Lucy Dacus is no gambler. Ever since she was a kid, the Richmond, Virginia native has steadfastly resisted taking any sketchy chances, and she rarely makes a move without considering its ramifications. “I was averse to trouble to begin with, so it’s not like I ever needed to talk my way out of it that much,” she says. “I’m not a big risk-taker-being bad just wasn’t worth my time, or the risk of having the consequences for it.” She sighs. “So maybe I’m a little bit lame for that.”
Or maybe not. The singer-guitarist’s stunning Matador debut, No Burden, was one of the most rash undertakings of her life—one that contradicted her instinctively play-it-safe nature. But it’s also one of the best albums of 2016.
Essentially, little has changed in the 21-year-old’s existence since she tracked her album in Nashville last year. Recorded in a one-day session, No Burden began as a college project for guitarist chum Jacob Blizard. After dropping a James Thurber-wry single “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore,” Dacus released her full-length through local indie EggHunt (Matador just reissued it after winning a 20-label bidding war). When she phoned from Richmond recently, she was boxing up her belongings and moving to new digs five blocks away. That, too, was a safe bet. The people with whom she was moving in were friends she’d known—and in most cases, lived with—at various locations. So she was certain going in that she would never catch them drinking milk straight from her personally labeled container. “They’re all separate-milk-carton types, and we all read and we all have the same interests,” she observes. “So it’s a good fit—I like having roommates.”
Dacus even handpicked her high school—one that specialized in government and international studies—where all the students were motivated, non-bullying and unapologetically intellectual. “That’s why that place was so special,” she explains. “It’s basically a group of nerds, so the nerds are the majority—people who actually lived by the sitcom tropes and were more inclusive, accommodating towards each other.”
This prepared her for studying film in college, where she was surrounded by even more aspiring artistic hopefuls. But with foresight being her long suit, she imagined a post-graduation movie-industry career and found it wanting. “In film school, you get skills, but then you get lackey jobs, working on projects that you probably don’t care about,” she grumbles. “And there’s something in me where I just couldn’t bring myself to edit some misogynistic rom-com or movies that I would have hated to be a part of. So I knew I just wouldn’t get any work because of that.”
But she didn’t drop out of university immediately—Dacus took a thoughtful semester off to travel Europe for two months first. She had already begun playing her whimsical folk-rock music in Richmond clubs, where she first met Blizard, who is now her full-time backing musician. “Going to a bunch of different cities overseas, I kind of realized something,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘What am I doing? Am I actually doing what I love?’ And everyone in Europe was asking me, ‘What do you do?’ Like, not occupation, but What do you do to fill your time with that fulfills you?” At first, her knee-jerk reaction was ‘Film.’ Then ‘Film and music.’ And finally, just before she returned, it morphed into ‘Music’ alone. “And when I came home, I was like, ‘Mom! I’m dropping out of school and I’m pursuing my dreams!’ And she was like, ‘Yeah, right.’ But it worked! And it ended up as a real good story.”
It’s clear what Dacus’ early listeners heard in her material: “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore” opens No Burden on a Joy Division-heavy stomp, while its singer makes smoky-throated, self-deprecating observations: “Lately I’ve been the odd man out… Is there room in the band I don’t need to be the front man…I don’t want the joke to be on me/ I’ll buy the clothes and I’ll be the best dressed/ And I’ll read the books and I’ll be the smartest/ Try not to laugh, I know it’ll be hard.” Naturally, a lot of thought went into every last word and ominous note-she means what she says; she’s tired of being branded the life of the party. “It’s about not wanting to be pigeonholed into an identity that you don’t choose,” she elaborates. “Not wanting your actions to force you into a certain personality type for the rest of your life, with an obligation to maintain that title that you didn’t even want in the first place.”
“Troublemaker, Doppelganger” follows, coating a thundering, serpentine blues riff with curious couplets like, “Is that a hearse or a limousine? It’s like a spirit on a TV screen/ She had the body of a beauty queen, put on a pedestal for good hygiene.” “Green Eyes, Red Face” finds the vocalist simply strumming her electric, putting her hearth-warm tones up front in the mix as the track starts strolling through subtly romantic notions (“I see the seat next to yours is unoccupied/ And I was wondering if you’d let me come and sit by your side/ And I’ve got plenty of affection/ I’d be glad to show you some time”), while “Strange Torpedo” and “Direct Address” nail that Cure-meets-Laura Marling feeling of friendly menace. Two cuts, “Dream State” and “Familiar Place,” actually started out as one lengthy piece; Under the production tutelage of Collin Pastore at Starstruck Studios on Nashville’s Music Row, she wisely separated them, retaining key lines like “Without you, I am surely the last of our kind” in both. “That specific sentiment occurs in other songs, too—that sense of belonging and that feeling that without the people you belong with, you’d really be alone,” Dacus says.
For someone who plans her future so perfectly, this performer is hard-pressed to explain exactly how she first found the courage to get onstage. But there are key components in her history that point to a conclusion. Her father always played Bruce Springsteen albums at home when she was a kid, and he often sang along, she notes. This disgusted her at first—she couldn’t understand the attraction. “But later on, I moved out of my parents’ house, and I was like, ‘Wow—these Springsteen songs are so eloquent, so simple but really effective, really communicative,’” she praises, in retrospect. “The things that he says are really simple, but they’re drawing on really intense yet relatable imagery. So I’m becoming more of a Bruce fan all the time, I think.”
Additionally, Dacus’s brainy high school didn’t have a football team, so there were no obligatory games to attend on an autumn Friday. Instead, she and her friends would often leave school, walk a few blocks to Richmond’s bustling nightclub district, have dinner and then catch an underground show. Weeknights, too, she adds. “All through high school, I was going to local shows in Richmond,” she says.
Did she learn from what she witnessed? Like how to be brutally frank with her wordplay? She considers this before answering. “I think the most interesting part of all this is, I didn’t think this was going to be a job,” she decides. “And I also didn’t that people were going to eventually listen to any of this. So I hope that spirit of honesty continues through to the next album. But it probably will, because most of those songs were written before my first album was recorded. But lyrics are the most important part—they’re always the first thing that comes to me. Before I even pick up a guitar, usually the words are done. So I’m not first and foremost a musician. I’m first and foremost a writer.”
Dacus was even joking with her bandmates in the tour van the other day, about how if fans suddenly lose interest in coming to see her, now that they’ve discovered her, she can return to her old day job, processing yearbook snapshots at a photo lab. “That was a pretty fun gig—I really liked it,” she says. She would often study a youngster’s face and imagine an entire backstory. “And the pictures that would make me do that the most were the kindergartners, who were still obvious products of their parents, even down to what they’re wearing and their facial expressions,” she admits. “But some kids have already learned the smile, the camera smile, because their parents have groomed them perfectly.”
And this ironically reminds the safety-minded Dacus of the one daredevil risk she took not too long ago (other than recording No Burden, of course), when the nearby public high school she was originally supposed to attend had a makeup-photo day for students who had missed the original yearbook shoot. “We had a day off that particular day at my school, so I snuck in, walked up and told them and then named an English teacher that I knew of at the school as my homeroom teacher,” she remembers, giddily. “And they just took my picture, alphabetized it, and it got printed in their yearbook.” She has only one regret about her little act of subterfuge. “I don’t have a copy of that yearbook, actually—since I didn’t go to that school, I didn’t have a chance to buy it!”