Lucy Dacus Wins Popularity Contest for Right Reasons
Lucy Dacus was in New York the other week to play a show on the Mercury Lounge’s compact stage, but don’t expect her to be gracing such a small rooms as often come 2017.
The 21-year-old film school dropout from Richmond, Va., reissued her gorgeous debut record, No Burden, on Matador this fall — and given our recent hunger for well-wrought lyrics and sincerity (see: the 2016 success of Dacus’ labelmate, Car Seat Headrest), next year should see the gold-throated singer-songwriter becoming a much more ubiquitous force to be reckoned with.
Dacus sat down with CLRYVNT pre-show to talk musicals, middle school and being more than just a fan.
So, you’ve been playing a ton of New York shows. Have you ever gotten to just visit New York?
The first time I came here was for my 10th birthday. I wanted to be an actress when I was younger, so my dad booked a hotel and we went and saw Wicked. It was the first time I went on a trip that wasn’t family-related — to see grandparents or something. I cried like three times. It was so beautiful.
I heard you were big into musical theater as a kid. You were really into Phantom of the Opera specifically?
That was the first CD that I ever owned. I was so enthralled by that show and how dramatic it was.
Is that why you wanted to do film initially — because your love of acting?
I don’t know. The reasons why I’ve ever wanted to do anything creative have been the same. Film involves acting, writing, costuming, production design, editing. It’s all elements of creativity. I think that excited me about it. Film, for me, seems like people are getting at more honest stories. Theater, while capable of bringing up honest themes, it’s innately fake for some reason …
The really cool thing about theater, that remains cool about it, is that every night so many people come together to work to build this beautiful thing. Acting in shows is such a community experience, because you only create something as much as the next person in the ensemble does.
I’m always interested in the moment when someone realizes that they can sing. That this is something they can do. Can you tell us about when you came to this conclusion?
Originally, when you’re a kid, you do sing. Kids sing all the time. And either they’re not encouraged or they figure out, along with other social cues, that you don’t really sing all the time or in public anymore. And maybe that means you don’t sing privately and people lose faith in their ability to sing. And then they don’t practice and then they don’t feel confident. But I think if everyone were encouraged to sing at a young age, it would be a far more vocal world full of a lot more people who define themselves as singers.
I know a lot of people have asked you about the song "I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore," but I’m really interested in what you’ve said about it being about middle school. Can you elaborate on that? I mean, middle school is hell.
Yeah, it was bad. I wrote that song in college, so it took that long to actually put words to that emotion. In middle school, you don’t really know it’s happening while it’s happening, but you’re forming your identity in a really big way. You’re existing beyond your parent[s] for the first time. I think that’s when you really start paying attention to media; people start reading chapter books and going to movies with friends, and you start to see tropes that are in the world and pick what might be yours.
[When I was in middle school] I was like, "If I want to have a good high school and middle school experience, I should probably be popular, because they have it the easiest — so says Disney Channel. So, I should make friends with the popular people." So, I did.
It was just a weird, manipulative world, because you’re stretching your impact on other people at that time, too. Bullying is a huge issue. My friends would bully people. But no one’s really afraid of how big an impact that has later on. People can be really cruel when they’re younger, because that’s the first time that they realize they can be cruel.
So, I guess, in my group of friends, I was "the funny one." I was taller and I did art. I don’t know why, exactly, but that was my title, and it took a while to realize that I could be somebody else. When I sing this song, a lot of people have been like, "Oh, yeah, I felt that way in middle school, too." That sucks that we’re resonating with that now. I wish we could have all talked about it then.
You also talk in that song about the barriers women in music face: "Is there room in the band? I don't need to be the frontman / If not, then I'll be the biggest fan."
It’s not always verbally said what you’re allowed to do, but based off of example or majority rule, you’re told that you’re incapable of certain things — like, subconsciously. What you’re supposed to do is set forth in other ways.
When I first started going to shows, there actually were a lot of women doing music in Richmond, which was really encouraging to me, but I wasn’t interested in doing music, so I was like, "How do I be a part of this community? There are fans, there are the people that put on shows, there are people that play the music. I write music, but I’m content to just be a fan."
So, when did you decide that you could be more than a fan?
As a career, I didn’t really figure it out until not even a year ago. I knew that I could do music for myself. I was always writing and playing guitar, but I didn’t realize that it was a worthwhile pursuit for other people until friends basically peer-pressured me into playing out and opening for other bands. The only reason why I keep doing shows and investing time into it is because it means something to other people. If it just meant something to me, I would do something else.
On that note, it seems like this year has seen an influx of sincerity and a focus on lyrics. There’s you, your labelmate Car Seat Headrest, Mitski, Andy Shauf, Cass McCombs’ new record …
I think people are really ready for honesty. There’s a lot in the world that isn’t honest, and I think people are starting to realize that. The news and politics are the two huge examples, but also advertising. Most entertainment is fake characters, fake fiction books, TV series … I think music has its fair share of that, too — having an identity, being a rock star. Music that isn’t asking anything from someone else. Just entertainment, which isn’t bad; it serves its purpose.
But I think people are really ready to be pressed in that way, to be thoughtful. To look in on themselves and be understood. A lot of my favorite music right now is by people who are sharing their experience in a way that shows that it’s OK. They allow themselves to be vulnerable, which means that anyone can be.