Lucy Dacus’ Rising Star Shines Bright

The singer-songwriter's debut record No Burden is getting a second wind on Matador Records, having figured out the recording/performing process from scratch.
Lucy Dacus
No Burden

These days it’s really good to be Lucy Dacus.

Since the release of her critically-acclaimed debut album No Burden from earlier this year, the young singer-songwriter from Richmond, Virginia has been experiencing a flush of activity in the last several months: interviews in several major media outlets; diligent touring that included a performance at Lollapalooza; and her first major national TV appearance on CBS This Morning Saturday. Topping them all was the announcement this past June that Dacus signed with Matador Records, which reissued No Burden in the fall of 2016.

Just give a cursory listen to No Burden and it’s easy to understand what Dacus had already accomplished on her first record where a seasoned pro would’ve done by their third or fourth album: a mixture of dynamic indie rock and folk, No Burden showcases Dacus’ down-to-earth alto singing and her personal lyrics. The opening cut on the album as well as its first single, “I Don’t Want to Be Funny Anymore”, sets the tone of the record with its shimmering pop sensibilities and lyrics about labeling people. Other tracks draw on introspection (the tender-sounding “Trust”, the atmospheric “…Familiar Place”) and observations (the energetic rockers “Troublemaker Doppelganger” and “Strange Torpedo”). Through her songs Dacus manages to articulate such universal feelings of yearning, angst and compassion in both straightforward and eloquent terms, as in the case of “Troublemaker Doppelganger” with its lines: “I wanna live in a world where I can keep my doors wide open/but who knows what’d get in and what’d get out.”

Dacus, who was adopted as a child, performed locally while in college and then met her future collaborator guitarist Jacob Blizer. Together with producer Collin Pastore, Dacus recorded No Burden in about a day; it was later released it via the Richmond, Virgina-based indie EggHunt Records this past February. As she was traveling on a boat somewhere in Washington state while on tour, the gracious and gregarious Dacus recently spoke with PopMatters by phone about her music and life following No Burden‘s release.

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These have been really busy times for you with your debut album and the Matador deal. How are all you taking all of this activity?

I don’t have any grounds for comparison. It all feels really crazy and unexpected. I don’t know if it’s regular or abnormal or irregular. I’m just glad it is happening whatever is happening.

During this tour, you’ve been sharing the stage with Julien Baker and now with Car Seat Headrest.

It’s awesome. It’s really good to be playing shows with bands that I really love. I love seeing Julien, I’ve probably seen her five times now. And I don’t even know how many times we’ve listened to the new Car Seat Headrest record in our van, so that will be nice. I’m kind worried about losing my voice during that stretch of shows because I’m going to be singing along every night. So I have to be careful about that.

Regarding No Burden, were the songs written for that particular release or had they been around for a while?

I wrote all of them not knowing that I would ever even record them. Some of them I didn’t even realize that I would ever share with people. When we finally decided to make a record — basically Jacob [Blizard, guitarist] and [producer] Collin Pastore were the two biggest voices on the production side — we just kind of went through all of my songs, picked our favorites, and that’s what No Burden was. They were all written over the course of two years.

No Burden was recorded at Reba McEntire’s studio in Nashville, How long did it take to lay down the basic tracks?

It was like 12 to 14 hours — it was one day. We got there in the morning, went home in the evening. That’s excluding vocal harmonies and guitar overdubs. We just didn’t have that much time: we didn’t have a choice. I’m glad that it came out how it did through such little time.

Let’s talk about some of the songs from the record. For example on “Strange Torpedo”, was that about someone who is an underachiever?

If you’re thinking the word underachiever as someone who has the capability of achieving — it was originally written about someone specific in my life. But after I wrote it, I realized I have a lot of friendships like that and a lot of dynamic people who I’ve been wanting more for them based off of my own standards, which isn’t unfair to impose my standards on other people. But yes I have a lot of friendships that are unfortunately like that. When I talk to people about it, usually people say I have a friend like that, so it’s just not that one person I wrote it about.

“Map on a Wall” is a very moving and powerful track. I was struck by the lines: “If you want to see the world, you have to say goodbye/cause a map does no good hanging on a wall.”

I definitely have maps on my wall [laughs], which maybe ruins the illusion there. It’s the last line of the song, in case the rest of the song didn’t make sense, that’s what the song about. The feeling has been within me for a while, but it kind of came out in one moment. Like kind of just everything that you couldn’t express comes out that in a way makes sense. At the time I was dropping out of school, moving in with new people I had just planned on making this record. This was before we knew what the record would even become.

I traveled a lot and the whole time people were kind of doubting “Should you be doing this?” “Are you sure you don’t want to get a degree?” “Are you sure that you don’t want to live in a more stable situation? Are you sure you have the time or the money or the energy to travel?” But it didn’t really matter what other people telling me — it ended up being the right decision. And if you do ever want to reach your goal — if you’re goal is to travel, you have to give up other things.

The first single off of the record was “I Don’t Want to Be Funny Anymore”. Is it a commentary — maybe a self-deprecating one — about being a musician?

I wrote it before I even knew that I would have a band. I wrote it when I was solo. It was really about an old feeling of mine, like reflecting on the time when I was forming my identity in middle school. I was the funny one in my group, there was a lot pressure to be responsible for everyone’s happiness. I didn’t like watching other friends of mine be called the “pretty one” or the “smart one.” That had no depth and it didn’t match how I knew them.

You were an adopted as child, and I was wondering if that influenced your songwriting?

The main way that being adopted has shaped my songwriting is that I was asked at an early age to consider the circumstances that led to my life, and in a way I was introduced to how fragile and unlikely life is from the beginning. I was always taught to be grateful and so the question came early: What is there to be grateful for? Why is life supposed to be so good? That’s still a question I try to answer all the time.

You have been journaling pretty much your whole life since grade school. Do you draw your songwriting from the journals? Or do you write based on whatever comes to you at that moment — whether it’s from personal experience or observations.

I used to think that they were completely separate, because I don’t journal and then look at the sentence I wrote and then put a melody to it and sing it. But I realized they are really related because journaling has helped me practice writing about my life. I have this backlog of trying to express my thoughts. So it’s been really good practice. I don’t end up writing songs in my journals, but I’m sure that my ability to write songs has been helped by how consistently and impulsively I try to get my life into words through the journals.

You had attended film school before dropping out. Had you always wanted to become a musician?

I never thought of being a musician could be a career. That doesn’t sound like something that actually happens for people. I never went to school for it, I never applied for jobs that were musical, I also never took music classes, so I never felt like I knew enough. I started playing shows because I went to a lot of shows. I didn’t realize this could be a profession until like a couple of months ago when we were touring everyday. I don’t know if that’s my lack of imagination or lack of research or if this particular industry is hidden — it’s not really easy to figure out how to do this as a job — there’s not like a how-to.

You met your guitarist Jacob and you worked with him on making a record for his college project. Did that jump start things for you?

Even while we were recording, I don’t think we realized what it would become. We’ve always recorded music together. Jacob, Collin, and I made an EP in 2012 in Colin’s bedroom with his own gear. And that’s kind of a way that we hang out because they’re both very musically inclined. That’s something all of us enjoy. So it made sense for us to record it — that’s the easy part for us. “What is marketing?” “What is publicity?” “How do you tour?” “How do you get interviews?” All of that was a cloud for a long time. But now we’re luckily we’ve found people who’ve done it before and are helpful. That’s been a total blessing.

How did you come to the attention of Matador Records? Did you know of the label’s history before signing on to them.

Gerard [Cosloy] just sent an email to my personal email saying, “Hi, I’m Gerard Cosloy and I’m with Matador Records and we should talk about your album.” And I said, “Yes please!” People keep asking how that happened, and it’s really the most simple, and I have nothing else to say other than I received a life changing email. [laughs] That’s kind of the whole answer.

So far since the release of No Burden and the attention that you have received in the last several months, has there been one highlight: a particular show you performed, a city that you’ve never been to, meeting someone famous or whom you idolized, or a funny moment that happened on the road?

My whole life seems to be a string of these moments. One day we’ll say to each other, “Nothing can top this, it’s all down hill from here.” And then we’ll say the same thing the next day. Most recently, last night we played with Julien Baker in Portland and we sang her song “Good News” together on stage. A few days before, we played Doe Bay Fest on Orcas Island which is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been and all the music was fantastical and all the people kind and accommodating. Before that, we took an unbelievable drive through Montana and Idaho and camped in Coeur D’Alene next to a huge lake that we paddle boated on. Before that, we played Lollapalooza. I feel like I could follow the string back for months.

I read in your interview with The Fader that you started an LLC (limited liability company), which is remarkable for such a young musician as yourself to already think that far ahead in her career. Why did you do that?

Basically I realized that the more that we tour, the more I feel responsibility. I have this band and people who are giving me their time and their lives. I’m paying them and I’m trying to be more conscious about the business matters. I don’t want to be inattentive and then realize I’ve worked myself into a rut. So starting early, just having help on the business side, having an LLC being more official and keeping track of all of your paperwork — all that boring stuff, I’ve been really excited to get to know how to do it just because I feel like I’m being more careful and attentive to the future.

I heard that you already have songs for the second album. Is there anything musically lyrically that the new record will have in common with No Burden, or do you see it as something different? And have you started recording them or will you record them at some point?

I suppose the new songs have similar themes to No Burden, but it is a much more unified and focused idea. No Burden is a collection of songs I wrote over two years. We just picked the ones we liked as a group from my songbook before recording. The next record’s songs were all written in a similar timeframe when I circling the same questions. If there’s a word to encapsulate it at this point, we’re been calling it “posi-nihilism.” They aren’t recorded yet, but we’re all itching to get into the studio as soon as possible.