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Joel Thetford’s ‘January Heartbreak’ a healing triumph

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Broken heart? There’s an album for that. For many songwriters, music is sometimes the best therapy, and that’s especially true when the songwriter has weathered a personal crisis. Watershed breakup albums like Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks,” Beck’s “Sea Change” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” were all born from relationships gone south, no doubt brutal to endure, but each resulted in high art.

The new studio album from prolific Maine-based singer and songwriter Joel Thetford materialized from similarly dark circumstances with results akin to those aforementioned musical milestones. “January Heartbreak,” out April 19, is his most powerful work to date.

Thetford’s new music arrives less than five months after the excellent “Jacksboro Highway” and finds the artist in full collaboration mode for the first time. Singer, songwriter and performer Renée Coolbrith co-wrote and co-produced “January Heartbreak” with Thetford, lending the artist a new perspective and new sounds on seven original songs, and a well-chosen cover by The Mallett Brothers Band.

A fertile collaborator in the Portland music scene, Coolbrith has worked with a number of artists including Sarah Violette and Spose. She recently wrapped a new record with Maine rockers Johnny Cremains and is currently working on a solo record of her own with a variety of seasoned veterans of the Maine music scene.

In a dual interview with The Maine Edge, Thetford and Coolbrith told me they’ve known each other through the Portland music community for years and decided to finally make good on a promise to work together after learning they were each going through a similar circumstance.

“January was a difficult month for me and these songs all came out of that experience,” Thetford said. “As it turned out, Renée was going through a breakup at the same time.”

Thetford’s voice melds perfectly with Coolbrith’s throughout “January Heartbreak” beginning with the haunting opening track “The Storm.”

“Crooked nails hanging from my walls, took down your pictures and I blocked your calls, well I did” the duo sing as the music intensifies and builds around their voices.

“As Renée told me the other day, ‘Joel, you are the storm,” Thetford said as both laughed.

Thetford said he had a premonition about a pending personal storm last October when he began writing songs for the record that became “January Heartbreak.”

The mid-tempo “Keep Me” is a simple but affecting account of some of the thoughts a person might have connected to a breakup. Thetford’s unfeigned vocal is augmented with a chorus of Coolbrith’s backing vocals as the instrumentation escalates before fading into a trail of notes provided by producer Ryan Ordway and keyboardist Ben Cosgrove, mainstays in each Thetford project.

“Ryan came up with a lot of those finishing touches on the outros, along with Ben who is reacting to what he’s hearing in the studio,” Thetford said. Ordway contributed further instrumentation throughout the album, including guitar, according to Thetford.

One of the record’s most powerful tracks, “1000 Setting Suns” presents two perspectives on the broken relationship at the heart of this record. Thetford and Coolbrith each take a verse before singing together on the last chorus.

“It was beautiful to come together for this album,” Coolbrith said. “I couldn’t be more proud of Joel. We stretched him in some directions he’s not used to, and he thrives in it.”

An example of Thetford’s stretching on “January Heartbreak” can be heard in “The Cost,” a track that opens with pedal steel guitar from former Mainer Adam Kurtz, currently an in-demand session player in Nashville.

Thetford said he was unsure at first about “The Cost,” especially when it was suggested that he push his vocal to its limit.

“I’m screaming towards the end, almost like something you’d hear from Metallica and I really struggled with that,” Thetford admits. “I wanted to redo it but Ryan said ‘trust me’ and Renée said it was good. I sat on it and listened again at the end of the project and realized they were right.”

The title song opens with a wistful acoustic guitar before evolving into a musical tsunami in its second half as guitarist Matt Robbins dials in the perfect amount angst to mirror the emotion in Thetford’s voice.

Bassist Stu Mahan and drummer Jeff Armstrong also appear on “January Heatbreak,”

Thetford and Coolbrith trade verses again on “Wasted Love,” as they observe the splintered shards of what used to be a relationship. It’s the perfect setup for what follows, the album’s only cover song, “Wish You Well,” a track that first appeared on The Mallett Brothers Band’s 2011 LP “Low Down.”

“That’s been a favorite track of mine for a long time,” Thetford said. A native of Forth Worth, Texas, he shared a house with the Malletts not long after moving to Maine nearly 15 years ago.

The album’s closing track “Don’t Need Your Love” is the flipside of the opening “The Storm.” With its funky groove and audible swagger in Thetford’s voice, it’s actually a dance track. The protagonist in “The Storm” who had his heart ripped out and tossed into a virtual wood-chipper has come back to life. The sun has risen again and he has good reason to get up and enjoy it.

“He’s sassy at the end,” Coolbrith happily exclaims when I bring it up. “He doesn’t take any shit anymore at the end,” she said.

The funky bass was provided by none other than Dave Gutter of Rustic Overtones.

“Of course, Dave Gutter brought the funk!” Coolbrith chimed.

Thetford and Coolbrith plan to live stream a concert on Friday, April 23, to celebrate the release of “January Heartbreak.” The show will be available on their respective social media pages.

“Now we just need to learn how to play the songs,” Thetford laughed.

The album’s striking cover image of a frozen sunflower is from photographer Lindsey Best.

“It looks like the sunflower is trying to stay above water,” Thetford said of the image he selected from a number of candidates after he sent the photographer 80 sunflowers with which to experiment.

Thetford feels that he’s in a better place today, and he said the process of writing and recording this record helped get him there.

“I felt like I was in a healthy environment when we did this album,” he said. “I was surrounded by people who really cared about making the songs great.”

“January Heartbreak” will be available through all digital outlets on April 19. Thetford said he also plans to release the album on CD soon.

Last modified on Wednesday, 14 April 2021 05:53

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