In conversation with Lucy Dacus
Singer-songwriter discusses vulnerability, favorite artists, future
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call Lucy Dacus’ rise meteoric. The Richmond native’s February debut album “No Burden” — a warm, vital and frankly confessional work of folk-tinged rock recorded in less than a day — has earned a spot on countless music publications’ yearly best-of lists. She signed with legendary indie label Matador Records this past June. Since then, she’s had no time to rest since touring has kept her on the road, and yet she’s already working on her follow-up album and she opened for the NO BS! Brass Band alongside Angelica Garcia at the Jefferson Theater this past weekend.
During one of her free afternoons, she talked with The Cavalier Daily about everything from songwriting to terrible cover art on Italian novels.
Arts & Entertainment: The lyrics of one of your songs, “I Don’t Want to be Funny Anymore,” articulate very well the experience of being a teenage girl, especially the line, “I don’t want the joke to be on me.” So many of your songs on “No Burden” come from a similar place of vulnerability. Does this kind of openness come naturally as a songwriter?
Lucy Dacus: Yeah, I think the reason why it feels so open is because I didn't intend to share the songs. At first, I was writing to myself, and I think it's easier to be open with yourself before you're open to other people. At first, it was really hard to sing these things in front of crowds, but honestly you get used to it pretty quick — and now I realize why it's so worth it.
AE: So when you started out writing songs, they were primarily journalistic? That is, you wrote them for yourself as opposed to an audience?
LD: Yeah. Especially the songs on “No Burden,” because we didn't realize that was going to become an album — I wrote them all solo, I didn't have a band. They were all written because that's what I did as a hobby or just because I would get home and they would come out. Now it's a little different — I still write somewhat unintentionally, I don't write for an audience, but now I'm aware that I will have one. There's this new consideration of the audience, but I don't think it's affected the songwriting that much.
AE: As a performer, what’s it been like to transition from the Richmond DIY scene to venues like Lollapalooza in a relatively short amount of time? Has it been jarring?
LD: Oh, yeah. It's super jarring. I think probably the most jarring thing is seeing how people view me differently. When I was just doing music in Richmond, my friends would come to the shows, and every now and then I'd meet a stranger who liked music and that would be really cool. But since touring a lot, it's different to come home because some people look at me differently or strangers […] randomly compliment me and it's really overwhelming. Like, I don't expect that to happen. I'm not used to it. And it's always really nice, so I don't want to freak out in anyone's presence.
AE: You were a film student at Virginia Commonwealth University before pursuing music full-time. Do any aspects of film still influence you as a musician?
LD: Yeah. I think the reason why I was interested in film is the same reason I'm interested in music — which is that it's a way to express what I think is important to the world. It includes visual elements, logistical planning, set design, location management, writing [...] all these different avenues for creativity [...] But in music, it's a little different because there's only one creator — you know, I'm the only person that writes words. So when we play shows, there's collaboration in the arrangement — the band has a huge part in writing their own part and we all contribute to recording ideas, but as to the message, it's just me communicating exactly what I think. It's different, but in a way it's more streamlined — you don't have to answer to anybody. In the film industry specifically, you have to answer to higher-ups, you have to convince people that you're going to make them money. The more I thought about it, the more uncomfortable I got.
AE: On that note, are there any artists or writers — in any medium — who you consider significant influences?
LD: There’s one person, Miranda July — she's a writer, director, actress, artist, Renaissance woman — and all of her work has a similar theme. Even though it's diverse, the idea of bringing understanding to internal conflict — her big message is, "It's okay to feel a certain way." She acknowledges hard emotions where I think a lot of people suppress, so I respect her work a lot. Agnes Varda is another Renaissance woman, a visual artist and filmmaker — she's part of the French New Wave and made this movie called "The Beaches of Agnes," and it's an autobiographical film, which I'm such a sucker for. I think it takes a lot of bravery to tell your life honestly. I love this [Federico] Fellini movie, "Amarcord," that's an autobiographical account as well. Anybody who's realized the value in speaking of their own lives honestly is someone I really respect.
AE: Would you say this kind of emotional vulnerability is missing from art in general? Is it something you're trying to bring back?
LD: Yeah, it's funny, because I don't feel like I'm trying. Like, I feel like the trying comes in when you're trying to obscure your vulnerability. If people stopped trying, I think they'd be a lot more honest.
AE: So what have you been listening to lately?
LD: Well, there's the obviously amazing like Beyonce, Car Seat Headrest, David Bowie and Frank Ocean. But some of the lesser-recognized albums I've been listening to this year are Big Thief's "Masterpiece," Andy Shauf's "The Party," Y La Bamba's "Ojos Del Sol," Julia Jacklin's "Don't Let the Kids Win," Pinegrove's "Cardinal" and Thao and the Get Down Stay Down's "A Man Alive."
AE: A lot of people have likened you to other young, up-and-coming singer-songwriters like Julien Baker and Car Seat Headrest, who’ve shared stages with you and also emerged from Southern-based DIY origins. Would you ever consider them as potential collaborators?
LD: Oh, yeah. I already have. I don't know how that will manifest, but they're both really creative people. They're always trying to come up with what's going to happen next, what they’re gonna produce next — neither of them would be satisfied making a record and then taking a break for a year. I don't know if "break" is a real word to either of them. It's been really good to meet them and be inspired by people who are so productive and like-minded in terms of creativity.
AE: Is it hard to find time for yourself and your writing on tour? How do you find that time for yourself?
LD: I guess I've developed this capability of being alone next to people. In the van, when we're driving every day for hours, I just close off everything — even though I'm feet from the rest of my band, I'll read or journal or listen to music or just look out the window and think. That's usually when I get ideas for songs, or when I feel most stressful, crawling into my own head.
AE: So without spoiling too much, can you tell us what those songs are going to be like? Will they be much of a departure from “No Burden”?
LD: I don't think it'll be a departure, but these songs were written within a similar mindframe — they're more connected to each other, and “No Burden” is just songs I wrote over two or three years. The next album will be a more unified idea. Also, I have the band, so now I'll be writing and think, "oh, this drum should be here, this bass should be here.” We've been more conscious of full-band arrangements. It'll probably be a little louder than “No Burden,” but that's good. We play some of the new songs live, and those are always people's favorites — which is good because people like it, but also frustrating because that music isn't out yet. I'm just itching to share it.
AE: Would you say it's a more ambitious undertaking?
LD: Yeah, for sure. We're hopefully gonna have some more instruments, like strings and horns in certain songs. We recorded “No Burden” in a matter of 20 hours, and we'll probably take a week or two to record this one to be a little more thoughtful.
AE: What made you choose Matador as your label?
LD: Their artists had been on the label for decades — like Yo La Tengo, Pavement, they've been on Matador forever. There are a lot of labels that will sign up-and-coming bands and just cross their fingers, but based on their roster and history I think Matador is a little more thoughtful and creative in their business.
AE: What was it like being thrust into that world of contracts and corporate language? Did you ever fear being taken advantage of?
LD: At this point, I trust our team, but when we were in the decision-making process, I was dubious of everyone. There are so many horror stories of artists being taken advantage of [...] A major label can sign someone really good but then not take the time to develop them because they don't have a fanbase yet. That's part of why I wanted to go with an indie label, because they seemed to have a better handle on each individual release and be more considerate with their artists. There were tons of times when I'd be doing an interview and immediately know the person didn't care that much — they were just responding to a certain level of hype and didn’t even listen to the album. Those people were immediately disqualified.
AE: Who are some of the women you look up to?
LD: I really look up to women that find ways to fulfill the work of other women — Morgan Martinez runs Hooligan Magazine, and she isn’t a musician, but she highlights ladies and people of color and queer people, creative people. It's a really good publication. I look up to her for caring so much about other people's work. I think artists often get caught up in, "What am I gonna say?" and they only look to themselves for that answer — you can look at other artists and realize they're answering that question too.The Richmond native plans to release her second album in 2017.