“Is it okay if I knit while we are doing this? I know that makes me seem a thousand years old.”
Lucy Dacus is not a thousand years old. In fact, she is barely 22. Not that you would know this fact from listening to her songs, which sound like river stones, worn smooth and heavy with the passing of time. Her sophomore record, Historian, is ten tracks that make up one long tone poem about the burden of transience, and the scramble to write it all down while we are still here.
“I called it Historian, because I feel like most of my creative efforts are efforts to capture something, or to document it ” Dacus says, hunched over a ball of chunky blue yarn (she is making a scarf for a friend’s band; when she finishes it will become a reward on their Kickstarter). We are sitting in close quarters on a freezing January afternoon, in a wee fifth-floor walkup in Chinatown where Dacus is staying for a week, as she meets with her record label, Matador, to finalize a flurry of details around the release of her record. The apartment is an Airbnb, one that I imagine was generously described on the website as a “one-bedroom” but is really just a galley kitchen attached to 300 square feet of drab carpet. The “living room” is so compact that it barely fits the stained brown loveseat where Dacus sits, unable to fully stretch out her legs, and one uncomfortable hard-bottomed wooden chair in the Shaker style. Attached to this room, which smells vaguely of boiling onions and mildewed towels, is another cramped, dark alcove with a droopy mattress hovering a few feet above the floor. I ask Dacus, who is squeezed into this space with Jacob Blizard, the guitarist in her band, how she is liking the accommodations. “Oh, it’s really nice,” she says, laser-focused on migrating a row of yarn from one needle to the other. It is then that I remember Dacus’s age.
When you are 22, and living as a college dropout in Richmond, Virginia, and you suddenly vault from singing folky grunge rock in your bedroom to signing with a major indie label, sleeping in a tiny hovel in New York City while you plan a national headlining tour is going to feel like a goddamn fairy tale.
Lucy Dacus’s rapid rise is one of the most joyful industry stories of recent years, because it is also one of the most improbable. We have all heard the grim pronouncements: Indie rock is dead, it is harder and harder to get discovered outside of major cities, only a few women-with-guitars make it out of the internet morass every year and are able to tilt toward the mainstream. And yet, Dacus’s story is a sign that good songwriting is still a viable currency — and that timing is everything. In the fall of 2015, The Fader premiered Dacus’s first single with an irresistible headline: “Richmond Singer-Songwriter Lucy Dacus Doesn’t Want to Be Funny Anymore.” And she says so, right in the first line of the song (called, fittingly, “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore”). Dacus doesn’t just sing these words, which come in over a propulsive, crunchy guitar riff that sounds like an engine revving up; she growls them, the sardonic girl on the edges of the party who is sick of being asked to smile: “I don’t wanna be funny anymore/ got a too-short skirt, maybe I can be the cute one / Is there room in the band? I don’t need to be the front man.” She balks at the broad categories women must slot themselves into in order to find acceptance: cute girl, edgy girl, funny girl. And just like that, she became a new Daria for a new generation, rolling her eyes and taking notes.
“That song makes a pretty simple claim,” Dacus says when I ask about why she thinks it caught on — and it really did; within days of the premiere Dacus was fielding calls from a a dozen label reps and potential managers. “There’s no nuance to it, honestly. People ask me, what is it about? And I’m like, um, I could just read you the lyrics? I think people feel a social pressure to be funny, especially as a coveted role in social groups. It’s like, if you are making them laugh then you don’t have to be beautiful or a bitch. I think you should get a break from your box, even if you like your box.”
“I will say,” she says, grinning at the ceiling, “it is funny that writing a song about not wanting to entertain people is what got me a career in entertainment.”
No Burden, Dacus’s first LP, came out in February 2016 on the small Virginia-based label EggHunt. It is a remarkably mature debut, especially as Dacus recorded the album in its entirety in only one day, and had never played with a full band before. She grew up in Richmond, and started writing lyrics and noodling around on the guitar as a way to pass the time at middle-school slumber parties. “It was like, an equal activity to playing Mario Kart,” she says. “We would watch movies and order a giant pizza and then write songs, trying to come up with lines that rhymed. It almost felt like a self-imposed English assignment or something, like you know, Katie takes a verse and then Samantha takes a chorus. In high school, it became more of a solitary pattern.” In high school, she met her musical kindred spirits in Blizard and Collin Pastore, who produced No Burden and now Historian.
No Burden shows a wide and curious range, as Dacus leaps from the cheeky, grungy “Troublemaker Doppleganger,” which opens with a pounding snare and the line “Is that a hearse or a limousine?” to “Map on a Wall,” a tender, searching epic that clocks in at almost eight minutes and begins with a quiet supplication. “Oh please, don’t make fun of me,” Dacus warbles over a muted electric guitar, her voice almost breaking. “Of my crooked smile and my crowded teeth / Of my pigeon feet, of my knobby knees / Well, I got more problems than not.” No Burden is an album about seeking acceptance and also transcending the need for it; its anthems are for the lonely and exhausted. At the very end of the record, Dacus croons, “Without you, I am surely the last of our kind” to an unnamed beloved; she is so young, and yet she already feels certain that she is part of a dying breed that values intimacy over artifice. In Dacus’s songs, there is “our kind,” and then there is everyone else.
Dacus always writes lyrics before melodies, and has been keeping a diary as long as she can remember. “Days before coming here,” she says, “I was just rereading some old notebooks, and occasionally there was a line where I’m like, wow, that was really deep, and I am very impressed at 12-year-old me.” She says that it takes an active effort for her not to write down her thoughts, that she has a kind of compulsion to log her inner life and exorcise it on the page. That her inner historian kicks in when she is in the middle of a crisis: Write it down, archive this, preservation is everything. Dacus thinks that she is able to stand slightly to the side of her own life and observe it so acutely because she was so hyperaware from an early age about how everything could have been different. “I was adopted, and so was my mom,” she says. “And so I just was in tune with how life can be intentional. I feel like maybe that helped me to not feel super entitled to a lot of things as a kid.”
Dacus went to college — she studied filmmaking at Virginia Commonwealth University — but took a semester off in December of 2014 to record No Burden and travel across Europe. When she was abroad, she began to rethink her life choices, even though she was still unsure that she could pursue music as a full-time career. “People in Europe were like, so how do you feel about, um, you know, never being able to pay off your student loans? Why do Americans believe that is a good option? I started to think maybe I had fallen for a ruse.” When she returned, Dacus dropped out of school (her parents, she says, were “predictably parentally unhappy”) and started working in a Richmond photo lab, batch-editing yearbook photos and kids’ sports team pictures. “I loved it, because it was mindless and I just listened to music all day long.”
When No Burden took off online in the fall of 2015, Dacus found herself in a rare, and increasingly unheard of, position — she went from playing open mics at local bars to drinking cocktails with almost every record executive in New York City, courted by at least 20 different labels (a fact that itself became newsworthy). The metrics for indie music discovery have changed dramatically over the last decade; where once a handful of trusted websites could put their enthusiastic stamp on an artist and rocket them to commercial success, the current path to breaking out has become murkier. Lucy Dacus is one of the rare, no-frills artists who was celebrated for her artistry online and then wooed by the industry within days (an equivalent example might be Julien Baker, who is also on Matador and who, with her bare-bones emo-folk canticles, went from internet sensation to national headliner in the span of a year). She has a label pouring the full force of its resources into her development as an artist who is consciously unflashy. This amounts to something like a modern miracle, and Dacus says that she feels equally humbled by her opportunities and determined to make the most of them. She went with Matador because they were the home of Yo La Tengo, one of her favorite bands; she also says that she was looking for a permanent home, and did research into how long other artists had stayed with the label. “I think the biggest factor for me was just seeing that roster and seeing that bands had been on that label for decades. Especially bands that have sustainably put out good work. They seem to avoid trendiness.”
While preparing to record Historian, Dacus became increasingly interested in epics, and the way we sustain ourselves and our narratives over long periods of time. She knew that Historian would be bigger and more ambitious than No Burden, that she needed to stretch herself (and she did; at almost 48 minutes, it “just barely fit” on an LP). To prepare, she read long books — Anna Karenina, Don Quixote, and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series. “There’s just so much in them about being a man that I appreciate it, which is so unlike anything I would usually say!” she says of Knausgaard’s work, scrunching up her nose. “I read so many women and I am usually so pissed at male writers for not showing depth. That’s my main complaint with Murakami, that he writes these complex males, and then really static women. But with [Knausgaard], I feel like I’m getting a better understanding of masculinity, and it’s not pretty.”
She was also going through a painful breakup with the former bassist in her band, who she says was abusive and dangerous over the course of their long-term relationship. “I just have never so thoroughly distrusted someone with myself and with strangers,” she says, “I fear for anyone that comes into contact with him. Maybe that seems really dramatic. But it’s all real and worth saying. I just don’t want him to define me.”
As she was pulling herself away from harm, Dacus wrote “Night Shift,” a sprawling, cinematic track that kicks off Historian with a bitter sting. “The first time I tasted somebody else’s spit, I had a coughing fit,” Dacus sings. The song, which begins softly, swells into a clattering crescendo; Dacus howls over scratching guitars that seem to be fighting each other in a back alley: “You got a 9 to 5, so I’ll take the night shift / and I’ll never see you again if I can help it / In five years I hope the songs feel like covers / dedicated to new lovers.” She is already playing the historian of her own pain, looking out from beyond her heartbreak to a time when she will be free of it. “I wanted that song to exist,” she says, “but also, I want to play ‘Night Shift’ one day and not be reminded of him at all.”
Dacus started wearing red lipstick onstage every time she performs as a way to separate her musician self from her private one. The color is M.A.C’s Ruby Woo, and she calls it her “uniform.” She was wearing it the day we met, along with a wool sweater that was once her mother’s, embroidered with the words “Erik & Me” which is the name of a diner in Geneva, Illinois, where her mom used to work.
“It puts me in a different state of mind,” she says about her lipstick routine, her knitting needles still clicking. “Because I have to be calm. I have to, like, be still for a second. I have to find a mirror, I have to be attentive.”
If there is anything that immediately sets Historian apart from other records coming out this year, it is that it at once feels calm and attentive, the work of a hopeful person highly attuned to a weary world. Dacus says that the record has “an arc of loss: loss of the self, loss of identity, loss in terms of death.” In the record’s penultimate song, “Pillar of Truth,” which she says is its emotional climax, Dacus sings about the lessons she absorbed from her dying grandmother. “I wrote that song next to her deathbed,” she says. “I learned a lot from her in that time, and so it is triumphant, kind of victorious. She won life.”
About halfway through the song, Dacus yelps her way into a revelation: “If my throat can’t sing / then my soul screams out to you,” she wails, her voice volcanic. “I’m weak looking at you, a pillar of truth, turning to dust.” Lucy Dacus is not a thousand years old, but she seems to have her eyes on the hourglass. Like Joni Mitchell when she wrote “The Circle Game” early in her career, Dacus is a young artist obsessed with time; how much of it we have left, how to make the most of it, how to chronicle it so that we leave something meaningful behind. “I’ll be your historian and you’ll be mine,” she promises on the record’s final track, her voice gliding over a plaintive cello. This is a generous thought: that we must carry each other into the future, when all that will be left of us will be music.