LUCY DACUS, Friday, Feb. 1, 8 p.m., (SOLD OUT), Motorco Music Hall, Durham; motorcomusic.com
When I ask Lucy Dacus about her time in university, she reminds me that she was only a film student at Virginia Commonwealth University for a year and a half. “Then I dropped out,” she says. “Womp womp.” As she punctuates the sentence with the international symbol for losing a television game show, she sounds both a bit dismissive and a bit regretful, and it’s easy to understand the ambiguity. The twenty-three-year-old singer-songwriter, who rocketed to attention after the 2016 release of the scrappy No Burden and launched something of a label bidding war in the months thereafter (she went with Matador), is leaps and bounds beyond the dreams of many a college kid with a guitar. But Dacus, poised and analytical, also would have made a hell of an academic, and it’s also worth considering that suddenly having to live up to both logistical and critical expectations of a high-visibility music career is a lot to manage at a relatively young age.
Regardless, Dacus seems to be holding up well under pressure. In 2018, she released her second solo album, Historian, to strong reviews that praised her atmospheric narratives and soaring vocals. She also found time to tour and record with pals Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers as the exquisitely harmony-heavy supergroup boygenius. Nearly three years after her first Triangle stop at The Cave—which happened the day Matador first got in touch about putting out her debut album—Dacus caught up with us about her focus on her craft.
INDY: You were busy in 2018, with both a solo project and boygenius. What do you have planned for this year?
LUCY DACUS: I’ve been writing a lot for my third record. If it were up to me, I’d record it in a couple of weeks and then put it out in a month. But I know that I need to give it more time, and that these songs are particularly sensitive. They’re really personal, and so I need time to adjust to this content.
I feel like having two modes of creating music actually makes both of them feel like less pressure. I really like switching my mindset between creative projects, so doing the band with Phoebe and Julien, I was able to bring a lot of that to my own record. And when I’m working on my own record, I’m like, “Oh, this is a good idea that doesn’t feel like just me,” so that idea can be sent back to boygenius.
[boygenius] actually doesn’t have a plan to be together in 2019. We were all texting yesterday, and honestly, our priority is, like, when do we get to hang? Not even a mention of music yet. But I think we’re going to try to schedule a time to be together in the spring.
You’re in your early twenties and have probably experienced more success than many of your classmates and friends. What has that experience been like for you, especially considering that this age is culturally considered a time to experiment and try new things, and you have a well-defined career?
I think you pretty much said it. It does feel a little out of place compared to my peers right now. A lot of my friends are on their way to greatness or have already achieved greatness, whether or not it’s being recognized, but I feel like everything happened really unexpectedly and quickly for me. It’s been nice to be going through that first, because I can see how some of my friends are starting to branch out and build their own careers. One of the most rewarding things about this is being able to help my friends get their art heard or seen.
I gather you’re a bit of a book nerd. Is there’s anything that’s inspiring you right now or affecting your writing?
I read Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin recently, and I feel like he’s one of the best writers that has ever lived. That book is a really important lesson in shame. He also uses architecture to mirror the character’s mental state. I really liked how he set the scene in that book, and how the physical aspects of the world are mirroring the internal aspects. I notice that a little bit in my own writing. A lot of the songs I’m writing right now are pretty narrative, and I have this impulse to set the scene and try to communicate a feeling from the physical surroundings, instead of just stating how I feel or how the character in the song feels. I want there to be matching contexts.
You tend to do an impactful introductory line to a song—you open “Night Shift” with “The first time I tasted someone else’s spit, I had a coughing fit,” for example. Is that something you pay specific attention to while writing?
I think that’s clearly the moment where you have the chance to capture somebody’s attention, and so I feel like you have to seize the moment and say something that will make somebody want to listen to you. I appreciate songwriters where you have to take the whole song as one chunk, like the lyrics don’t really make sense without the other lyrics. I’ve been trying to practice doing that, but, in general, I do want each line to hold its own, because there’s nothing that says: “I deserve people’s attention.” So if they’re only paying attention for twenty seconds of the song, I want there to be something there that they can take away.