Lucy Dacus on memory, tarot, and writing songs in 10 minutes
In the latest episode of The FADER Interview podcast, Alex Robert Ross speaks with singer-songwriter Dacus about the making of her new studio album, Home Video.
Lucy Dacus on memory, tarot, and writing songs in 10 minutes
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The FADER Interview is a brand new podcast series in which the world’s most exciting musicians talk with the staff of The FADER about their latest projects. We’ll hear from emerging pop artists on the verge of mainstream breakthroughs, underground rappers pushing boundaries, and icons from across the world who laid the foundations for today’s thriving scenes. Listen to this week’s episode of the podcast below, read a full transcript of this week’s episode after the jump, and subscribe to The FADER Interview wherever you listen to podcasts.

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Three years ago, Lucy Dacus started playing a song called “Thumbs” at her concerts. It was spare, but weighty, a violent fantasy backed up by little more than a thin synth line. In the song, Dacus fantasized about physically hurting a friend’s mostly absent father as revenge for the mental anguish he caused his daughter, singing “I would kill him if you let me.” Dacus’ devoted fans fell for the song, but she insisted that they leave their phones in their pockets while she played it to keep the experience special and intimate. Remarkably, through two years of touring, they agreed. A Twitter page that asked every day whether or not Dacus had officially released the, by then, almost mythical song is finally given cause for celebration this March, when the track appeared on streaming services.

“Thumbs” is now the centerpiece of Home Video, a striking third album on which the Richmond, Virginia raised singer song writer throws herself into her past, reliving often uncomfortable moments from adolescence through college, telling personal stories with impressive clarity and compassion. While the songs are as emotionally resonant as they were on her previous albums, 2016’s Low Burden, 2018’s Historian, and the same year self-titled EP as Boy Genius with Phoebe Bridgers and Julianne Baker, there’s also wit and levity on Home Video. Shortly before the album release, I called Dacus at home in Philadelphia where she moved shortly before lockdown swept across the States to talk about the way her relationship to a song changes before it’s released, the challenges of writing autobiography, and her unlikely spiritual journey to tarot.

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The FADER: Thank you for making time to do this.

Lucy Dacus: Yeah. Same to you.

Of course. No, I mean, I've wanted to speak to you for a while and this just seemed like the perfect time. I got to see you live like three years ago at South By, I might be getting this wrong. I think you went on almost immediately before Andrew WK.

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We went on right after him because I remember he was covered in blood or sweat or something had happened to him. Then, he was backstage. He was moist. I don't know with what, but that was alarming.

Sometimes it's best not to ask what kind of material Andrew WK is covered in.

That was the South By that we played 17 shows in five days.

Jesus, how?

I don't know. I don't know if I ever totally recovered from it. Then, we had to tour for two months after that. It was not a good idea, but in some ways fun.

Fun as a memory, but not at the time.

Yeah. Fun as a memory. Good sentence.

Well, speaking of which, your new album, congratulations.

Thank you.

I think it's a wonderful record, but perhaps most importantly, it's been three months since you released "Thumbs," which must be a weight off your mind and your Twitter notifications.

Yep. I'm glad that people finally have that. They're stated. I'm nervous to play it live again, because I was playing it live for so long, but with no expectations, now people have heard it. I feel like it's going to renew the sense of panic.

Panic?

Yeah. I felt panic originally when I wrote it. That's why I was playing it live because I wanted to get used to it so that it would stop feeling so intense and I could just like do it by muscle memory. I got to a place where that was true. I mean, it's always kind of intense, but I could get through it without my throat closing up. I'm a little worried that it will start closing up again.

I read that you said there were moments at the very beginning with that song where you felt physically sick. What was the impetus to continue to push through that, that you were really searching for that thing on the other side?

It's a dark song. I feel like it could be triggering for a lot of people, I guess it was for me. I think the last line of the song is like the whole purpose of the song. Just to say that like you don't owe anybody shit, or anybody that feels entitled to your time or they own you is just wrong. Yeah. It's ultimately a victorious, supportive type of song, but it's just pretty bleak.

As a result of that, do you think that the presence of an audience, especially an audience that loves you so much, helps that more so than just playing it over and over again and getting that muscle memory, actually sharing it with people sort of spreads the load a little?

I think so. That's what has happened in the past. Whenever I write a song and then play it over and over, it slowly starts to feel like it's a collective thing. It's not really mine, which is actually a great feeling. I hope that happens with "Thumbs." I think it will. It probably will.

That's a scary thought though, to think that when you go back out and share it again, or you recently announced a tour, which is extremely exciting, but the thought that when you go back out again, it might re-enliven some of these things. Is there any way to deal with that except just continuing to play the songs and hoping that it gets better again?

I don't know yet. I'll let you know if I find out. Yeah. I think just like doing it and then if you sense that it's getting easier, that's cool. If you don't, maybe just like don't play those songs. I think that a lot of artists feel like they have to play like the favorites or whatever, but I always respect when an artist will not play a song because they just don't feel it anymore, because you know that artist has self-respect. I don't want to feel like I'm making somebody go through something at a show. I think that's really cruel when you get mad at an artist for not playing a certain song, you don't know what they're feeling at any particular time.

I was thinking that in relation to a lot of your music, there's clearly a very intimate relationship you have with your fans. They relate to these songs on a very personal and deep level, so much so that they even respected your wishes to not have "Thumbs" recorded, which is an incredible thing to run for like two years of touring, for people to sort of respect that is remarkable. Does that make it difficult when you have a fan base that's committed and involved like that, to make sure that when you're writing new music, do you have to remind yourself that it's just for you and that you have to try and take away the idea that somebody else is going to have feelings about it?

I guess not anymore. I feel like I've gotten to a place where I can just write for myself. That's kind of the best thing to do. Whenever I try to write with other people in mind, it comes out kind of prescriptive or I'm fulfilling an assignment and maybe preachy. It's weird, because I care very much about people that listen to me, as an abstract concept, but I also don't care at all. When I'm writing something, I do not think about other people and I don't really care what people think, but I care about their well-being. It's hard to parse out what that care actually means.

Is that something you developed over time?

I think it's just been the default. If people are giving me their time, I feel indebted in a way to that. I don't know if that's very useful or accurate, but I don't know, it feels like there's this weight of responsibility with all that time and attention.

"Thumbs" obviously isn't the only song on the album that deals with memory. This is an album about memory, about childhood, about past, about past self in a lot of ways. I've heard you say to a lot of the ideas and lyrics that found their way onto the album came out of the blue, like almost unconsciously. Was the decision to write about the experiences you had as a much younger person, was that also an automatic decision or was there a moment where you realized that you wanted to write about past experiences that you had a bit of remove from?

Yeah. I think it was just automatic. I think if I had had the thought, like, "I want to write about my past," I would have maybe just not done it. When I figure out what I'm doing, that is the beginning of the end. I have to kind of like accidentally make things or else I just overthink it. Because yeah, I'll start to think like, "Oh, I'm writing a song about blank." And then every lyric from then on out is just too clever or too in that specific path. It doesn't let the song go somewhere. It's like I start to box it into something. So whenever I can write a song in 10 minutes without realizing that it's happening, that's the best way.

Is 10 minutes really when you can get the bulk of a song together?

Yeah. I wrote songs in a 15 minute car ride. I wrote "I Don't Wanna Be Funny Anymore" in three minutes, the length of the song. I wrote most of "Night Shift" that way. I was writing a song last night. Whenever I write a song, I'm convinced it might be the last one. But then last night I was writing a song that felt really good, and it took maybe 30 minutes.

What makes you think that each song might be the last?

Because I can't decide to write a song and when I do, I can literally write a song. It functions as a song, but yeah, I have a lot of friends that say this too. It's like, "What if I have nothing to say? What if I finally said the last thing that I have to say?" And I know intellectually, that's probably not true, but it's not like I can just come up with something in the moment.

That sounds terrifying.

Yeah, it sucks. But then... This is going to sound like a weird segue. I did mushrooms for the first time last week and I had this sense of like, "You know what? If I never write a song again, that's okay. I already wrote some and other people will write them." I was doing it with some friends and we all felt connected to each other. And I was like, "If my friend Addie writes a song, that's kind of like me writing a song because we're one." It was this very heady feeling. But I have tried to keep hold of that feeling that everything could stop and it would be fine. And I think knowing that, helps me actually feel more like I can write because there's not this big pressure to keep doing it.

That's liberating. So you've had a great week comparatively. That's really freeing.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Mushrooms are cool.

You moved from Richmond to... You're in Philadelphia right now, aren't you?

Mm-hmm.

That was just before the pandemic.

Yeah. Two months before lockdown.

You talked a bit about, in another interview, about going back to Richmond after coming back off tour, that was a slightly scary experience. Some of that makes it into the album as well. You felt like you stuck out a bit, that people were looking at you differently. How do you cope with that beyond writing about it? It must feel quite alienating?

I guess I wasn't coping very well and that's part of why I moved. I just wasn't leaving my house very much and that's kind of funny to say after a year of like all of us not leaving our houses very much, but I don't know. I just didn't want to interact with what people thought of me. And I pretty much only hung out with people that have known me for a really long time. Every time that I met someone new, I was wondering if they were lying about whether they knew me or not. Most of the time that was true. I would meet people and they would pretend like they didn't know me and then later they'd be like, "Actually, I know all about you." It was just like this uneven ground to start on for a friendship. And some of those friendships made it through that weird hurdle and other ones, it just totally ruined it.

And I think some people started to try to get stuff from me, like lift up their careers or, I don't know, just imposed more power onto me than I actually have. And I don't know, it made me feel actually really powerless. I don't know. I'm feeling good now, but in the thick of that, it felt very hazy.

Yeah. I can imagine that would be a real challenge. Does moving to Philadelphia give you that clean slate?

Kind of. I haven't really totally lived here yet, but at least when I run into people, they're not my second grade teacher's cousin or my lab partner from biology in junior year of high school or my ex's best friend's mom. Everybody has like a weird path to each other in Richmond. Even people that aren't in the public eye or whatever. So yeah, it's just less complicated here and it's a good city. I think that Philadelphia is an Aries. I don't know if you're into astrology, but I think Philadelphia is just like the fieriest, most chaotic place that I know of.

We're talking about revisiting those memories, re-contextualizing them, that "Hot and Heavy" sounds like a bit of a roadmap for the album. You sing, "You try to walk away, but I come back to the start and it happens over and over and over and over again." Has writing some of these memories down help you to escape that feedback loop? Did you even want to escape that feedback loop?

Some, yes. And others started a feedback loop. Like "Christine" is an example of one that, once I wrote it, I kind of got to put that feeling aside. Because I got to say it to my friend and that's what mattered. But I feel like "Partner in Crime" is an example of one that just, I wasn't thinking about that person or relationship very much. And now I think about it a lot and I'm trying to figure out what that was. I don't know. I'm also trying to just remember that they are just songs. Yes, they are about my life and they're very true and there's very real people, but ultimately, they exist outside of my life and I can think about the people in them as just characters and that's kind of helpful.

These songs are quite detailed. There must be a bit of apprehension about people hearing them, especially with what you were saying about going home and realizing that people recognized you. Is it difficult to even let that stuff through and not filter out... To essentially be as open and honest as possible in songs without fearing that somebody is going to recognize themselves?

Yeah, I guess I'm afraid of that, but I've just signed up for it. Probably everybody that jumps off a cliff into a body of water is still afraid while they're doing it, but they do it anyways. I feel very much not brave. I feel very much freaked out by the possibility of these people approaching me or, I don't know, trying to reawaken some sort of relationship because I've spoken about them but, I don't know. I just don't want to worry about it until it's actually happening.

Catherine Lacey wrote that quite beautiful forward to the album and she brings out that truism, which I think is very applicable to the record that you can't go home again. Did writing the record reinforce the idea that you can't fully revisit or inhabit the past?

Yeah. I think that everything is changing all of the time. And so even like getting too attached to the things that you love is something that will end up making you upset. I guess just the concept of detachment is something that's spoken about a lot in like Eastern spirituality. I like being detached as like the ultimate step. Like beyond love, detachment is like even better than love. I don't know, why did it get so heady just now? I did not need to go there.

But yeah, I think the change is just like a constant or like maybe the only constant is change. I think you can revisit the past, but even when you do that, it's just like a version of it. I feel like I have much perspective on my past now, but it's partially because I've probably rewritten what happened in a way that makes more sense to me.

There's a narrative element to it. If you can rewrite the story, then that could be the story that sticks for you.

Yeah. I mean, I've stayed true to life except for the end of "Triple Dog Dare," but I think that it's anybody's right to manipulate their story as they wish.

I mean, this is autobiography, right? Nobody should ever assume that the narrator is reliable. That's what's fun about it.

Yeah. I think autobiography is fiction.

I've been thinking a lot about the connotations of your music as sad. You've talked about this a little bit. It's kind of reductive idea. There are some slightly uncomfortable connotations with that. And I do think that on this album, there are moments of real levity, lyrically and sonically. And there are even moments that seem directly funny to me like on "VHS," when you sing about being convinced that you're going to heaven, but hedging your bets anyway. Was there a conscious effort when writing and producing to punctuate these memories with bits of light? Or do you think of uncomfortable moments from the past with a sense of humor just anyway?

Yeah. I think that humor is really important. I feel like I've been embracing it more. I think humor and absurdity are so close, and absurdity is always happening. I feel like absurdity is ever present. And so if you don't have a sense of humor, you're just going to be confused, if you're trying to make sense of everything. Like it makes no sense that a child would snort nutmeg. Like that's stupid. How do you find out about something like that? And it doesn't make sense why parents don't talk to their kids about substances.

So yeah, I think that it also just makes for like a easier entry into darker subject matter. I mean, how many comedians are actually so heavy? I feel like I've seen so many. We're in an era of standup, I guess, where things are just really emotionally heavy. I don't know. Maybe I shouldn't speak to standup because I don't interact with it that much. But yeah, I think that being funny just makes people feel safer or something. And so you can talk about whatever you want to, if people are feeling safe enough to laugh.

Do you think that's a mechanism for you as the artist or that it's best as a communication method for your audience or both?

I don't know. I think it's just like, it's fun for anyone. Like, it's fun for me too. It's like it's healthy to laugh at yourself, because like you haven't been serious for your whole life. Part of reflecting on childhood is, like, that embarrassment that is so informative. Nobody is a fixed, perfect version of a human being. I don't know. I think you just have to laugh.

I'm intrigued by this idea of embarrassment, being embarrassed by your past self, because you seem on the record to really overcome that. The first time you sing, "I can't go back to who I was before I met you. I can't undo what I've done, and I wouldn't want to," which is a pretty huge moment on a record where you're trying to sift through old memories and recontextualize things. Is that new for you? Is it new for you to realize or to consciously try and live without regret or shame or embarrassment even for the smallest things?

I think that embarrassment is actually new for me. I was embarrassed in like fifth grade of my parents and maybe a little embarrassed in middle school, but I used to be really into God and I thought for sure the rapture was going to happen any second. And I was like, well, I don't have to endure life that much longer because God's just going to fish me out of here, and take me to heaven. So I had like a very immediate sense of life. I think that's served me well actually in high school. Like I just wasn't worried about what people thought of me, because I only cared what God thought of me.

And I think a lot of my friends took that as, like, self-confidence, when really I was just dissociating and putting that part of my identity into the divine or something. So it's actually been a new feeling to look back and feel embarrassment. And I've been regarding it from a distance and realizing that I like that feeling of being embarrassed because like, yeah, it keeps you humble and it shows you that you've changed. I think it makes you a more compassionate person to other people when you realize that you've been an embarrassing person, it makes you less judgemental.

You've managed to escape the loop of judging your past self. I suppose when you listen through to the record, there aren't moments of which you're casting judgment on yourself, or looking back with any sort of degree of malice on your old self.

I think judgment is inescapable. Like, you have to make judgment calls every day. I guess what you're talking about is just like judgment in terms of like...

Almost like divine judgment, but with you as the divine one, I guess.

Yeah. That is the way to think about it. I love that. I've actually gotten into tarot in the past couple of years and it's been like a nice way to interact with abstract concepts and like the divine, I guess, but in a really tangible way. And there's a card in the deck that's called judgement. And it's just about having a sense of reality where like, you shouldn't wait for something to happen to give you more information. The card is telling you to make your decision based off of what is actually true now, and like put hope aside. Like hope isn't even useful some days. Like you should just look at what is actually true. I don't know if that's connected to whatever your question was, but felt relevant.

I love it either way. Did your interest in tarot grow as you used to identify as a Christian agnostic, was the way you put it for awhile, right? Did these two things meet in the middle as you lost the Christian agnosticism, this sense of the divine came from somewhere else?

I think like pretty far after I stopped referring to myself as any type of Christian. I had a friend, Colby, come to my house and they had a deck of tarot cards and they asked to do a reading. And I'd never gotten one. And I'd always thought that they were satanic. I didn't even know what it was. I just knew categorically that I wasn't supposed to interact with it. And I finally did. And it was fine. And every time I've been able to do that, it feels like such a coming home to myself, where I realized that something that I was taught would be dangerous to me actually isn't. It's just a little way to make the world feel safer.

In fact, the opposite is true. I feel like I've gotten a lot of insight and structure and it's been a really good way to get to know my friends, doing readings for them. I recommend it. I know some people are categorically not into astrology or things like this. And at one point in my life, I wasn't interested either. But I think that it helps you put words to things because the vocabulary is limited. I don't know. Sometimes people don't know how to talk about what is deep within them and you need to pull it out by some means and the cards help to do that.

But it's present tense, not past or future tense for you. It's expressing something or finding out about something that exists right now. It's a way to express that.

Yeah. I mean, you can do readings about the past and the future. But the past and the future don't really exist. They're just ideas.

Damn.

This has been really heady. I didn't know what to expect of this podcast. We've been really doling out some sentences.

Yeah. I mean, I wasn't necessarily planning to be that heady either. But yeah. I think the album calls for it. I do think that. I found myself really interested in the idea on this record of just reliving things. I always thought ... There's this idea that certain people, they use perfume for three months periods so that if they ever want to relive that three months in their life, they just have to spray it once and then they can just be there. And something about the olfactory senses is the most powerful for memory apparently.

I've always thought that about memory generally, but I've thought about music. So you can make a playlist for a certain time in your life. You can revisit it and then you can re-exist there. I'm not willfully just getting heady now. But every time you open that box and you expose it to light, it's fades a bit. You keep the jewelry in the box so that it's not exposed to light. It must be something about revisiting these memories that, as much as bringing them back up and making them even more pronounced or sharp in your mind that it also, again for either good or bad, dulls them.

Yeah. I think that in some ways making art that is based on the past is sacrificing a memory and giving it over to a new form. You're giving it new life, but you're remaking it. And so it isn't going to stay the same. I might not even be able to track that. That's something that has, throughout my life, given me stress, that I would just start to be wrong and not realize it, or I would start lying to myself without realizing it.

But I've realized even though that does happen, there's literally no way to stop it. So you might as well get the most that you can out of your life experience. I still feel better trying to look back and recontextualize, then I think many people in my life fear their past or worry that remembering things will make them revert to who they used to be. I don't know. I don't want to fear the past. I don't want to fear anything. And so I'm down to have a staring contest with any of that weird stuff. I would have a staring contest with my past self and probably enjoy that.

That's brilliant. If you could pick a song for us to play the podcast out with, from the record, what would it be?

Honestly, I'm going to say "First Time," because I realized that I wish it was a single. Why wasn't that song a single? It's the most singly of the whole record. What? I don't know. But yeah, that's a fun one.

Perfect. Okay. That's what we'll do then. Lucy, thank you so much for making time.

Yeah. Same to you. Thanks Alex.

Lucy Dacus on memory, tarot, and writing songs in 10 minutes