Music

Lucy Dacus Is Ready To Be Your Next Favorite Indie Rock Star

Dustin Condren

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I first came across Lucy Dacus’ music in 2016, in the same way that everyone who cared about Lucy Dacus in 2016 discovered her — I heard “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore,” a funny-sad mid-tempo rocker that begins with Dacus wryly talking her way into a band.

“I got a too short skirt, maybe I can be the cute one,” she sings, in a soft purr that’s oddly timeless — you could imagine Dacus singing blues and jazz numbers in the ’40s as much as contemporary indie-rock. “Is there room in the band? I don’t need to be the frontman / If not, then I’ll be the biggest fan.”

At the time that she recorded “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore” and the rest of her debut album, No Burden, Dacus truly had wandered unexpectedly into a music career. An aspiring filmmaker, Dacus hadn’t even sung with a band before No Burden, which was initiated by her friend and collaborator, Jacob Blizard, for a school project that was knocked out in just 20 hours.

What Dacus did have, however, were songs. She had been filling notebooks with poetry and lyrical observations for years. Now she finally had a vehicle for sharing those words with an audience.

On Friday, the 22-year-old Dacus will release her second album, Historian, the title of which refers to her perspective on songwriting as a form of record-keeping for her life and times. She still thinks of herself primarily as a writer, even as she’s become an emerging rock star. Unlike No Burden, which started out as a zero-profile indie release, Historian has garnered several weeks’ worth of pre-release publicity. A New York Times reporter even spent an entire year interviewing her for a recent profile. Given that the actual album has been finished since early 2017, Dacus’ days lately have been filled mainly with interviews, as opposed music-making, though she’s kept up with her writing.

What makes Dacus’ ascent to media-darling status all the more impressive is that she, at heart, remains steadfastly unflashy. She is “just” a really good singer-songwriter who is adept at leavening confessional songs about busted-up relationships, aging out of adolescence, and mortality with choice one-liners. (A personal favorite, from “Next Of Kin”: “I’m at peace with my death / I can go back to bed.”)

But even for a fan of No Burden, the strides that Dacus makes musically on Historian are striking, and indicative of an artist who is rapidly coming into her own and still staking out wide swaths of new territory. The powerful opening track “Night Shift,” which details the end of a romantic coupling with sardonic wit and more than a little rage, builds from Dacus’ low, expressive vocal to a bracing climax that frankly rocks much harder than anything on No Burden.

I phoned Dacus last month to talk about her personal and artistic evolution on Historian, as well as some of the growing pains she’s experienced as a budding indie star still living in her hometown of Richmond, Virginia.

You’ve been sitting with this album for so long. How do you feel on the eve of its release?

All the feelings are happening, even the mundane ones. It’s stressful, anticipatory, and I’m anxious for people to hear it, in a positive way. I’m doing a ton of interviews and I’m online a lot. I don’t normally check my phone this much, but now I am. But also I’m just at home. This is before everything begins. I feel drawn to just nest, see the people I love, and be at peace in my town.

Has your perception of the album changed at all since you finished it?

Not really. I think that the concept is just what it is, and since it’s recorded and it hasn’t changed, I haven’t really changed what I think about it. I guess I’m proud of it, so I wouldn’t want it to change. I’m not regretting any of the decisions we made, which feels nice. The content is so true to who I am, and nearly factual, that I don’t think I could really hope to change the content, because if I were to change anything about it, it would just be less true.

I imagine you’ve already accumulated a fair amount of new material in the meantime.

I’m always writing. I’ve been writing a little bit less music — I’ve been writing personal essays, which has been an interesting shift. [But] I can kind of see how the third record is shaping up already, which is really exciting. I know that we’re eager to get back into the studio, always. We love just the process of recording. I don’t know when that will happen, but I’m excited for it.

An obvious difference between Historian and No Burden is that the new record was made with the knowledge that you have an audience now, and the media is also paying attention. Did knowing that effect how you approached the record at all?

What’s great is that it didn’t impact my process, even though I was thinking about it. I don’t take for granted there’s a bigger audience now, but luckily my writing is the same, just because my writing is so elusive, even to me. I don’t really know why, or when, or how I write. I just occasionally have to listen to my thoughts, as they’re happening. I guess I was wondering if things were going to come out at all, and if they did, if they were going to come out clear to an audience, but what has come out has actually been more personal than No Burden, even. I think maybe the biggest effect is knowing that people want to hear what I have to say, which is amazing, and not everybody gets that explicit validation. Maybe I’m just willing to share more about myself, because I’ve gotten the thumb’s up from fans.

The first time I played the record, I was blown away by “Night Shift.” Even as a fan of No Burden, I felt like that song was a major step forward, especially in terms of the music, which really sprawls and, well, rocks harder than anything you’ve done.

It’s the first breakup song I’ve ever written, and there’s a lot of raw emotion to it. Also, it’s about something really specific, and that has taken a lot of bravery I haven’t had up until this point, to be specific and truthful. I can look back on No Burden and kind of know where the songs came from, but it’s a little more general. This album is really based on specific difficulties, maybe even difficulties I’m even still in the middle of. Beyond the [lyrics], it is a first for me to get that loud at the end. Writing it felt like a release, and singing it every night feels like a release as well.

You mentioned how getting some validation from your audience emboldened you to get more personal and specific in your songs. Would you say you feel more confident now as a songwriter and record-maker?

I’ve never not been confident, but something happened when I started playing music for crowds. I was shaken for a second, because so many people had an idea of who I was, so I had to take that in, and accommodate the parts that I agreed with, and push away the parts that don’t ring true to me. It does feel like I’ve had a resurgence of confidence — I know myself better, and it feels like a victory, because I think the songs sound like a victory, at least to me, and the melodies feel that way to me, too, just in my throat. It feels like… a roar, like you said. It feels like I’m coming out of something, and I hope that comes across.

I’m always intrigued by autobiographical songwriters, because I wonder if you can ever turn the songwriter part of your brain off. I’ve talked with artists who admit that there’s a part of themselves that’s always at a slight remove, and constantly observing their lives for a potential lyric. Is that true for you?

I never think that way, but I think that happens subconsciously, where there’s some little mechanism, a mental machine within me, that’s taking in my life and kind of tossing it around, and chipping away at the edges to create this refined thought that, once it’s done, I’m allowed to look at it. That’s kind of how I feel, like there’s a separate entity within me that’s synthesizing my life, and once it is done, it reveals it to me. It almost feels like it doesn’t even really come from me. So I’m sure that that mechanism is watching all the time, but I never experience that and think, ‘Well, sounds like great song material.’ I always feel a little minimized by people who say that to me. Or people saying, ‘you should write about Trump.’ I wish I could write something eloquent about it, but I’m so angry. [If] what I write is really dumb and stupid, it wouldn’t actually be effective to share it.

The cliché about personal songwriting is that it’s “cathartic.” Do you feel that it’s actually therapeutic to write songs, in terms of understanding your own life?

Yeah, I think it is cathartic, but in a surprising way. Again, I feel like the songs come out of their own being, and so I make up this song, and then I get to look at it, and see where it’s coming from. Kind of like self-therapy, or something. But even if it wasn’t, there would still be an impulse there to make something. I don’t think that life happens without confusion, and I write, usually, from a place of confusion and trying to understand. I guess catharsis is a type of understanding.

Is there a particular song on this record that you felt was especially cathartic, and helped you understand something that happened to you?

“Pillar Of Truth” felt really good to write, because it helped me put words to what I was seeing while I was watching my grandmother die. It sounds like a really intense and sad experience, but a lot of my emotions are really positive during that time because she was so dignified, and composed, and peaceful in the face of her own death. And I felt really proud of her, to be associated to her, and proud to be present. It felt kind of wrong, to have positive feelings during the death of a loved one, and being able to write it in a more eloquent way, being able to have it translate into a song, felt a little more human.

In the song “Nonbeliever,” you sing, “If you find what you’re looking for / be sure to send a postcard / You promised you’d never forget / the little ones when you got big.” That seems to directly address the awkwardness of being an emerging artist with a national reputation who also lives in a small town.

What’s funny about that line is, I wrote it in 2012, when I was in high school. And I hadn’t even played music for Richmond audiences yet. I found that song last year, in an old journal, and that part rang true to me more even than when it did when I wrote it. “Nonbeliever,” in general, is about defecting away from what’s safe, and from expectations, and dealing with perceptions from other people. I do feel, in a way, that I’ve defecting from what was expected for me, because I was in film school and on a totally different path. I don’t know, I still struggle with that hometown dynamic.

The “don’t forget the little people” thing?

Yeah, people say, ‘don’t let it get to your head.’ What’s funny is you forget people no matter who you are. I don’t remember everyone from my high school, but it just so happens that I have a really public, visible life. People from my high school remember me, and know I understand the stereotype of people getting too big to remember there roots. But I do remember my roots, and everyone who has affected me is still really close, and I try really hard to keep in touch with the people that mean something to me.

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