Completing the third and final chapter in our collection of formative songs from the supergroup boygenius, Lucy Dacus talks John Bell through a carefully selected timeline of songs that chart her journey as a musician.
On “Forever Half Mast”, the latest in a string of singles loosely tied thematically to public holidays, Virginia’s Lucy Dacus masterfully captures the feeling of emotional ambivalence and how it’s become an integral part of the American experience.
With lines such as “America, the tried and true / Red and white and black and blue,” it’s not difficult to discern the political muddle that defines the country today and how it’s cultivated a dissonant personal view of what should be considered home.
Learning to observe the contrasting colours of life and express them in your own art, both effectively with the nuance they deserve, is something that takes time. As Dacus begins to trail her journey of the songs that made her the artist she is today, examples of seemingly discordant emotions working in harmony together arise, where each song she’s selected seems to blur into the next.
The process of curating a list, she tells me, is something she’s long enjoyed. "I tried to pick them chronologically. I used to make 20-song playlists for my friends, ones that were specific to them and I'd be thinking about transitions all the time. I haven't done it as much recently, but this was fun, and that’s why it took me so long".
Dacus’s Nine Songs follows those of her friends and collaborators, Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker, completing the final chapter of the formative songs of boygenius. It’s appropriate then, that Dacus’s choices also touch upon friendship, and how strong a bond a song can be between us and someone we may, or even may not, know.
"That was the first song by Edith that I heard. I'm a fan of all of her work, but it was also one of the first times that I heard music where I didn't understand the lyrics, but it still got to me emotionally. I feel like I'm usually a very lyric-centric listener, so whenever music gets to me that doesn't do that it feels extra powerful.
"I've learnt the meaning of the lyrics since and it's a part of why I've taken French over the years for school, just to understand it a bit more. I love the sense of 'I don't regret anything' and ‘I don't regret the things that I've lost’ and I try to just remember that sentiment in my day-to-day. I used to sing plenty of her songs to myself when I was learning French, copying her voice was a good way to help my pronunciation and also cultivate my love for the language.
"It felt like she was so proud, there was this finality to looking back and implying an ending. So there's melancholy to it; it's a positive emotion, but maybe in the face of something that is ending, or closing a chapter that was difficult to close."
“I listened to Bruce Springsteen throughout my youth - because of my Dad being a huge fan - and I really didn't like it. Through middle school I was like; ‘This guy is annoying’ but I had to listen to him all the time. I thought my Dad was lame, because I was a middle-schooler and parents are lame! But ‘Atlantic City’ was the first song I heard where I realised that Bruce was actually very good.
“It’s so poetic and narrative and stripped down, and in a really humble way. For him to do this song - after having major radio hits that were really lush and typically catchy - to then have this song that grabbed you in the gut, in the heart? It felt really bold. Taking a step back is bold when you have that type of profile. It's dark and it's honest, it’s like negative and hopeful can co-exist."
"The first Cure song I ever heard was ‘Just Like Heaven’. My eighth-grade boyfriend told me it was our song, and was the first song I learned on guitar, so I really love The Cure.
“For ‘Close To Me’ specifically, when I was in high school, I was at a show at a bowling alley, and me and my friend got up on stage in between sets - which is something that I would never do, and as a kid I didn't realise how weird that was - but we got up there in between two of the bands and nobody knew that we weren't on the bill. We set up as if we were there on the bill and played that song, people just let it happen and were really confused!
"I've danced to ‘Close To Me’ so many times in my life. For a band that are iconic for their sadness, it's one of the weirder, fun ones and I think it stands out. I feel that to lean that far into your heart as a writer… he verges on saccharine with some of the lyrics he writes, but it fits the mood so thoroughly. Whenever I want to listen to my feelings The Cure is there with the corresponding song. They found a balance for sadness and that’s a big feat for a band."
“I picked ‘Do You Wanna Dance?’ because it’s really joyful; I probably danced to this song for many hours of my life, I have a lot of friends where this song was a mutual love.
“My ex-boyfriend showed me The Ramones and I don't like him anymore, so it's the one thing I can take away from that relationship. If it does remind me of him, it's the only singular positive thing about our relationship, which was the music swapping. I found out about a lot of bands I love that way. So if I can hold on to that singular positive association to this person then that is a gift.
"When I found out about The Ramones I just erupted. They defined a lot of my teenage years when I was defining myself as a punk, when in retrospect I was just a kid. All teenagers think that they're punk!"
"I feel like Yo La Tengo can do anything and they come up all the time when I'm talking about who my influences are. I could talk about them too much, but they're one of my favourite bands ever. Again, they're really good at capturing joy in a way that isn't corny and capturing sadness in a way that doesn't overdo it either.
“They're really good at creating a feeling with sound and with words, but ‘Autumn Sweater’ is a song that's followed me throughout my life, I associate it with young love, with the changing of the seasons and whenever it comes to autumn this song is on loop in my head.
"They're escaping something, getting in a car and leaving, and they make that feeling so simple, or the wanting to do something simple. You're not thinking about the consequences of your actions, you're just thinking about the relief or release that comes with leaving or doing what you really want to. It's that sweet, wishful thinking sentiment.”
"When I first heard Broken Social Scene they kind of flipped my idea of what song-writing was. How long is this song, like ten minutes? For me, that was unheard of at the time. They're very cinematic, and they're definitely thinking in terms of scenes - or at least, it makes me think in terms of scenes. I was studying film at the time, so I was always thinking visually, and they had strong visual components.
"‘It's All Gonna Break’ is them at their most exploratory, or most daring, song-writing. There are so many different sections to the song that it feels like six songs in one, but it was one idea, so treat it like a short song. I internalised some of that lesson - ‘if a song is not done, just keep writing it’. I'm never 'I want to write a short song, or a long song', but I do set out like I have to keep writing until the thought is said. Sometimes it takes two minutes, sometimes it takes ten minutes.
"I was in my friend's car at high school and we were listening to the whole record. It ended on this one and that's when we parked the car outside my parents’ house and we just listened to it, we wanted to finish the record. That's all we were doing, just listening to this song and being led by it.
"I like their recent record too, again it’s like they were writing with characters in mind. The different voices occupy specific thematic world and also sonic worlds, and I thought that was a cool way to separate a push and pull. I don't know if they intended that, but listening to it they're super easy to analyse through a cinematic lens."
"This is a song that when I’ve met people throughout the years I found that a lot of people love it, but nobody knows where we all heard it. It wasn't on a soundtrack or anything, it just crept into the universal consciousness.
“I used to be that guy that brought an acoustic guitar to school to play during lunch. I went to a nerd high school and so I think everyone was really relieved to do something together. I had a teacher who encouraged me to bring the guitar and play songs, but that was before I started writing songs, so we'd do covers and ‘Broadripple Is Burning’ was a group favourite.
“The song-writing on it is really strong and it was super easy to cover when I started playing shows. I would bring friends up and we'd harmonise; I've covered it with plenty of my friends who are also still musicians. It exists in that dark world, or that negative and hopeful world that we were talking about earlier, but it's specialness has grown from the times I've sung it with friends, around campfires or at school.”
“I’ve put this one before the Big Thief song because I heard this song something like six years ago, even though it came out last year or the year before. I heard it live in a friend’s garage, Twain was having an album release for his record Life Labors in the Choir - which is one of my favourite records of all time. He had two people harmonising with him on ‘Good Old Friend’, which I hadn't heard again since this record came out recently, but it was Buck and Adrianne from Big Thief.
“It was my first exposure to them pre-Big Thief. I didn't meet them, but that night held a mystic place in my mind. I heard Big Thief for the first time when they opened for me at Savannah Stopover festival. I went up to Adrianne and was like 'Hey, you probably don't know this guy Matt, he has a band called Twain. They're kind of small, but you're the only other band that's ever made me feel how Twain has made me feel’ and she said, 'Oh Matt is one of my best friends.' So I put it together that that was them singing with him.
"I'm a very dedicated Big Thief fan and I’m lucky enough to call them friends, I feel like they're the best living band right now, but Twain influenced them a lot. Again, I feel a lot of these songs have a similar quality, where the feeling is undeniable and maybe expressing something simple but universal in a way that doesn't usually feel simple. There's a looseness, not a strict adherence to form; it's repetitive because it feels good and if it feels good then just do it, you know, sixteen times.
“I like how the recording doesn't feel super hi-fi. It seems sonically attainable; everything about it feels attainable, the song-writing feels attainable, the playing feels attainable and yet all of it together carries a feeling that is hardly ever attained. It's rare for someone to get it right on all fronts, and seemingly without much trying. It feels really earnest."
"I really loved Masterpiece and when they were touring it they came to Richmond, Virginia and played this venue called Strange Matter. Big Thief tend to play new songs a lot and they played ‘Mythological Beauty’, but the recording wasn't out yet.
“There's a line in it, "I have an older brother I don't know / He could be anywhere" and I gasped, because I also have an older brother that I don't know and could be anywhere. I'm adopted and so is he, from the same birth-mother. It never comes to mind, you know? I'm like, 'Oh yeah, there's a stranger and I don't know where he is, I don't need to worry about it,' but the line struck me, it felt oddly specific, like 'Oh my God, how could she write that?'
“They all came to my house for breakfast the next morning and I asked Adrianne about the lyric. She told me that it was true, that her mother gave a child up for adoption before her and it felt eerie. I've never heard anything that speaks to that type of relationship, and I feel they approach the types of relationships that no one else really speaks to. I'm glad to be alive at the same time as Big Thief.
“Listening to them feels like the default, it feels so familiar and right. I think Adrianne's maybe right that the songs exist independently from who they are as people; I think they've tapped into channelling their music. ‘Mythological Beauty’ is the only song, I guess along with Twain, where I've felt like a part of it, where I've realised that I'm doing this at the same time. These are my contemporaries and friends, and that's an intense realisation and responsibility."