Lucy Dacus is an emotional, musical and lyrical force of nature. Paste named the Richmond, Va. singer/songwriter’s second album, Historian, the best album of 2018. A few months ago, Dacus announced a holiday-themed song series titled 2019, which will be released as a physical EP later this year. It’s comprised of originals and covers tied to specific holidays, each released around their respective dates: Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day (and Taurus season), Independence Day, Bruce Springsteen’s birthday (Sept. 23, a holiday in its own right), Halloween, Christmas and New Year’s. So far we’ve heard two cuts from the EP, which has been in the works for two years now: a cover of Édith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose” for Valentine’s Day and an original titled “My Mother and I” for Mother’s Day.
Paste caught up with Dacus to chat about the forthcoming holiday EP and specifically, the two songs that have been released so far. During our phone call, Dacus was on her Richmond front porch, commenting, “It’s a perfect day. It’s like if a kid was supposed to draw a nice day, that’s what today looks like in Richmond.”
Paste: Let’s dive into your 2019 holiday-themed EP. How has your relationship to holidays changed as you’ve grown older?
Lucy Dacus: I feel like holidays have become more strained. I feel like that’s a pretty typical arc to go from the childhood joy of having a celebration to knowing what is behind the scenes and maybe family taking off the mask a little bit. Not all holidays feel strained but overall there’s a lot more obligation connected to holidays. Or maybe people faking their happiness. Classic examples are just having to get gifts for people you don’t really know or don’t really care about and just the consumer qualities of that. I can get kind of down about the obligation of giving, but this series has kind of let me find a positive aspect of the days and it makes me look forward to them for a different reason because I’m able to share music on them.
Do you have any favorite holiday memories?
I really like the Fourth of July honestly. Not for the original purpose of the holiday but because everyone’s outside. There’s usually cooking. There’s not gift giving. In recent years, we’ve gone up to my dad’s work’s parking deck. On the top of the parking deck, you can see multiple fireworks shows from up there. They’re quieter and farther away but you can watch twelve of them at the same time. I feel really connected to all the imagined groups of people at the base of those fireworks shows. It’s very poetic and sweet.
The first track on the EP, “La Vie En Rose” embraces this idea of unabashed romantic love. Are you a believer in true love?
I don’t really know what true love means. I do believe in love. I don’t believe in someone being the only one. I don’t believe in one true love but I do appreciate that feeling. Because I feel like I’ve been within that feeling of ‘This is the only person for me,’ in kind of a fleeting sense. Like knowing that it’s not true, but it’s such a strong warmth when you are known by somebody. You know them. The overflow of trust and belonging that comes from that. I think that song really encapsulates the pureness of that feeling. I’ve always loved it for that. It’s inspired that feeling for me before I even found anybody to have the feeling with. When I was a kid, I would just listen to that song and look forward to the day I would meet someone worth sharing that song with.
How did you come across that song?
I think I heard it in my French class. A really boring answer. It just stuck with me. I bought an Édith Piaf CD at the local record store and would play it and try to memorize the words, whether or not I knew what they meant. I took it as a project to translate all those songs when I was like 12.
Apparently there’s a backstory with this song and your middle school janitor. Can you explain?
So I was painting a mural in my school’s library after school alone and I would just go and paint and sing to myself because whenever I’m alone, I’m singing to myself. That’s where I write most of my music. And so I thought I was alone but my janitor was there and I didn’t actually know him. He was just coming in to do his shift but I saw he was there and got embarrassed. But he’s like, ‘No, go ahead. Go on.’ So I sang the song and he was like, ‘I recognize that but I don’t know French.’ Then he went about his business, but then he came back and sang the Louis Armstrong version to me. I applauded him and we spoke for a couple seconds, but then he tipped his hat and rolled away with his mop like maybe he was a ghost. That’s how it felt. I never saw him again. But it’s like he brought the Louis Armstrong version to me so I’ve always thought of the songs connected and I’ve always sung them connected. That’s one of the first songs I learned on guitar because it’s one of my favorites.
“My Mother and I” takes on the question of nature versus nurture. Do you wonder what kind of person you would be if your upbringing was different?
Oh yeah. I’ve thought about what it would’ve been like to be raised by the woman who bore me—her knowing that she didn’t want to be a mother. I’m so glad that she made the decision that she did because my parents really wanted to raise a kid and so they got to and she got to do without. I always found adoption to be really kind of magic in that way. It’s hard to imagine who I’d be in different circumstances. That’s part of what I was trying to think about in the song. Where did I get certain attributes, positive and negative. Who taught me my fears? Were they passed down by blood? Are they part of my cultural context—where I grew up or who I grew up with? It is hard. I don’t know if anybody can really say either way.
What’s your perspective on the mother-daughter relationship since you were adopted?
My mom that raised me is my mom. I feel like blood has never really mattered to me that much and she was adopted as well, so she was really capable of raising me with compassion and understanding. If I ever raise somebody, I probably plan on adopting for the same reason. I think I’d be a much better mother to someone adopted than someone related to me. I think part of that is because I watched my brother be raised by the same people as me and he was related to them and had to embody their insecurities and what they didn’t like about each other. He was never separated from who they were. Whereas, with me, my parents always saw me as an individual and somebody that had a personality that I was building. And I think that that was a really freeing dynamic for them to treat me that way. Luckily, I’ve been able to be thankful for two different women. My birth mother sacrificed her time and her pain and she derailed her life for almost a year to have me, which she didn’t need to and then the sacrifice of my mother to take me on so willingly and to spend her time and money for decades now. She’s forever my mother. That’s why the end verse of the song is like, ‘All she has given out / All I have taken / All is forgiven / All is forsaken.’ That’s kind of the both of them. They’ve both given me so much and I took it without even knowing what it was when I was younger. They’re endlessly forgiving of me whether I know that I’m taking from them or not.
The song also discusses body image. Where do you find yourself on your body image journey?
It’s funny I feel like I never used to admit that I had a body. I was never interested. A lot of my friends in high school were like, ‘You were so confident.’ But honestly I never put in an effort in my appearance and I kind of got to ignore it. I didn’t have low self-esteem. I just didn’t have self-esteem at all. It wasn’t high either. Now that I’ve been in the public eye and people take photos of me, it’s like, “Oh I look like that?” For the first time in my life, I’m looking at myself. I don’t even look at myself in the mirror when I’m in the bathroom. It doesn’t really interest me. But now I kind of begun taking on some of those stressors of like, ‘Oh, people are looking at me. Do I want to continue to put in no effort or do I want them to feel like I care about my appearance or what do I look like, who am I?’ It’s a new question and that’s part of why I wrote the song is because I’ve been trying to work it out. That’s the second half of the first verse. ‘I blur at the edges. / I’m all soft shapes and lines / Shapeshifting all the time.’ I don’t really know what I look like.
I encounter so many women with low self-esteem, especially aging women. And that just breaks my heart because I think they’re beautiful. A lot of the time symptoms of aging like gray hair or wrinkles, I find them badges of honor. I’ve always wanted gray hair. I’ve been looking forward to wrinkles. I’m trying to maintain that mentality, but it’s hard when all the women that are aging say, ‘This sucks. I hate it. I’m becoming invisible.’ My birth mother said that to me once where she was like, ‘Yeah I’m just becoming invisible.’ And I was like, ‘Yikes. That just sounds horrible.’ I want to take in what my elders have to say as wisdom, but when all they have to say is fearful and negative. It’s like, ‘Is this wisdom or is it low self-esteem?’ And where does it come from? Is the culture just not valuing older women or only valuing women for their reproductive qualities? Does it really just shrink down to youthful women are the only useful ones? Because I don’t want to be that pessimistic.
The song also talks about the body and soul. A lot of people don’t necessarily feel an intersection between the two.
I was raised Christian so that second verse about spirits and ghosts and souls, that was all informed by Christianity and at a young age, being really confused by those terms and how they differed and which ones were real and which ones were fake. There were ghosts in cartoons in Scooby Doo but then there’s the Holy Ghost in the Bible. I was just grappling with those meanings as a kid. Not knowing what they could’ve meant and from a young age, people told me I had an old soul and I never really knew what that meant. I didn’t know if I was possessed by an ancient spirit or if I was wise, which I guess is what they meant, that I was wise for my years.
The song is an embrace of your Taurus star sign. I’m a Taurus as well, but not well-versed in this kind of stuff. Can you fill me in?
Being a Taurus is rad. I feel like there’s a certain stability that is assumed in Taurus people. They’re supposed to be grounded and understanding and see eye to eye with people. They’re known to be stubborn, but I feel like the way that I encounter that in my life is just that I’m not susceptible to peer pressure. I kind of know what I think is right and wrong for myself, and I’m willing to change it. It doesn’t mean that you’re structured past what’s reasonable. I think everyone should be willing to change. I also value my home and my community and my family and chosen family. I feel like I’m a Taurus. And my mother that raised me is a Taurus too. I feel like we really get in a feedback of our attributes and reinforce each other’s tendencies. I feel like I don’t know what it’s like to be any other sign, so it could just be me resonating with what people have told me. Jacob, our guitarist, says the best thing. ‘It’s not real but I believe in it.’ It’s not a religion, but it’s definitely helpful as a Rorschach test to see what you see. Anything you resonate with, it comes from you. You don’t have to act like a Taurus because you are one. You already act how you are and maybe you can just put words to it through this paradigm.
You said your new material is very journalistic and a lot of it is about your childhood. How did that come up as a point of inspiration?
I’m still there. I’m still writing about my childhood right now. I think, in a way, it would be remiss to not know that your childhood factors into everything you do and that’s part of what I’m writing about. It’s the origin of your thoughts. Whether it’s things you’ve had with you since the beginning or things you’ve had to learn out of, things that you were taught that aren’t true any more. I feel like everybody is either keeping in line or out of line of whatever lines they were given in their youth. I do journal a lot. I haven’t been re-reading the journals. But journaling so often has helped me practice talking to myself and helped me process the past and I feel like it’s the right time to do it. Historian was kind of imagining a future of loss and preemptively trying to decide how to cope with it. And now I feel like it’s right to look backwards and acknowledge how my past has informed all of my present patterns of thought.