RVAMAG #23: Lucy Dacus Discusses Female Performers, Her Songwriting Process, and Upcoming Album ‘No Burden’

by | Dec 28, 2015 | ROCK & INDIE

Lucy Dacus is probably more intimidating than any other artist I’ve covered. Not because of Lucy herself–the 20-year-old singer-songwriter perfectly exhibits every quality one craves in a musician: she’s gracious, witty, earnest, sociable, and so humble that it makes your admiration soar. She’s more interested in fervently discussing Bernie Sanders and carefully planning your next vacation (which will be to Italy, apparently) than she is in discussing her music and what it means to people. But that music is exactly what’s so intimidating to write about–because of the unbelievable talent it contains, as well as its potential to truly take the music world by storm in a way few, if any, Richmond artists ever have. It may be the kiss of death to discuss her music in this way, but it’s impossible to listen to her without this thought in my mind. It’s not the result of high expectations for Dacus; it’s instead a realization of the intrinsic quality her music has, and how truly unparalleled it is, even if she does somewhat fit into the recent boom of idiosyncratic female singer-songwriters.

This article was featured in RVAMag #23: Winter 2015. You can read all of issue #23 here or pick it up at local shops around RVA right now.

In my conversation with Dacus, she is more than happy to gush about the recent rise of these female performers, from Courtney Barnett to Lady Lamb. “Really, I’m just mentioning these artists so you’ll print them, because they’re just so good and need to be listened to,” she laughs. Dacus’ style and sound open her up to all sorts of comparisons with these artists, and it’s something she’s reminded of whenever someone experiences her music for the first time. “I’m always hearing what artists I sound like. I’ve rarely heard of most of them, actually. I’ll end up going home, looking them up, and then I’m just floored by the comparison. It’s such a huge compliment.”

Compliments aside, she admits that while she’s extremely honored to be in the same breath as those gifted artists, the comparisons between her music and theirs isn’t so obvious. “I don’t think we sound like those artists,” she says. “Really, I just don’t hear it.” As hard as it is for some people to admit it, Dacus has little sonic comparison points with most female musicians currently making waves. Really, it’s the uniqueness of these artists that truly links them and makes these somewhat baffling comparisons seem valid. Each approaches songwriting in a completely novel way, with unusually perceptive lyrics and engaging melodies; it’s that approach that binds them together, even if the final products are vastly different.

Dacus’ unique style of songwriting is best shown on “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore.”. Recently released as a single, it’s beginning to gain momentum, with prominent coverage on The Fader and Stereogum. Its bold lyrical proclamations candidly showcase her inner desires and personal shortcomings within a hauntingly stunning melody. As open and vulnerable as the song is, there’s a commendable level of restraint, as her confidently composed voice keeps the pace of the song as terse as the lyrics themselves. It’s a powerhouse song for any musician, let alone someone barely out of their teens, and it’s in consideration not only for best Richmond song of 2015, but one of the premier songs of 2015 overall.

“I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore” serves as the first single from her debut record, No Burden, out February 26th on Egghunt Records. It’s a highly anticipated album, but Dacus is already looking past it. “I’m already excited about the second record and the first one’s not even out,” she exclaims. “It’s not recorded yet, but it’s all written and laid out, and I’m excited to get into it.” It’s a weird declaration with details about her debut just now leaking out, but it’s understandable when you realize that No Burden has been ready to go for most of 2015. Early this year, Dacus and her band were lucky enough to spend time in Reba McEntire’s Starstruck Studios in Nashville to record their debut album. “Yeah, I know it’s weird,” Dacus laughs. “Our friend Colin was interning there and he asked if we could come in on this day that no one was booked and record, so that he could learn how to use the mics and boards.”

No Burden consists of nine songs that showcase Dacus’ songwriting and give off a message of assured independence. “The longer title for the record would have been ‘You Are No Burden.’ I just wanted to tell people they aren’t weighing down anyone else with themselves. I just think you live better when you realize you’re not a burden on anybody.” The theme comes through on the lead single and other songs the band has in its live repertoire, which offers clarification of just how cathartic and gratifying her lyrics can be.

Anticipation is running high for this record, though it’s something Dacus herself is perplexed by. “People have said they’re really looking forward to it, and it’s just surprising.” She’s also now coming to grips with the fact that the album may lead to bigger and better things.

“Egghunt specifically told us we’re probably going to get picked up by someone, so we should prepare for it,” she notes. Still, Dacus is staying grounded. Despite the possibility of outgrowing Richmond, she’s much more excited to talk about being a part of the Egghunt family. “They’re just so great. They seem to recognize all the good stuff going on in Richmond and want to help it. It’s nice to have that Richmond identity, that people can look at it to see what happening. I’m really glad to be a part of it.”

As much as Dacus’ songwriting is at the forefront of the record, she makes clear that her music isn’t a solo effort. “It’s not just me. There’s a whole band there too. I’m with Miles Huffman, Mike Ferster, Jacob Blizard, and Noma Illmensee too, and their contributions are just as important as mine. I can understand why people are just talking about me, but I wish I could effectively convey how much the band means to me and that other people do as much for this as I do. You wouldn’t be talking to me without them.” Blizard’s arrangements and the band’s parts are central to each song, but the most appealing aspect of Lucy Dacus is still the songwriting itself, something she takes full credit for. “The lyrics and melodies are all me, but once I bring a song to the table, everyone has ideas on where to take it. It just so happens that all the songs start off with me and my notebook.”

The songwriting may be what has everyone hooked, but it’s not something that Dacus can fully put into words. “Really, I don’t have much control over the songwriting,” she noted repeatedly when trying to explain her songwriting process, which seems like the polar opposite of the poised final product. “I’ll be on a walk going home, and this song will just appear in my life. I’ll have to quickly jog home so I can write it down. Later, I get to figure out what it’s about, just like anybody else listening to a piece of music. But that happens after I’ve written it.”

Seemingly appearing out of thin air, the songs manifest from a melting pot of experiences and ideas, some of which are initially documented years before being put into a song. “I write everything down in notebooks, and have been doing it for years. Current thoughts journal, dream journal, spiritual and philosophy journal–I don’t feel comfortable not writing everything down. From there, the verses will just come out randomly. Some lines I’ve written in old journals–like, I wrote the singular line for ‘Funny Anymore’ four years ago and it just became relevant again when I wrote the song. It has to do with what’s going on in my head or what’s around me. But I can’t control it. I can’t just sit down and write a song. I’ve tried as an exercise, but they just don’t turn out good. I have to wait for it to come to me.”

Though she feels she has no control over them, lyrics are really the only aspect of her work she takes pride in. “It’s the one thing I feel like I do right. I don’t really feel like I know how to play guitar, which is why I play in open tuning. I don’t know anything about technique. The one thing I take ownership of is the lyrics. I think people are ready to be asked to think and be genuine in regards to them.” The genuine aspect of Dacus is perhaps her most notable talking point, though it goes hand in hand with her vulnerability. “Genuine and vulnerable are one and the same, really,” she says. “The umbrella is honesty. Being dishonest is just the worst because, no one can resonate with being lied to–and ultimately, no one wants to be lied to.”

Still, it’s hard for artists not to put up a wall that separates themselves from the audience–something that speaks to our basic instincts as people. “I just don’t think people are fundamentally willing to be vulnerable. But that’s what people ache for in anything. Not just from their friends, but the media too.” She recognizes that most people avoid becoming too vulnerable, but quickly deflects that line of thinking. “You can’t get too vulnerable with music, really. People assume that being vulnerable means I’m going to tell my secrets or just vent, but that’s where artistry comes in, and you get to be subtle or ambiguous. You have to be able to talk about it in a way that people are still comfortable with, so it’s not just dumping your baggage. There’s a certain way to do it so that it resonates with people. You just have to become an effective communicator in a way that’s true to you, but also true to everyone else.”

Becoming an effective communicator is certainly not an easy process. Luckily for Dacus, her background has helped to guide her. Growing up in Hanover, Dacus remembers spending all of her time in musical theater. “My mom is a musical theater director so I was in a bunch of productions when I was younger. I was just used to performing music really young, and I learned to really project what was going on.” Her short stint as a VCU film student really helped cement the concept of effective communication that she believes her music requires. “I just love film,” she says. “It can be all things. Visual art, audio, sculpture, performance. There’s technical aspects with the editing, and it can even incorporate dance and serious writing. It’s every output in one thing, and that’s just the coolest thing. You really get to be able to say what you want in whatever way possible.”

Dacus’ start in music only began a few years ago. Just like finding herself in Reba’s Nashville studio, it was almost a fluke occurrence. “Lobo Marino asked me to play some shows with them as an opener, and My Darling Fury saw one of those shows. They asked me to open for their shows, and then Night Idea saw one of those shows and also asked me to play with them. So on and so on; bands kind of adopted me, and gave me all sorts of opportunities.” It’s this beginning that allowed Dacus to become accepted by all the different scenes in town and avoid the cliques that can pop up from place to place. “If you don’t acknowledge [cliques], and you think that you can talk to certain people, or ask them to play with you, or go to a show and tell them great job, people will respond to it,” she says. “People don’t want to be exclusive.”

This might sound idealistic, but it makes sense when you learn just how devoted and passionate Dacus is about the Richmond music scene. “For Richmond to be responding well means so much to me. New York and London could love me, but it’s still Richmond’s love that means the most to me because these are the people I’ve respected for years, and that I’ve seen play so many shows. Whenever these people compliment me on the music, my first reaction is always just shock–because really, I feel the exact same way towards them. One time, driving home from Gallery5, I turned on WRIR, and it was right in the middle of ‘Funny.’ It was just this indescribable feeling. The fact that the town I love so much is showing it back to me is amazing.”

As attention and acclaim for her music continues to rise, Dacus began to seriously consider music as a viable option for her life. “I just figured that I should stop telling myself this is impossible and put some energy into it.” Dacus admits that musician Shakey Graves really spurred her decision to go for it. “He’s the first artist I watched kind of explode. Watching his path made me realize that it actually happens to people. People were telling me forever to do this, but I didn’t think it really happened. But it can, if you really take the time and energy and care about it. That’s what I’m doing.”

2015 has seen Dacus not only record No Burden, but also complete three extensive tours across the US and Canada–something some veteran local bands have never attempted even once. There’s no sign of slowing down for the fledgling musician anytime soon; there are already plans for 2016, including a trip to SXSW, followed by a lengthy Midwest tour. By that point, No Burden will be a few weeks old, and the music world will finally get a taste of what Richmond has been lucky enough to experience over the last few years: an exciting young musician with a strong grasp on what people are desperate for in their lives, and a truly gifted voice that can perfectly express it.

Doug Nunnally

Doug Nunnally

Former RVA Magazine Print Editor, Sound Gaze Host, The Auricular Editor, Off Your Radar Editor. I like music and I write about it.

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