Todd Thibaud – Patiently persevering
As much as Burlington, Vermont, native Todd Thibaud has learned about creating fine rootsy pop, he also understands the value of just getting on with life regardless of its uncontrollable vagaries.
Thibaud moved to Boston in 1987, ostensibly to gain a job in advertising but with an eye on the Hub’s bustling music scene. Interim employment with a company that provided supplies to professional recording studios nudged him towards the latter.
“I realized that I really, really wanted to be a musician,” he says emphatically, punctuating his admission with an easy, richly toned laugh that peppers his conversation.
Boston was booming with the alternative rock of the Pixies and Dinosaur Jr. — not exactly the kind of music Thibaud’s band, the country toned Courage Brothers, was playing. “It was an odd time if you put it in the context of the music I do,” he recalls. “There wasn’t a huge niche for that kind of thing. In a way it was a plus and a minus.”
The plus was that the Courage Brothers stood out from the crowd, even if the rock consensus didn’t understand them. “In the local music awards we were always in the ‘Best Local Country Band’ category. I’m telling people, ‘If I go to Nashville and say I’m in a country band, they’d drive me out of town.'”
As the alt-country scene emerged in the mid-1990s, though, the Courage Brothers had the right sound at the right time, and stood poised to sign with Sony imprint Relativity. But the timing was off in another way this time. “Relativity was really interested in signing us, but the band was on its last legs,” Thibaud explains. “My partner, Jim Wooster, was going to get out and I was going to continue on.
Still, Relativity signed Thibaud in 1995 on the understanding that he make one CD using the Courage Brothers name, before emerging under his own. All seemed well and good.
“I really felt that all the ducks were in a row,” he acknowledges. “They were great people at the label and we were going to go into the studio. Then right after Christmas, Sony fired all the people at the label, and got rid of all the rock acts and decided to go back to being an urban label.”
Thibaud was devastated. “At that point, it was a really dark time,” he says. “Now I have more perspective after doing this for so long. But back then we were so desperate for a record deal. When that got pulled away, inevitably you’re left thinking, ‘How can I do that again?'”
It was another musician, noted songwriter/guitarist/producer Kevin Salem, who urged Thibaud from his rejection-fueled depression. “Kevin snapped me out of it. He was really positive. He was like, ‘Look, you were going to make a record, you should still make it. That’s how I ended up making Favorite Waste Of Time without a label and with him.”
With Salem producing, Thibaud not only proved to himself that he didn’t need a record label to make a record, but that he could do it under his own name. “I’d be a liar if I said it wasn’t important to me that people like what I do,” he says. “Luckily it was all very nicely received and it set me on the right path — gave me a feeling that I was doing the right thing.”
The record was picked up by Austin indie Doolittle Records, which also released a follow-up, Little Mystery, in 1999. Shortly thereafter, however, Doolittle was acquired by New West Records, which reconfigured the roster and let Thibaud go in the process.
This time, Thibaud simply got on with making his next record, Squash, backed by his regular band of Thomas Juliano (electric guitars, backing vocals), Jeff St. Pierre (bass), and Phil Antoniades (drums).
After that album was done, Thibaud met up with fellow singer-songwriters Chris Burroughs, Terry Lee Hale and Joseph Parsons in Tucson, Arizona, to record an album collectively under the name Hardpan for European label Blue Rose.
The session was booked to begin on September 11. “I flew out of Logan [Boston’s airport] on September 10 on American Airlines,” he says. “On the news it said that there was surveillance footage of Mohammed Atta in the terminal I was in, scoping it out on September 10th.”
Thibaud released Squash on his own in the fall of 2001. Though he says that “I wasn’t looking for another label,” one came knocking. Massachusetts roots-rock indie Tone-Cool, a Rounder affiliate, picked up Squash for broader distribution in the fall of 2002.
“You’re just hoping that you find the right label and the machinery will work,” he says. Rather than cynicism at his jagged career, Thibaud, who recently turned 40, radiates graceful ease: “In some ways I feel like in the last couple of years it’s just stared to gel.”