Lucy Dacus is an obsessive journaler, existing in what feels like a perpetual cycle of observing, processing, and memorializing. “Sometimes it feels manic and sometimes it feels precious,” the 22-year-old Richmond, Virginia songwriter says of the habit, as we lounge on an absurdly comfortable couch in the Manhattan office of the storied rock label, Matador Records. “I try not to think about it too hard because I don’t know if I would be able to stop if I tried.”
Whatever she’s doing, it seems to be working out fine. Dacus’s debut album came out in March 2016, and within a few month’s time, she had signed to Matador and began the groundwork for her sophomore full-length, Historian, out March 2. Dacus jokes that the new album is a how-to guide for surviving loss. “All of the songs are about how to deal with darkness and how to maintain hope through inevitable pain,” she says.
Those songs, which look earnestly at life’s stickiest subjects — breakups, identity shifts, the always-lurking promise of death — often leave me with a lump in my throat. “The first time I tasted somebody else’s spit / I had a coughing fit,” goes the visceral opening couplet of “Night Shift,” the album’s slow burn of a first single. Running at almost seven minutes, the track simmers, ruminating over every messy emotion, before bursting into an achingly triumphant hook: “You’ve got a nine to five, so I’ll take the night shift / so I’ll never see you again, if I can help it.”
It’s the kind of song that makes your heart lurch, a crushing reminder that while endings are permanent, they also bring a sort of freedom. It’s a good example of Dacus’s particular songwriting gifts, and of Historian’s strongest motif: heartbreak and loss can only define you if you let it.
“Night Shift” really sets the tone for the rest of the album. How deliberate was your decision to start there?
Very deliberate! A breakup song is so immediately relatable. A first genuine heartbreak is a look into reimagining what your life is going to look like. If you accomodate somebody else and you think they’re going to be part of your life and then they’re not, you have to reform. The rest of the album has that reforming quality — having the rug pulled out from underneath you, and coming back.
Did you feel like Historian flowed out of you faster than No Burden?
I’m always writing, and I noticed that there were enough songs in the same vein of thought to put [together] on an album. I actually finished the track listing for Historian before I finished some of the songs because the idea of the album as a whole was the first, concrete, necessary, “duh” moment. They all ruminate on the same type of theme.
Tell me more about that “duh” moment.
I was in the van making a list of all the songs I’ve written. I started piecing things together, realizing that this song was like this song, this song should come after this. It just fell into place. If taken in in one piece, I think the album comes out as a statement. The album is its own song.
What do you think that statement is?
A progression of loss. It’s nothing new, but it starts with a breakup and it goes on to loss of control, loss of identity, loss of home, loss of a friend, loss of your life. It’s an anxious, darkening progression. But then the album has an upswing. On “Next of Kin,” I sing “I’m content with my death / I can go back to bed,” which is a mentality I hope to maintain. It’s about admitting that all of that stuff has to exist and is innate to human experience.
Do you think that mentality is built in to you now, or do you still find yourself grasping for it?
It’s hard — you can understand it one day and then the next month maybe you’ve forgotten. Knowing that pain is part of your life doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt. It’s about being able to come out from under it. I try to be self-sufficient when it comes to joy. Writing these songs has helped, because it’s a tangible, concise, and concrete expression of these thoughts that I can go back to and remind myself that I’ve thought it before and I can think of it again. I can reassess that hopefulness more easily.
“I write because I’m trying to figure things out.”
How does it feel having written what is, in my opinion, one of the great breakup songs of all time?
Oh my gosh. [Laughs] It feels so good to sing that song because I honestly am not entirely past that relationship. It was really toxic, but singing the song was such a step towards waking up from many years of being blind to my own needs. The song is saying, ‘You know what? I don’t care anymore and this intensity will fade. One day I’m not going to remember what you’re like, I’m not going to remember what I was like with you.’ That’s so peaceful to me, imagining everything just fading out. It feels really good to sing it really loud. It’s like screaming into a pillow, but [the pillow] is a microphone.
I also really like how you say, “I don’t need to forgive / but I might as well.” It’s a testament about how forgiveness is for your own sake, it’s not really for the other person.
I always try to find ways to forgive, but I’m trying not to preemptively forgive people. It’s a process. I try to stay in touch and figure out what needs to happen before I can forgive people. That can be very energy-sucking, but it’s okay. It’s worth it.
Something that really struck me was how the songs have this resigned sadness to them. Was there something that was on your mind in particular?
I write because I’m trying to figure things out. I’m always trying to figure out how to be content. I think most people are trying to figure that out, whether or not they’re aware of it. Everyone is looking for every facet of their life to contribute to their personal fulfillment. I ask that question myself through the process of writing. For each song I can think of an event, but the underlying thing in all of it is looking at something straight and being able to call it what it is, to recognize its place in my life, and find contentment in that.
I know that your grandmother’s passing influenced part of the album, too.
“Pillar of Truth” is about her. I felt very connected to her. I had the deepest understanding of her, watching her pass. She’s a southern baptist, so there’s a lot of biblical references. As a woman who only liked hymns, I don’t know if she would like the end where I scream, but I think she’d be proud of the sentiment.
She was sick and everyone that she ever knew came from all over the world to visit her in Mississippi and wish her well. She found new piano teachers for her students, she planned her own funeral — everything, even the music. She had this awareness and acceptance of reality, and it was so inspiring. I don’t think people should think about death every minute of the day, but I think an acceptance of it would be monumentally beneficial.
What’s the story behind the album title?
I think of songs, 1 through 9, as establishing this arc of loss, and then coming to a place of contentment and understanding. But then [the title track] “Historians” says that even if you have that understanding, life still hurts. I think often about what my journals are going to mean to me in the future. I am one of the two historians in the song; I think of myself as an obsessive historian in my life.
Who is the other historian?
It’s anybody that I am attached to. Anybody that I’ve shared life with, anybody that I’ve tried to capture through pictures and writing — and anyone who does that of me, too. People have their histories of who I am, in their own journals that I’ll never read.