Lucy Dacus is a Warm-Hearted Bastard
(…and she doesn’t wanna be local anymore)
Lucy Dacus is an ideal housemate. You know, the kind that reliably pays rent but travels heavily enough to leave extra space for the rest of the crew. “I just moved five days ago” to a shared house in her native Richmond, Virginia, “when we had three days off between shows,” she tells me from a tour bus departing from Philadelphia. At least Dacus has a place to stash her belongings, because she won’t be seeing much of them for the rest of the year.
Nobody saw her 2016 shaping up this way, including Dacus herself. In February she released No Burden, a bluesy and disarmingly accomplished debut album, on local Richmond label EggHunt Records. It picked up some well-deserved strong reviews, and the initial vinyl run of 330 copies “sold out in the first week,” Dacus says. “I did the CDs myself and we ran out of those pretty fast too.”
Then one morning the 21-year old Virginian woke up to an email out of the blue from Matador Records “saying, ‘hey, we should talk about your record’ and I was very happy to do so. I’ve been a big fan of theirs for a long time. We immediately got good vibes from everybody in the office – we all seemed to have very similar ideas about music and what it’s for, how it should be treated.” Although the digital edition of No Burden has been available throughout the year, Matador’s physical reissue will arrive in early September – I haven’t confirmed this, but I suspect the new print run will exceed 330.
Not only are Dacus’ muscular yet tuneful band performances an attention grabber sure to please fans of Sharon Van Etten’s louder moments, her lyrics are unusually compelling as well. On the arresting opener “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore” she declares, “Is there room in the band? I don’t need to be the front man – if not, I’ll be the biggest fan,” as she angles to fit in. Later on the smoldering 7-minute “Map on a Wall” she pleads, “Oh please, don’t make fun of me/ Of my crooked smile and my crowded teeth.” But for every expression of self-doubt there’s a shot of swagger, such as when she flirts “I don’t believe in love at first sight/But maybe I would if you looked at me right,” on the more conventional barroom rocker “Direct Address.” It’s a remarkably self-assured showing from a newbie who until recently viewed music as little more than a bedsit hobby.
Despite her lyrical claim Dacus doesn’t have any experience as a supporting player – or even that much as the center of attention, for that matter. The onetime film student only started playing out occasionally as a solo artist in small Richmond venues over the past two years. No Burden’s oldest song, “Trust,” was written in 2013. “I had been writing before that – there are lots of songs that will never get heard,” she laughs. “There’s not really a defined point where I started to write songs I’d actually want people to hear.”
“Trust” appears on the album in stark, acoustic form, Dacus’ mesmerizing delivery drawing comparisons to Angel Olsen. But when her four-piece band kicks in – as it does for the solid majority of the album – I hear a very different antecedent. Although Dacus derives more of her power from drawling rather than belting, I’m reminded of Heartless Bastards’ Erika Wennerstrom. Or more precisely, the band I’ve always wanted the Heartless Bastards to be, if the songwriting had caught up with their frontwoman before they buffed down the edges. The youthful but quietly confident Dacus claims to be unfamiliar with Wennerstrom, however. “This is a common thing – someone says ‘you sound like this person’ and I say ‘I don’t know who that is’ and I look them up and they wind up becoming one of my favorite bands,” she says.
The story behind the recording of No Burden is even more of a happy accident. “I didn’t have a band. The folks who played on the record are friends of our friend Collin Pastore, who produced and mixed it.” Pastore started matchmaking upon discovering he could squeeze Dacus into a high-end studio in Nashville on the cheap between his other gigs, but only for a whopping ten hours.
It’s a feast-or-famine proposition: young songwriter who’s never played with a band before, let alone recorded an album, heads into a studio for a whirlwind session with three relative strangers. “All the parts were written in the three or four practices we had before we recorded – they were never played live for anyone.” Miraculously, everything fell into place. No Burden has a warm yet no-frills vibe, feels raw and vital rather than rushed, and you’d never know the musicians hadn’t honed their interplay through months of woodshedding. “Thinking about it now I can’t believe we did it that way, but we kind of had to,” Dacus assesses in retrospect.
“Once we got a band together we were playing like twice a week in Richmond,” she adds. It took a full year for No Burden to see the light of day, so the notion of an overnight sensation is a bit of an overstatement. Still, no one was planning their lives around No Burden’s rapturous reception. Guitarist Jacob Blizard is the only member of the touring quartet who played on the recording. “We kind of have a modular setup,” Dacus explains. “Two of our current band members are in another EggHunt band called Manatree, so they’ll peel off and do their own thing at some points.”
Dacus still seems a bit self-conscious about all the attention. “Everyone wants to talk to me since I’m the singer and songwriter but there are three guys with me, too – I’m sure they have some opinions on all of this.” Still, that “I don’t have to be the frontman” selflessness has its limits. “I like helping my friends with other projects, but if it’s my band I do want to be singing the words I wrote. If my name’s on it I need to approve of all the content.”
Her band has some dates scheduled with Car Seat Headrest, but according to Dacus it’s a “totally weird coincidence” that Matador’s two most recent breakthrough signings are Virginia bands that had already built solid Bandcamp followings. “Hey, Virginia’s got some really good stuff going on,” she boasts. Although she and CSH’s Will Toledo had not met previously, “I’m looking forward to traveling with a band that really knows our context. Most of our opening slots have been one-offs, so we really haven’t gotten to know most other bands yet.”
While close to her male bandmates (“we all look like we could be related”) she also admits to missing her “girl squad” at that newly rented Richmond house. Dacus was adopted as a young child – a fact that was openly shared with her from an early age, and one she believes informs much of her worldview. On the raucous “Troublemaker, Doppelganger” she loudly wonders “Was it my brother who taught me about jealousy? Was it my sister who taught me about vanity?” “I do have a brother, and I was referencing him,” she explains, acknowledging an autobiographical thread to her lyrics. “But when I say sister, I have several women who play that role. I was raised with a really loose idea of what family is, that you kind of pick and choose it as you go along.”
Dacus remains close to her family, which lives a short drive north of Richmond. Her mother is an elementary school music teacher (who once encouraged her to find a more stable profession than music – not sure how film school scratched that itch), for whose classes Lucy has played. As for their daughter’s growing fame, “I don’t think they get it – they’re not really familiar with current music. They’re impressed that Time and Rolling Stone wrote about me, but not Pitchfork. But they ‘re most excited about seeing me on the cover of our local paper.”
Dacus herself seems most impressed – or more accurately, dumbfounded – to be playing Lollapalooza. First she clarifies that it’s not a big stage but rather a big event. “We’ll be on the tiniest stage, playing the opening slot at 1 p.m. or something. But it’s crazy, I’ve been to Lollapalooza and I’ve seen those bands. I saw Yuna open that stage in 2012 and she’s done so well since then.”
Her band’s amped-up, two-guitar configuration certainly improves their odds on festival stages, but it’s easy to picture No Burden’s material succeeding equally well in a subdued solo setting. After beginning to indicate she had always envisioned her songs as full-band rockers, Dacus amends herself. “The reason I’m so surprised by all this is that I never pictured it as anything – the expectations were so low. Which may also be why it happened so easily, because when opportunities came, we just ran with them.”
Dacus’ mid-August Atlanta show will be the last stop on a five-week leg of her tour, giving a chance for a brief respite in Richmond with her “girl squad”- which by the way doesn’t include the self-destructive hot mess she immortalizes on the standout “Strange Torpedo.” But there’s no rest for the weary – soon after comes a European itinerary and other dates that will keep her on the road through year’s end. Meanwhile, Dacus claims to have more than an album’s worth of songs ready to go. “It takes a lot of restraint not to play all of our new songs – we’ve got a lot of stuff we’re excited about.” She understands 2016 is about introducing Lucy Dacus to a broader audience. “If I had realized this was possible, I probably would have done it sooner.”