Interview: Lucy Dacus
Written by Aleisha Mclaren
The satisfaction of a slow burn is what first drew me closer to the songs of Lucy Dacus. “Night Shift”, which opens her latest record, Historians, begins: “The first time I tasted somebody else’s spit / I had a coughing fit”. Six-and-a-half minutes are spent meandering through emotions left in the wake of a romance, with a sly, building intensity. When distorted guitars and a propelling drum beat are layered over Lucy’s vocals, the metallic taste of those lingering first lines are replaced by clean catharsis: “In five years I hope the songs feel like covers / dedicated to new lovers.” Historians’ songs show off the artist’s talent for distilling big narratives into precise, vivid freeze-frames, even when her subjects are strangers. Like a magpie, Lucy arranges moments into into arcs where every beat is shiny and inviting.
Ahead of her first Australian tour, we spoke about tarot cards, middle school cliques and her recent collaboration with Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers.
How’s your day going at the moment?
I’m in the van. Everyone else is going into Starbucks. We’re in the middle of a long drive. I can’t tell if we’re in Northern Texas or Southern Oklahoma, but it’s one of those, you know, nondescript places.
What does that look like?
There a lot of yellow grass, a lot of leafless trees. The sky is completely grey, the fog is very thick, you can’t see very far. You can’t really see the horizon, it’s very gloomy. Yeah, it’s pretty in a sombre way.
I promise I have more questions that are actually well-researched, but the thing I’m dying to ask you first is what it was like to give Courtney Barnett a tarot card reading.
Oh yeah! It’s a very personal endeavour to give a tarot reading, but I think she was thinking about, you know, her place in the world. I think that’s all I can say. I feel like it’s sacred ceremony, to do a tarot reading.
That was the only day that we’ve ever hung out. I did a reading for her bandmate, Katie Harkin as well, and it was very intense and personal. It’s funny, because I don’t know basic facts, like whether they have siblings, or where they grew up.
Do you think you’ve grown as a tarot reader?
The more that you do it, the more you learn. I wouldn’t say that I’m a master, but I feel comfortable giving other people a reading? I really like giving strangers readings because I know that I’m not being biased by what I know about their life. It’s cool to see how the cards still come through even when I don’t know somebody at all.
Is there anything you’re excited to do with your band in Australia?
We’ve never been! I don’t really know, I hear Australia has the best coffee in the world. I have different Australian friends who have promised to give me recommendations, like Alex Lahey, Gordi, Stella Donnelly and her band, and Middle Kids - I’ve met them all in the US or places in Europe, and when I announced [the tour], they all hit me up like “Oh, you have to do this and that!”. Usually it’s food.
I literally saw Middle Kids play a festival here just last weekend, and I’m obsessed.
I love them! They’re so sweet.
I was reading an interview you did for “Line of Best Fit” where you said you’d like to apologise to one of your childhood friends, because you sort of [ditched her in middle school to be more popular]. At what point do you think you, like, developed more of that self-awareness and compassion you have for other people in your lyrics?
I think it was when I achieved what I thought I needed to? I became friends with the pretty, popular crowd and I kind of just realised that, “Oh, that’s it? I’m glad that I’m not going to be the one that’s bullied, but also, these girls are kind of ruthless, and I don’t think are very kind.” I think I had a ‘bait-and-switch’, because really, my fear was being pushed into lockers and being labelled a nerd my whole life. I was like, “I think that I’ve avoided that. Now I can become myself.”
For a while my group of friends would wear the same colour on the same day. One of them would just text, “we’re wearing pink today”, or “we’re wearing blue today”, like Mean Girls! Such a trope. I was like, “no, I’m gonna wear my Dad’s plaid shirts”, and those little moments of self-expression helped me realise what makes me happy.
It’s funny because I’ve changed in a lot of ways, and I’m always changing, but there are things about me that have not changed since that realisation. I feel very comfortable wearing what I want to wear, doing what I want to do, and noticing things that I think are rude or destructive. I’ve never been super susceptible to peer-pressure, like ever? I always think it’s really tacky when people want to pressure me into things. I think it was just because my peers at the time were kind of like, tacky.
You were a journaller during school, yeah? Do you ever feel like seeing things through the eye of a documentarian distances you from the moment?
That’s an interesting question, and I did feel like that [at a time]. I feel like I would interrupt a moment to try and capture it, or I would be valuing a moment for aesthetic reasons. I would be like, “This will be a good memory.” But when I journal [now], it’s about where my brain’s at, at the time. I’m present in my life, and then journalling is also a form of presence, you know? It’s being honest with how I feel about what’s going on, and it’s more about the act of journaling than the making of a manuscript. The act itself is not as important as the process of looking back into my brain, and pulling out what’s, you know, waiting there.
When did you meet [long-time collaborator] Jacob Blizard, and how long have you guys been working together?
I’ve known Jacob since I was maybe, fifteen? We were kind of acquaintances before we started making music. I feel like we started making music together when I was 16 or 17. Our mutual friend is our producer Collin Pastore, and we’ve been friends since middle school. I met him because Collin’s little brother did theatre, and my mum’s a musical theatre director, so we just became family friends. We’d be at the same summer family parties, and we kind of all just realised that I write songs, Jacob plays instruments, and Collin records things. So that’s how we would hang out, when we were younger - we’d just sit in Collin’s room and make recordings.
What would you say your relationship is like now?
It’s great. We’re super close, we live together. Jacob’s in the van right now, he’s driving. Whenever we’re home in Richmond we see each other’s family, and I can’t really imagine making the record without him.
I’m curious as to how the collaboration process between the three of you is different to how you worked on the boygenius record with Julien and Phoebe.
Oh! So, with Julien and Phoebe, we were each sharing every role, whereas with Collin and Jacob, I think our roles are really distinct. I’m 100% the songwriter, I’m kind of like, vibe-control? I make the final decision about what the feeling of the song is, I offer ideas for arrangements. Jacob’s role is that he plays most of the instruments. On the last record, he played bass, guitars, keyboard, synth. He made arrangements for strings and horns, did auxiliary percussion. That’s kind of his domain, and then Collin’s domain is the recording, the engineering, the mixing - just focussing on the sound. With Phoebe and Julien and I, we were all writing the songs, all playing instruments, all making production decisions, and it was new for me, but we all respect each other so much that nobody tried to take up more space than the other two. It felt very equal, and it was a lot different. I didn’t even think I’d be capable of it, but luckily it came together.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading Abandon Me by Melissa Febos, which is a memoir. I’m reading the third My Struggle book, by Karl Ove Knausgaard. I’m a sucker for those books, even though I hate that they’re called My Struggle. I just finished a book called The Mere Wife, by Maria Dahvana Headley? It’s a retelling of Beowolf in modern times, I loved it. I read Beowolf in school and I haven’t read it in a long time, but I loved how she … really focussed on the women in that story, and gave them a rich history. I was blown away by it.
I know you read a lot of epics and really long novels. What draws you to those books?
They just have time to develop, you know? If a book is really good, I never want it to end. So, like, a really long novel is the closest thing. Books have to end, but I can live in them for longer, stay with the characters for longer. I feel like writers who are capable of writing at a length like that are usually big, super detail-oriented, and have a rich way [of writing].
Do you think your reading has an impact on your approach to songwriting?
Oh yeah. Actually, I feel like you have to prepare people for what you’re going to say, and if you say something too soon, or too brashly, people aren’t going to be receptive to it? A lot of my songs, there’s a lot of scene-setting, and a lot of asking of questions before I answer them.
That’s also very musical theatre.
Yeah, I grew up around musical theatre. It’s funny, because the sound of musical theatre is not at all what has come through in my music. But I think the storytelling element, and the fact that every song has to propel the plot - you know how you have to find something out in every song in musical theatre? I think in all of my songs, it’s at least just me coming to a conclusion or finding something out about myself.
I’m aware that I’m running out of time, so I’ve just got one more question for you. A lot writing around you, Julien and Phoebe has this element of surprise at your capacity for sadness. Do you feel like that commentary is gendered at all?
I feel like there’s a weird fetishization of female pain. I really resent when people say that we’re like, the ‘Sad Girls Club’? I know my music is very hopeful. A lot of Julien’s is, too. Her recent record begins rooted in sadness, but her whole point is to provide hope, and light at the end of the tunnel. Phoebe’s music is sometimes like, really sassy, and it’s sometimes just about her. There are a couple songs that are clearly sad, like she when says: “Jesus Christ, I’m so blue all the time”. That’s clearly sad, but I don’t know. I feel like it’s a lazy categorisation, and it doesn’t feel as robust as what Phoebe’s work has to offer, what Julien’s work has to offer, and my work.
That all said, sadness is of course an important emotion that people shouldn’t shy away from. I think it’s important to acknowledge but not to define us by our willingness to look at those things.