The On-The-Road Education Of Lucy Dacus
Lucy Dacus needs another suitcase.
For the majority of the last 18 months, Dacus and her bandmates have been getting acquainted with the efficacy of their tour van's brakes in bumper-to-bumper city traffic, racking up the miles in between tour stops and their homes in Richmond, Va. Re-packing the van after each show is a game of 3D Tetris, where gig cases, amps and bags are shoved into a haphazard formation that somehow always fits just so. The luggage she needs is for the stuff she shouldn't pick up on the road, but does anyway: Books, records, the occasional merch item. The afternoon we meet up at Brooklyn's Rough Trade NYC, the record store and venue she last played in the city, Dacus is wearing a t-shirt featuring the Philadelphia band Big Thief — "That band makes me want to be a better person and a better musician and a more thoughtful human being" — and she makes a note to check the shelves for the new Andy Shauf record on vinyl. She's carting a sizeable tome in her purse by Elena Ferrante — The Story of a New Name, the second volume of the author's Neapolitan series, which Dacus is working through — and admits that she stopped by a bookstore before arriving at Rough Trade, even if she's got plenty of pages to go with the Ferrante.
"I just usually bring two massive books that I take a really long time to finish. I try not to buy anything but then inevitably do, and then keep a stack underneath one of the seats in the van," she says. This is why the Ferrante novel is perfect: It's big, it's engrossing, and it's one that came highly recommended by friends, a distinction that holds formidable value for Dacus. It's a book that will last for at least a couple of cities. "My tour manager, Mackenzie, who's been a longtime friend of mine and my roommate, she buys books like a fiend as well. We try to start off sparingly and it inevitably grows to a huge library by the end of the tour."
She likes to ask whoever's working at these bookstores for recommendations, and the first time she played New York — in March 2015, at the Bowery Electric, an intimate room that squeezes 200 folk into a show, tops — she invited the woman who helped her out at the Strand to the gig. (She came.) The books are cumbersome, and the warm conversations with strangers are temporary, but they both serve as hallmarks for this, the year that Life Officially Blew Up for the 21-year-old who lit the heart of every record label's A&R department aflame. Dacus' appetite for new — new conversations, new stories, new highways, new experimentations with echoes in dark and dirty rock clubs — is voracious. This is a year where every turned page and turned corner isn't just an opportunity, but a lesson. She's learning as we're listening. She's taking a stack of books home with her, but she's taking notes, too.
Richmond is known for birthing bands of a deafening ilk — think Lamb of God and Gwar, the first artists Dacus names when asked about the city's music — but it's seen a recent boom in rock that's less of a metal scream and more of an indie-inflected conversation in a crowded dive. Acts like Natalie Prass and Matthew E. White prioritize an intimate connection between the writer and the listener, and left Richmond to tour extensively in 2015 on the strength of albums that champion intellectual intimacy through the resonance of revealing lyrics. The members of The Head and the Heart are far-flung, but two of them, Jonathan Russell and Tyler Williams, have since returned to the capital of Virginian bohemia after forming in Seattle and circling the world preaching that same gospel. (Williams is now one of Dacus's managers, and can be seen watching proudly from the back of the venues she plays pending his own touring schedule.)
In Dacus' music, you get a sense of her Richmond as a city full of neighbors toting guitar cases: "Green Eyes Red Face," a song about locking eyes with an audience member and falling for that stranger from the mic, was inspired by a night at Helen's, a bar Dacus played solo that's too small to even have a stage. "Direct Address" is another song about an avid listener she encountered in one of Richmond's familiar corners. Talk of rock and roll replaces chats about the weather, and words exchanged between musicians and fans are prized in any context. When Dacus is asked what her favorite spot to play is in the city, she doesn't list a venue, but a friend's house; a close second is The Broadberry, because that's a place where she tends to run into people that she knows.
Richmond's "overly encouraging" scene extends far beyond city limits and frequently follows her on tour. When discussing her plans are for later that evening as she combs the stacks at Rough Trade, she mentions that a friend from home, Hayden Arp, who she describes as "an immensely talented everything: singer, songwriter, producer," is playing an intimate spot two train stops from the record store.
"People want you to come back and share," she says. "A lot of the time when you see people on the street, instead of 'How are you?' it's 'How are your projects going?,' just holding each other accountable in a way. It's a subconscious thing people do: 'How's your work coming along? I'm interested in when I get to hear your next album or when your next show is.' Everyone has this productive peer pressure to keep working. The only reason other people don't hear about [Richmond's music] is that they're not a lot of touring bands. There's not a ton of industry infrastructure there. There's a ton of good music and there's a lot of it, so people see, 'Oh, if I make music, people will come because they care about me as a person or care about new people coming in.'"
Thanks to No Burden, Dacus has plenty of new experiences to share. When Dacus played that first show in New York, she was still a year away from the release of the album, which would initially be put out by Richmond's own Egg Hunt Records on Feb. 26, 2016. No Burden was an immediate critical darling, a universally loved work by an artist many were listening to for the first time, and one that felt like rare discovery in a time when the Internet and self-publishing leave very few sonic stones unturned. Dacus was largely unknown outside of Richmond: Other bands in town, like My Darling Fury, who offered her some of her first opening slots, and The Head and the Heart endorsed her for her even keel of a voice that navigated the tempest of her music's visceral, face-flushing scenes and heart-splitting sentiments. "It's been really cool being able to help out someone who I truly believe has this natural talent and charisma who's just such a lovable and talented human being," says Williams of Dacus and the heights she's reached in the last year.
Richmond's word-of-mouth tide reached the manager of the Memphis-based singer-songwriter Julien Baker a few months later. Baker was in the process of bolstering her own reputation for dumbfounding audiences with the gravity of her starkly confessional songs. No Burden was an ideal companion for Baker's adored Sprained Ankle, and Baker's voice mirrored Dacus' ability to project calm in the face of emotional ruin. Theirs was an immediate kinship, and Dacus would go on to open for Baker several times following their first show together at Washington, D.C.'s DC9 in January of 2016.
"It's great," she gushes upon mention of Baker's name. "She's 20, I'm 21. We were both raised Christian. She's a lesbian, I'm kind of queer and we just have so many of the same backstory situations. Being from Southern cities, having the same kind of interest for humans and ideas about why anyone would ever make art — it's one of those things where you expect to talk for two hours and then you talk for twelve."
The two are now close enough to have a secret handshake, a double-eagle pose that has them standing at each other's sides and spinning around in a circle with their "wings" raised. "It's encouraging to have met someone in 'the industry,' because I have this fear that I'm never going to get to know anyone now that we tour so much," she continues. "If you're in town for one day, how are you ever going to get to any level of depth with anyone that you meet? Meanwhile, you're away from the people that you had depth with, suddenly becoming shallower all the time. I would not say that my relationships are becoming shallow; if anything, some of them are really being tested in a way that I'm so thankful for my friends that call me and still want to talk. The girls that I live with are my lifer kind of friends. It's nice to know Julien and know that you can have fulfilling friendships with people who are also on the road who you'll see once every three or four months."
As for her experiences with "the industry," she'll head home with new knowledge under her belt, as No Burden had scores of labels clamoring to sign her in the months following its release. A strong run of performances at SXSW gave Dacus the perfect opportunity to demonstrate her exceptional live chops, ones that had A&R reps from majors and indies alike nodding in a hypnotized daze to "Troublemaker Dopplegänger." But it was the same night that Dacus met Baker at DC9 that turned out to seal her future's fate: Matador Records founder Gerard Colsoy was in attendance, a spark of cosmic alignment that led Dacus not only to one of her most treasured friendships, but a new beginning with one of the most revered independent labels in the business.
"Some labels and people that we ended up talking to are people I'd want to be friends with," she says, summing up the lessons she gleaned from searching for No Burden's new home. "We've come to find that people that we've said no to, they're not people that really wanted to know me. It was a business-y thing. What's cool about Matador is that everyone I've met there is just so chill and really into what they're doing. Everyone that works there, there's just such a lack of ego and there's such a commitment to what they're doing. They all like each other. In the amount of time that I've spent there, it seems like I would want to work there."
Though No Burden was committed to its February release date with Egg Hunt, Matador signed Dacus in the spring of 2016, re-released the album this month and has plans to work on a full-length follow-up for 2017.
It'll be a minute before she's back home and unpacking her books, putting the new Andy Shauf record on the turntable and writing songs about familiar faces again. It's becoming increasingly clear that Dacus' definition of home is yet another thing that's changed in the last year. She's on tour through Oct. 7, which is when she'll return to The National, Richmond's 1,500-capacity theater, where she'll be headlining for the first time. (My Darling Fury, this time around, will be opening for her.) Though her nomadic lifestyle has long since established itself as her new norm, "Map on a Wall" is an anthem that speaks to exploration and the kind of self-betterment and education that can only come from setting out into the unknown. It isn't just a mission statement for No Burden, but for this moment in Dacus's blossoming career, when her appetite for experience can only be satiated in motion. The song itself is a compass for Dacus: It points her forward and vaults her toward the next gig.
"Whenever we play it and I sing it to the crowd, I feel like I'm addressing them the most clearly at that moment," she says of the tune. "That's how I feel right now: A map doesn't do any good on a wall, and you have to leave. It is hard, like I said earlier, just to have all your relationships thrown into flux. I didn't realize it would be like moving out. Adjusting to that is really crazy, but I've always had aspirations of traveling. I don't know when that started, to want to know about the world and other people, but you have to be willing to do it in order for that to happen. It seems like a luxury thing, like, vacations, but it's not a vacation. It's like, changing your whole life to get to know the world in kind of a touch-and-go way. But you get to see more. I'm still figuring it out. It's weird to get asked questions that I don't know the answers to ... But I like getting questions I don't know the answer to because maybe it's the first time I've been asked to articulate these things."
Even uncertainty is an opportunity for Dacus, a chance to learn and express herself as she figures out the words and maps her route, carrying the promise of new truth on to the next jaunt.
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