Indie

Inside Lucy Dacus’ Rise To Becoming One Of The Most Nuanced Songwriters Of Her Generation

In early January, Third Man Records announced a pressing of a 1973 Carole King concert, recorded live in New York City’s Central Park. If that wasn’t enticing enough, the package also contains singer-songwriter Lucy Dacus recording two King classics, “Home Again” and “It’s Too Late.” Dacus is no stranger to covers: In 2019, she commemorated various holidays with standalone singles, including a hushed version of Phil Collins‘ “In the Air Tonight,” an urgent take on Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark” and a rocked-up spin on Wham!’s “Last Christmas.”

These covers illustrate the Virginia native’s acumen as an interpreter; she’s never afraid of bold reinventions. But much like King, Dacus is also a singular songwriter — a once-in-a-generation talent who crafts nuanced songs driven by thoughtful, observational lyrics. Across her three studio albums are songs about yearning to shed old perceptions (“I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore”), navigating through a rough breakup (“Night Shift”), or trying desperately to let someone see their self-worth (“Please Stay”). These are common themes, to be sure — but Dacus’ approach to lyrics makes even familiar ground seem fresh.

First off, Dacus has an incisive eye for detail — unsurprising, given that she studied film in college before deciding to leave. This means a song like “Night Shift” feels more like the setup for a rich rom-com more than anything. “The first time I tasted somebody else’s spit / I had a coughing fit” is a vivid enough image to start a song just on its own. But then the embarrassing situation is complicated by the next lines: “I mistakenly called them by your name / I was let down, it wasn’t the same.” This is the reality of trying to move on from a relationship: Things feel awkward and uncomfortable, deeply imperfect, and you likely are going to have missteps.

Yet the quiet brilliance of “Night Shift” is its subtle shift to optimism. Later in the song, Dacus sings: “In five years, I hope the songs feel like covers / Dedicated to new lovers.” Even though things seem messy and wrong now, she can see a future where things are better. In a 2018 Fader interview, Dacus spoke about the song and noted the way it helped her move on. “It feels so good to sing that song because I honestly am not entirely past that relationship. It was really toxic, but singing the song was such a step towards waking up from many years of being blind to my own needs.”

Songs aren’t always autobiographical, of course. But Dacus excels at making her personal songs feel universal. And not only is she willing to be vulnerable, but she’s thought very deeply about how to best present this vulnerability onstage, which makes her shows a riveting communal experience. This open presence stems from the time Dacus spent acting in theater productions growing up. “It took it some time to separate music from theater for me, to realize music is a different type of sharing,” she told The Fader in 2016. “But it is so much different because you make it yourself, and you’re talking to the audience as yourself. You’re not pretending to be a character.”

Dacus is in tune with her stage self no doubt due to her love of journaling, a habit she’s done since she was a kid. When she had some of her more recent journals stolen in 2016, she noted it shifted the way she chronicled her own life. “Now journaling is different because I feel like I have to go back, and have those memories come back to me,” Dacus told The Fader. “I have to quickly put them down, and try to be as true to what happened as I can. I don’t know why I do that, it’s an impulse that I just follow.”

It’s easy to see how many of her songs are informed by a need to document things that happen around her. The song “Historians,” the de facto title track to her 2018 album Historian, speaks to a desire to document a romance: “You said, ‘Don’t go changing / I’ll rearrange to let you in / And I’ll be your historian / And you’ll be mine / And I’ll fill pages of scribbled ink / Hoping the words carry meaning.” It’s as if a relationship doesn’t exist if it’s not written down — and the only way to make sense of things is viewing it through a filtered lens. Yet Dacus also realizes the perils of over-documentation. Historian‘s “The Shell” wrestles with the idea of trying to force inspiration (“You don’t wanna be a creator / Doesn’t mean you’ve got nothing to say”) while lamenting songwriting pigeonholes (“You don’t have to be sad to make something worth hearing”).

Of course, emotional clarity can sometimes be hard to achieve. By nature, memory and identity are slippery things, and just because a story exists doesn’t mean it’s the whole truth. That thought was clearly on Dacus’ mind as she discussed the songs on her newest album, 2021’s stunning Home Video. Her source material ended up being the journals she kept during childhood and adolescence — the ones that weren’t stolen, but ones that documented a far different time in her life.

“It was intentional that I talk plainly on this album about things that actually happened because I hadn’t done that yet,” she told The New York Times. Surveying her private writings as an adult was an illuminating experience. “Almost reliably the perspective is true, and the entry is not, and I’m pissed about that because I would really like to know what I thought in the moment,” she added. “Who’s to know which one I should trust more?” To NPR, she explained, “It really shows you how memory is just like a fiction that you come up with. I’d like, write what I wanted to remember and leave out the details that I wouldn’t.”

The fact that Dacus had space to fill in details goes a long way to explaining why Home Video is even more detailed than her previous albums. “Thumbs” details how she and a friend met the latter’s absent father in a bar. He hasn’t been in her life for years, and the meeting is excruciating (“Your nails are digging into my knee / I don’t know how you keep smiling”). An angry Dacus longs to tell her friend she doesn’t need to indulge her father, but the complex nature of familial relationships is painfully on the surface throughout.

“VBS,” meanwhile, is a true story about her first boyfriend, a church camp bad boy who snorted nutmeg and loved Slayer. This simple story is complicated by what’s not mentioned: On the periphery of the song are references to secrets (“Your dad keeps his sleeves down through the summer for a reason / Your mother wears her makeup extra thick for a reason”) and how heavy these can be — they’re “sedentary secrets like peach pits in your gut.”

The album is about learning to be comfortable with ambiguity, while realizing the truth is blurry. On “Hot & Heavy,” she says, “You used to be so sweet / Now you’re a firecracker on a crowded street / Couldn’t look away even if I wanted.” Depending on perspective, a firecracker is welcome or a nuisance — and that perspective. And as she told Genius about the song’s meaning: “I realized along the way that it was just about me outgrowing past versions of myself.”

Above all, Dacus’ songs are about searching for your true self, and trying to pinpoint the molding moments along the way. In early 2022, she released “Kissing Lessons,” a song dating from 2017 that resurfaced during the Home Video sessions. The song details dalliances with a best friend. “Kissing Lessons” is a remembrance of childhood innocence and the way intense friendships ebb and flow — but also foreshadows (and legitimizes) future queer awakenings. “But I still wear a letter R charm on my bracelet / And wonder if she thinks of me as her first kiss.” With the benefit of time, Dacus can see things more clearly — although the pieces of the puzzle aren’t quite yet in place.

Home Video is out 6/25 via Matador. Get it here.

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