Songwriting for Mount Auburn – A Conversation with Todd Thibaud
In 2021, we made mini-grants to five artists to create original works inspired by the Cemetery during a one-year period. Each of the selected artists has created an original project rooted in their experiences at Mount Auburn. Today, meet singer-songwriter Todd Thibaud and learn about his creative process behind composing and recording two new songs related to Mount Auburn’s history.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your work.
I’m originally from Vermont, but moved to the Boson area in the late 1980s to be part of the incredible music scene that was happening around town. I was passionate about music and songwriting, but even so, at the time the idea of building a career as a musician felt elusive and dreamlike. Not long after settling into the area I started the band Courage Brothers with an old friend, Jim Wooster. We worked hard at writing, recording, and performing locally, and after a couple of years secured a record deal with a New England-based label called Eastern Front. That deal brought us national exposure and allowed us to get out on the road and tour the country. It didn’t take long for me to understand that I was hooked. I knew without a doubt that this was what I wanted to do with my life.
As often happens, our band eventually broke up, and I began my journey as a solo artist. It was a strange transition at first, but it was the right choice. I’ve always seen myself, first and foremost, as a songwriter. Everything else – recording, live performance, touring etc. – all stems from that. As an artist who tends to write from a personal perspective, being on my own has allowed me to let my songwriting go where it will, and to investigate the intricacies of life that inspire me most. I’ve been very fortunate to work for so long at something I love so much.
These days you can find me performing regionally, solo acoustic, with my band of talented musicians, or in duo/trio formats. I normally tour in Europe once or twice a year, but the pandemic has taken a toll on that part of my work. I’m looking forward to getting things back on track over there in 2023.
For your residency, you produced two original songs that both connect deeply with Mount Auburn’s history. Could you talk about the themes that these songs explore?
I think it’s easy and completely understandable to be swept away by the incredible beauty of Mount Auburn. That beauty certainly deserves to be acknowledged, but I also wanted the songs to be securely connected to Mount Auburn’s core mission as a place of rest for those who have passed on. In my writing process I never wanted to forget that for every stone there is a story: a life lived, whether short or long. And for the families left behind, the stone begins as a marker of grief, and only with time might it be seen as a place of comfort, healing, or inspiration.
I was also deeply inspired by the history of the place itself, the many remarkable people involved in its creation, and those laid to rest there. There are so many stories that deserve to be told. Initially, I felt pulled in several directions, but over time I settled on two distinct subjects. My goal then became to create two songs connected in different ways to our relationships with loss, grief, hope, and place. In addition, I wanted to keep both songs firmly rooted in the history and continued relevance of Mount Auburn Cemetery. My intent was to take a broader view in one song (Sweet Auburn), and a more personal, intimate approach in the other (Louisa May).
Tell us about your research process. What led you to pick these subjects for your songs?
One of the first things I read when I began my research was the text of Joseph Story’s Consecration Day address, given on September 24th, 1831. I was immediately drawn in by the beauty of the language and the powerful sentiment behind his words. It left me wanting to learn more about this remarkable man and this beautiful place he clearly loved so much. His address would remain a beacon for me as I continued my work over the next several months.
During my further research into Joseph Story, I learned that just five months before he would give his Consecration Day address, he had lost his beautiful young daughter Louisa May, age ten, to scarlet fever. I went on to discover that he had lost seven children previously, and that of his ten children only two survived to adulthood. I could only imagine the grief that this man must have carried. I couldn’t help but wonder what those months following Louisa May’s death must have been like for Joseph. And then, later that September when he stood in the Dell to give his beautiful address, what must he have been thinking and feeling in those moments? I knew that this was a story I wanted to tell.
At one point in my research, I stumbled upon a Boston area newspaper article written after Consecration Day, in 1831. The article explained that, in the late 18th century, prior to being known as Mount Auburn, the area had been affectionately referred to by visiting Harvard students as “Sweet Auburn.” The nickname coming from the poem, “The Deserted Village,” by Oliver Goldsmith. Almost immediately, I knew that one of the songs I would write would be entitled Sweet Auburn.
For songwriters, a good title can often provide a creative launching pad, allowing you to visualize a fledgling song as a completed whole. Not word for word, of course, but conceptually and directionally. I thought to myself, what if this beautiful place could tell us a bit of its own story? What would it want us to know? What would it say? This idea provided me with a clear framework to work within as I wrote my own version of Sweet Auburn.
Treating Mount Auburn as a living, breathing, sentient character allowed me to look at the landscape and its history in a more empathetic and personal way. Over the course of a few verses, I could treat the love and respect felt by so many for Mount Auburn as a two-way street. Doing so opened creative avenues that would have been harder to access had I taken a different tack. I’d never before taken this approach in my writing. I thoroughly enjoyed the process.
During your residency, you brought these songs from an initial creative concept into the final recording that audiences can listen to today. Could you talk about the steps that went into producing that finished work?
For these songs, the initial research process was a critical first step. Especially since my songs were primarily rooted in Mount Auburn’s history. I wanted to gain some understanding of the time, and a sense of what was important to the founders and citizens of that era. It was important to me to not simply tell stories steeped in historic fact, but to connect these songs to the deeper emotional energy behind these events. It’s easy sometimes to view historical figures in a one-dimensional manner. But behind each well-known name of history, there was a living, breathing human being, as vulnerable to the pains, tragedies, and challenges of the human experience as you or I. I wanted to make sure that the songs acknowledged those deeper layers.
The next step was the writing itself. What always works best for me is to make extensive handwritten notes. To write down everything that strikes me as important, and to let that information percolate in my thoughts for a period of time. I like the physical notebook because I can leaf through it whenever I want, circle passages that hold special weight, and write side notes or quick lyric snippets that might eventually work their way into the song. I’ll often have a melody idea in my head as I’m working on lyrics, which can help with the phrasing and cadence of each line. Once I have a key phrase, or a few verse lines to work with, I’ll work with my guitar to refine the form and the melody. That refined form provides me with a template to work within as I make progress toward the finished lyrics. It’s often a process of trial and error. Writing and re-writing. Moving lines, changing single words. My goal is to settle on what feels most true and honest, and to discover what approach conveys the essence of the song most effectively. If I feel moved by a passage, my hope is that the audience will as well.
Throughout the songwriting process, I’m already thinking ahead to how I’d like to record the tracks. Songs tend to have a “voice” about them, and if you’ll let them, they’ll often guide you to where they should land. In the case of these songs, I knew that I wanted to keep the production very intimate and traditional. I wanted them to sound as much “of the time” as they could. To help achieve that, I reached out to a longtime collaborator of mine, Sean Staples. Sean is an extremely talented multi-instrumentalist, who is very knowledgeable about traditional music arrangement. He was invaluable in the final production of these songs.
I had been thinking that it would be nice to connect the recordings to Mount Auburn in some way, and wondered if we might be able to set up in Bigelow Chapel and record the songs there. Everyone at Mount Auburn was very accommodating, and Sean and I spent a day there in early April recording in the incredible acoustics of that space. We later took those performances to Sean’s personal studio so that we could add some additional instrumentation before declaring the songs complete. From that point it was up to me to create the final mix of each song, and then arrange for them to be mastered by a mastering engineer. That final stage gives you the finished versions that you can hear now.
How has your connection to Mount Auburn evolved during your residency?
I love the place! I’m smiling as I say that, but it’s true. I’ve really developed a deep love for Mount Auburn, and a personal connection to the place and its people that fills me with gratitude. Inspiration is everything for a songwriter, and Mount Auburn has inspired me on so many levels. It’s been an honor and privilege to tell some of its story. And if these songs might somehow come to occupy a small sliver of space in Mount Auburn’s ongoing history, it would be deeply gratifying to me. I feel tethered to the place now, and it’s now become an important part of my own personal story.