Listening to Lucy Dacus sing, you’d think she's been doing it her whole life. Her voice is powerful and confident, gliding soulfully over chords that twist and tangle. And the 22-year-old's songwriting is equally assured, which makes the fact that she didn't start working as a musician until a couple of years ago all the more surprising.
“It was never the foreground of my life to make music, and I think that’s a really nice start,” Dacus says. “I wasn’t trying to do this, so I’m thankful that it’s happening anyway.”
She has a lot to be thankful for, including that her rise in the music world has been swift.
Dacus originally wanted to be a film director, citing stylish masters like Hitchcock and Fellini as inspirations. She studied film at Virginia Commonwealth University for a year and half, but quickly grew disillusioned with the compromises that working in the film industry would require.
While going to school in Richmond, Dacus started playing solo shows around town. Her local following grew quickly, encouraging Dacus to take a semester off and focus on music. Then things snowballed.
She recorded her debut album, No Burden, in Nashville. The record drew critical acclaim when it dropped in 2016, buoyed by infectious tunes like “Strange Torpedo” and “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore.” No Burden was a great showcase for her voice: it’s an instrument that’s full of warmth and possesses a world-weariness beyond her years.
Unlike many singer-songwriters whose work seems composed to be heard while sitting rapt with attention, Dacus' songs are best appreciated while you’re up on your feet. That may have something to do with how she writes her songs.
“I’m not really good at sitting down and writing a song,” she says. “Most of the songs that are on No Burden and Historian I wrote while I was on a walk. That’s a good place for me to let my mind wander while my feet are wandering.”
Those walks helped Dacus side-step the sophomore slump on Historian, which features her most incisive and affecting work to date. It’s book-ended by two long goodbyes: the triumphant kiss-off "Night Shift" and the sweet farewell of "Pillar of Truth."
Building to a soaring refrain on the album's stunning opening track, Dacus sings, “You got a 9 to 5, so I’ll take the night shift / And I’ll never see you again if I can help it.”
For “Pillar,” Historian’s penultimate song, Dacus bids farewell to her grandmother: “I’m weak looking at you / a pillar of truth, turning to dust.”
Dacus called her new album Historian because the songs are pieces of history. The songs tell stories about her life and the lives of her family and friends. They're also about what's happening in the world. "Yours & Mine" addresses the women's marches and protests that have happened since Trump's election.
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"For those of you who told me I should stay indoors," she warns, "take care of you and yours."
Though Dacus has only been a dedicated songwriter for a few years, she credits part of her success to a lifelong passion for music.
“When you’re a kid, you write songs," she says. "Me and my friends used to write songs together. It was never thought of, ‘We’re making art, we’re making something to get on the radio!’ It was just something that we did together. Like playing pretend... I just never saw any reason why I should give up that hobby."
Lucy Dacus is playing on Monday, March 19, at Valley Bar. Tickets are $12 to $14 via Ticketfly.