Lucy Dacus, at 22, is a rising indie-rock star, lapsed Christian and former agnostic
Lucy Dacus may be indie-rock’s biggest buzz artist of the year, thanks to her wonderfully assured and ambitious new album, “Historian,” but any trappings of stardom are elusive.
“We’re in our van, on our way to Charleston from Atlanta, and just stopped to eat at Taco Bell,” said the 22-year-old singer-songwriter, who performs next Wednesday, March 21, at the Casbah with her three-piece band.
“I can’t imagine being in a tour bus,” she continued. “It would be nice, but I think it costs $30,000 a week to rent. And I can’t imagine spending what many people make in a year on a vehicle for one week.”
A singer, songwriter and guitarist who is quick to note she is not a trained musician, Dacus quit pursuing a degree in film studies at Virginia Commonwealth University a few years ago to devote herself to music full time. It was a prudent move, as “Historian” attests.
The album is striking for its unusually well-honed music, for which Dacus is quick to credit guitarist and arranger Jacob Blizard — a Berklee College of Music alum — for helping flesh out her ideas. The 10 songs provide a potent, richly textured foundation for her stirring, histrionics-free vocals and her heartfelt lyrics, which vividly chronicle everything from doomed relationships and death to lapsed faith, fear and a desire to battle racial inequities.
Clocking in at more than six minutes, the slow-building “Night Shift” opens “Historian” with a softly strummed acoustic guitar, gentle singing, and such lacerating lyrics as: Am I a masochist, resisting urges to punch you in the teeth, call you a bitch and leave?
A stunning song that kicks into high gear near the four minute mark, “Night Shift” prompts the question: Is Dacus now, or has she ever been, a masochist?
“I’m not sure, some days,” she said.
“I’d say ‘no,’ now. But sometimes in the past, I think I may have been, when I’d return to situations knowing: ‘Nothing good can come from this.’ I’m a big champion of hopefulness, but …”
‘Sufjan Stevens opened the floodgates’
Dacus wrote “Night Shift” in the aftermath of her painful romantic breakup with the former bassist in her band. Has she thanked them for inspiring such a memorable song?
“I would never thank them for anything!” Dacus replied, laughing. “I’m still quite bitter; I don’t think one good song makes up for five years of mistreatment. But you’re right. Something good has come out of something bad, which is my favorite thing that comes out of the world, something good from a pile of sh--.”
The bluesy introduction to “NIght Shift” gives way to a textured style that evokes mid-period Led Zeppelin. Is Dacus a fan?
“I love Led Zeppelin!” she said. “I don’t retain facts very well when it comes to music history. But I like Zeppelin, a lot.”
Coincidentally, there’s are some moments on Dacus’ new album where her vocal phrasing and tone recall Sandy Denny, the former Fairport Convention singer who memorably duetted with Robert Plant on “The Battle of Evermore,” a song on the band’s “Led Zeppelin IV” album.
“I’m not familiar with her, but I’m going to look her up. How do you spell her name?” Dacus asked.
A Virginia native, Dacus grew up listening to albums by some of her parents’ favorite artists — Bruce Springsteen, Prince and David Bowie, in particular — and lots of “Christian music artists” at home and in church.
But which Christian music artists, specifically? Amy Grant? Switchfoot? Stryper?
“Everything you just said and, sometimes, hymns at my grandma’s house,” she replied. “The bridge for me was Sufjan Stevens; Christian kids use him as an introductory entry to indie music. That kind of helped me, like: ‘Oh, there’s other music! I can listen to this and still be honoring God.’ (Sufjan) opened the floodgates to other music.”
Is Dacus now a former Christian?
“I don’t really know,” she said. “Christianity is a huge part of my upbringing and I still think about God often, and the afterlife and spirituality. I find it to be really constricting to call myself a Christian, so I guess the answer is: No.
“For a while I called myself an agnostic, which was me wanting to maintain a connection to the culture I was raised in, while also undercutting a lot of the beliefs I had. I don’t know if there’s a God. I don’t think I’m done developing, so it feels weird to state my beliefs.”
A Fellini fan who inadvertently breaks musical rules
Dacus cites famed Italian director Federico Fellini’s 1974 classic “Amarcord” as one of her all-time favorite films.
Asked how much her love of cinema has inspired her approach to songwriting and making music, the former film studies major replied: “I think it’s really inspired me. Writing songs is easier than filmmaking, because I can do it myself, although recording songs involves people. But I’ve been affected by movies in a way I hope people would be affected by my music. There is a lot of solace to be had in really good films.”
The songs on “Historian” sound very carefully constructed, as if one note more would be one note too many and one note less would be one note too few.
How does Dacus know when a song is finished, and when to stop and let go?
“That’s actually a very specific and good compliment. Thank you for that,” she said.
“We did cut a lot out that we didn’t need and spent a lot of time figuring out what we did need. There were things that weren’t necessary. It might be a matter of taste and I have an intuition about these songs, since I write them and am aware of how they sound and feel. If it doesn’t line up, we have to re-evaluate.
“We don’t really waste any time in the studio. It’s not a waste of time, if you come up with cool stuff. But I like to work really quickly, so we make a lot of decisions before we get in the studio. And I’m not a big musician. I can’t really ‘jam.’ as they say, so I don’t stumble on to anything super-creative. I spend my time stumbling on to words; that’s what my songwriting process is anyway — accidentally finding the words to something.”
The words Dacus writes in her songs make their point clearly and cogently.
In the title track to “Historian,” which reflects on how one’s life will be judged years from now, she sings: This is what I want to talk about / But somehow the words will not leave my mouth / 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?
In “The Shell,” a song about overcoming creative stasis, she declares: I’m a ghost / Walking in a boring dream / You are there / Talking and I’m not listening / I am busy doing nothing / And you’re rudely interrupting.
And in “Night Shift,” which Dacus cites as the only breakup song she has written thus far, she laments: Don’t hold your breath, forget you ever saw me at my best / You don’t deserve what you don’t respect / Don’t deserve what you say you love and then neglect / Now bite your tongue, it’s too dangerous to fall so young.
The words she sings are obviously paramount in conveying her thought and feelings. But are the sounds of specific words in her lyrics as important as their meanings?
“I think it’s a combination, because sounds have connotations as well,” she replied. “Everyone knows what it sounds like to go sh or to make a big, open ah sound. Those are shapes, like a circle or square, that people have symbolic views of. Sometimes, it might be the correct word, with the right consonants and assonances, but it doesn’t feel right. I’m not a trained musician.”
Is there an advantage to not being musically trained, in that Dacus may not realize when she is breaking a rule?
“Yeah, I guess I break rules pretty often, or so my band tells me!” she said.
“I have a lot of songs that don’t follow set forms. I’ll change up chords from one word to the next, but it’s at least what I want to hear when I’m writing the song. I don’t have an impulse to learn what I’m doing. I don’t really want to take an academic approach to this, because that’s never been why I’m interested in making music.”
Like any musician who tours and records, Dacus enters into a transactional relationship with her audience. That is, they pay to buy her albums and to hear her perform live.
What does she want to give them in return?
“I don’t know what I can give, since I’ve already given the album and I’ll be there performing,” Dacus said.
“Thats a good question: What does that relationship merit? Someone is buying a ticket. I’m not responsible for their time at the show. I can’t do that for hundreds or thousands of people at a time, if I’m trying to make sure everyone there is having an experience. The best I can do is play.”
Lucy Dacus, with And The Kids and Adult Mom
When: 9 p.m. Wednesday, March 21
Where: Casbah, 2501 Kettner Blvd., Middletown
Tickets: $12 (advance), $14 (day of show); must be 21 or older to attend
Phone: (619) 232-4355
Sign up for the Pacific Insider newsletter
PACIFIC magazine delivers the latest restaurant and bar openings, festivals and top concerts, every Tuesday.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Pacific San Diego.