The Unbearable Lightness of Being Death Vessel

Death Vessel Band Photo

Joel Thibodeau, who performs under the name Death Vessel, floats in mid-air above a rock, which could be a metaphor for his music.

Joel Thibodeau has an angelic falsetto and plays a vintage acoustic guitar. It’s not the sound you’d expect from someone who performs under the name Death Vessel. Yet despite the dark moniker, the modern folk singer-songwriter’s latest album, Island Intervals (released last month on Sub Pop), masterfully blends moments of contemplation and self realization with fleeting glimpses into a nomadic life full of intricate connections, discovery, loss, and lightness.

Lyrically, Joel (pronounced jo-ell) draws from personal experience and the people he meets during his international travels. With his whimsical vocals and clever turns of phrase, Joel’s songs feel far-flung, yet familiar. Likewise, his songwriting is modern, but analog; complex, yet spare. “I usually end up finding a desk somewhere with a mechanical pencil, and an eraser. I’ll spend hours trying to get to the essence of what I need to,” says Joel, who also references an enormous vintage dictionary. “Having a physical dictionary to thumb through is helpful with creating new ideas.”

Songwriting begins when he plucks away on his early-1960s 604 Silvertone guitar, which the Providence-based musician picked up from a friend, local guitar maker Otto D’Ambrosio. “The music comes naturally, to a degree,” he says of writing. So did the instrument. “I was getting into finger-style playing and looking for more of a parlor guitar,” which are slightly smaller instruments popular among folk musicians. “When I picked it up the first time, I instantly fell for it.”

Death Vessel Band Photo in field

The Providence-based singer-songwriter, who began touring for his new album this week, will perform at the Newport Folk Festival this summer.

The beautiful and eerie sounds of Island Intervals mirror the mystic vistas of Iceland, where the album was recorded. Joel, who’ll play at the Newport Folk Festival this summer, spent three months in Reykjavik with producer Alex Somers and Sigur Ros frontman Jónsi to create the record. (Also on board was long-time friend and multi-instrumentalist Pete Donnelly, of NRBQ.) The tracks are saturated with entrancing vibrations, hymnal melodies, and masterfully layered musical arrangements that at times create the sense of forces coming together and pulling apart; it’s the kind of transcendent music that might make you forget, say, that you’re listening to a band playing music. One of the main things that draws Joel to play, he says, is music’s universal language. “It taps into a whole other way of communicating that you can’t do with words.”

Being in Iceland was itself an inspiration, as traveling is a source of joy for Joel, who began touring for the album earlier this week. “Seeing other parts of the world helps you get a better perspective on your own community, family, and living situation,” he says. All wanderlust aside, though, the German-born, Maine-raised singer is happy to call Providence home. “Rhode Island has been the source of my music community,” he says. “Providence, especially, is a very vibrant city for music and art.”

Photos by Corey Grayhorse.

Jonathan Clancy is a writer and photographer who enjoys learning about the lives and passions of other people. Always looking for the story behind the story, his career as a journalist began with a concert review of Delta Blues legend David "Honeyboy" Edwards; it was one of his final performances. His work, which has appeared in Newport This Week and other publications, focuses on the arts, fitness, food and beverage, and lifestyle sports, but he’s happy to write about anything where he sees a unique twist.

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