Photo courtesy of Matador Records

Change and Continuity: An Interview With Lucy Dacus

Lucy Dacus: "Good music, art, and media should suck you in, chew you up, and spit you out different than who you were when you encountered it."

Lucy Dacus

The practice of the historian is an apt analogy for the outlook characterizing Lucy Dacus’ music. History is about process, movement, and change over time. A comparison between the work of the historian and the songwriter is available to careful listeners of her second full-length record — simply titled Historian — and one wonders why such a parallel should have waited so long for some explicit elaboration. In their own ways, both document and attempt to understand how moments are experienced, remembered, and shared. Even in the smallest of ways, and at their best, both are creative labors for shining a light on some element of the human experience.

The insight belongs to Dacus. The songs on Historian are like sketches capturing change and memory, marking moments when individuals and their respective histories interlock or break away, impressions for which the words and music have been crafted with equal care to create. As she told PopMatters, “I don’t think I’ve written a good song unless it has the potential to move the listener forward or to enact a transformation. Good music, art, and media should suck you in, chew you up, and spit you out different than who you were when you encountered it.”

The use of lyrics as a principal feature of the song rather than as an accessory is partly rooted in the music she was exposed to in her youth. “I grew up around Christian rock and musical theatre,” she says, “both of which are genres that use music to propel a plot or a narrative. The lyrics have to be communicative or they aren’t serving a purpose.” There is a passage from the title track that summarizes some of the themes contained on Historian: “Was I most complete at the beginning or the bow? / If past you were to meet future me, would you be holding me here and now?” The questions ask the listener to consider possibilities, to look back and forward, and to think about the people one chooses to share one’s time with.

“I think about that hypothetical often,” she says. Although there are no specific books that influenced her thinking on this album, “the act of reading itself has been influential.”

“Books consist of a beginning, middle, and end, unlike a life being lived [in the moment]. They put time and development into a manageable context. That line is considering a relationship like characters in a book. Here we are at chapter ten. Would you, in chapter one, have let yourself fall in love with me if you knew who I would become in chapter 20? If you had known what you were opting into — the conflicts, the hardships, the broken bits — would you still have come closer?”

So a task of self-reflection on Historian is to understand one’s place in the big picture and how that changes over time. In “The Shell” she sings: “You don’t want to be a leader doesn’t mean you’ve got nothing to say / Put down the pen don’t let it force your hand / You don’t want to be a leader doesn’t mean you don’t know the way.” When I suggested that there is an optimism implied in this view — in reminding people to express themselves, to make meaning in their own lives, and to find their own paths in a way that makes sense for them — she agreed.

“Absolutely! I guess to expand on what you’ve already said, it’s an optimism to combat the pessimism that comes from feeling like your life is meaningless, especially people who define themselves as creators and leaders. It’s hard to retain a secure identity when your identity is wrapped up in your production and you aren’t being productive. But meaning should come from oneself and not be reliant on objects or others.”

Other big picture questions around grief, ordinary life, politics, and creativity appear on Historian with both gallows humors and direct sincerity. How, for example, does she come to terms with the current political climate? “Well, I’m not at terms with it and that’s how I’ve come to terms with it. I am fully aware of how uncomfortable I am as an American, but that is helpful to recognize. It’s easier to ask for better and work towards something better than to dull yourself to your surroundings and be a willing participant in a society that minimizes minorities, endangers the innocent, prioritizes the wealthy, and profits from abusive business practices.”

“I truly believe it’s easier to challenge these power structures than to accept them. I suppose the hard part is becoming fully aware of them and your place in them — how you support, benefit, and are blind to these systems. I say you, but I also mean me. I am likely still unaware of facets of my complicity in systemic wrongdoing, but that’s all the more reason to stay alert and do what I can, when I can.”

She broaches death on “Pillar of Truth”, an elegy replete with religious imagery that unfolds patiently over seven minutes. “It’s about my experience witnessing my grandmother’s passing,” she says. “She was a Southern Baptist woman so a lot of the Biblical and hymnal references are meant to show a piece of what mattered to her. I respect how she handled her death very much. She was composed, calm, and surrounded by people who love her. I felt grateful to have been a part of her send-off. I think I’ve internalized her final moments as a lesson in centering and peace. I hope I can emulate some of what she taught me when the time comes.”

On the musical as opposed to the lyrical side, the arrangements were produced with contributions from long-time collaborators Jacob Blizzard and Collin Pastore. The former attended Oberlin College, and the latter attended the Berklee College of music so they are, in her words, “fluent in a language I can only stutter in despite my desire to speak it eloquently. They are translators between my brain and the sounds we eventually find together.”

What was the creative process for developing the songs on Historian? “All of my songs begin with lyrics and vocal melody. From there, we add guitar, bass, and drums as needed. If that isn’t enough, we get creative about what needs to happen next. The content usually speaks for itself. Sometimes it screams out for horns or whispers its need for strings.”

Despite several of the songs exceeding the six-minute mark there is little worry about alienating casual listeners. “I think writing a long song is much easier than writing a short one. The feelings are complex, so they need space to unfold and often I need time to understand what I’m saying while writing. It’s much more difficult to express a complex feeling concisely.”

“I guess the risk is that people won’t have the attention span or that the song won’t be commercially viable,” she admits. “I never consider either if these factors when writing, mostly because writing is foremost a way for me to talk to myself and find out what I think. I hope people have the attention span, but personally, I think that anyone who is more dedicated to standard form rather than content isn’t cut out to be a fan of mine anyways.”

As a singer, she has not received formal training and likes to believe “that everyone is born with a voice and are trained out of using it, whether they’re told it’s too loud or annoying or not pretty enough.” Her approach to singing is composed but also allows for a certain drama where the moment calls for it. In “The Pillar of Truth”, for example, her voice breaks in an emotional outburst and marks a sense of loss. “I also spent a lot of time trying to sound like musical theatre performers because my mom was involved in that scene when I was growing up. I was never much good at that. It took a while to realize that I’m only good at being myself. Anything else is a struggle.”

The finding of one’s voice and the subject of creativity itself arise on Historian. I wondered whether this tendency to reflect on the idea of being a creator or a leader, as she does on “The Shell”, is something that has always been present in her thinking or if it has taken shape more recently as a result of her rising professional profile.

“Interesting question. I haven’t thought about this directly. I think I’ve always wondered why I feel the need to create. It’s a question I still haven’t answered, but I have stopped needing an answer. I know I just said that one’s meaning should be based in the self, but I’m not impervious to the meaning my music has for other people. It is uniquely validating to be cared about by so many more people than I could’ve imagined. I am soaking it in now with hopes that I won’t be stifled if the well ever dries up. I’d like to think I will be fine.”