Lucy Dacus is slowly finding herself again. It has taken some time because, well, things got pretty dark there for a while. Sitting in the book-lined living room of the Philadelphia home she now shares with six of her close friends, the singer-songwriter starts to unpack what has been one of the most mentally debilitating years of her life. “I’m grateful to be surviving,” Dacus, 26, says matter-of-factly, before calmly explaining how last year, for the first stretch of quarantine, she became so depressed she completely disassociated from her body for two months. “It was maybe one of the worst depressive times of my life,” she says. “I realized, Oh yeah, this is a medical level of depression.”
For someone who says she feels best when she’s “gathering people,” the isolation and uncertainty of COVID-19 was too much to bear. Back then she was living by herself in her native Richmond, Virginia, which she eventually left last July after fans started showing up unannounced at her house (“It got really scary”). Dacus would often sit alone inside for days at a time in a paranoid state of emotional upheaval. She felt purposeless and helpless. Even opening the window, she says, gave her overwhelming anxiety because, in her mind, perhaps the virus could enter her home that way. When she mustered the strength to, say, relocate outside to her front porch, she might burst into tears out of straight-up fear. “We just didn’t know anything,” she says of it now.
Despite the heaviness of it all, Dacus — rock’s semi-secret weapon who fronts an oft-pummeling, hard-charging five-piece band but is so precise and intuitive with her lyrics that she warrants comparison to other quietly emotive singer-songwriters in recent memory, like Sharon Van Etten or Angel Olsen — speaks to this depressive state now with time-worn wisdom and remove. She is in a far better place. “I’m trying to let life in again,” says the musician, who recently was vaccinated, took a trip to California to reconnect with old friends she hadn’t seen in a year and a half, and has now turned her attention to putting out the most personal and powerful work of her career with Home Video, her third album, released Friday. She wrote and recorded all of the album’s songs in the summer of 2019 and wrapped up some odds and ends in the weeks before the pandemic, the tracks are raw, honest, and unfiltered. These are songs she was in no mental shape to share last year. There’s a sense that Dacus needed to be held up to the fire maybe more than most to finally allow herself to pull back the curtain on her entire life.
“It feels scarier, and it feels a little more selfish,” Dacus says of unveiling the LP’s 11 even-more-autobiographical songs, nearly all of which draw upon specific memories collected and diaried between the ages of 7 and 17, a formative period in her life that has only recently begun divulging its lessons. “But I think good art is selfish,” she pushes back on herself. “A lot of the things I wrote about on Home Video are things that took two to seven years to process,” she explains. She’s been ingesting life experiences then instinctively detailing them on the page since as early as grade school; as an adult, she typed out her journals and translated them to lyrics. “It feels almost like my brain is a super fucked-up printer, and it has been printing the same page for a number of years, and then it comes out as a song.”
Since her breakout debut album, 2016’s No Burden, Dacus’s lyrics have traded in intimacy. “Lately I’ve been feeling like the odd man out / I hurt my friends saying things I don’t mean out loud,” she sings on “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore,” that album’s opener. But where the lyrics on her previous two albums, including 2018’s critically adored Historian, were written with a slightly more generalized bent — might as well not alienate people, she thought at the time — Home Video is instead filled with vivid snapshots of her upbringing, both the pleasures and the pain, all backed by pristine or rowdy but always impactful guitar riffs. “They’re moments in time,” she says of songs penned as early as 2017 and stuffed with self-reflection, keen observation, and biting forthrightness. The devastating highlight, “Thumbs,” a live staple since 2018, is a fantasy about gouging out the eyes of her friend’s estranged father; “VBS,” a cutting recollection of a summer spent at Vacation Bible School, a Christian church camp for kids, finds her emotionally eviscerating her first boyfriend (“Your poetry was so bad / it took a lot to not laugh,” she sings). “Even when I was writing them,” she adds, “it felt like passing through a memory.”
Learning to quiet any self-doubt about how much of herself or exactly what she should share via her songs became central to Dacus’s eventual understanding of Home Video. Her songwriting had to evolve to match this new willingness to open up more, she says, even at the risk of reaching a level of vulnerability that tested her boundaries. Creating this album has also been an editing process of sorts — Dacus has found that, with time, she can slowly peel back the layers of a memory until it becomes more vivid and re-lived. “I’ve always written songs that were honest, but I usually just don’t share a lot of them,” she says. “I would maybe begin writing something and be like, No, this is too personal to [be of] use to somebody else. But, at this point, I think I’ve quelled that voice in my head. It doesn’t matter whether it has use to others. It’s useful to me.”
The emotional devastation and precision living within her songs has made even her most-famous peers admire her the way a casual fan would. “Her voice sounds like it’s not exerting any effort [such that] she can hit notes where if I sang them I’d be screaming,” Phoebe Bridgers, Dacus’s bandmate in the trio Boygenius with Julien Baker — which formed in 2018 and released a critically beloved EP that year — says of her friend’s work. “And lyrically, she’s just on another planet.” Baker adds, “If we’re talking about songwriting, Lucy is one of the most perceptive people I know. She is a wildly gifted storyteller.” Dacus speaks proudly of her time in the trio, both for the intense friendships it fostered as well as it being a crucial lesson in learning to assess songs from multiple perspectives. “We all have really particular tastes when it comes to songwriting, and so we had to learn each other’s rules for it,” she reflects. Dacus, for example, is a sucker for internal rhyme: “I can [feel] really let down when people had an opportunity for an internal rhyme that they didn’t take.” Extending their tight bond, Baker and Bridgers join Dacus for backing harmonies on Home Video’s “Please Stay” and “Going Going Gone.”
Dacus has lately been coming to terms with her identity — not only in her songs and within the music industry but in her personal life as well. She’s working out how having a childhood deeply rooted in Christianity affected her mental, emotional, and creative development. Dacus, who was adopted as an infant and grew up going to a Baptist church sometimes four times a week, says, “I had this goal for so many years like, I’m going to change Christianity from the inside! But that’s not my fight anymore.” She still thinks about God often — more specifically “how best to die,” a topic she admits “is not necessarily fun for everybody.” But she says she no longer ascribes to a particular religion. Her secularism, then, has unfortunately become an uncomfortable and unspoken topic with her still-devout parents, particularly with her mother, Sandy Stevenson Dacus. “At least I’m lucky that she hasn’t decided to love me less for that,” she says. “But yeah, it doesn’t come up because I think it is a hard conversation and it’s easier to not talk about it.”
Home Video frees Dacus of all the past insecurities she’d held onto. On “Christine,” she boldly chastises a friend for her less-than-ideal choice in a boyfriend. “I’d rather lose my dignity / than lose you to somebody who won’t make you happy,” she sings. On “Triple Dog Dare,” Dacus wonders what might have come of a platonic female friendship had she already been comfortable with her own sexuality: “The kid at the counter is gawking at your grace / I can tell what he’s thinking by the look on his face / It’s not his fault, I’m sure I look the same / It’s what you do, but it’s not you I blame.” “It took a really long time to recognize how many of my friendships were in that zone,” Dacus admits looking back. “I was just not letting them become what they could have been.”
Dacus, however, says she has been far more upfront with her mom about identifying as a queer woman, their religious differences aside. She describes her mom as “the type of middle-aged white woman that says things like, ‘Oh, I wish I could be gay cause men are trash.’” To which Dacus has told her, “Mom, you might be gay. Like, literally, sleep with a woman one time and figure it out. Otherwise you’re going to just ride out this internalized homophobia for your whole life.” Dacus pauses and laughs. “It’s ok. She doesn’t have to be gay.”
She’s far more unsure how to feel about — and talk about, for that matter — roadmapping her life in music. At the beginning of our conversation, Dacus declares she “has no goals,” preferring to “slowly eek out a career,” and describes how this has led to several discussions with her business team, which includes her management, about what that approach might realistically look like and how to guide her through it. Talking it out some more now, though, she’s at least confident in this much: Writing and performing music for her fans gives her supreme joy. It’s simply that she’s forever uncertain about what comes next, constantly worried the floor may fall out beneath her at a moment’s notice.
“I think I just literally feel like I don’t deserve it all so it’s going to be taken away from me at some point,” she says of how career ascension can still feel like free-falling. “So I’m trying not to get too comfortable. I don’t want to seem blasé, but I think I’m kinda like [shrug]. I really don’t want to get too attached to this lifestyle because I also see the industry as really volatile and kind of a fucked-up arena where people are always trying to pivot toward younger and younger folks. And I was one of those folks and maybe still am. Who knows?”
“[In the music industry] people have these beauty standards that I don’t necessarily fit and continue to not fit,” she elaborates. Dacus finds any aesthetic expectations existing for women (or anyone) working in today’s music business not only outdated but counter to her emotional well-being; for much of the latest album promo, she adopted a comfortable, casual, and frankly relatable look. “I’m growing hella grey hairs. I gained a lot of weight. But I feel the best I have in a long time.”
This is the attitude communicated on Home Video that she hopes transcends trends. “I’ve been saying I hope we’re the grateful generation,” she says, thinking once more on what has been one hell of a year but not all literal hell. “I hope that instead of constantly being fearful,” she says, “we now just charge into life flagrantly.”
Hear more from Lucy Dacus on the latest episode of Switched on Pop: