Lucy Dacus Is Paranoid, In Pain, and Writing Great Indie Songs By Accident
We talk to the rising Virginia songstress about nihilism, queerness, and getting heavy on her knockout second album, 'Historian.'
Lucy Dacus is a little nervous. Currently, she’s draining her second glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice in Canter’s Deli, the Los Angeles diner scene stalwart. Her cat-green eyes are placid and fixed politely on me, however, her mind has wandered back across the street to No Name, the venue where she just wrapped sound check for the show she’ll play in less than three hours. She’s been onstage in LA before—in fact, the last time she gigged here was her first performance in a major market—but back then, she was just a guitar-toting, stop-sign-red lipstick-wearing Southern gal with nothing to prove. Tonight, the invite-only industry crowd will arrive with expectations.
Dacus, though, has none. “I don't really intend to write songs. They just happen to be written,” she says with Buddhist calm.
Intentional or not, those songs have built up a lot of anticipation. If you’ve heard the 22-year-old Richmond, Virginia singer’s debut, 2016’s No Burden, you know why—the album opened with Rolling Stone’s 17th best song of the year, “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore,” an exceptionally apt calling card for her songwriting personality, winking yet grounded by some small, sad and unspecified weight she’s carrying.
When you hear Historian, her sophomore album released today, you’ll realize any expectations were too low—quoting the first lines of Historian’s first song (she’s setting a hell of a precedent) almost feels like a spoiler: “The first time I tasted somebody else’s spit,” she issues in a dark-roasted, matter-of-fact singsong. “I had a coughing fit.”
For someone who never meant to become an indie rock artist, Dacus sure knows how to land the punch, a one-two of pithy lyrics with equal measures bemused and/or sarcastic observations and emotional vulnerability delivered alternately with a cool tone or throaty intensity. A Wes Anderson-esuqe theatricality imbues her music, which makes sense: After graduating from high school, she enrolled in a film program at Virginia Commonwealth University and studied for a year before “taking some time off,” much to her parents’ chagrin.
Her career happened fast—just two years ago she was working 9-to-5 as a photo editor of yearbook pictures—but she’d sorta been preparing for it for years. She’s kept a journal since she was in elementary school, so although she’d never sung with a band, she had plenty of source material for lyrics when her collaborator Jacob Blizard asked her to record No Burden as a school project.
That she’s coming into the industry with no preconceived notions means she’s building the kind of industry she wants to see, not more of what already exists. And that means women. Lots and lots more women, especially those with, as she says, “top dog” status.
“There are assholes everywhere. Sound guys who will address my band and not me,” she says. “I really miss seeing women in charge of things. I'd love to see or at least know about labels run by women. Or venues run by women. Sound women. I'm always thrilled when I have a sound woman to talk to, because without a doubt, they are more attentive. Every time I had a female sound person, they were way more communicative and understanding.”
Early on in label conversations—eventually won out by Matador—another contender prefaced their conversation with, “We signed a lot of women already, so we’d have to hold off a while on signing you.”
Dacus stopped them right there.
“No. No thank you! I'm not working with you,” she says, laughing.
Noisey: What was it like growing up in Richmond?
Lucy Dacus: I love Richmond. I grew up in the suburbs, a rural area and went to high school in the city and really engaged with music scene there. I still love it. I don't want to leave at all. I just bought a house. People are like, “When are you moving to New York?” I'm like, NEVER. Especially when my family is in Richmond. I like to be around them. It's hard enough keeping in touch on the road. I try to be present when I can.
What were shows you saw there that were meaningful to you?
Broken Social Scene. 2010. That show just expanded my idea of musicianship. And arrangements and performance and camaraderie. They were just a real band like I hadn’t seen. And St. Vincent. Her power is immense. A singer/songwriter in like a heavy band that verges on punk rock. But she has a sweet, beautiful voice. I’ve felt I have a really quiet voice, but she was just capable of exuding power without sacrificing beauty.
You mentioned something about the “baggage” people bring to musicians. What do you mean?
People have this idea of rock ‘n' roll—a dirty, sexy, violent kind of person. Which is like the opposite of how I feel and I am. And yet I still talk to people who are like, "So, do you have to deal with groupies? Have you ever hooked up with somebody on the road? It must be so crazy you just constantly living a life of excess!" Even if that was an option, which it isn't, that sounds horrible. Music is fun. But being associated with a lifestyle like that seems really minimizing to what musicians’ lives are. Which are as normal and abnormal as much as anybody else's.
We've built up this idea of what it is like, and then you get inside the life and it's nothing like the fantasy that was supposed to solve all your problems and ease all your pain.
Yeah, and then there's a new type of pain—feeling paranoid or like people watching you have expectations or are judging you or you don't deserve what you have. You have a bad day and you bump into somebody by accident. People don't hold that against you. But if you're well-known, people will hold it against you. There’s a kind of a strictness to being known. I kinda feel this paranoia that I'm not used to. I don't want to complain about people appreciating my work. That sounds like the most ungrateful thing. But I've had a couple of really weird run-ins with people invading my privacy. I went to the doctor and he recognized me and showed me a video where he went to one of my shows. I'm hoping that kinda fades out.
I also want to talk about the Southern thing. I think if you live there you have a complicated relationship with it, right? It's obviously who you are and what gave you your stories. But on the other hand you have to contend with other people who are not quite willing—
Richmond is kind of on the fence. It was the capital of the Confederacy. So it's not geographically the most southern state like say. Birmingham. But it's really a divisive time. So many Confederate statues. They're everywhere. We have a market that is littered with so many Confederates on horses. The Museum of the Confederacy, the White House of the Confederacy. Even in my neighborhood. The PARK I like to go to, there's a monument to fallen Confederate soldiers. I don't know. I really don't like them. I don't want them to be around. But then there are Confederate flag-bearing protesters saying the South will rise again. Like that really exists. And then there's like this third party opinion in Richmond that’s like, “We can't forget the past, it was bad but we can't forget it. So we shouldn't take them down.” I have a friend who has the best idea: "We can keep the statues, just take the soldiers off the horses and leave the horses." Everyone loves the statues as art. Symbolism is the problem. So. Take off the guy and then we just have a pretty horse.
So. Tell me how you wrote Historian. You said hope is woven throughout it, which is pretty different.
Maybe for most people but I think that's the only thing I ever write about. Reaching for it. It's not always with confidence. It's like occasionally with crossed fingers. A lot of shrugging and a loosened grip. I write when I am in need of assurance for myself that I can stay hopeful. It's usually in the face of like a confusion or crisis. Not every confusion or crisis is bad. Like a crush on somebody. The old album has a lot of lighthearted craziness. This album is not as lighthearted. It's a lot heavier.
Last night while I was listening to it, a friend said, "This is too sad!" But if you listen to the lyrics, it's not—it just has a weight to it.
That's what I've been saying. It's weighty. Like, the songs are sad. They're doing things that are really difficult and I feel them personally, still. But every message ends up with a hopeful thought. Maybe the only one that isn't a hopeful is the last song. Because to me, songs [one through nine] set up this rule of hopefulness does survive. But even if that's true, it doesn’t make pain hurt any less. It ends on a sad note. But it can't be all sunshine and the album is from the point of view that hope and pain can co-exist. They don't cancel each other out.
“You have to figure out how to live with the pain of being alive.” I read a woman say that about her drug-addicted son.
Yes. Or even admitting that, yes, things are meaningless. And? I was going to name the album Posi-Nihilism. But that would be too annoying to talk about. And it is kind of an annoying phrase but I talk about my personal philosophy is that. Nothing actually matters, but that's your baseboard upon which you can make meaning. Meaninglessness but honestly, meaningless means nothing. So fill your time in a way that is enjoyable and worthwhile and fulfilling. That's exciting to me, when I can tell myself, oh yeah nothing matters. The sense of relief. Then I can go about my business doing what I think is worthwhile.
Did you have the pressure of people being like, “We need a second album!”
I can't just make myself write a song because I just have to let it evolve. Then at one point I say, Oh I guess it's done.
Do you journal?
All the time. I've been journaling since fifth grade. Well, since I was 8. But consistently, fifth grade. Like many thousands of pages.
Me too. I got freaked out at one point and I wrapped them up with duct tape and was like, “No one read these!” Like, my heart is in these things!
I get scared about a fire. I get scared of water. One of mine was stolen. I was almost done with a 300-page journal that contained all of my graduating, high school, moving out of my parents house, first year of college, dropping out of college, starting music ... that whole period is in a trash can. Somebody busted into our van and stole my backpack.
Well, you have it. You have it in you.
It's interesting how those memories take shape. You know they're a little more watery. There are whole people that I met and stopped knowing in that book. Characters that are just not captured. That's part of why it's called Historian. It's about capturing other people and giving them some sort of physical space. So it was really weird to realize entire people just like didn't exist on paper. Because that's how I translate what's real to me. That's why I wanted to name it Historian. Because I knew it would show up like "Lucy Dacus, Historian." Someone's profession. Feels like my name more than a musician. Personal histories. Like. A more integral part of who I am.
Tell me about the album art. Just looking at that like thinking—
"What is it?" [Laughs]
It doesn't really make much sense to people. My original draft of it was that little guy glowing. Helium in it, floating above like a mountain range. This came to me thinking about hope, and mixing elements of fun and playfulness with dire situations. Having this little figure blowing gum is kind of sweet and funny. But then if the bubble pops he’ll fall into the depths. It’s darkness and danger. Maintaining that level of sweetness, innocence, and hopefulness flow. I think of him as my mascot. Him. Them. It's not a guy.
Speaking of them. You were talking about what you and Julien Baker had in common—the south, and "She's a lesbian and I'm kinda queer." I mean I feel like your generation is the one that did that, opened up—
Being? For a long time I wouldn't allow myself to say that I was queer. I felt like I didn't earn it. I've never dated a woman, never been in love with a woman but I'm like attracted to women, attracted to nonbinary people, trans people. I guess pansexual is the word. I'm just basically attracted to any person that I connect with. And even then that's not necessarily attraction. You know I just want to be open to wherever love comes in. I'm in a committed relationship right now, so I'm not exploring. I'm exploring this one relationship.
You know, for a long time I just didn't want to talk about it because I felt like people who have lived queer in a way that's more noticeable, suffered, in some ways that I haven't had to suffer or not even suffer, but just—have engaged in a lifestyle. They know more fully than I did. I don't want to say it's like an integral part of my life but it is who I am and I don't want to lie. But. I don't want to anger gatekeepers of that community. Because it's true. Part of me is like you don't deserve this title, it’s earned. But then again when I talk to friends--am I queer?—you don't have to earn anything.
Yeah... It's not like you're signing up—
For a political party. You're not like, a registered gay. But I feel like within my fiend group, men willing to step out of a restrictive identity are usually celebrated. My single women just want honesty from men. I feel like a very masculine person. My immediate circle I think are just concerned with people liking who they are and knowing who they are.
What’s your biggest challenge right now?
What I'm trying to correct? Respecting my superiors. Respecting elders or people who are more educated than me. And that has been really good and allowed me to have good relationships with people who are willing to impart wisdom to me. And I have a lot of friends decades older than me. But sometimes you've got to be your own superior. Not everyone is your superior. You’ve just been in the business for longer. In this specific thing, though, I'm actually the boss. I’m deciding to hire and you aren’t interviewing me. I’m interviewing you. I've had to build self-respect over years. And you're not a bitch to be your own superior. It’s healthier for me now to just consider myself The Boss.
Rebecca Haithcoat is a journalist based in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter.