Lucy Dacus interview: "There's a really integral part of who I am on display; I'm so far out of my body I can't keep up with who I am."
”I hate playing guitar… I don’t like being a guitarist,” is one of the first things Lucy Dacus announces when we sit down to chat over tea. It was shocking in the moment – especially considering the monolithic guitars that are throughout her second album Historian - but as I spent more time speaking to her it became clear that this undervaluing of herself is something she tends to do, although she’s first to admit it: “I'm maybe a little bit underselling myself, I do like coming up with new chords and shapes, I just don't know what they are, I don't even know what chords I'm playing.” She’s also quick to humour; “I just want to have something to do with my hands.”
It’s a pattern that repeats throughout our conversation, where Dacus will toss off self-dismissing comments like, “everything cool about the record Jacob did,” in reference to the work done by producer and multi-instrumentalist Jacob Blizard. When talking about her naturally unique and piercing voice, she doesn’t give herself much credit, merely stating that she’s been singing since she was a toddler and was never told to stop.
However, as we get deeper into the lyrical content of the album, it’s clear that Dacus is deeply proud of her work, and delighted that something so personal has come to light in such a powerful way. Despite her asides about her own shortcomings, she’s also obviously very strong-willed and clear minded about her intentions for her art; discussing her self-directed video for ‘Addictions’ she states “I was open to somebody else directing, but then I feel like I wouldn't want to work with somebody who was more interested in their portfolio than what I have to say.”
This combined deference and strength goes to the heart of Historian, an album full of respect and admiration for her God-fearing ancestors in some places, and a desire to fully express herself as a liberated individual in others. It scours the depths of her depression and ascends to the height of her passion and fury in breathtaking swoops. With the addition of strings, horns and “candy moments” from Jacob Blizard, the sonic range of the album has the breadth to keep up with and accentuate these peaks and troughs of feeling. This makes Historian a huge statement from such a young and self-composed artist. Read our extended conversation about the lyrical themes and more below.
Tell me about the title, Historian.
I guess the easiest way to describe it is 'Historians' is the final track of the album, I wanted to acknowledge that I'm one of the two Historians in that song, and also it's me in this album; I'm not writing from a character's perspective, it's all very personal. But also I'm a historian, more so than a musician. My overall creative title would be 'Historian' and then 'Musician' as a sub-sect and 'Journaler' as a sub-sect of that, onwards.
Obviously this album has a much bigger sound than your previous album No Burden in terms of violins and horns and things like that, was that always your intention when you started writing?
I don't have intention when I write, ever. When I have intention it always comes out a little weird, so I try to write intentionless. But once everything was done and I looked at it I was like “we need horns, we need strings" there's all these moments that would fall flat without those things. I think we only included them when they felt necessary, we tried not to go overboard.
The album starts with 'Night Shift' which is also the first song you put out, why did you choose to go with that to start with?
I'm really glad we did, I thought we wouldn't because it's so long, but the reason that song is first, and was the first one we shared, is because I think it sets the dynamic range for the album. It begins with just me on guitar, kind of sensitive and quiet, and then it ends very loud, maybe the loudest we get - maybe not, 'Pillar Of Truth' and 'Timefighter' get pretty loud - but it kind of is the intro to what's to come, and it also is maybe the most accessible content on the album; a break-up song, a lot of people have gone through breakups, so it sets the tone for “OK we're going to be dealing with loss and let's start here on something everyone can grasp.” And the album continues down that path of loss, but I thought it was important to begin at that place.
I want to ask about a few specific lyrics: "resisting urges to punch you in the teeth" - are you a physical person, do you get physically angry?
[Laughs] No I don't, and that's why I've had this feeling for this one person that I've written this song about, my horrible ex, I just want to punch him in the face just 'cause I feel like nothing, no words have been able to reach him. But I haven't acted on that.
The other one that I wanted to ask about is "walk for hours in the dark feeling all hell" - would you actually do that?
Oh I do that all the time, around Richmond, specifically around a neighbourhood called The Fan. I like being alone, it's really residential so it's really quiet. No music. That's when I write, mostly, is walking for hours in the dark - or the light.
And you keep it all in your head?
I keep it in my head for as long as I can. Once I feel it slipping I try to catch it before it slips away by writing it down or typing it in my phone.
The second track is 'Addictions', let's start with the video; you directed it, and was it your concept as well? Tell me about that.
The song is about not being able to escape a pattern of falling back into a relationship, whether it be romantic or a friendship, just some sort of toxic cyclical relationship. So it's kind of like reaching into the past, at something that doesn't really exist anymore, like you're trying to find something that you'll never be able to find. So I wanted to visually show that search, looking into the past, so that's why the one character is in the real world, the colourful world, looking into the black and white world that the frame contains. And I'm the past, I'm the person that she's circling back to, so I'm kind of like running away and elusive, and she eventually finds me and enters the past again where we embrace. I don't know if it comes across that way to everyone, but for me it felt like a good cinematic way of representing that divide.
I'm curious about the first line, "freeze frame tidal wave in the passenger side" - where does that come from?
My idea is sitting in the car with somebody who's in the passenger side, and there's this element of potential energy to the emotions that are going to come crashing down, but maybe haven't been spoken yet, or you haven't reached that, so it's like a freeze frame, pushing pause on what's about to be catastrophic and overwhelming.
In this you compare relationships to addictions, do you feel addicted to relationships?
Yeah, but I try not to be. I'm afraid of addiction - I don't even drink coffee. For some reason I'm just afraid to be reliant on anything, including people, but people are the one thing I've been addicted to, and I've been an addiction for others. It's not just metaphorical, I think addiction to people is real, and can really hurt your life.
Your own self-worth is tied up in all of this, I'm thinking of the "buy low, sell high kind of guy" verse. Does writing a song like this help you with that?
Yeah, I mean it's always helpful to verbalise what is going on. It's easy to stay in a confused state, if you're not working to understand you could just never understand. But it's helpful for me to write these songs to just put onto paper what I actually think. Sometimes I don't know what I think until I'm spitting it out in a verse or with a melody.
On 'The Shell' you have this epiphany in the middle "it's a myth and I see now clearly: you don’t have to be sad to make something worth hearing," was that a real epiphany, or is it a cynical moment?
Maybe it wasn't a momentous epiphany, but there was a moment where I actually thought to myself “you don't have to be sad to make something worth hearing." Because a lot of my songs aren't actually sad, a couple of them are dark, but I think most of my songs are really hopeful. A lot of the work that I really like is very sad, and I think there's this kind of like a starving artist mentality that is more about a starving of the soul, where it's like "you can only write from a place of sorrow," and there are a lot of people that want to be musicians that put themselves in that spot masochistically, just to suffer for their art. And I'm like "live your best life and make music"; it's not one or the other. It's like happy and productless or sad and productive; that duality is messed up, and I see a lot of people enter into that and proliferate their own misfortune, just to sacrifice for their creative identity.
How does the metaphor of 'The Shell' figure into that?
The Shell is the body, there's that verse "If I had the offer to do it again ... I’d deliver up my shell to be filled with somebody else." It's like, you have this shell, you have this body, you have this moment to be alive and use that presence in the world, and sometimes when I'm really down or upset I just feel like I could exit and let somebody else come in and enjoy the world when I'm incapable of it, because I feel like I'm wasting space.
I feel that. Especially living in a First World Country I feel that.
Yeah, it's like "god I should be grateful," but it's like something has happened where I just can't access that at the time and it's like "ugh, somebody just take over for a little bit."
And it's hard to tell yourself that it's OK to feel that way.
Yeah, and that's the most compassionate thing you can do for yourself is just let yourself feel ungrateful for a little bit, because that's the quickest way you'll get back to gratefulness.
I'm surprised 'Nonbeliever' hasn't been released yet, because the resounding ending of "Everybody else looks like they figured it out," could be an anthem for our generation.
Awww, that's cool.
I feel like everybody feels that, especially in their 20s and 30s.
Yeah, what I like about the music behind it… (there's something in me that's like "don't say you like your own music," I don't know why, that's just an impulse...) but there's a chorus behind it, so when you sing "Everybody else looks like they figured it out," and someone next to you sings the same thing, it's like that statement in itself has to be broken, because then you see that nobody really has it figured out; if people resonate with that then you're not alone and you don't have to trick yourself into believing that everybody else is doing fine.
Let's talk about some of the lyrics that come before that in the song. You sing about "you" when you say "you threw your books in the river/ told your mother you're a non-believer," but you're talking about yourself?
In that verse yes, but also people in my life. There was a time when me and a lot of my friends were coming out of a religious upbringing in various ways. I still think about God, the concept, a lot, but I can't really call myself a Christian anymore, just because of what that means. The word itself is meaningless to me at this point. So this is me having that conversation with my mother, like "hey I'm not a believer anymore," and then what she said is exactly what are in the lyrics: “I'm not surprised, but that doesn't make it OK."
And then the string arrangements on this song are incredible!
Yes!! Jacob did this. Jacob Blizard our guitarist did the string arrangement, the horn arrangements, almost all the guitars, the bass, auxillary percussion, harmony, the synths and other programming.
Wow… Is 'Yours and Mine' and the two songs following the darkest part of the album?
It definitely gets darker after 'Yours and Mine'. This song is dark, but with a sense of keeping your chin up, I would hope. It's about moving forward, but it is about feeling like your home doesn't exist, and I wrote it in response to political unrest and police brutality and just not being comfortable calling myself an American, not knowing what that means, not resonating with it at all, being kind of ashamed of where I come from. What I've realised is that's OK, and "American" doesn't mean anything. I've met so many amazing Americans, everyone that I've met at home also happens to be American. I try not to let it define who I am, though I do let politics define how I live sometimes, just in opposition and how I like to direct my energy and my influence, towards what I personally describe as progress.
You certainly get a sense of that in 'Yours and Mine', the repeated phrase "this ain't my home anymore" is quite gritty and determined. There's also the line "somebody lit the store on fire," in fact there's a lot of fire on this record, with that line and the song 'Body To Flame', among others.
You've made that connection before I have, but that's really true, it makes sense. The album's about regeneration and acknowledging the fire, being broken down, loss, turning to cinders. And then I hope that the weight of the album is in the aftermath, the coming out of the ashes and moving past it.
Let's talk about 'Body To Flame', whose perspective are you taking on in this one?
It's about the loss of a loved one, or feeling like you don't even have someone. It comes from a place of me having a complicated relationship with a friend, where I didn't know if we were tipping into being romantic. It's about not knowing what your impact is on other people, not knowing what their impact should be on you. And the final line is something a friend said to me, "when I die I plan on burning myself to death," like "I'm gonna walk out into the desert and light myself on fire." And in that moment I really didn't want to lose that person. They were just telling me something that they had thought about. It leads up to that moment, the song's about "you mean a lot to me, maybe. I can't really tell what we mean to each other." And then finally this statement that kind of clarified to me what this friend meant to me. They listened to it and I think they were kind of touched that I remembered it, or maybe surprised. I think they were surprised that that conversation mattered to me.
'Timefighter' brings up the theme of time that runs throughout the album, which also ties into depression, because whenever you're depressed you feel like you're wasting time and getting older. So tell me about 'Timefighter' and the role of time.
Yeah it's about ageing and not being content with the passing of time and considering your own passing. The summation of that is the line "I'm just as good as anybody/ I'm just as bad as anybody"; time will always win. In a couple of the verses it's like "I know you're a man-made fortress… but we're alone I'm so willing to be proven wrong." It's like wanting more from people, why do we put up these walls, why are we not sharing, why do we feel like we're not connecting in any meaningful way? There's the verse about "I'm tired of all these wires, if I go far enough will they not follow up?" Which is about not liking the modern world, technological progress being a burden. That's maybe the darkest song, to me, even though it doesn't feel like it, it has a swagger to it.
And then it has that big booming finale.
Yeah, it's like the angriest "UGH. Why can't I just get past these thoughts?!?" kind of feeling. It's attached to an anxiety and a more violent depressive moment.
'Next Of Kin' is another one with a fire reference, as you sing about ash.
Dang, you're right.
Tell me about being "too far out of my skin."
This is a recent one. It's one I've written since touring. "Too deep inside my head" is a type of anxiety, and then "too far out of my skin" feels like my identity has expanded beyond my personal reach, now that people are hearing my music. There's this really integral part of who I am on display; I'm so far out of my own body, I can't even keep up with who I am, and there's all these people who have concepts of who I am that I can't even speak to. I can't confirm or deny those suspicions about who I am. The fact that my name 'Lucy Dacus' has taken on this shape is so odd to me. It's good over all because it's a part of something good, which is this process of being able to share music with people, but it really has thrown me for a loop, and contributed to an unstable identity issue, which I think I'm rounding the bend about.
What are you doing to combat that?
Well, I bought a house in Richmond. Having a site for all my belongings, having a thing that's going to be the same, something I can come back to, not having to move, having my friends living there when I'm gone - there's a warmth there. All my books are there... I really used to hate material possessions, I felt like they weighed me down and I don't like spending money period. But in the past year being able to charge an object with meaning has meant so much, because in the van you don't really get much else; going from city to city there's no familiarity, there's no home. You can't even eat the same food twice unless you're going to fast food chains, which are awful and I don't like to do. So, yeah, having physical consistency, where I can put my identity into a little trinket or a book or my couch... The process of buying a couch was amazing! Just choosing something has helped.
It's a tough decision. You're going to be sitting on it for years.
Yeah, it's like an interview process with something that can't speak.
What did you end up with?
We got a wooden-framed kind of small mid-century modern couch, because we didn't have a lot of space. Then the cushions we thought we would reupholster, they're green and they have this gold detailing on them, like shag detailing, and I think technically it's ugly, but at this point I've lived with it enough that I love it and everyone that comes to our house always loves it. It's pretty kitschy.
Alright, back to 'Next Of Kin'; "I'm at peace with my death/ I can go back to bed" is such a cathartic statement, did it feel good to get it out? I think that's going to be a big moment live once everyone knows the words.
I think I literally sighed and went back to bed after I wrote that. I was just like "oh, that's what I think? Great!" [Laughs]. It felt really good to have that come from my own head. I do feel that way some days, and sometimes I don't, and it's helpful to have it written down that I once thought that, because it's encouraging to know that I'll come back to that. I think part of a fear of death or time passing manifests itself in manic productivity, people are always busy filling up their time so that they don't have to think about it. I think that if people did accept it, people could relax more, sleep more, treat themselves better.
'Pillar Of Truth' is about the passing of your grandmother; was it written soon after?
I wrote it before, during and after her death.
Wow. Was it part of your grieving process?
I guess so, I didn't really know it was happening. I guess usually I don't know why I'm writing a song, with this one it was a little more obvious. Singing "you're the mother of a mother of a mother now," that's really specific. I guess it helped me to realise how beautiful that moment was, just being in the moment and translating the moment into something tangible helped me to watch her and observe how dignified she was through the process of her death. It was really super honourable and I learned a lot from her calm and contentedness and resolve.
You’re embodying her in the verses on this; what was that like?
It's funny because she never said those things to me, so it's me creating something that may not have been real. But that part "I tried to be a second coming/ But if I was nobody knew," is something I think about her, and I wonder if she thought about herself. She was a really religious woman, and so she was always trying to be Christ like, but she was always really quiet and she took care of her family diligently, but I don't know if she ever got the thanks that some people get, or the validation in those efforts that some people seek. But it never seemed like she was even seeking it, so if she was the second coming of Christ, would anybody have noticed? That's where that comes from.
Is that why you see her as a pillar of truth?
Yeah, her serenity I guess. I associate serenity and truth. So yeah she's like this pillar of truth and she's looking at her death truthfully, she's really composed and also wise. Wisdom and truth have a lot to do with each other, but then a pillar because of the Biblical reference of turning to a pillar of sand when you look back on your life. So she's looking back on her life, and I imagined her turning to dust, like in the sense metaphorically to reference that Biblical story.
And the final track is 'Historians', which is quite funereal, but also hopeful - why did you put it last?
It's what keeps the album based in reality, because I think the songs 1 through 7 are the progression deeper in to darkness, 'Next Of Kin' is this little burst of light that's like "all of that exists but it's a foil to joy," and then 'Pillar Of Truth' is the embodiment of that, this picture of an honourable death. And then 'Historians' breaks the rules set up by the album, which is that even if you know that things are going to be OK, or at least going to happen unbeatably, it doesn't make pain less painful. So you can intellectually know these things, but emotionally still feel hardship, and that's OK too. Fear does actually have a place, and the only way to get past it is to look at it. Pushing away fear isn't good, so I just wanted to acknowledge at the end, I didn't want to undermine the power of actually just sitting in sadness for a minute.
What kind of feeling do you want listeners to be left with at the end?
Umm... balance. I would want people to take it in and recognise the balance of hopefulness and darkness and fear and light. Maybe I would just want someone to have just enjoyed their time too. It's asking a lot for someone to take in everything about the album that I know about it, so beyond my highest expectations there is the minimal expectation or hope that someone would just like to listen to it.
I'm sure they will; even beyond just the lyrical nuances it's just very catchy and it rocks out. It's great, I love it.
I saw your big stack of new books on Instagram today, and I wanted to ask if there were any particular books that you'd like to highlight as an influence or somehow connected to the album?
Yeah, The Year Of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion; anybody who will thoroughly look at death and look past it is great. There are so many... Anna Karenina, Mrs. Dalloway, It Chooses You by Miranda July, the book that she wrote while making her second film as a kind of procrastination.
I'm so jealous of someone who can procrastinate by doing something also very productive...
It's really awesome. I think maybe she didn't know that it would become a book, which I resonate with my process too, not knowing how things will take shape. I'm working on something right now that I don't know if it will be a song or a novel or a movie or a full album...
Do you have aspirations to write fiction then?
I guess so, I won't know until it happens. That would be really cool, but it almost feels like I can't make the choice to do it. Everything creative that I do it feels like I don't really have a choice in the matter.
Lucy Dacus' excellent second album Historian is out now.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 2nd March 2018.