Her sharp and fascinating debut album, No Burden, got a Matador release in September and Lucy Dacus is heading to the UK for a short run of dates at the start of November. We catch up with the 21-year-old about her influences, self-discovery through songwriting and her local music scene.
Louder Than War editor Sarah Lay interviews.
“But here we are, and something about it doesn’t feel like an accident” sings Lucy Dacus on the resolute Map On A Wall, a song with all its feelings on the outside. Like the rest of her debut album, No Burden, it makes bold with vulnerabilities, is sharply observed and warmly melodic.
And this year the album has taken the 21-year-old from Richmond, Virginia through an initial release with hometown label EggHunt Records to being swept up to join the roster at Matador for a repress in September. It’s an album centred on insightful and introspective lyrics that manage to walk the line between awkward self-deprecation and acutely relatable observations. For a coming-of-age album Dacus turns the mirror not just inward for self-discovery but outward, setting her experience out without preaching. It is everyday experience poetically realised. There’s no unnecessary drama in the lyric but plenty of spectacle in the melodies.
The release of the debut is a milestone in a lifetime of music. Dacus reflects, “I’ve sung my thoughts since I was very young, but I don’t know if that counts as writing music. I bought my first guitar in middle school and would write songs with friends at sleepovers, working together to adequately express our love to crushes or writing a song for extra credit at school. I started writing solitarily in high school. My first ex-boyfriend had a new cool poet girlfriend and I was painfully jealous. I might’ve started writing to see if I could get on her level. I’m so glad I’ve developed different motivations now.”
Her upbringing has given her a solid foundation from which to observe the world and her inner workings, making this an album full of curiosity; often wry, occasionally self-deprecating but relatively little self-doubt. “I was adopted, as was my mother, which showed me from an early age that family is chosen, not default and that life is somehow undefinably worthwhile.
“I was raised Christian which I’m grateful for because I was asked to practice love, forgiveness, patience, and kindness as a child. I don’t take on that title anymore, but spirituality still holds daily importance in my life.
“My mom is a pianist and teaches elementary school music. She’s got a song for everything. She plays for musicals in local theaters as well. I was in her ensembles through my childhood. My dad plays guitar and is thoroughly devoted to Bruce Springsteen. I grew up attending frequent parties that my parents would host, not complete without group sing-a-longs at the piano.
“Most of the self-discovery happens after the song is done. I don’t sit down and decide to write a song. Anything I write in that fashion feels disingenuous or clumsy. What I’ve learned is that I just need to listen to my own thoughts and consider them valid, give them space in my mind and not call myself silly. I have to let the song happen and once it’s done I can read into where it came from in my life.”
Self-discovery is a recurring theme throughout the album, delivered in an assured manner reflecting Dacus’ open nature but clarity on personal principles. Of her inspiration she says, “I’m so unaware of inspiration in terms of music. I’m inspired to behave and live by people I respect and that is intentional. But for music, I can be subconsciously ruminating on a thought for years before words appear to describe it. I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore is an example of that; those thoughts started in middle school and were inked during college.
“I appreciate and am so deeply comforted by any piece of art, whether it is called art or not, that eloquently expresses an understanding – not acceptance or denouncement – of the hardest human moments.
“I have been inspired by creators who are courageous enough to sacrifice their security and open their lives to others. In that way I’ve been inspired to decided to make and share, but I’m not usually inspired by singilar pieces. The one case where I take from a specific book is in Strange Torpedo- the content from that song was inspired by a conversation with a friend, but the chorus lifts phrases from Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson.”
No Burden has garnered critical acclaim and attracted a flurry of label attention when EggHunt gave it an initial release in February. Dacus says of moving between labels and having two bites of the debut cherry, “I opened for one of Egghunt’s bands in Richmond and Adam Henceroth who runs the label gave me his card. He such an enthusiastic and giving person and that makes him great to work with. We sort of learned together and they’ve progressed immensely within the past year. That release came out late February and Matador reached out around that time. I just got a message to my personal email from Gerard Cosloy asking if we could talk. To which I said absolutely.
“Matador had been one of my favorite labels for a while, so we all got really excited. Working with them has been amazing and so different since they have a full staff and international resources. But the best thing about both Egghunt and Matador is that the people who work at each are so devoted and that’s the most important piece of the pie in my opinion.”
The personal relationships detailed obliquely around the record reflect the solidarity within her hometown scene. “Richmond is an ideal scene to me because it is so rich with talent and creativity and support, but it isn’t over saturated. There could be more venues – there’s nothing between a 400 cap room and a 1500 cap room – but the venues that do exist are always putting on incredible local shows of all genres. I feel like I can’t walk around town without at least three musicians in my line of sight.”
Dacus worked with producer Collin Pastore, recording the album in a single day in Nashville, her first time in a studio, “The songs on No Burden were written over two years. I wasn’t intending to make an album. I would just be walking home or to a friends house and words would begin to form. This is still how it happens. I write the words and melody first and foremost, usually alone on a walk.
“I’ve never worked with anyone except for Collin. In a way, we’ve grown together. We met through mutual friends in Richmond and teamed up with Jacob Blizard (guitarist on the album and in the band and also a significant contributor to the production process) to make an EP in Collin’s bedroom when I was 17. Some friends go bowling or shopping- we hang out by making recordings.
“Collin graduated from Berklee for recording and got a few jobs at studios in Nashville. We made the record in a day at Starstruck Studios which was so far above our expectations in terms of quality. That was my first time in a studio. It took doing to learn and I think I’ll be much more comfortable contributing production ideas on the next record.”
Although she’s toured the album extensively in the US preparing to go on the road and take these songs from solo performance, and from record to live, has been another journey of learning for Dacus, “When we originally recorded, I had never played with a band before. I was a solo act and we wrote all the other instruments during the week before recording. None of those arrangements were ever played at a show before tracking. We’ve made adjustments since then, all for the better in my opinion. Nothing too drastic.”
She is headed over to the UK for a short run of four dates, and finds herself excited by the prospect of not knowing exactly what to expect, “In the US, we can kind of get a read on what our audiences might be like. Even for the simple reason that we know people, family or friends, in cities all over the country that come to shows. I really have no clue what our audience is like in the UK. There could be 11 people in every crowd and I’d think, “well that makes sense.” It’s not that out expectations are low, they just don’t exist. I’m looking forward to finding out who the album has reached.”
For an album anchored in the moment, in being present while also being reflective Dacus has an eye to what is next to. As the song goes ‘a map does no good hanging on the wall’ so it is to the next stage of the journey to which she is looking now, “We’ve got enough material for an album and a half at this point. We’re hoping to record really soon! We’re still happy to play the songs from No Burden but the new material is what really excites us. We play two or three new songs each show and those seem to be everyone’s favorites anyways. I’m looking forward to making them available to anyone and everyone.”
- 1 November – The Crofters Rights, Bristol
- 2 November – The Waiting Room, London
- 3 November – Soup Kitchen, Manchester
- 4 November – Brudenell Games Room, Leeds.
Interview with Sarah Lay. Sarah is editor of Louder Than War, you can find her on Twitter or more from her in her author archive here. She is executive producer of The Rumble on Radio Andra and provides a weekly recommended track to the show on behalf of Louder Than War. You can tune in Tuesdays from 8pm or listen again here.