History Repeating: Lucy Dacus on Historian and boygenius
The Virginia singer-songwriter runs us through her banner year, from her critically-adored sophomore record to her collaboration with Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers
"The songs are like my babies until I’ve recorded them; it’s like I’m pregnant with them. They don’t take on a life of their own until I take them on tour."
Earlier this year, Lucy Dacus released her second full-length, Historian. It's a searing treatise on loss, one that unflinchingly documents the agony of feeling so many different aspects of her life slipping through her fingers; her self-belief, her relationships, her identity, her friendships, her faith, her sense of place. The Richmond, Virginia native writes wryly and evocatively, and was deservedly being spoken of in the same breath as other leading lights of the current wave of critically-adored, emotionally literate young female singer-songwriters even before she formed the year’s most exciting supergroup – boygenius – with Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers.
There haven’t been many specific moments in recent history that didn’t feature a deeply gifted plethora of young women working through their inner demons musically, but in the case of this latest raft – Dacus, Baker, Bridgers, Soccer Mommy, Snail Mail, Adrianne Lenker – they seem to have become the darlings of a musical press that has spent much of the past decade sneering at confessional songwriting. With the radical shifting of the political ground in the past couple of years though – Brexit, Trump, #MeToo – has come a renewed appreciation that the voices of Dacus’ specific demographic are the ones that will, in the end, dig us out of this mess we’re in.
"What we all have in common," reasons Dacus, "is that we’re all willing to be very vulnerable. People are very interested in honesty right now. It seems like more than ever people feel like they’re being lied to, or feel as if emotions are being concealed; politically and socially there’s a lot of truth being hidden, on both macro and micro levels. People want to feel understood – they’re looking for some solace."
Still, there’s a touch of characteristic darkness to Dacus’ view on the appeal of her own brand of emotional currency. "I think it’s easier for a lot of people to listen to music that speaks to them than to engage with somebody in real life," she explains. "That’s my not-necessarily-comforting view. I suppose another way of looking at it is that music has a comforting role for people who need therapy, but aren’t going to get it from a professional for whatever reason. There’s a little bit of a medicinal property to emotional music today and I’m guilty of seeking it out too, like anybody."
The dynamic behind Dacus’ songwriting approach is a curious one; inspiration has to find her first she says, but it normally doesn’t have much trouble doing so with ideas for her third album already stacking up. That said, perhaps the crowning achievement on Historian is how masterfully controlled its storytelling arc feels; what should be a whirlwind tour of Dacus’ psyche is actually a deliberate and gradual one that builds steadily and intelligently to an emotional crescendo.
"I had that in mind before I’d even finished all of the songs," she confirms. "I was thinking about the big picture the whole time. I knew that the songs were focusing on a lot of things that were difficult; there’s a lot of loss and that can confuse people and cause them grief. I thought I’d begin at a universal point with Night Shift because that’s an approachable song – it’s the only one I’ve ever written about a breakup and everybody’s been through that at one time or another. As the album goes on all of these bigger questions about loss begin to come up, leading all the way to thinking about the loss of your own life. Not in a dark way either; there’s something really important about approaching the idea of death and the difficulties of life head-on. Those conversations can’t be jumped through and I think that can be beautiful."
Dacus has been working through these ideas ever since Historian was released, hitting the road hard and playing the songs night in, night out. If her work is in the womb before recording and in the incubator afterwards, you get the impression that it isn’t truly out in the world kicking and screaming until she shares the emotional burden with her audiences around the world. There’s a line on Night Shift about how she hopes that in five years these songs will feel like covers. She’s talking about how she's pining for closure over the collapse of that relationship by then, but just the transformation that her crowds inevitably bring to her music already has her feeling as if she’s getting there, just months after the LP dropped.
"I had to cancel a bunch of shows last year, which was heartbreaking, because I’ve always said that if I’m not out playing my songs they’re kind of dead. I need to be playing them to see them change in front of my eyes. That line on Night Shift – you know, there’s a certain power in writing a song like that, and then another entirely in experiencing the catharsis that playing it live brings. It already feels like a song from a different time, that I’m past now, and a lot of that has come from seeing how the song has taken root in other people’s lives."
That kind of connection with her listeners is one of a slew of things she has in common with Baker and Bridgers who she’ll tour with across North America throughout November, the same month they release their collaborative six-track EP under the name boygenius. Baker was the instigator, the mutual friend who brought the trio together, and they spent the only five days that they all had free at the same time in the last six months together at the legendary Sound City studios in Los Angeles.
"It just felt like the time was right," Dacus recalls. "We each brought in a finished song that we all played on and then we each brought in an unfinished idea that we fleshed out between us. Any apprehension I had just melted away as soon as we were all in the same room. The way I saw it was that I was always bound to be a fan of anything that those two did anyway, and probably the biggest surprise is that there was nobody trying to take too much control over it. I don’t know if I could collaborate with just anybody, but with Julien and Phoebe it was incredibly easy."
Before that three-way jaunt across North America though, Dacus – who is already demoing her third record – will be traversing Europe once again, with seven UK dates on the agenda. It’s only a couple of years since she was working nine-to-five as a photo editor and she still sounds as if she’s getting to grips with the realities of life as a professional musician. "Just the fact that I’m speaking to you now is abnormal!" she laughs. "I mean, that’s not something that normal people do. It’s a surprise to me every time we level up to another luxury, whether that’s having a sound person or not having to sleep on a floor where there’s unidentified smells and I'm tense the next day because I haven’t slept. Like anything, by the time you’re ready to let it in it’s already become normal and that’s something that throws me off all the time. It’s OK though. It’s still worth it."
Historian is out now via Matador; boygenius is released on 9 Nov via Matador; Lucy Dacus plays Mono, Glasgow, 26 Oct