Not many artists had as good a year as Lucy Dacus did in 2016. The Richmond, VA-based musician released her debut album, No Burden, that March, and by the summer she had been signed to Matador Records and went to work on writing songs for her follow-up, all while playing big festivals and touring the country supporting acts like the Decemberists, Hamilton Leithauser, and Car Seat Headrest. But as everyone’s year rapturously descended into hell as 2016 roared to a close, Dacus’ did as well. Her sophomore album, Historian — which will be out in March — is largely a document of that upheaval, both the personal and political. It’s a reflection on what happens when the systems and safety nets that you believed were in place fail spectacularly and you’re left standing on your own.
That despondency resulted in a resolve that ignited a spark in Dacus, and Historian is more dynamic than her debut, sweeping and occasionally operatic and always painfully earnest. She uses her deft wordplay to look at the ways we learn to move on from tragedy, whether more interior battles like codependency or ones that impact on a more global scale. One of the tracks on Historian is an incendiary protest song called “Yours And Mine” that was partially inspired by the 2017 Women’s March: “For those of you who told me I should stay indoors/ Take care of you and yours,” Dacus sings. “But me and mine, we’ve got a long way to go until we get home, ’cause this ain’t my home anymore.”
The album’s lead single, the blistering “Night Shift,” is a good indication of the widescreen ambitions that Dacus and her band achieve on Historian. It’s a song about structuring your life around avoiding someone else, centered around the indelible hook, “You’ve got a 9 to 5, so I’ll take the night shift/ And I’ll never see you again if I can help it.” But it takes its sweet time to get there — it’s a six-and-a-half-minute sprawl that earns every one of those seconds as Dacus sets the scene and digs her heels, so that by the time it finally hits the payoff, it feels as intensely rewarding and cathartic as if you yourself were cutting ties with the toxic subject of the song.
It’s a marvel of songwriting, and you can listen to it below, and read on for an interview with Dacus in which we talk about her new album.
STEREOGUM: How has your 2017 been going in general?
LUCY DACUS: It’s definitely been the worst year of my life, but I think that’s true for a lot of people. There’s a growing sense of unease and instability. That’s clearly connected to the situation our country’s in right now. But also in my personal life, I’ve had some family members having health problems. It’s been a constantly shifting kind of year. I haven’t had solid ground for all of 2017.
STEREOGUM: A few weeks ago, I saw that you tweeted about having a bunch of tours cancelled for different reasons? Did that factor into it?
DACUS: Yeah, it’s super frustrating because we just accidentally took half a year off of playing shows. At this point, it’s what brings the songs together so right now they feel kind of dead or lifeless. We had all these plans of practicing the new stuff and playing it out live, and now I feel a little underprepared to start playing shows. But I’m sure it’ll be fine.
STEREOGUM: When did you record the new album?
DACUS: We recorded it in March of this year in Nashville with Collin Pastore, who was the same guy who made No Burden with us. He’s been our friend since middle school. We did many months of pre-production. For the last record, we made the arrangements for it in a couple of days, and this one we arranged over three months. And then we recorded it in about a week, which felt like so much luxury. We could just keep going and do as many takes as we wanted. What does it sound like to put bells here? OK, that sucks, take it away. We got to explore options. And because of all the time we spent on that side, mixing and mastering only took a week, where with the last album, mixing took a couple months because we had to smooth over the imperfections.
STEREOGUM: How did that extended development time impact how you wrote the songs? Do you feel like you had more space to breathe?
DACUS: There was space for it to come together naturally, which I guess was true for No Burden, too, because I wrote those songs over many years, but I can’t really rush writing. I can’t sit down and choose to write. It was nice to make something, focus on it, and then on my own time let it evolve. Nothing felt forced at all about the material, which I was worried about because it’s our first “proper” release through a label. Are we going to feel pressure? Luckily, we didn’t. None of it felt like we were under pressure.
STEREOGUM: It can feel different when you’re creating something and you know in the back of your mind that people will definitely be listening and have an opinion about it.
DACUS: I feel like that had a positive benefit. Knowing that there would be an audience this time added this level of urgency that was actually really good for me. Knowing that I had a heightened sense of responsibility to say something that I really want to say and want people to hear. So it feels like a lot of my most core thoughts came out on this album. It’s almost like I can wipe my forehead and be like, OK, the next album might be fun! Or at least not as urgent as this one.
STEREOGUM: What do you feel is the big picture thematic through-line for this album?
DACUS: Throughout the album, I’m playing devil’s advocate to the concept of hope. I really believe in hopefulness and respect people that are hopeful. I think I’m at my best when I think hopefully. And this album was me being like, Well, OK, what if this happens? What if hope can’t last through this? When does hope fail? And so all the songs are the toughest stuff, through my eyes, that my hope has gone through.
STEREOGUM: There are a lot of moments on the album where you’re reflecting on your position as a songwriter. There’s that line on “Night Shift” where you sing, “In five years I hope the songs feel like covers,” and a lot of “The Shell” is reflecting on that: “You don’t have to be sad to make something worth hearing.” Were thinking a lot about what it means to be a songwriter while doing this labum?
DACUS: Being a songwriter just wasn’t a central part of my personality when I was writing songs before. And now it’s a descriptor that people latch on to me. Even people that are close to me or people that are acquaintances… The only question I get now is, How is music going? It’s an overpowering quality of my life now, the fact that I write songs. It’s weird to navigate what that means socially. I’ve been adjusting to what it means to be a songwriter, figuring out what I like about it and what I don’t like about it, and what it means to me as opposed to other people.
STEREOGUM: What are some of the things that you like or don’t like about being labeled like that?
DACUS: I guess what I don’t like is that people have a robust concept of what a musician’s life looks like. It’s easier for people to think that they know me because they have an idea of what my life is like. Or people say, Oh, that’s the best job ever. You’re living your dream. People actually tell me that I’m living my dream. And I’m like, it’s a little more nuanced than that. People have been simplifying me in a more ideological way instead of a human way. But what’s great is that it is actually the best job ever and I am living my dream, so I can’t really fault them for saying that. But what I’m coming to find out is that I guess people can have more than one dream. I think about other things that I could do other than music and it’s equally exciting to me.
STEREOGUM: Why’d you decide to name the album Historian and what about it rings true for this collection of songs?
DACUS: Before I had even finished all of the songs, I figured out the track listing for the album. The order of the songs was the first completely thought for me. Thematically — at least for me, and I don’t need everyone to come to this on their own — but for me it’s this arc, this nosedive of loss and hardship in increasingly incremental difficulty. But at the end of the album, there’s this turn-around. On “Next Of Kin” when I sing, “I’m at peace with my death/ I can go back to bed,” I kind of accept that all that stuff is a part of life. Because you care about things, you will feel pain. The pain denotes a certain level of vividness and richness to life. And then there’s “Pillar Of Truth,” which is about watching my grandma die — a very admirable death, in my opinion — and that’s sort of the thesis statement for the album.
And then “Historians” is the final track, the thought that’s like: Yes, you can be content and know factually that everything is alright and that everything evens out and that everyone has shared experiences and that’s a comforting thought. But that despite mentally knowing that all of that is true, part of being human is being strung around and feeling pain. Just because you know that things are OK overall doesn’t mean you have to feel OK. It’s this somewhat negative and fearful ending, which isn’t usually my style but it felt the most real to me. So “Historians” is about two people who are historians for each other, basically. Taking in each other’s lives and documenting it and sharing in it. And then in the song, one of the people dies and the other person is left with all of this reading. The song is about me and the people that I love, or a person that I love, and so I named the album Historian because that’s who I am. It’s like… Lucy Dacus, historian. That’s my occasional job title to myself. That’s how I describe what I do.
01 “Night Shift”
03 “The Shell”
05 “Yours And Mine”
06 “Body To Flame”
08 “Next Of Kin”
09 “Pillar Of Truth”
03/02 Brooklyn, NY @ Music Hall of Williamsburg
03/07 Charlottesville, VA @ The Southern
03/08 Charleston, SC @ Pourhouse
03/09 Atlanta, GA @ The Earl
03/10 Nashville, TN @ The Hi Watt
03/19 Phoenix, AZ @ Valley Bar
03/20 Tucson, AZ @ Club Congress
03/21 San Diego, CA @ The Casbah
03/22 Los Angeles, CA @ Teragram Ballroom
03/23 Santa Cruz, CA @ The Crepe Place
03/24 San Francisco, CA @ Rickshaw Stop
03/26 Portland, OR @ Doug Fir Lounge
03/27 Vancouver, BC @ Biltmore Cabaret
03/28 Seattle, WA @ Tractor Tavern
03/30 Salt Lake City, UT @ Urban Lounge
03/31 Denver, CO @ Globe Hall
04/02 Omaha, NE @ Reverb Lounge
04/04 Minneapolis, MN @ 7th Street Entry
04/05 Madison, WI @ High Noon Saloon
04/06 Chicago, IL @ Empty Bottle
04/07 Indianapolis, IN @ The HI-FI
04/08 Columbus, OH @ The Basement
04/09 Toronto, ON @ Horseshoe Tavern
04/11 Cambridge, MA @ The Sinclair
04/13 Philadelphia, PA @ Johnny Brenda’s
04/14 Washington DC @ Rock & Roll Hotel
04/19 Leeds, UK @ Belgrave Music Hall
04/20 Glasgow, UK @ The Hug and Pint
04/21 Manchester, UK @ Gullivers
04/22 Birmingham, UK @ Hare and Hounds 2
04/24 Bristol, UK @ Louisiana
04/25 London, UK @ Omeara
04/26 Brighton, UK @ The Hope and Ruin
04/27 Paris, FR @ Espace B
04/30 Copenhagen, DE @ Stengade
05/01 Hamburg, GE @ Prinzenbar
05/03 Cologne, GE @ Blue Shell
05/04 Amsterdam, NE @ Sugar Factory