Performing arts is built into Lucy Dacus’ DNA. The singer-songwriter grew up with a parent who was involved in musical theater, which introduced her to music at a young age. Dacus made the decision to become a full-time musician while she was a Film Studies major at Virginia Commonwealth University, because music felt more empowering than film and gave her the freedom to have complete control over her art.
As Dacus prepares to release Historian on March 2 via Matador Records—the follow-up to her critically-acclaimed 2016 album, No Burden—she realizes that she has a much bigger audience now than she did when she put out her debut. This is both scary and exciting, as Historian highlights an honest and unapologetic side of Dacus and being that vulnerable in front of a fan base of tens of thousands of people can be incredibly uncomfortable.
Fortunately, it can also be incredibly rewarding.
To give readers a better sense of who you are, especially readers who might not be familiar with your work, can you share a little bit about how you became involved in music?
I’ve been as involved in music as any kid. Maybe even more so. My mom was involved in musical theater when I was growing up. That’s much different than the type of music that I make, but that element of performing and singing has always been part of my life, and I was raised around performers in general. Which I think has probably helped me be a performer as well, though I wouldn’t describe myself as a theatrical performer in the least bit.
But you grew up around show tunes?
Yeah, show tunes, and I guess another type of musical performative type of stuff is Christian rock. Growing up in church and seeing people be performers in a different way, which is similar to theater, there’s sort of a character you’re playing in that role. But it’s a little less honest. With theater, you know the people are playing a character, and at church, you kinda have to scope out who is and who isn’t.
When it comes to my personal music, I have written since middle school, but I didn’t start playing out ‘til high school or college. And I just played solo, and I didn’t really intend to do it full-time. But I kind of blinked, and now, it’s my full-time job [laughs]. Which is confusing and awesome.
You were a film student, but you left to pursue music. What played into that decision? Was that a tough decision to make?
I went into film because I like to do all forms of art: visual art, writing, music, cinematography—I was a camera nerd for a while. But it’s really hard to make a movie all by yourself, and I realized that if I was going to go into the film industry, I’d probably have a job working on a film that I maybe didn’t care about or didn’t believe in. And I probably wouldn’t be a very good film industry employee, because I probably wouldn’t want to work on movies that I thought were pointless or derogatory—and that’s a lot of movies, so not many jobs for me, personally.
With music, every bit of it is exactly what I mean to say. I can write a song in half an hour, and from start to finish, the creative process is entirely mine. I don’t have to ask anyone if it’s OK, I don’t have to run it by any producer. When it comes to a message and a meaning, I feel good that everything I say is exactly what I think.
Music is very freeing for you in that sense?
So, how did the writing and recording process for Historian differ from No Burden, with this being your sophomore release?
Well some of the songs [on Historian] we tried to put on No Burden. “Pillar of Truth” I actually wrote—oh, how many years ago? I guess, like, four or five years ago now? And we tried to put it on No Burden, and we just didn’t get a satisfactory recording. And then, the newest songs I wrote maybe in the month or two before recording. And despite there being a big disparity of when I wrote these songs, I think they all share a certain weightiness that the last album didn’t have. These songs are heavier to me—they’re heavier thematically. I think they mean more to me, which is terrifying and exhilarating, to make something that does matter to me a lot. I’m way more open to pain this time.
And I knew this album would have an audience, whereas, I didn’t know that No Burden would have an audience at all.
Is that scary?
Yeah, it’s kind of scary. But I’m trying to be as trusting of myself as possible and just trust that even though I really care what people think, I have to care more about my personal fulfillment of the project, and I’m proud of it. That doesn’t mean screw everybody else—the reason I made it is because I care about other people and their opinions. That’s the only reason I would share music, because I care how other people interact with it, and I believe in the chance that other people will care for it in a way that I do. So yeah, it’s pretty scary [laughs].
On track three, “The Shell,” the line that says, “One more burden off my back”—was that a reference to your previous album?
[Laughs] You’re the first person to ask! Kudos to you! I knew someone would ask about that, and you’re the first one.
Um, yeah, I wrote it, and the next second, I looked at it and saw what it was. I was like, “Oh, that must be about No Burden.” But when I’m writing, I don’t really have that much foresight. You know how a dream doesn’t make any sense until you wake up? And the only meaning to a dream is what you give to it? That’s what writing is for me. I write the song and, then, look at it and bring meaning to it—like, how it corresponds to the meaning in my life. But while I’m writing, there’s none of that.
So, I kind of wrote the song, and then, I was like, “Huh, this is about moving on creatively, trying to resist pressures as a creative person.” And that specific word, “burden,” obviously has been in my conscious and has been a defining factor of my work thus far.
“Yours and Mine” is a song about racism, and some press materials have said it’s specifically about the 2015 Baltimore protests. I think, more than anything, it’s a song about white silence. Do you feel a moral conviction to use the platform you’ve been given to speak out about these kinds of issues?
Yes, absolutely. I don’t take for granted that I am being looked at by hundreds of people at a time at a show. That’s a huge responsibility, and I would not really like myself if I didn’t use this platform to encourage people to be more conscious of their own opportunities for impact and influence.
But also, […] I wrote it in reaction to the Baltimore uprising, but it’s a song about protesting. And it’s about silencing that fear—or not silencing, but acknowledging the fear that comes along with taking a stand and not letting the fear keep you from living in a way that you believe in.
So, yes, of course it’s about racism, of course it’s about sexism, it’s about anything that I personally would march for or against. But I don’t think that I’m the person who should be the voice against racism incarnate. White silence is a violent force, for sure, but—
The white silence comment was my own takeaway, just to be clear.
Yeah, I think you’re right, though. I mean, it’s totally true and applicable. I don’t wanna be the spokesperson for racial injustice, but I do believe that protesting is powerful, and that’s my way to be a spokesperson, to show up. And that is the only way I can feel like I’m living a satisfying life.
“Pillar of Truth”—that is a song about your late grandmother. The song is layered with a lot of references to the bible. What was the creative reason for that? Was she a person of faith, or was it the easiest way for you to explore those feelings as you were trying to process them in that moment?
Yeah, she was a Christian woman, and I was raised Christian as well. I have gone in and out of respect for the church. Institutionally, it’s very disappointing. That’s where I’m at these days—a kind of heartbroken disappointment.
But that song is about watching her die and respecting her so much. And seeing how her faith has given her strength and hoping that for her—everything that she believed in could be true for her. Because what else can you hope for a person on their deathbed? There’s a lot of biblical references, because that’s what that was for her. Her death was very biblical, because of how her life was.
A lot of my anger at modern Christianity was put to rest during that time, because on this very small scale, it was doing something very good and beautiful for my grandmother.
What’s the one thing you want listeners to take away from Historian?
That loss is unavoidable, and it is a foil to joy. And by looking loss in the face, you can get past it and find contentment.
To end on an optimistic note, what part of your career as a musician brings you the most joy?
Can I have two answers?
Of course you can, it’s your interview.
You’re right! [Laughs]
One, on a macro level, is knowing the feeling of being crushed or emboldened by a song in my own life and, then, being told that my songs fill that role for other people. That is and will be forever mind-blowing.
The other, on a micro level, is a show we played this past September at The National in Richmond, our hometown. My little brother Charlie, who just graduated high school, opened the show on drums. He played the first three songs with us, his first experience playing to audience that big—an audience that included our parents, people who have known us since infancy, and friends from all stages of our lives. It felt like one of those moments that my whole life had been leading up to. I just laughed and laughed onstage, I was so happy.
Photo Credit Dustin Condren