Lucy Dacus | photo by Elizabeth Weinberg
Lucy Dacus on the boundaries of kindness and love
Acquiesced to a 9-to-5 job at a Richmond photo lab following her freshman year at Virginia Commonwealth University, Lucy Dacus was not plotting to be an indie rock singer-songwriter. But biographical stories having been growing under her care through journaling and songwriting since childhood.
When collaborator Jacob Bilzard asked her to record No Burden for a school project, Dacus was armed with ample material and a voice that cradles listeners like singing bowl therapy, or satiates like expensive dark chocolate. Her lyrics are endearingly matter-of-fact and incisive, and may launch one into nostalgic pockets of his or her own.“The first time I tasted somebody else’s spit” she recalls on “Night Shift, ”the first song on her sophomore album, Historian, “I had a coughing fit.”
On December 29th, 30th, and 31st, Dacus will headline a string of shows at Johnny Brenda’s. In advance of them, we caught up with her by phone to talk about STUFF.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity
The Key: Hi Lucy. How are you? Are you in Richmond?
Lucy Dacus: Yeah. I’m home for the first time in what feels like months or years. I actually just got back in bed to talk to you, ’cause that is the vibe today. I’m trying not to leave my house as much as possible and just like, eating good food, making friends come to me so I can stay in my pajamas. Truly an indulgent restful time.
TK: I read that you recently bought a house in Richmond. What incentivized you to stay rooted in your hometown?
LD: So actually, the reason I bought a house is that I was walking around and there was a church for sale and I was like, “Oh my gosh, what if I buy a church and I make a venue slash community space that has, you know, like a living space in it? I’m going to start a publishing company and have a small press and la de da.” I put all of my dreams under this one building. I went and inquired about it and they were like, “who do you think you are? You’re 21, you have no money. Why do you think that you can buy a giant building like this? If you really want to build equity, you should just buy a house.” It’s a lot more attainable to buy a house. And I’ve been saving up for my whole life for something. And so, yeah, I bought this house in the dreams of eventually buying the church, but I didn’t realize how significant it would be to have a house as a touring musician. To know that I can come home to something that is totally mine. I’m not borrowing it. I can punch a hole in the wall if I want, can paint it ugly if I want, I can do anything and it’s up to me.
TK: Wow. That’s awesome. This year I began thinking about starting a feminist commune in Northern California in a half serious way and I realized that a lot of peoples’ vision of what home and community can look like is limited. I hope your church / publishing company / community space / small press center comes to fruition. But more on “home.” In a previous interview, you mentioned that you could see yourself moving to Philadelphia. What makes Philly feel like a plausible home to you?
LD: We have so many sweet friends in Philly. The hangs are so nice and rejuvenative and I like the city itself. It feels like a place where if you can come to love it, you won’t stop. It seems like a chaotic place and not a perfect place, but from what I hear, it becomes a part of you. I love my house in Richmond and honestly, it has kept me her longer than I think I would have been otherwise. We’re going to try spending more time in Philly next year when we’re off the road. It’s only four hours from Richmond. Two hours from New York. It just seems like a city that makes sense to me.
TK: Something I’ve been contemplating is that a lot of musicians spend most of their career out of the spotlight, persevering with the hope that music can eventually become their full time gig. I read that you used to work at a photo lab in Richmond when “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore” came out and soon after, your first two albums, No Burden and Historian were met with critical acclaim. The liminal space between potential widespread recognition and humbly making music can breed grit, hope, and a vision, so when we accomplish the gargantuan goal we were working toward it’s like, “well damn, what do I do now?” I’m curious, what has success at the onset of your career looked and felt like for you?
LD: I think that’s totally true. That being in a hopeful place can provide the grounds for a lot of really earnest creativity. I think the thing that has saved me from getting a career and then feeling like “what now” is that I didn’t expect this or really work towards it. I was at that job intending to be there for a while. Music was kind of the thing I did to unwind after work. I would come up with lyrics and write them down and look at them when I got home.
I do think hopefulness also can turn sour when people want success for the wrong reasons. If you don’t love what you do at the lowest level, then it won’t be fun later on. I love booking shows even now. I think that if everything falls apart, I could be a booking agent. I love just writing the music for myself. I loved going to cities and, I have a bad back now, but sleeping on people’s floors and couches, like that was in itself rewarding and fun for me. So when I talk to friends that are like, “when’s it going to get good?” I’m like, it never gets good. It might get easier in some ways, but it gets harder in other ways.
TK: Were there any misconceptions about pursuing a career as musician that came to light as you became recognized?
LD: Yeah. When I used to go to shows and an artist wouldn’t come out after to meet fans, I would think they were ungrateful and stuck up and I’d be like, “well, they don’t really care about the people that show up for them.” And there are so many reasons why that doesn’t make sense. Like after a show, your vocal cords are fragile and you shouldn’t talk to people. I did used to meet fans after shows and people would touch me and try to kiss me or ask for my number or ask me to come home with them or even just unload really personal heavy things. I think I would appreciate those interactions given the proper time and space. But I was ambushed for emotional labor that I am definitely not prepared to do. So I don’t go out after shows anymore and it’s not because I’m not grateful. It’s because I’m incapable of being what everyone needs or wants for me in that time and space. And I’ve just had to admit that.
TK: Yes, it sounds like you’ve become comfortable setting boundaries for yourself as a performer. This kind of leads into my next question, which is about your song “Bite The Hand” and not feeling beholden to people that give you financial or emotional support. In what ways do you bite the hand that feeds you within or beyond music?
LD: Hmm. I mean, the first thought I had was that I often just tell my label what I’m doing instead of asking. And they literally are the people that fund my art but I resist the urge to ask permission. I’ll just be like, “Hey, we’re doing this.” And they respect that. I know not everyone has that experience.
I think that I’ve been often caught in the trap of feeling like I owe people things. Like if someone’s nice to me, I owe them. But that can be such a manipulative tool. Relationships where someone’s like,“oh, I did this for you and so you owe me your time in these ways.” Recently I’ve tried to accept kindness for what it is and if I am grateful, I’ll be naturally generous back. I try not to look at kindness as transactional.
TK: When you put it that way, it makes me remember the way capitalism directly shapes how we give and receive emotions. Welp. Okay well, there’s a lyric I really like of yours from “Direct Address” that goes, “It’s hard enough for me to not fall in love with every person I see.” I also aggressively browsed your Tweets and saw you Tweeted “I love anybody’ and “If you stare into someone’s eyes for long enough, you will fall in love with them.” So I was wondering, once you have fallen in love with the idea of someone, what makes you approach them to uncover the truth of who they are?
LD: Whoa, that’s such a good question. Well first, the “I love anybody” Tweet. I actually Tweeted from Philly cause it was New Year’s and I was just loving everybody. But yeah, I feel like when you fall in love with the idea of somebody, that can only be healthy if you’re ready for the comedown. As long as you know that your idea will never be more true than the person’s real life and attributes.
I watched a lot of people basically come out of loving someone when it’s not what they expected it to be. I think it’s still dangerous and sad to not be willing to change what the love looks like once reality sets in. I love that when I meet new friends, it’s a feeling of falling in love. Like when I don’t know everything about someone and just see their positive attributes, like yes, that can become diminutive and dangerous, but I think it can also be the beginning of something real.
TK: Yes, I hear you—it’s vital that we parse out the projections we have imposed onto someone from the person they prove to be. Has has writing music changed your approach to relating to others?
LD: I’ve written music for so long. If the answer is yes, it happened when I was like 14, you know, like having the music be heard hasn’t changed anything. But yeah, I think it’s probably helped and that I have an outlet to mull things over and come to my own understandings. Like writing songs and journaling are very similar to me. They perform a very similar function, so it probably makes me a better listener, observer and friend that I do this.
Lucy Dacus headlines Johnny Brenda’s on December 29th, 30th, and 31st.