For singer-songwriter Lucy Dacus, the accolades are lovely.
She’s certainly had her fair share of them. “Historian,” the album she released last year, revealed her as a sort of wunderkind — she was only 22 when it was released, and yet it wound up on the “Best Albums of 2018” lists by Rolling Stone, National Public Radio, NBC News, Pitchfork, Stereogum, Slate, The Atlantic, Billboard, Consequence of Sound and more.
Before it was even released, buzz was built around the introspective artist, whose thoughtful demeanor in a recent phone interview with The Daily Times revealed a young woman who remains grounded despite her acclaim. The New York Times dedicated a lengthy piece in February 2018 to the making of “Historian,” and the single “Night Shift” was almost universally lauded as one of the best songs of the year, with Spin, Uproxx and Paste all getting in on the Lucy lovefest.
But while such praise is flattering, Dacus — who performs Friday at Barley’s Knoxville in the Old City — finds validation through other means.
“I wasn’t really thinking about it while I was making (“Historian”) or after; I was just trying to make something I like and not think about anybody else’s metrics for success,” she said. “After I made it, I was really proud of it, and I had high hopes people would accept it and recognize what I had to say and come to love it the way I do, and that has happened. But the more shows we play, I see people singing along. That’s the biggest shock, more than press or any year-end list, is seeing people who care about it.”
Dacus grew up near Richmond, Va., and started writing before she reached double digits. Her first efforts were fictional, about an “owl who was really cool, and there was this turtle who really liked him but didn’t know how to tell him,” she said. By the time she was 10, she began journaling regularly, a habit she continues today, growing from documentation of her daily activities into the wanderings of her inquisitive mind and a heart that feels so passionately that verbalization can’t adequately express the things felt by it.
“I feel like I’m more comfortable at this point writing about what I know to be true than writing fiction, and I think that’s come true in the songs,” she said. “I’m not as good at making up stories, but I’m trying to practice more. My songs are kind of like my journal; (they’re) about my life and the lives of those around me.”
Although she studied film at Virginia Commonwealth University, she left to pursue a music career and played her first show in New York City in 2015. She began touring small venues around the country, and played two shows at The Pilot Light — down the block from Friday’s venue — before she had recorded anything, she said.
“It was always really fun, and I always met really cool people,” she said. “I have an affinity for Knoxville.”
That same year, she recorded her first album, “No Burden,” in Nashville; although it was released independently in February 2016, she soon was signed to boutique indie label Matador Records, which re-released it in September of that year during a wave of adulation that took her to Chicago’s Lollapalooza festival and a television debut on “CBS This Morning.” The album put her on the pop culture radar, earned her a shout-out during the 2016 election by vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine and wound up as a year-end best-of pick by Paste and Magnet.
The bar was set high, but she was up to the challenge when she went in to make “Historian.” It was her second collaboration with studio wizards Jacob Blizard and Collin Pastore, who worked with her on “No Burden,” and it was warmly received by the music press: “As good as ‘No Burden’ was, ‘Historian’ is better: songs like short stories; sneakily hard-hitting arrangements; dreaminess and catharsis, often in the space of a few verses,” wrote critic Greg Kot in the Chicago Tribune. Writing for Paste, Eric R. Danton said, “At 23, Dacus has already made a career album with ‘Historian,’ and she’s really only just getting started.” And writing for the website The 405, Kieran Devlin wrote, “‘Historian’ is a complete album, cavernous in its emotional depths and regally sophisticated in its songwriting, yet palatably relatable at the point of contact. It’s a work of perfectly realised ambition in which anyone who’s ever waded the swamp of heartache can recognise themselves.”
There are bleak currents to “Historian” that reflect where she was emotionally during its creation. The election of 2016 weighed heavily, but while the record is a deep dive into some dark places, filled with ambient guitar and slow-burn percussion, it ultimately reaches a breaking point before ascending back into the light. The narrative is one that peels the layers of her heart like an onion, and in so doing, she’s found a legion of adoring fans who view Dacus’ art as a mirror held up to their own tumultuous emotional landscapes.
Dacus didn’t set out to do that, but in finding a tribe of supporters who feel as she does, it’s pushed her to stay the course as she begins work on the follow-up to “Historian,” she said.
“My challenge to myself recently is that I should write about (things) no matter what, because whether I share it or not, it’s still useful to me,” she said. “I’m not sure if I’ll end up feeling comfortable putting them on record, but I’m learning a lot from friends and colleagues who are putting out music right now. I’m writing a lot about early childhood and early concepts of friendship and family and stuff that you learn and have to unlearn through life, things that are more difficult to call upon because it’s further in the past, but it’s all going toward darker, weirder territory.”
They’re not milestones so much as they are touchstones, she added — ideas of friendship and loyalty and family and self-identity that seem nebulous as she’s grown into an independent individual and artist.
“I’m thinking about just specific friendships and what I learned from them — those friends, and their parents and my parents,” she said. “Those people whose jobs were raising me and what they thought I needed to know and how they taught it. The things I learned, what I’m grateful for and that period of my life.”
It’s all connected, she believes, as are the friendships she’s formed in the years since — specifically the trio boygenius, with fellow singer-songwriters Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers. They released an EP last fall and mounted a short tour, and it’s helped sculpt the edges of her songwriting, she said.
“It’s much different from songwriting on my own, which I thought was my only motive for creation,” she said. “There’s sort of a freeness when the other two are working on a song with me. We all know we’ve got each other’s backs, and we all have similar songwriting sensibilities. I feel like it’s real easy to love those songs because of their contributions and the fact that I love their work. Plus, it’s real helpful because of the confidence-building — we all take on the creative roles, so I don’t have to do everything myself.”
While there are no firm plans at the moment for the proper follow-up to “Historian,” Dacus is spending 2019 releasing new music. Her holiday song series kicked off last month for Valentine’s Day with a cover of “La Vie En Rose,” and she’s planning to release a new song around major holidays — or days that should be respectful observances, like the Sept. 23 birthday of Bruce Springsteen.
“I tend to write music during the holidays, because it’s a sensitive time when you’re grappling with expectation and obligation, and there’s also a lot of joy and celebration,” she said. “They’re really rich with the things that go into songs anyway. I had all these songs piling up, and a bunch of songs we’ve been covering live, and we didn’t know how we were going to release any of it when I noticed the through-lines of holidays, and then all of these eccentric ideas started coming.
“It’s a low-key way to put out music through the next year and to get these songs out rather than letting them collect dust. They all definitely have something to do with the holiday or fit around the holiday, except for the Bruce song. It didn’t really fit any of them, and we were thinking about putting it out on Father’s Day, or maybe National Boss Day, and we just decided it would be a little more accurate if we put it out on his birthday.”
While those songs may bear little resemblance to her other material save for her lilting alto that borders on the operatic, Dacus doesn’t worry too much about how they’ll be received. The aforementioned accolades are indeed gratifying and appreciated, but they’re a side note to a slowly growing body of work that seemed steered by a soul older than the body it inhabits. She trusts her process, and the results speak for themselves.
“I feel like I’m not a super hard critic on myself,” she said. “I have pretty set metrics for what I want (the music) to be. If I want to share it, I share it; it’s not a difficult decision. I feel like I can only look at what it is after it’s done, so I try not to think about what it’s saying.”