Discovery: Lucy Dacus

Published April 26, 2016

ABOVE: LUCY DACUS. PHOTO COURTESY OF SARAH WALOR.

At first listen, Lucy Dacus’ lyrics are unassuming and frank, set to accessible, alluring indie rock backdrops. Upon second listen, however, a depth to Dacus and her debut album No Burden (released in February via EggHunt Records) is revealed with insightful takes on her experiences as a young woman and a strain of dark humor just beneath the surface. On “Troublemaker Doppelgänger,” the LP’s second track, the 20-year-old sings, “She grew up as the pretty young thing / Let them look up her skirt on the backyard swing … I can understand how a girl gets bored / Too old to play and too young to mess around.”

“I wasn’t nervous, but I also wasn’t comfortable,” Dacus says of recording the album at Starstruck Studios in Nashville. “I had never recorded in a studio that nice and had never recorded with a band. I also hadn’t played with a band until a week before recording.” After spending no more than 20 hours recording over the course of two days, No Burden was complete. “At the time, we didn’t expect much from this album,” she continues. “I had enough songs so we were going to do it without any expectations. The pressure wasn’t really on.”

After dropping out of film school at Virginia Commonwealth University and before focusing solely on music, Dacus worked at a photography lab, editing portraits for school yearbooks. Although an ostensibly tedious gig, she classifies it as “so much fun” and maintained her sense of humor (“You know that these photos are going to haunt them for their whole lives,” she tells us, laughing). Here, we’re pleased to premiere “Pillar of Truth,” Dacus’ first post-album release, with an accompanying live video that attests to the rhythm her and her band have found.   

NAME: Lucy Dacus

AGE: 20

BORN AND BASED: Richmond, Virginia

BOYS IN THE BAND: Jacob Blizard (guitar), Tristan Fisher (guitar), Miles Huffman (drums), and Noma Illmensee (bass)

“PILLAR OF TRUTH”: It’s about my grandma, my dad’s mother. We visited her when she was on her deathbed. It’s weird to say, but she died in a way that I think people hope that they will die: with her whole family surrounding her. She had four months to have people come from all over the world to stand by her and meet with her. She tied up all of her loose ends. She’s also a pianist, so she found new piano teachers for all of her students. I was there through a lot of that. I was never really wowed by her through my childhood—she was always so quiet, a southern peach kind of lady—and I admired her strength for the first time. I felt very inspired by how she handled the end of her life.

DROPPING OUT AND STARTING OUT: Music was always encouraged as a passion and a hobby but I was never told, “This should be your job. You write music and record for a living.” It doesn’t happen for people. It’s like, “Oh, that would be nice if you could have a career doing music,” but it’s so rare. Why set yourself up for heartbreak and disappointment? That was the vibe. I thought, “I can just do music on my own time and I can have a different job,” but I’m glad that I convinced myself out of that in order to spend more time doing this.

When we got the idea to do the album I was also planning a trip to Europe. I was going to take the semester off of school and pal around for a couple of months, see friends and family, and basically survive on the kindness of others in Europe. I thought, “You know, if I’m taking a semester off I might as well record.” Then when we went to Europe people kept asking us, “What do you do? What’s your thing? What do you love?” I more commonly started referring to myself as a musician instead of a filmmaker and people encouraged me to do what made me happy. I came back like, “I’m quitting school, I’m doing music!” My parents were not thrilled but they’re good now. [laughs] Things have been working out.

NO BURDEN: When I was in high school I was trying to put into words why I would make anything. At the time, it was movies, but I guess it applies to anything. Without any subtlety I wrote down a bunch of sentences trying to express what I wish people understood about the world. One of the sentences was, “You are no burden.” The phrase “no burden” largely captured what I wish people believed about themselves.

Early on, maybe in middle school, I felt really heavily that the way people thought of you really mattered. Everyone goes through that and to some extent I want to say, “No, that’s not true, what people think doesn’t matter.” But it is healthy sometimes to think about what people think of you because that’s being considerate. [There’s] the burden of being responsible with other people’s emotions, which can be a really good burden. Being careful and caring for the people that you love is a burden but it’s obviously worth it.

THE WISDOM OF YOUTH: The photo on the album cover is of me when I’m a wee tot. It’s actually cropped; the bottom half of it shows that I’m in a parking lot. It looks like I’m in this idyllic nature spot, but it was just a hill on a side of a parking lot. I thought it was cute that I just laid down under a tree. I tended to do that a lot–find a tree and lay under it for fun. I have it on my wall and it reminds me of the fact that at one time I was unburdened; I didn’t know about fear, I didn’t know about loss. I might’ve just been content. I still am content but having that around and continually showing up in my life is a good reminder of how that mindset of a child is something to strive to get back to, or at least to look at the world through. I think [it’s a] really good understanding for adults to try and adapt to again. Children, I think, carry some of the most wisdom.

TAKE A WALK: I don’t have a lot of control over [my songwriting process]. I kind of just go on walks and hope that things start happening. Then I start humming and then words start coming. I let that happen and listen to it, and acknowledge that it might be worthwhile to remember it and write it down. I sort it out later with a guitar and put it [together] in a more formal, presentational way. Then I meet with the band and we flesh out all of the other instruments.

MUSICAL BEGINNINGS: Speaking and singing were equally common in my house. I started songwriting about the time that I started forming sentences. My mom is an elementary school music teacher, a pianist, and a singer, and my dad plays guitar—he’s a huge Bruce Springsteen fan. My mom does musical theater too. All of those influences were around.

The first instrument I played was probably the piano because my mom is a pianist. When I was a baby they would sit me there and let me bang around. I got to be around five, and that’s when my mom started learning piano. She tried to pass on her expertise and for some reason I knew that she was wrong. She would try to teach me things and I’d say, “No, that’s not how to play piano.” [laughs] I was trying to correct her as a toddler and she was like, “Screw this.” So she gave up; I can’t play piano. I will sit down and doodle around from second hand knowledge watching my mom and it’s fun, but I definitely don’t know what I’m doing.

I hardly know what I’m doing on guitar. I taught myself guitar and now I play in this non-standard tuning. I just think of the sound that I want to hear and find it on each string in order to make a chord. I don’t feel like an expert in any instrument. I guess that’s why the focus is on the lyrics in these songs, because I think I do have a better handle on expressing thoughts.

UP NEXT: This morning I made a list of all the potential songs for the next record. There are 17 and not all of them are done, but we’re really itching to record. All of the songs on the first album I wrote as a solo artist; I only considered the guitar and my voice. Now, for every song that has been written since, I considered drums, bass, and guitar that is much more capable—we have three guitars in our band instead of just me strumming chords. I don’t know exactly what is going to happen, but it’s going to be a bigger stroke than the first album.

I like having goals with the caveat that I never expect them to happen. It’s nice to have something in mind because if you keep conscious of what you want, you’ll notice more avenues you can take to get nearer to them. If you’re thinking about where you want to end up, your body might just end up there naturally. But who knows. You can never predict. I’ve been trying to maintain a certain level of doubt and I don’t want to start feeling entitled to the things that have been happening.

FOR MORE ON LUCY DACUS, VISIT HER BANDCAMP.