Photo: Ebru Yildiz
Lucy Dacus On New Album 'Home Video,' Her Personal Songwriting & Touring Again
Lucy Dacus puts a lot of effort into crafting the lyrics of her songs, so she knows when someone in her show's audience is singing the wrong words back to her.
"It happens way more often than I think people realize," she tells GRAMMY.com from her home in Philadelphia. "Sometimes it'll almost mess me up or I'll start laughing because I'm watching somebody really enthusiastically not know the song." Thankfully, from her vantage point onstage, the charm of it all is a compliment that can't be faked. "They want to be having a good time the way everyone else is," she says admiringly.
After what has undoubtedly felt like an infinite time loop of uncertainty, for the first time in over a year and half, Dacus actually got to return to the stage this summer as the opening act for Bright Eyes. Starting this month, she'll will soon top the bill of her own tour to support her third album, Home Video.
Preempted by a deluge of anticipatory media coverage unlike anything she'd experienced before, the 26-year-old's newest full-length was met with critical acclaim thanks to its unflinching exploration of the songwriter's adolescent past. It features short story-style vignettes of sexual identity, faith, friendship, first loves and heartbreak and shows how looking back at the less romantic parts of one's life can contribute something meaningful to your present.
Recently, a lucky cohort of young songwriters received a masterclass in Storytelling Through Songwriting from the "Thumbs" artist herself, during her GRAMMY U and Songwriters & Composers Wing Zoom webinar. Through this and her music, she is continuing the never-ending creative cycle of making memories with music, putting those and other memories into song form, and inspiring the next generation of music makers with her heartfelt tracks.
"I feel the most [grounded] when I can relate to everyone who I have been previously," says Dacus. "I have so many friends who do not want to talk about the past, who say 'I hate who I was,' and throw it away. And maybe they have a phoenix feeling about that, where they just are born from the ashes of their past.
But for me I want there to be a line. I want my life to make sense to me, and the closest way for that to happen is to get familiar with the past and take ownership for the things that I did wrong, to forgive myself for those things. I don't have to blame myself. I like to figure out what can I take credit for, what can I not take credit for. I learn so much from that process."
You probably had a lot of emotions going back on the road, but touring with Bright Eyes, how did it feel to be in front of people performing again?
It was wild and amazing. It's also so weird because you just have to trust the science of the day, being told that the vaccines work, that being outside is all right. Making it to the end of the tour with Bright Eyes, none of us got COVID, all the shows were outside except one and that had a vaccination requirement. It was nice to kind of reenter playing shows and it being more of a lower stakes situation as an opener.
It's clear the logistics of touring still come with some hurdles. You're among a growing number of artists requiring vaccination status or negative tests to be able to attend your shows.
It's tough that everyone has had to become half scientist and half lawyer. I don't know these things. It is not in my wheelhouse to know these things. I'm always like, "Can we do this?" And people on my team are like, "I don't know, but we've been talking bit by bit." We're trying to figure out how to make it feel and be as safe as possible, anything that makes people feel more comfortable.
Your songs have always had such a writerly approach to them, even more so with Home Video. What has kept you from–in some alternate reality–the pursuit of writing an actual book or memoir? Why do you feel music is your most powerful means of communicating?
I think the short answer is that I'm a coward. The longer answer is that I think the literary world has an academic undertone, or it just feels like all of the writers that I love–I can't do that. Whereas with music, all my friends did it, and you can just look up the chords. And you only need to know three.
You need to know lots of words to write a book. Music just felt more accessible. I had examples of it. I went to shows. Books, it's so bare, and so personal, and I feel a particular book could only exist because of who that author is. I can't be them, and so I can't write that book or a book that good.
I just have way more internal monologue that keeps me from writing long form. With music I literally don't even think about it. I'm never second guessing myself. I'm never stopping myself from singing to myself. I'm never thinking "Is this good or not?" I'm just doing it. And when it's done, it's just something that had to happen.
For a listener coming across these songs who had no idea about the context of how they were conceived, how would you describe the narrator of these songs? Do you consider the narrator a reliable one?
I don't think there's such thing as a reliable narrator. That's my take. I think that all story is curation. And to make anything is to curate, because you're not making something else. Even sculpture, looking at a stone and making something out of it, that's a curation of the stone. I don't know if I'm asking people to rely on me. I think I just want people to listen.
One of the things that really struck me listening to these songs is this pervading theme of identity and this awkward period we go through when we're young and just trying to figure ourselves out.
I feel the hardest lesson of trying to get to know yourself is knowing that you're going to change. I think that people who have a really strong sense of self are really flexible. I think that if you try to hold on to who you are too hard, that idea is more likely to crumble.
I do have this desire to really know who I am, or even what that means. I think that I will never be satisfied because any working definition changes. A lot of this has been in the pursuit of figuring out what has never changed about me, maybe what will never change in the future. Who was I then, what does that tell me about who I am now and maybe who I'll become? Then again I think maybe the impulse itself to forecast your life is futile. I'm trying to maybe let go of the need to know who I am.
The process of writing this record, with so much of it drawn from your journals, when could you say, "This particular moment feels appropriate to be translated into a song"?
It happened the other way around, actually, where I would have this memory and think, "Oh, my gosh, I have this recovered memory from my life." And then I'd go to the journals, to that specific day and find what I had to say about it at the time, which is so different from what I'm thinking about it in the present.
"VBS" is a good example, where I was on the way to record some songs and saw a sign advertising Vacation Bible School. I was like, "Oh, my God, my first boyfriend used to snort nutmeg." And so then it was like, "OK, I have to write that down. That has to be a line."
So the nutmeg line was first. And then everything else I went back and looked not just at journals, but photos from that time, and I tried to just exist within that world, in that state of mind for a little bit to finish the song. I'd have this triggered memory for no reason, and then use all of the primary source documents, to flesh out ideas.
You know how you when you listen to a song during a particular moment in your life, you wind up immediately associating that song with that moment? You're transported back to the way you felt and where you were when you heard it. You have written songs capturing specific memories from your past, putting them to music, which will then be listened to by someone. That song about your memories will become a song that someone will associate with their own experience and memories. What would you call that?
I feel like there's some good metaphor. I can't really put words to it. I think that it's just participating in a tide of gratitude. Because I myself am so affected by those moments in my life where there are songs that I associate with places and memories, and that is so meaningful to me, being able to contribute to that ongoing force. I'm grateful I've gotten to experience other people's work in that way. It's an honor to show up in people's lives in the way that music has shown up for me.