A year removed from critically acclaimed sophomore album 'Historian,” Richmond songwriter reflects on the album's joy-giving songs and readies a 'really wild' third record
On the song “Next of Kin,” from 2018 album Historian, Lucy Dacus speaks in casual terms about leaving this earth for good. “I am at peace with my death/I can go back to bed,” she sings.
In a live setting, some fans resonate with the song. Others appear shocked by the way Dacus sings about death with such insouciance. “It's a big, hefty topic, so for me there's a lot of levity in the song that is helpful. But some people think that levity is disorienting when it comes to a topic like death,” Dacus said recently by phone from her hometown of Richmond, Virginia. “We don't play it as often live. I kind of read the room and see if people are feeling good. If people are somber, I don't usually feel like I can bust out a pop song about dying.”
In general, though, the songs from Historian — a record that ended up on pretty much every Best of 2018 list — have benefited from the live interaction between Dacus and her fans. “There's a lot more joy to them because I've been able to share them. The more I play them out, the more I see that they matter to other people, and so joy has crept in, which is always the right direction,” she said. “None of the songs feel worse than they did originally. They all feel better.”
Some of the songs even serve as a periodic pep talk for the singer and guitarist, particularly “The Shell,” which Dacus wrote as a way to deal with creative burnout and the constant pressure to produce. “You don't wanna be a creator/Doesn't mean you've got nothing to say/Put down the pen, don't let it force your hand,” Dacus sings, her beautiful, unhurried vocals hovering in place while the other instruments drop out from beneath her.
“When I wrote [‘The Shell'], I read the lyrics back to myself, and I was like, ‘Oh, I think that? Wow, that's great. Let me just practice that.' That happens a lot. I write out of confusion and then, once the song is finished, I can reflect and see what my brain has been cooking up,” she said. “Singing it every night is a reminder: ‘You do think this, and you have thought it before, and you can think it again.' My feeling towards writer's block has been so much healthier since then. I've not written for two months sometimes, and I've just taken the opportunity to be quiet with myself, be observing, and then eventually trust that you're taking in information that you're going to synthesize into new work.”
After a big break from writing in the wake of sophomore album Historian, as well as Dacus' work with Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers in new supergroup boygenius (the trio's self-titled EP likewise ended up on countless Best of 2018 lists, and deservedly so), Dacus recorded a series of holiday songs, debuting a cover of “La Vie en Rose” around Valentine's Day. More holiday tunes will follow in 2019, including an Independence Day song and a tune on Bruce Springsteen's birthday. (“A very important holiday in the Dacus household,” she said.)
Dacus also recently began writing for her third record, finishing one song a couple of days before this interview. So far, the new songs have been taking her in unexpected directions.
“I'm naturally, unintentionally, just writing really wild songs,” she said. “Most of my songs up to this point have a generality to them — not really specific characters, not specific scenes. Most of the lines you can take out of context and still understand what's going on. In that way, it's not as demanding front to back. You can tune in for a verse and there's still something there. These songs, front to back, you have to be paying attention to know what I'm saying. And there are specific characters. They're about people who are still actually in my life. They're a lot more journalistic. They're largely about childhood, which is always super weird.”
“I'm grappling with the material in a major way,” she continued. “It's complicated, very personal storytelling. So at this point my bigger tension about releasing the next thing is, are people gonna come along? I hope so.”