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Lucy Dacus interview: ‘I always wished that I’d had a more joyous journey with sexuality’

The US singer-songwriter is one of the new darlings of indie-rock and returns with an album that confronts her childhood, Christian upbringing and queerness. She talks to Rachel Brodsky about being uneasy with her newfound fame, addressing her sexuality for the first time and how Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker helped her open up

Friday 18 June 2021 08:54 BST
Lucy Dacus interview: ‘I always wished that I’d had a more joyous journey with sexuality’
Lucy Dacus interview: ‘I always wished that I’d had a more joyous journey with sexuality’ (Photo by Ebru Yildiz)

A couple of years ago, Lucy Dacus made a decision to revisit her old self. During a trip to her parents’ house in Richmond, Virginia, the musician dug through journals and home movies from her religious coming-of-age years, hoping to draw inspiration for her next album. If ever the video camera was on when she was a kid, Lucy Dacus remembers telling herself, “OK, God’s here. Be good.” The singer-songwriter is known for her thoughtful, candid lyrics and magnetic melodies, but on this trip she achieved a new level of insight about who she is for the resulting release, Home Video.

The back cover of the album is “a still of me praying over a doll when I'm one or two”, she says. It’s taken from one of those VHS tapes, in which her father had some words to say, too. “My dad is like, ‘Does your doll love Jesus?’,” Dacus continues – footage she says is “evidence of the forces that have kept me from coming into myself”.

There definitely wasn’t much time for reflection when Dacus’s music career took off in 2016, when she was barely 20, with the standout debut No Burden, an album full of snappy, perceptive folk-rock ballads she says she never actually expected anyone to hear. But they did, and the industry responded with heaps of praise. Early attention around No Burden got Dacus a deal with indie tastemaker Matador Records, who re-released it that same year, and soon, the singer’s life became a whirlwind of touring and promotion.

What started as considerable underground success soon blossomed into mainstream recognition: an even more lauded follow-up record (2018’s Historian); a television spot on CBS This Morning; a Tiny Desk concert; and praise from popular Democratic politicians (in 2016, then-VP candidate Tim Kaine called Dacus his “new favourite”). It’s easy to see why: Dacus’s voice contains warmth, beyond-her-years wisdom and just a tinge of cynicism. She’s an agile storyteller, and has a knack for untangling universal truths through observation. And she’s also part of the indie-rock supergroup boygenius with fellow wry deep-thinkers, Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker.

All of this – acclaimed records, high-profile collaborations, overwhelming fan attention – led to Dacus reassessing her life prior to fame but also how adrift she felt after months on the road. “Touring really made me feel unstable,” she says over a video call from her apartment in Philadelphia with her signature bright-red lipstick, hair a little dishevelled. “And then I came back home and couldn't find the stability that I usually could. Because it had changed and I had changed.”

While she might not be a household name in the UK yet, Dacus is very much a local celebrity in her hometown. She talks about how strange it was to go back to Richmond and have everyone know her name, or think they know her. “People had these perceptions about me that I couldn't really get down with,” she says. “I started to not really leave my house. And then I felt kind of unsafe whenever I left. I mean, people knew where I lived. And [they would] knock on my door. I appreciate anybody that cares about my music, but there's not really a good lesson in boundaries for how to treat people whose work you really love.”

While she is incredibly grateful for the love and recognition, the attention can also be confusing, especially from people who think they know her. “I think that when so many people [claim] to know who I am, it becomes harder for me to know who I am,” she adds.

So Dacus set to work reconnecting with her younger self, combing through old home video footage from her childhood and in particular her “struggle with a sense of identity”. A lot of this stems from Dacus’s teen years growing up in an observant Christian household, attempting to understand feelings that she couldn’t name just yet. Feelings like “wanting to be the boy” when she and her friends would “play the kissing game” after school, where they’d pretend to be each other’s crushes. “Now I know that it isn’t like, ‘I was always trying to be the boy’,” she explains.

For the first time, Dacus feels “totally OK” addressing her sexuality, something she was always reluctant to admit about herself, due to “hangovers from the church”.

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“I always wished that I’d had a more joyous journey with sexuality,” she says. “Like, I always loved stories of people who came out and everything was good and it’s just comfortable. I think that those stories are really good for people to see, because it will help other people be less fearful. I don’t know. I’ve just had a tougher time embodying what I know to be true. It’s not been easy, but it’s feeling easier all the time.”

‘When so many people [claim] to know who I am, it becomes harder for me to know who I am’ (Photo courtesy of Matador Records)

Addressing her identity as a queer woman on Home Video manifests in songs like the seven-minute-long album closer “Triple Dog Dare”, which recalls a high-school friendship that nearly evolved into something more but was ultimately complicated by Christianity. “But I was so not out to myself,” Dacus recalls. “And actually, she was my first friend that ever came out to me. And I think there was some implication that like, ‘OK, your turn,’ and I just didn't get it.

“Her mother was Catholic and psychic,” Dacus continues. “And I think her mom saw what was going on and didn't want it to happen, and [she] would tell her, like, ‘You can't hang out with Lucy tonight. You're in imminent danger. If you leave the house tonight, something bad is going to happen to you. I can’t explain it. It’s cosmic.’”

Elsewhere on Home Video, Dacus addresses her Christian upbringing on the mellowed out “VBS”, shorthand for “Vacation Bible School”, which recounts an early adolescent summer at Bible camp in Virginia. And on the moving acapella “Thumbs”, which Dacus has been playing on tour since 2018, she confronts a friend’s absentee father, confessing, “I would kill him/ If you let me.”

“For No Burden, I was writing songs about specific people and issues with my own life,” she says. “I wrote songs about travelling or having a crush and not wanting to be pigeonholed in one identity. Then on Historian, which I knew people were going to hear, I was like, ‘I need to communicate some of my core beliefs.’ So, I wrote about writer's block and death and how I handle loss in general. They’re personal but representative of an idea that I know that a lot of people experience. For Home Video, these are simply stories from my life.”

Many have been quick to dub Dacus’s early work “diaristic” but the songs on Home Video may be the first that let the listener into the singer’s innermost thoughts, the ones she’d have been hesitant to admit just a few short years ago (“My heart’s on my sleeve; it’s embarrassing,” she sings in the unexpectedly Auto-Tuned “Partner in Crime”). The songs, recorded at Trace Horse Studio in Nashville with collaborators Jacob Blizard, Collin Pastore and Jake Finch, are a mix of spare confessionals (“Thumbs”, “Please Stay”) and lush, toe-tapping pop ballads (“Hot & Heavy”, “First Time”), favouring frankness over ambiguity.

Today, Dacus considers herself “post-Christian”, saying that she first heard the term from the Paramore frontwoman Hayley Williams. “I live with some post-Christian people and occasionally one of us will be like [sings], ‘Our God.’ And then everybody [sings] ‘…is an awesome God!’ It’s, like, embedded. It will never leave. I will know the words to those songs my entire life, unfortunately.

“I guess I don’t think about Christianity as much,” she concludes. “But I do think about, like, whatever God is. And I do think about forces in the world. I think part of why I’m not a Christian any more is that I just felt like a total tool for claiming to know anything.”

Opening up to a greater extent on Home Video could be partially credited to her boygenius bandmates, Bridgers and Baker; the trio formed just after Dacus released Historian three years ago. Their influence inspired Dacus to view her personal stories, which she once thought as being too niche, as being a vehicle to the universal. “I feel like it’s corny, but Phoebe and Julien were really big in teaching me that lesson,” she says, “because they're talking about their own stories and issues, but they’re so relatable.”

When Dacus talks about her boygenius bandmates, you get the sense that Bridgers and Baker are a major grounding force for each other, especially given how each performer came up around the same time and achieved similar levels of fame. Dacus refers to her boygenius bandmates as being “a really meaningful source of comfort and solace” and “each other’s hype men”.

“You won't find three bigger fans of boygenius,” she says. “We're our own fan club. It’s easier to do that because we're fans of each other and love each other. I felt very lucky that lightning struck a couple of years ago and it still matters.”

The group’s popularity has nearly eclipsed its members’ solo careers, with boygenius even earning a name-drop in HBO’s mega-popular limited series Mare of Easttown, in a scene where a queer college DJ asks out Kate Winslet’s daughter, played by Angourie Rice. “Somebody sent it to me and Julien, and we put it in the group chat,” laughs Dacus. “We were like, ‘Damn, here we are in the gay cultural zeitgeist!’ Who’d have thought that our band would be a symbol of being queer? Wasn’t it just to establish that a character is gay? That's so funny. I’m sure in the writers’ room, someone was like, ‘What’s a hot ticket for a lesbian? Boygenius!’”

Now that Dacus is about to release Home Video and has spent a considerable amount of time mining her past for connective tissue, her mission to get to know herself better has no doubt been successful. “I am a listener and an observer,” she says. “I am not a reliable narrator of my own life. Some of the things I found out that are core to me are not necessarily good. I think that I have a hard time admitting what’s happening in the moment. I also am, at my core, a host. Like, I love having people over. I love taking care of people. I’m better at taking care of other people than myself. Sometimes I’m willing to be a good friend at the expense of being a good person. That’s something that, you know, for better or worse I think is true.”

As she acknowledges certain personal truths, one has to think that Home Video is just the start of Dacus opening up to the world. Maybe, just maybe, Dacus will feel inspired to turn the camera on herself again.

Home Video is out 25 June via Matador Records

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