Read our interview with indie rock star Lucy Dacus after the release of her excellent third album Home Video.
In her foreword for Lucy Dacus’s new album Home Video, the artist’s reflection on her coming-of-age years in Richmond, Virginia, the noted U.S. author Catherine Lacey (Nobody is Ever Missing) wrote a revealing statement: “There are a thousand truisms about home and childhood, none of them true but all of them honest…it’s natural to want to tidy those earliest memories into a story so palatable and simple that you never have to read again.”
This is the thing: the childhood that we return to through interrogation will never appear as neat and quaint as our memories purported it to be. “I honestly think that I realised that it wasn’t all good,” Dacus acknowledges across Zoom. “I think that I’ve always thought that I had a good childhood – and I still do and my mum sure hates it when I say anything to the contrary – but no childhood is perfect just as no life is perfect. I think I was ignoring some of the imperfections in order to keep going. I know that isn’t great, I thought I was more self-aware than that but I guess I just wasn’t.”
Check out ‘Brando’:
Home Video follows Dacus’s first two acclaimed albums, 2016’s No Burden and 2018’s Historian, both of which marked her out as one of the most incisive storytellers in indie rock. It was after the release of that first album, though, that she started noticing a change to her life in Richmond: people started recognising her more, becoming intrusive, and suddenly her hometown didn’t feel like a safe space anymore. “I really didn’t want it to feel different so I just ignored it for years,” Dacus says, admitting that Richmond became claustrophobic for her. “It was a pretty big difference from the very beginning sadly.”
When the pressure of being recognised in her hometown grew too much she fled to Philadelphia at the start of 2020. Why not, say, New York? “I don’t really like being in New York,” she laughs. “I think everyone there has anxiety! That probably isn’t true but I feel like most of the people that live in New York are workaholics who are exhausted all the time. Plus the train only takes an hour and a half from Philly to Manhattan so it’s not too bad.”
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No matter the merits of Philadelphia’s music scene, leaving her hometown was compounded by also losing out on being part of its surprisingly strong music community. “It was so friendly, people weren’t trying to have careers,” Dacus remembers. “You could go out any night of the week and find an all-local house show. It’s just what people did as a hobby, there’s no real music industry there. People would throw shows just because somebody wrote a new song!” The inclusivity and diversity of Richmond’s scene was its main positive. “It was really supportive and not really genre-restricted either. I would play shows with rappers, bluegrass bands, other rock bands, whatever.”
One of these rappers was McKinley Dixon, who dropped one of the best hip-hop records of recent times just a few months ago, For My Mama and Anyone Who Look Like Her. When I ask Dacus about him, memories of her close friend come spilling out. “We had class together in college. He finished school but I dropped out!” Before we move on, she insists on telling me a short story about Dixon. “We were in a drawing class together and we had an assignment that was just using pen and ink. McKinley, though, brought in a paper towel stapled to a canvas and our teacher loved it.
I said in front of everyone, ‘McKinley, why are you here? You’re such a good rapper, you’re such a good animator, and you’ve just stapled a paper towel to a canvas, why are you in school? You could be doing so many other things’. I’m just really happy that people are finally cluing into how awesome he is” (There’s something striking about this friendship: both Dacus’s and Dixon’s albums, above all else, display a powerful sense of empathy. In Dixon’s case, his album is concerned with the Black experience, imbuing his songs with empathy for his mother, grandmother, sisters, and friends, unrestrained in its description of Black trauma; Dacus’s empathy also comes from a place of marginalisation, exploring the struggle she had correlating her queer identity with her Christian upbringing).
Check out ‘VBS’:
The return to home in her mind prompted the sound and scope of Home Video to change accordingly. “On Historian I was very serious,” Dacus says. “I wanted to put out this statement about how I think, about my core beliefs. Whereas with Home Video, I wanted it to feel warm, inviting, fun, maybe even a little bit weird.” Dacus and her team thus used more instruments and explored cooler production ideas. It was covering songs for a previous EP, 2019, that bore great influence on the palette of Home Video. “Covers in the studio really teach you a lot about instruments,” Dacus informs me. “I wasn’t listening to a lot of Phil Collins but then we covered ‘In The Air Tonight’ and I learned a lot about synths because of that. And then there were a bunch of synths in Home Video. They don’t sound the same but I just took what I learned from the exercise.”
I question if a similar exercise led to the surprising use of autotune in ‘Partner in Crime’ but the origins of that are far more unexpected. “It was a mistake, a wonderful mistake! I actually had a vocal injury in June 2019 and went silent for all of the following month. We then recorded in August so I would warm up around 3pm, sing until 5pm, and then be silent again. I only used my voice for two hours a day and that’s the vocal takes that you hear on the record. We were trying to do ‘Partner in Crime’ and I just wasn’t hitting the notes. We autotuned it temporarily so we could get guitar and bass into it. As I was listening to it though, I thought it was perfect because it was what the song was about, making yourself seem more perfect than you are in order to be more attractive to somebody. I knew that we just had to roll with it because it was one of the most exciting things on the record so far.”
It was ‘Thumbs’ that was the most eagerly-awaited song on the album by fans. “I’d been playing it live and telling people not to record it so I think that made it feel like a special thing for fans that came to shows,” she says. “I do try to do something like that at every show, play something that isn’t out or a different version of a song. I feel that the people who come to shows are really fans. I feel lucky that I feel safe at my own shows, I think I have really exceptional fans.” Before I can even counter that most musicians probably say that, Dacus interjects. “Not everybody says that! I have a lot of friends who are like ‘I hate my fans! They’re embarrassing, they’re loud, they’re needy’. I feel like a lot of my fans are just chill.”
The vicious revenge fantasy about the brutal murder of the terrible father of a friend in ‘Thumbs’ really stands out amidst the calm and contemplative reflectionelsewhere in the album. “That song is violent so it’s different and weird. I think it’s maybe something that people experience but don’t talk about that much. It’s disarming to admit that you wish you could hurt someone.” The characters that populate the album aren’t just in Dacus’s memories though. Christine (from the song of the same name) is still a very close friend,” she says. “I love her very much. She didn’t break up with that guy but it helped our friendship that I said that to her. I think that she started to advocate for herself more in that relationship.”
Check out ‘Thumbs’:
Raised as a Christian, a lot of Home Video deals with the intense hold that the religion had over her growing up. Even today, it still plays a significant part in her life. “I don’t go to church, I don’t call myself a Christian, but its shadow remains over me always,” Dacus says. “It’s how I was raised and so I have to work really hard to teach myself new things. There’s some things I’ve kept, like forgiveness, patience, and kindness. Those things I’m really happy I learned about at a young age but there’s a lot of shame that I still have to work really hard to unlearn.”
For all the mention of close friends, for all the discussion of her former religion, something is curiously missing in Home Video: Dacus’s own family. Was that a conscious thing? “Yeah, I think so,” she says, pausing meaningfully. “I’m saying stuff that I’m barely comfortable saying to myself about my friends and I am definitely not comfortable saying things about my family yet. Maybe one day I’ll make a record where I talk about my family a lot but it wasn’t this one.”
Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker lend their voices to some songs on Home Video. Together the three formed the supergroup Boygenius although it’s been three years since their debut self-titled EP. There’s only one thing in Dacus’s mind when the conversation turns to her friends though: “We have no plans except that we want to hang out asap!” For now, touring is next up on her agenda. “At the end of July we’re touring with Bright Eyes. Those were booked years ago and now we’re finally doing them.”
Dacus and her band last toured in Australia in 2019 and she shows sincere fondness for that experience. “It was one of the best trips of my life, I’m serious,” she says. “I can’t wait to come back. It was the best tour, we met so many kind people, and went to some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. All of us want to come back so fast.”
With the diaristic quality of Dacus’s songs, with her songwriting being so narrative-based, I ask if she’s ever considered a future as a writer, similar to Japanese Breakfast who released the memoir Crying in H Mart this year (Dacus and Japanese Breakfast, interestingly, will be playing several nights together on that Bright Eyes tour). “I would love that but I just don’t have the confidence to write a whole book! There’s something mystical about the process and it hasn’t been demystified for me yet. I’ve never taken a class although I definitely write things other than music but not in a shareable way. That’s a high compliment to me that you would ask that though!”
Home Video is out now via Matador/Remote Control Records.