Lucy Dacus: The First Time, A Second Time
Photo credit: Ebru Yildez
In mid-May, one day after the CDC temporarily updated its COVID-19 safety guidelines to announce that fully vaccinated individuals could—mostly—go maskless both indoors and outdoors, Lucy Dacus sits smiling at the dining room table of her Airbnb in the Bed-Stuy section of Brooklyn.
The singer-songwriter—whose roots still hold strong in Richmond, Va., even though she moved to Philadelphia just before the pandemic—is ready. She’s ready for her next interview, which, in what would have only recently been an unheard of set of circumstances, is in-person, indoors, and free of masked faces. And she is also ready for all that is coming her way now that live music is returning to the world.
But, while the slog of a press cycle may not be the most exciting part of the music business’ return to normalcy, Dacus is primed for all of it—the good and the bad.
“Everything I complained about before, I’m going to greet with open arms,” Dacus proclaims. “I can’t wait for all the weird smells, the sore back, the tired throat and tired eyes, and everyone getting grumpy in the van. Bring me back to the weird truck stop where everybody is gun-toting and staring at us because they can tell that we don’t belong there.”
This summer and fall, Dacus is making her return to the stage with a nationwide tour, having kicked off the comeback with her debut at Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre in late June. Checking that famed venue off her bucket list—on a bill with Shakey Graves—feels quite removed from Dacus’ previous tour outing, which ended abruptly after an anxiety-riddled performance at a Florida festival in March 2020, just days before most of the country effectively shut down.
“People were visibly scared; half the people went home,” she remembers. But the show went on, and Dacus and her band did their best to entertain the remaining festival crowd. “The set was weird. I just went up there in a sweatshirt with dirty hair and said, ‘Well, let’s get through this.’ And, of course, Getty Images always finds me on my worst days.”
On the other side of that dark year, though, Dacus has a lot to look forward to. The same day as her Red Rocks performance, she officially introduced the world to her third full-length studio album, Home Video. As the name suggests, it is a collection of stories and characters from Dacus’ past, embracing all the heartwrenching emotion and nostalgia-tinged humor that comes with them.
Home Video’s deeply retrospective nature is a bit of a departure for Dacus, who admits that she wasn’t quite ready to write such personal, specific songs until the past few years.
“You don’t get to choose when you’re ready to process something, which is one of the most annoying things about the human brain,” she explains. “Previously, I’d written songs that were a little more general, and that helped me communicate what I wanted someone else to understand. This has been a much more rewarding experience for me.”
There’s plenty of communication in these songs, too. Words that went unspoken—thoughts and emotions that were too amorphous and immediate at the time to process—are now laid out with the same grace and wit that Dacus displayed in her previous work. With the benefit of distance from the people and feelings that inspired these stories, she crafts gorgeous meditations on a variety of relationships, from friends to lovers and almost-forgotten acquaintances.
Some of these songs even come from Dacus’ earliest days as a budding songwriter—tales about a time, she confesses, when she was naively attempting to mimic the introspective work that ended up going into Home Video.
“I’ve been thinking about my really early songs—of course, they were really general because I hadn’t lived anything. I was having experiences that I had no perspective on,” Dacus says. “And so you listen to the radio and all the love songs, then you write a love song. I had songs about heartbreak when I was like 13. I had never felt a heartbreak—I had never felt a heart whole! When you’re younger, you just parrot other people’s emotions, and it’s more of a writing and emotional exercise. At this point, I guess I’ve lived enough to actually talk about what happened to me instead of the idea of something happening.”
And, while there are still plenty of musical earworm moments throughout the album—the campfire chorus of “Going Going Gone,” the swirling “Do you love me, do you love me not?” refrain in “Partner in Crime”—the true stars of this record are the snapshots of moments in time that Dacus conjures.
“I love when a song could’ve been made in any format,” Dacus says when presented with the idea. “Like ‘Jungleland’ by Bruce Springsteen. That could’ve been a musical or a TV show, or at least a short story. It would’ve even been a sick painting. If a song is really visually evocative, it enters that space. So that would be a goal. It would be such a treat if I’ve been able to do that.”
That goal, as many of Dacus’ fans already know, is exemplified on “Thumbs,” an aching account of a time when the musician accompanied a friend to a stilted and emotionally fraught interaction with that friend’s estranged father in a bar. The track features a hushed and haunting chorus: “I would kill him/ If you let me/ I would kill him/ Quick and easy/ Your nails are digging into my knee/ I don’t know how you keep smiling.”
Dacus had performed “Thumbs” live multiple times back when touring was a constant, quickly turning the tune into a fan-favorite and even inspiring the Twitter account Has Lucy Dacus Released Thumbs Yet? (The owner of the handle was one of the first recipients of the “Thumbs” VHS tape that Matador Records sent to 100 fans prior to officially releasing the single last year.)
Collin Pastore—who, along with Dacus guitarist Jacob Blizard, has known Dacus since high school—has co-produced all three of her LPs and was especially excited (and nervous) at the prospect of putting
“Thumbs” on the album. “‘Thumbs’ is the best song I’ve ever heard,” Pastore states without a hint of hyperbole. “Like, what the fuck is that song? It’s incredible. I’m just relieved that we managed to record it—you hear a song like that, and all you want to do is make sure you’re not the guy who fucks it up.”
Besides moving from elusive live-show highlight to standout album track, “Thumbs” also illustrates a funny aspect of how Dacus interacts with—and reflects on—her own music. In the midst of a recent video call with a group of friends who, throughout the pandemic, have assembled for a chat during each new moon, Dacus shared her anxiety at what might happen if some of the people who inspired Home Video’s lyrics reached out to her, prompting conversations with characters she’d rather keep in the past. She even contemplated reaching out preemptively.
“New Moon Zoom is my little coven. They were saying things similar to ‘You don’t owe him shit,’” Dacus recalls, quoting her own lyrics in “Thumbs” with a self-aware grin. “Which I literally wrote and yet can’t internalize sometimes. It’s easier to give advice to others than to yourself. So I don’t feel like I owe anybody that conversation—‘You were the inspiration for this’—they don’t have any ownership over my perspective. But sometimes I forget that, or I don’t feel that. I know that I’m opening myself up to something I might not be ready for, but that’s just life.”
An invitation for unexpected and unwanted drama comes with the territory when an artist gets specifically personal like Dacus does on Home Video. And while she admits that her music has, in the past, generally “veered away from negative emotions, as people are wont to do,” this anxiety is not a completely new sensation for Dacus. Maybe her most successful track, “Night Shift”—a raw and extraordinary post-breakup song from 2018’s Historian—prompted at least a couple of awkward crowd appearances.
“The first time that I played it in Richmond, the person was there, and they’re really dramatic. I think I even texted them—maybe I said, ‘I’m going to play this song; don’t get angry at me please.’ I don’t know if they did this on purpose, but it was a dark crowd, and they found the one beam of light in the back of the room to stand under while I played that song. I was singing, and I didn’t change the chords in my hand. I forgot to play it—which is exactly what they’d want me to do, maybe. One time, at a show, this person also barreled to the front of the stage with a Tinder date and made out with them during the set, while making eye contact with me. And I’m just like, ‘Why would you do this?!’ But also there’s a very good chance that they’ve changed—who knows?”
Dacus doesn’t think that Home Video has the potential for quite the type of dramatic energy that she has encountered in the past, but any of the characters which is partially a testament to how well Dacus describes each of her memories. For those lyrical subjects that she still close with, Dacus has already done them (and herself ) the favor of reaching out to have that conversation—including to the focal points of “Thumbs” and “Christine,” a pointed account about Dacus disapproving of a less-than-stellar boyfriend of a close friend. She admits that, so far, her talks have been affirming, friendship-strengthening experiences.
Digging deeper into her past than ever before on Home Video, Dacus was inspired to try out some new lyrical topics, like in “First Time,” which presents a patchwork of images and thoughts chronicling her early attempts at sexual intimacy. It’s a subject that has long been taboo due to her religious upbringing. The tune, which chugs along at a faster pace than much of the album—“Almost like a Killers record,” Pastore notes—is anchored by an axiomatic reflection on the fleeting nature of growing up: “You can’t feel it for the first time a second time.”
“I’ve never delved into that [with my writing] because I think that I have just been a prude for so long,” Dacus admits. “I wouldn’t want to talk about those things with my family; we all agreed to ignore the fact that I might very well be a sexual being. And it’s better that way—they should not read this and try to correct our unspoken agreement. But I was reading this book, Cleanness by Garth Greenwell, which is super sexual. I started to feel a little emboldened, and I started thinking about my early days being a clumsy-ass person in high school, finding my way through other people’s bodies. I think that’s a sweet part of childhood, just not knowing what you’re doing.”
Dacus and her collaborators also experimented more in the studio this time around, most notably with her Auto-Tuned vocals on “Partner in Crime,” which Pastore calls a “Hail Mary move” that came about after Dacus’ vocal performance was a little off one day. Pastore decided to turn on the effect as a placeholder for the rest of the band to play along with. And, by the end of the session, the song’s newfound vibe was undeniable, and the Auto-Tune stuck.
The closing track of Home Video, “Triple Dog Dare,” features some of the most memorable “visual earworm” scenes on the record, including Dacus describing a friend who’s dancing around a five and dime—“The kid at the counter is gawking at your grace/ I can tell what he’s thinking by the look on his face/ It’s not his fault, I’m sure I look the same”—as well as the time that same friend’s mother read Dacus’ palm and somehow saw an attraction that Dacus herself couldn’t even quite fathom herself back then (“I was not out to myself, so I didn’t see the potential between us,” she says), leading to the mother forbidding further interaction. The end of the song— a rare moment of fiction on Home Video—reimagines what, in reality, was a friendship that fell apart as a great adventure, with the two friends running away together and either escaping or dying at sea. The mother mourns her child’s photo on the milk carton.
“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy—when you tell your child that they’re in imminent danger and try to protect them from it, you could be ensuring that the danger reaches them,” Dacus says. “I know so many people that would’ve been better protected if their parents didn’t try to protect them.”
“Triple Dog Dare” is just one of the many moments on Home Video where Dacus deftly wrestles with the various peaks and valleys of childhood and young adulthood, which, for her, were colored by a deep connection to Christianity. (The title of single “VBS” refers to the tradition of Vacation Bible School.) Looking back, Dacus ruminates on how her younger self might view her current life:
“I think that she would be judgmental of me because she had so many rules and her metric was so much about God,” she concludes thoughtfully. “It’s not that I don’t think about God anymore—I do think about God as a word and a history and a force. I do think about how much gets pitched into that idea—and I’ve never felt extracted. But I don’t call myself a Christian anymore, and I don’t go to church.
“I don’t think I’d say much to her because I’m pleased,” she continues, before summing up her current state of mind. “I don’t need her to change because I know that she did. I’ve said this before— it’s almost like a mantra now—if you’re having a good day, that should mean you have no regrets. And I’m having a good day.”