonic adventure. You’ll definitely hear more of that on a couple different tracks, but there’s also a fusion of soul, folk, country, et cetera.
DHR: Music from Nashville is a little greasier— I think of indie as a cleaner sound.
AT: The album is pretty clean, but it gets weird, and I like it when things get weird.
I’m really excited about the record, and there are some announcements moving forward that I’m holding tight on.
It takes a good foundation to put a record out, especially when you’re proud of it and you want it to do well.
DHR: How long were you recording in Nashville?
AT: It was two days of recording.
I also did some of the overdubs and harmonies in my bedroom. That aspect captures a little bit of intimacy. There’s a track smack-dab in the middle of the album that is completely stripped down, just me in my bedroom. I wanted a flavor of where I’ve been.
DHR: What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
AT: I grew up listening to so many different styles, because my mom owned a dance studio, so she had everything you could possibly imagine. Pop music, country, soul, mo-town, rock, singer-songwriter. So many female singer-songwriters— Jewel, Alanis Morissette, Sara McGlothlin.
DHR: Who would you consider the biggest influences musical influences from that starting place?
AT: Depending on the day, I have a different answer. I listened to a lot of Jewel back then. I also listened to a lot of Dolly Parton, Spice Girls, Destiny’s Child— those kind of empowering girl power groups. At the same time, my older brother was introducing me to Radiohead, Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie, Weezer, et cetera. My favorite bands are Dr. Dog and Bradi Carlile, and Joni Mitchell was crucial to my artistic development, too.
In my own music, I’m someone who likes abstract art and modern dance. I like things to be a little off-skew. I don’t really follow the beaten path. Things get a little wavy.
DHR: What’s the story behind the name Deau Eyes?
AT: Well, obviously, my last name is Thibodeau. I was singing back-up vocals for Lucy when I was in Whatever Honey, and I remember during one show at the National, I was saying, “I need a new name, nobody can spell mine, and it’s getting to be such a pain to explain on the microphone.”
And then, separate to that conversation, Lucy looked at me and said, “Look at you with your doe eyes!” And Hannah, who’s always picking up on puns, was like, “Haha, that’s funny.” And I was like, “Wow— that’s a great stage name.”
DHR: You’ve been on tour in the States— what was that like?
AT: On my first tour, I did a southern route from New Orleans back to Richmond, with a lot of stops in between. That was a crazy awesome life experience. We were in a van that had no air conditioning and no radio. You had to open the hood and turn off the engine from the inside. We camped everywhere we went. It was the middle of the summer and we were hot and sweaty. It was grungy.
Last year, I opened for Lucy on a few dates in the Midwest. We still managed to camp a few nights— I love camping— but we stayed a lot of AirBnBs and we upgraded our van to an SUV.
Now I’m doing a lot of solo touring. Any chance I have, I make a quick run up and down. I’ve made six or seven round trips.
DHR: Have you ever toured in Europe?
AT: I’ve never toured in Europe, but I’ve done a lot of open mics in Europe. I went there in 2014 with a couple hundred bucks and no return ticket, and I traveled around in a camper van, so I was doing open mics and busking wherever I could for a little extra money.
DHR: You’ve got a tattoo that says Dégagé— could you talk a bit about what that means?
AT: It means, “Make the best of what you have.”
I went to Haiti in 2013 and did a little service work there, and the people would say that to each other a lot. It’s also a dance term which means to disengage. Plus, someone recently told me that it means “fuck off” in French. (Laughs).
I never thought I’d get a tattoo, but the day that Donald Trump said that Haiti was a shithole country, I kind of meditated on my experience in Haiti for a while, and how resilient the people of Haiti are, and then I took a moment to actively respect them while getting this tattoo.
The Haitian people shared a lot of joy with us as well. It was a mutually life-giving experience. I in no way feel like I saved anyone, but I think we had a sense of bliss together in the moments that we shared.
DHR: Some might call that a form of salvation.
AT: I think that’s what life’s all about: sharing a mutual life-giving experience.
It’s important to have those in a world that seems divided. Having an experience through music, dance, art, or anything that brings you together is crucial. I feel very lucky that that’s part of my job.
DHR: What’s the coolest mutual life-giving experience that you’ve had while playing?
AT: Any time you have a large group of people around a cause, it’s a mutual life-giving experience. This Friday Cheers show is going to be like that.
I’m just as much a fan as I am a performer. I like to geek out about stuff, because it inspires me to make more things to geek out on.
DHR: When you play live music, you take over the vibe in a visual and aural way. It’s a mutual experience, because you’re getting love from the fans, but you’re the creator.
AT: It’s less about love from the fans and more about the fact that you’re creating something you hope will become someone else’s song. My goal is that I’ll share this song with you and you’ll make it yours.
Like this: what’s your favorite book?
DHR: Portrait of the Artist of a Young Man.
AT: James Joyce has no idea who you are. He’s dead. But that’s your book. You’ve imprinted your own experiences onto it.
I cannot wait for my songs to be other people’s songs. I can’t freaking wait.
I’ve had to learn to stay true to myself. That’s why I want this album to come out.
DHR: Have you felt the pressure yet to market yourself?
AT: Um, yeah. (Laughs).
DHR: Have you bitten the apple, so to speak?
AT: You have to market yourself, but you have to be true to yourself.
Well, I say that, but what do I know?
There are literally no rules. There is literally no wrong way to do it.
You don’t have someone over your shoulder telling you how to market yourself. There’s a freedom in marketing yourself in your own way.
I’ve had advice and help from so many generous people, but when someone says, “You need to market yourself this way,” or “You need to wear this,” or “You need to be pigeonholed into this punk track, or this country track”— I have no interest in that sort of thing, because at the end of the day, all that you have is you. The people that want you to be something else aren’t necessarily going to be there.
Writing songs has been a therapeutic safe haven for me my whole life. That’s a sacred space. You have to figure out how to present that to the world, of course, but you can do it in your own way.
I know that I’m going to evolve a lot. I mean, everyone will. (Laughs). But the music industry is changing a lot. There’s nothing you can really latch on to. My hope is that if I just stay honest and open and malleable, I’ll be able to keep doing this.
DHR: So, if I were to say, do you have any idea what the future holds, you would say…
AT: It’s going to be a wild adventure.