History In The Making

With her sophomore album, The Historian, Lucy Dacus is a voice hard to contain.

At the centerpiece of Lucy Dacus’s recently released album, the stunning The Historian, sits a song that encapsulates both the humble, folkish, reality of her newly found fame and the roaring, existential assuredness that proselytizes her unwieldy visions for her future.

“And I fight time, it won in a landslide. I’m just as good as anybody, I’m just as bad as anybody,” Dacus sings on “Timefighter” as if she’s already dealt with the trappings of the tastemakers, and can finally focus on following her muse and ditching the hype. At 22, Dacus has a voice that speaks to generations and universal truths like death, tenuous love, and losing her religion, begetting her rookie status in the industry. Her signing to Matador records after her second record shows an artist looking for a permanent place in which to create. As such, hers is a career in reverse: she’s already grounded beyond her years and has even settled down in her native Richmond, buying her first home and finding an affinity for Virginia trees.

It’s an attitude that is indicative of her songs on The Historian—confident, majestic, youthful yet stoic. In the recording of the album and in touring, Dacus’s band have evolved past the role of back-up. Together they fuse a sound that straddles their Mason-Dixon Line that sits in their horizon, but buoys Dacus’s melodies into bombastic grandeur. Last month, on the eve of the record’s release, I spoke with Dacus about the blitz that was about to become her everyday life.

With your new album and its critical success, you’re likely to have a very exhausting week at SXSW, as well as another two months of intense touring, so how do you prepare yourself for extended life on the road? What fills your cup? 

Before we leave I try to load up on friendship and family interactions. I try to intentionally do things that are mundane, like sitting around with friends or saying proper goodbyes so that I’m leaving in a good place. While we are on the road, we really relish the time we have in the van. There’s a lot of time for silence, which leads to reflection and reading and journaling. It’s built-in “me” time.

After the success of your debut, No Burden, you probably had your choice of labels. Why did you decide to stay with Matador? Is there an affinity for the history of that label or something intangible that they can provide? 

I’ve been a fan of Matador bands for a really long time. When I was trying to decide they just seemed very sustainable. They have Yo La Tengo and Cat Power, and all of these legacy acts. They’ve been making great records for decades. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do something like that, but I like that I have the possibility.

The Historian deals with a lot of loss and transition, but in a recent article you talked about how you “would love it if hopefulness were more of a cliché,” can you expand on that?

There’s a lot of work that focuses on negativity. In pop music I feel like there’s a lot of vapid material just about attraction or partying. Within indie rock, it’s always music about heartache. And both have their place, and both have a community for that and need to be sad, but I wish hopefulness was more of a cliché because it’s harder to express and maintain. It’s something I need more of in my life. Whenever I get my hands on that, when it’s beautiful and not cheesy or overtly happy, I really value that perspective.

Songs like “Timefighter” or “Pillar of Truth,” I think are great representations of your shift in sound on The Historian. The record is equal parts sinister, majestic, and mysterious, like something strange bubbling underneath. And you arranged it all. Given your sound is so expansive on this album, do you take issue with being relegated as just a folk singer-songwriter?

Definitely. It’s happening less now that The Historian is finally out because it’s really more of a rock record. I get bothered when people say we are “Americana,” because there is so much good “Americana” out there and we are not it. I think we are just a rock band and that’s just how it is.

That tag also comes with the baggage that much of what you write about is deeply personal, and there are some very personal explorations on The Historian. But as a young songwriter, do you feel any responsibility to speak to more political topics since you have a voice everyone is paying attention to?

Not as much a responsibility [so] much as a weight. The problem is when I try to write politically it usually comes out pretty dumb. There’s a song on the record called “Yours and Mine” that isn’t dumb, but it’s more political adjacent. It’s about deciding how you protest and how you can deal with activism in your own way, not being judgmental about those around you, those people who might not want to march. If I try to write about how much I hate Trump it will sound too angry and not artful. If I shared it, it would not be effective at all.

You’ve been quoted regarding The Historian as saying that you’re “very intimidated by what it might mean to people and how (your) identity is going to be dispersed by it.” What do you imagine or hope your identity will be to audiences a year from now?

I would never want my personal identity to eclipse the music itself. I’m thankful that people want to talk to me, or that you want to do this interview, but what I really want to share is the music. There are parts about my life that I want to keep personal. Maybe the ultimate perception is just that I’m a normal person making … better than good work. I don’t need to be the next Bowie or the next superstar, but I’d love to be able to continue to make music for a living.

Lucy Dacus plays The Basement on Sunday April 8. Visit lucydacus.com for music and more information.

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