On “Historian,” Lucy Dacus Has Something to Say

“At the core, my message has pretty much been the same since I was, like, thirteen”


When Lucy Dacus recently found a long-forgotten notebook of songs from middle and high school, she was shocked to discover just how much her adolescent writing still resonated. “It was interesting to see how my goals are exactly the same,” says Dacus, twenty-two. “At the core, my message has pretty much been the same since I was, like, thirteen. I’m better at writing songs now, but I’ve always been trying to write music that communicates worth in togetherness and self-sufficiency.”

On the eve of the release of Historian, her highly anticipated sophomore album, Dacus has more of an opportunity than ever to spread her enduring rock ’n’ roll beliefs. Two years after her debut, No Burden, became a cult favorite, Dacus is now ready to take her place as one of indie rock’s most formidable and trusted voices.

She addresses the accompanying responsibilities and pressures of assuming such a role on Historian, a gut-punch ten-song cycle in which Dacus interrogates her own evolving sense of identity, sociopolitical awareness, and role as a creator. The album, which incorporates a wider range of styles and arrangements than her debut, with flourishes of Seventies r&b, swaggering blues-rock, and orchestral pop, was recorded once again in Nashville, Tennessee, but this time Dacus and her band had a full week to flesh out arrangements and overdubs.

Her new album is a vulnerable statement that makes no effort to distinguish between Lucy Dacus the person and Lucy Dacus the performer. “So many people have access to who I really am,” she says of her fans. “The songs are very personal, so I don’t have a lot of separation, and I can’t really pretend like I do.”

As a child growing up in Richmond, Virginia, where she still lives today, Dacus often found herself in situations where she needed to separate her musical and private selves. “The two places where I would sing would be in theater or at church,” she says. “I couldn’t achieve the standard that’s expected in each of those environments. Those are two types of voices where I wasn’t a good singer, but I always did have a voice that was pulling against what I was trying to make it be. Now it feels so good to sing because there’s no pulling, it’s just planted.”

After spending years feeling alienated while singing, Dacus is relieved to have finally found her voice, which effortlessly alternates between warmly intimate soulfulness and full-throated rock ’n’ roll release.

On her new album, Dacus uses both her voice and her songwriting as a means of self-discovery. On Historian, songs often don’t arrive at their own revelatory refrain until the very last line, which Dacus will then repeat for emphasis. “You got a nine-to-five so I’ll take the night shift,” she sings toward the end of the album’s blistering breakup anthem “Night Shift.” “Everybody else looks like they figured it out,” she sings in the concluding moments of album centerpiece “Nonbeliever.”

“When I’m writing a song, it’s often because I’m trying to figure something out or express a thought, so it makes sense for me to stop writing a song when I’ve come to the correct and accurate summation of the thought,” she says. “That’s the last thing I’ll say because it’s the last thing I needed to say to myself.”

Often, her songs provide tangible resolution and real-life clarity on the ideas and questions that Dacus has in her own life. The process of writing “Yours & Mine,” a song inspired by the 2015 Baltimore protests that she describes not so much as a protest song as a “song about protesting,” has concretely helped Dacus sort out her own feelings about the importance of protest and collective action.

“It’s a personal decision to be political, and that song’s about weighing the anticipation of danger that comes with marching with your beliefs as a person and your need to live in a way that you find dignified and worthwhile,” she says. “Now that I’ve written that song, I can look back on my own words and remember what I think about all of that, so now it’s easier to make decisions about when to march and act more often, because after writing the song, I’m more aware of what it means to me.”

Despite a flurry of intense buzz surrounding Dacus (“How an Indie-Rock Star Is Made in 2018” reads a recent New York Times headline), Dacus remains unfazed by her growing accolades and largely unceremonious about the music industry. The way she sees it, she is not Lucy Dacus, the singer-songwriter on the verge of reshaping indie rock, but rather simply the frontwoman in a little rock ’n’ roll band called Lucy Dacus.

After enjoying her first prolonged break from touring in two years, Dacus is about to head out on the road for another extended album cycle with a group of old friends and longtime collaborators like her guitarist Jacob Blizard. But if Lucy Dacus is a band, it’s a band in which Dacus makes all the decisions about recording, songwriting, and performing. “I want to make everyone that has chosen to work with me proud,” she says.  

Despite her current success, at the moment Dacus is thinking about something a tour manager once told her. “He gave me some advice, which was that on average, most musician’s touring careers are five years,” she says. “So I keep that in mind, and that doesn’t actually freak me out.” She’s daydreamed about starting her own small publishing house, or even returning to her last job working in a photo lab in Richmond. And if her own musical career ever stalls out, Dacus has toyed with the idea of becoming a professional songwriter or starting her own small label that releases all her favorite Richmond bands.

But as she’s spent more and more time away from home in the last few years, Dacus does say that she’s given some thought as to whether or not she’d ever want to leave her beloved hometown. (“I’ve told my friends at home that if everyone moved to New York, I’d probably move too,” she says.) For the most part, she prefers the laid-back pace back home, where she recently bought a home and is part of a close-knit community of Richmond-based artists. On Historian, she eschewed working with a big-name producer in favor of reuniting with Collin Pastore, a fellow Richmond native and old friend who produced Dacus’s debut.

Pastore first heard Dacus play music roughly seven years ago, when she was not much older than fifteen. “I remember hearing her sing at my house — we were all just hanging out and playing music,” says Pastore. “Me and Jacob, her guitar player, were like, ‘Oh my god, this girl is the real deal.’ ”

Years later, Dacus has bloomed into an exacting lyricist who is equally comfortable writing sweeping rock choruses (“Addictions,” “Next of Kin”) or songs like “Pillar of Truth,” an intense meditation on her grandmother’s death that crams in a half-dozen or so biblical references.

At the moment, songs are pouring out of Lucy Dacus. “Usually it’s when I’m on a walk and it’s usually when I’m alone,” she says. She hasn’t slowed down since recording Historian in early 2017. “The third record is in the works,” she says. “There’s no stopping it.” She even recently tried her hand at writing pop tunes with a co-writer in Nashville. “I would never think I would write a pop banger, and I certainly don’t resonate with becoming a pop princess, but in the past couple months I realized I can do that too.”

If it all seems to come easy to Dacus, well, it kind of does: She can barely name a song on the new album that was difficult to write. “‘Night Shift’ wasn’t hard, ‘Addictions’ wasn’t hard, ‘The Shell’ wasn’t hard,” she says. “‘Nonbeliever’ wasn’t hard, but the interesting thing about that song, which hopefully doesn’t show, is that it was originally three separate songs, and I didn’t love any of them.”

For that track, Dacus had written three separate songs  over the course of more than five years, spanning from early high school to just last year. But turning them all into one composition was easy, she says, because after all, Lucy Dacus has been thinking about these things — family, religion, one’s sense of belonging in one’s community, the value of social relationships versus professional ambitions — ever since she first started scribbling songs in her notebook as a middle schooler.

“I had been working through this one thought through different lenses,” says Dacus. “But finally, I figured out that overall, it was all the same thought.”