Virginia musician takes on death with heart, grace

On Historian, Lucy Dacus' sophomore album, the Richmond, Virginia-based musician engages in a bit of title-appropriate excavation, digging into her past to examine the ways it continues to shape her present.

Witness “Pillar of Truth,” a slow-building, seven-plus-minute epic that finds the musician revisiting the 2014 death of her grandmother, Mary Jo Olander Dacus, vacillating between her own bedside point of view (“Your eyes are closing/Your words are broken”) and that of her grandmother as she takes her final breaths. “I'm slowly sinking/Into darkness yet unknown,” Dacus sings. “But the fading light around me/Is full of faces who carry my name.”

“She was a really amazing woman, and watching her pass was really powerful and brought me a lot of insight to both death and life,” said Dacus, who visits the Basement for a concert on Sunday, April 8, reached on the road en route to Salt Lake City, Utah. “It was the first death I observed that came through illness and was drawn out a little bit, so that the person had time to reckon with their life. That's such a gift to have a little foresight and invite your whole family from around the country and around the world to see you, and I was happy to be a part of her kind of final scene.

“I think there's a lot to be learned from loss, especially in terms of thankfulness and gratefulness — defeating this impulse of feeling entitled to one's life. Loss is a major way to acknowledge the impermanence of things you care about. … I feel like all you can do is make decisions and spend your time in ways that feel fulfilling.”

Much of Historian, which Dacus recorded with her band over a single week in Nashville in March 2017, finds the musician wrestling with outsized themes, exploring the finite nature of existence, searching for earthly purpose, and coming to terms with how and why we carry on in the face of loss.

“I guess I felt a heightened sense of responsibility on this record, because when you have an audience you really should be sharing things that are worth sharing,” Dacus said. “For me, I picked songs that are maybe a little heavier, but they're very close to what matters to me the most.”

Dacus said there wasn't an “a ha moment” that ignited this search, describing it instead as part of a lifelong examination spurred on by her adopted parents, who brought her up with the awareness that life entails numerous turns that remain mercifully out of one's control.

“My parents raised me to basically constantly consider what could have been, and not in a regretful way, but in a thankful way, like, my life could have looked really different,” Dacus said. “So they raised me with this baseline level of impermanence or chance, and I think that's been a pervasive theme for most of my life.”

Though weighty, the album is far from bleak, underscored by a wry humor (“I am busy doing nothing and you're rudely interrupting,” Dacus sings on “The Shell”) and buoyed by graceful arrangements that have a way of drawing the listener in gradually, as if by hand. Take the album-opening “Night Shift,” which begins as a dreamy, blue-sky ballad before the storm clouds roll in three-quarters of the way through, fleshing out the sound with a steady downpour of fuzzy guitar.

“I feel like it's best to move gracefully into darkness or hardship, and that's what a lot of the songs are about, just difficulty,” Dacus said. “I think that was intentional, to sonically ease people into the content. It's easier to receive difficulty with a guiding hand rather than a push from behind.”

Fittingly, nothing on Historians sounds forced, from the arrangements to Dacus' even-keeled singing to the songwriting itself, which includes reminders to let things unfold as they must. “Put down the pen/Don't let it force your hand,” Dacus sings on “The Shell.”

“Whenever we feel like we're forcing something, we just stop,” the musician said. “You shouldn't be making stuff just to make it, or to reach a deadline, or to fulfill a contract. You should make work because of your personal, sole desire to do it. I think people can tell when it's happening otherwise.”

Similarly homespun reminders surface throughout, arriving almost like tethering posts designed to keep Dacus grounded. Such is the case on “Next of Kin,” where she repeats the line, “I will never be complete,” her at-peace tone suggesting she's quite all right with this realization.

“At times I can be really anxious, and I feel a huge relief when I'm able to understand that [we're always a work in progress],” said Dacus, who described accepting this reality as an “active choice,” one that requires practice. “But that doesn't mean you stop growing. Even if you'll never be complete, it doesn't mean you give up your interests or let go of things. I'm not going to read every book, but I'm still going to keep reading because it's a valuable experience to me.”