Not with a bang but with a shrug
“I want people to understand that this isn't a break up record.” Lucy Dacus’ voice is commanding and warm, as you would expect from the author of 2016 standout No Burden. She speaks to me from her friend’s studio in Berry Hill, Nashville - perhaps a secondary spiritual home for the Virginia native. It’s one of the last things she says to me, an act that somehow underlines the importance of such a statement.
Dacus is talking about her new album Historian – a record that charts an ever-deepening sense of loss. “Yes, it begins with a break-up. I know the first two singles focus on that.” The first of which, the addictive single “Night Shift”, is a prime example of Dacus’ biting wit, dry humour and lyrical prowess as well as her expanded sonic palette. She later tells me “I wanted more guitar tones. I also knew what I wanted. That was the main difference [from No Burden]. I had time to think about what I really wanted and now I have a better vocabulary.” She is not wrong. The second “break up song” is “Addiction”, a rhythmically momentous and texture rich track focussed on toxic relationships, “romantic or otherwise”.
“So, I can see how people would be ready for a break-up album,” Dacus admits, “but I don't want them to be disappointed when they don't get it. I also hope that people don't view the album through that lens when they listen to it. It’s just the beginning. It’s a familiar starting point, that I depart from thematically. It goes to loss of identity, loss of home, loss of faith in humanity, loss of a friend, of your own life and then it turns a corner.”
The corner Dacus is referring to is not strictly hope, something that certainly forms part of the core of this record, but an acceptance – an acceptance of situations that can't change, of death, of her role as a musician and a creative. “Yeah. There is a lot of shrugging going on in the record” she says through a half laugh, half sigh. “I have a friend named Ali and I actually just went with her to get a tattoo, (I didn't get a tattoo) of this Haitian word ‘Dégagé’ which means exactly that, to make the best with what you have. She got it in response to Trump's recent comments about Haiti being a shit country which was horrible. So, I've been thinking about that word because of her and about that concept or being real with yourself about what you have and making the most of it.”
According to Dacus, this corner she turns comes with “Next of Kin”. “It is the biggest shrug of all. It says: “I'm going to die so I might as well find a way to be content with this and live, live in a way that is satisfying.” It may not seem like the most obvious rallying cry but its quietly defiantly lyrics are bolstered by bold anthemic drums and the scuzziest guitars: “I am at peace with my death”/ “I can go back to bed.”
It’s not the only song that deals with death on the record. “Death is in everyone. It comes from being alive. Who hasn’t thought about it? Who hasn’t lost someone? It’s impossible to avoid. Some people talk about it and some people don’t, but I’m interested in talking about it because I see the havoc it can wreak on a human soul to bottle that fear or be forced into engaging with it without any discussion or solidarity.”
"I think that hope defeats fear, so if I want to communicate anything to anyone it's to cultivate hopefulness."
“People don't really talk about death that often, and I don't think people should talk about death all the time but I appreciate the people that have taken the time with me to go there, just to explore what that part of life is. You know, it's really intimidating and to a lot of people. It's their number one fear, and fear drives so much greed and so many power struggles. Fear is to blame for most of the bad things in the world and most of the negative qualities in people, so it's important to address and try to defeat that.”
“I think that hope defeats fear, so if I want to communicate anything to anyone it's to cultivate hopefulness. That's what I want people to take away from the album - that there will be unavoidable, horrible things that will definitely be scary, definitely difficult, but leaning in to fear leads to a bad world and leaning into hope leads to a good world and a good life for yourself on a personal level. So, my most essential thoughts are about hopefulness in the face of negativity and horrible things that you can't avoid.”
Is she talking on a personal level, or a global level? “2017 in general was difficult in every aspect of my life. Personally, with friends and family in my home town, in terms of my career there were stressors and just the country as a whole. The US just sucks right now. I know I just said that but I already want to take it back. The US doesn't suck. There are loads of amazing people here and it's still beautiful and we go to so many cities and interact with so much positivity and we have so many beautiful moments when we're on tour. I always fall in love with different parts of the country every time we go on tour. But, yeah, politically it's dark, it's really dark. I can't wait for the cloud to be lifted. I know that it will. It has to be, right? Trump won't be in office one day. Hopefully somebody equally bad won't take his place.”
Turning the conversation’s focus inwards once more, we discuss the song that follows “Next of Kin”. “Pillar of Truth” is about my grandma, and what it was like to watch her on her deathbed. “It was really inspiring. Again, it sounds really sad and sombre but I have only positive associations with that time because she was so strong and admirable in the way she confronted this thing that no one else wanted to admit was happening.”
“She would sit with her kids and she planned her own funeral. She found new piano teachers for her piano students and picked the songs that would play. I just really felt more in touch with her as a person than ever. It just really revealed so much about her state of calm. I think a lot of people freak out in times of poor health. Her inner peace was just super admirable and I just really hope to attain that level of inner calm in all things, not just death, just with fear in general. I want to have that much of a level head.”
Thinking of title track and closing number “Historians” as the epilogue in which two people, two historians, are considering what it would be like to lose somebody Dacus says: “It's about being aware of how attachment leads to pain, which seems pretty dark but also, again is another shrug … of course pain is a foil for joy. I should clarify, I am one of the two historians that are in that song.”
“I've been a historian for as long as I can remember.” Dacus pauses for a moment, as if her thoughts search out for that starting point. “Before I started writing music or doing art, I journaled. I've been journaling since I was in second grade and I've been keeping a consistent journal since I was in fifth grade. I've written twelve full journals now … thousands of pages, documenting my life.”
“I don't think I could stop, I don't know what it's for or why I do it but I think that might be my greatest work, not work I intend on sharing with anybody but for myself. It's informed a lot of my abilities as a writer, a listener and a thinker, a friend and daughter: Journaling has really made me a more capable communicator. I don't know if it's a good or a bad impulse to want to capture and analyse everything, but being a historian of my own life and the lives of people around me has never not been an option.”
"I'm really not attracted to secrecy or mystique. If somebody wants to know something why would I keep it from them?"
“I think being in the practice of writing and listening to yourself is important for a songwriter. I always say to people who want to write songs, just get in the habit of listening to yourself and don't try to make yourself talk. Your brain is already talking, whether you're tuned in or not. I think I've just been tuned in since a really young age and at this point I feel like my songs are just their own entities, kind of using me as a go between. That's kind of nice to feel, like kind of humbling to feel that I'm not making my own songs. I don't look to my journals for the content of the songs, but I want to acknowledge that the album is very personal and I'm in it. I’m not writing from a character's perspective.”
With such a heart-on-sleeve approach, I wonder if she struggles with the balance between giving listeners a genuine sense of herself whilst also keeping some things private. “Yeah,” she replies. “The biggest struggle is that I don't keep anything. It's hard for me to keep anything, especially in interviews because this conversation doesn't feel different than a conversation with my friend. I'm really not attracted to secrecy or mystique. If somebody wants to know something why would I keep it from them?”
So, I ask, honesty forms an integral part of what you do? “I think so and I think honesty is hard to avoid, whether it's factual or not. I think a lot of fiction is very honest, even if you’re writing from a different character's perspective it still reflects on the person who's singing. There's no separation from the writer and the song itself. I feel like an open book, which doesn't feel bad but even in an interview or an album - which are very direct and personal - it's only a part of who I am.”
It’s clear, listening to the record and talking to Dacus, that Historian is a cohesive statement of an album: an album designed to be appreciated for that narrative arc. “I think the moment I realised we had a second record was when I wrote down a list of songs that I'd written and realised they shared the same theme. They’re all kind of about attempting to be resilient after loss or being weighed down by difficulty by things that are unavoidable.”
“It took a while to name the record”, she continues. “I didn't want to name it … or any of the songs either, because I thought that would put too much focus on any one song. I wanted people to hear the record as one statement. I made the track listing for the album before I even finished some of the songs because the arc felt like the most important part.”
Speaking more about Historian’s beginnings, Dacus goes on to say: “I started writing songs for this in 2011. There are songs that I wrote for this album that I wrote long before songs that are on No Burden. I started writing songs so long ago that their genesis happened without any expectation.”
So she didn’t feel the weight of the success of No Burden? She must have been aware that more people would hear what she was doing this time around? Why did she say this was the album she “needed to make”? “Yeah. This time around I knew that I had an audience so it felt like I should seize the moment because I don't know how long the moment will be for me. I don't know how long I'll be able to make music and share it with people so widely, so it felt like I really needed to get something essential out there.” Historian is certainly that.