Lucy Dacus says she could sing before she could speak. “I always wrote songs,” explains the 22-year-old singer-songwriter from Richmond, Virginia. “Elementary school, middle school. It didn’t feel more creative than speaking. It was just normal to do that.”
As she sits in the Manhattan office of Matador Records — the hallowed indie-rock label that’s home to Pavement, Yo La Tengo, and recent breakouts, including Car Seat Headrest — Dacus recounts an upbringing that makes her current trajectory as one of rock’s pre-eminent young talents seem almost inevitable. Her parents raised her “in the realm of Christian rock and musical theater,” but she gravitated toward their Bruce Springsteen, Prince, and David Bowie records. She wrote songs with friends at sleepovers and was inspired to buy her first guitar when, as a middle schooler, she went to church camp and her counselor led an acoustic singalong of OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” (“I just thought she was the coolest lady I ever saw,” Dacus quips.)
In high school, Dacus linked up with Jacob Blizard and Collin Pastore — her collaborators to this day — and the trio began experimenting musically. “That’s just how we would hang out, is make music together,” says Dacus, one of EW’s eight artists to watch in 2018. “I would bring in a song, Jacob would be doing arrangements, and Collin would be recording. I don’t imagine working with anyone else, because the vocabulary that he, Jake, and I have created is… irreplicable.”
Their synergy glistens on Dacus’ sophomore record, Historian, out today. After she debuted with the decidedly lo-fi No Burden in 2016, Dacus expanded her horizons, adding strings and horns — the latter courtesy of Richmond legends No BS! Brass Band (Sufjan Stevens, Bon Iver) — that conjures the grandiosity of some of the earliest acts she admired.
But lyricism remains central to her craft. “My favorite music is when the sound is supplementing the message,” she says. “I don’t think it’s dramatic; it’s cinematic.”
Read on for EW’s interview with Dacus, in which the singer-songwriter discusses the importance of protesting, finding hope in hopeless places, and why her music is heavy, but far from sad.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Matador reissued your debut, No Burden, in 2016, but you’d recorded it even before then. When did you begin working on Historian?
LUCY DACUS: Some of the songs are older than No Burden songs. Specifically, “Pillar of Truth” we tried to put on No Burden and it just wasn’t good enough, in my opinion. I think we got it right this time.
How did you improve that song here?
When we were trying to do it for No Burden, I had all this imagery and didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about it. I had never recorded before. I had never been in a studio. I’d never had to talk to anybody about my music or music in general. I’d never taken music classes, never been to music school. And I would just say, “That doesn’t feel right,” but I wouldn’t have suggestions for how to make it right. I really wanted horns, but we didn’t have the budget or the time for horns. I didn’t even have a distortion pedal at the time. It was just a failure on my part to communicate effectively what the song needed. So I’ve had a lot of time to think about what it needs [laughs] and I think it finally has been presented in a way that I’m proud of.
Was there a point where you drilled down on songwriting or was the process just ongoing?
It’s been an ongoing thing. There were songs between each of these songs that aren’t on the record because they’re not thematically correct. I just noticed that I had enough songs in the same vein of thought to put them in an order that would communicate a message. I actually finished the track listing before I finished the songs themselves. I thought the sequencing of the record was the most intuitive, obvious piece of the puzzle.
Can you tell me more about Historian‘s lyrical themes?
I end up writing about hope in every song. This was kind of stretching hope to its limits: Looking at the most difficult parts of life and seeing if hope could stand up to the challenge. I think that it does and I hope that I continue to be the type of person that believes that. I think writing this will help me stay that type of person. The album isn’t easy. It’s very personal and it’s pretty dark, but throughout the whole thing it’s about handling darkness. Because you have to do it. It’s impossible to avoid.
Did you have any new goals on this album?
I wanted to make something that felt urgent. I do kind of feel like I lucked into this job, and I don’t take it for granted. So I personally feel this urgency to say the thing I would want to say as soon as possible. Because I don’t know how long I will have an audience, so I want to say the most integral part of who I am. I think that’s this album. It doesn’t mean that I’ll stop writing music; the third album’s in the works and it’s all stuff that I really care about and believe in. But it’s not urgent in the same way that this album is.
Much of the album tackles more personal troubles, but “Yours and Mine” deals with some external turmoil.
It’s about the personal and interpersonal dynamic of protesting. I wrote it in reaction to the Baltimore uprising, but it isn’t specifically about that. It’s about the decision to march and protest and participate. So many people were telling me, “It’s dangerous, don’t go there.” There are so many reasons to not protest, and honestly a lot of them are valid. The song is about doing what’s right for you and letting other people do what’s right for them and encouraging non-judgment on both sides. Stay at home if you need to to feel safe, but don’t discourage people from going out. I think of that as the centerpiece of the album.
Why? To me, it’s almost like the outlier.
That’s why. It is kind of the outlier. I think it’s the centerpiece because the way I look at the record is that the last songs on each side, “Yours & Mine” and “Historians” are outliers. [Tracks] one through four and five through eight kind of close in on each other. One and nine speak to each other. Two and eight speak to each other. When it closes in on each other, the fifth song is left alone and that’s “Yours & Mine.” It doesn’t really have a partner. It’s its own entity.
One lyric that stands out to me on the album is “You don’t have to be sad to make something worth hearing,” from “The Shell.” Could you speak to sadness’ role on Historian?
A lot of people lean into sadness as a crutch because there is so much really good sad music. There’s a lot of musicians that can only write when they’re sad because that’s when the poetry is there — or maybe when they’re happy, they’re busy living that happiness with other people and they’re not sitting down to write. There’s all this sad, beautiful music that’s being made and then there’s all these people that want to be musicians who are inspired by that music, and so it’s this endless loop of being inspired by sadness and being sad. I think there’s a really toxic myth that you have to be sad to make deep or good music and that happy music is cheap and meant for the pop realm.
But there’s also a track record of certain artists who were known for making sad music and then got happy and—
And then lost their fan base? [Laughs]
For instance, I’m a Weezer fan, and Weezer fans often say, “We’re happy for Rivers [Cuomo] getting married and having a kid and stuff but…”
Who knows how seriously he takes that. I think some artists care more about that creative streak than their literal lives. I’ve seen it happen where people almost are masochistic in their real lives in order to access this place for art. I feel like you can also practice being happy and accessing a creative flow within that happiness.
So, I found it interesting that you included that lyric about sadness on this album, which I find pretty heavy.
I think it’s heavy, but I wouldn’t describe it as sad. I wouldn’t say that the songs are sad because a lot of the songs are about becoming self-sufficient, or just admitting something.
Like “Night Shift”?
Yeah. That song is very cathartic for me to sing and it’s very hopeful for me because it’s saying, “I just don’t care anymore and I am going to get past this. I admit that the intensity of this is going to fade.” Breakup songs are generally sad, but I am so not sad for my breakup. [Laughs] Every breakup is preceded by a bad relationship. So breakups should be cause for celebration and triumph.
Was there a literal night shift being worked?
I broke up with this person and then started going on tour, where all my shows were at night.
You can’t be texting when you’re onstage at 10 p.m.
That’s my night shift. That’s when I’m at work.
How cathartic is it for you to sing that song?
A breakup is a state of mind that needs encouragement and needs hopeful forward thinking. It’s like screaming into a pillow, except I’m screaming into a mic in front of hundreds of people.
Is it ever hard to recreate that? Does the song ever lose its meaning to you?
No. It always means something. Occasionally it hits too hard! I would love if it just didn’t mean something to me because then I would be able to do it without my blood rushing every night.