Richmond, Virginia artist Lucy Dacus is asking listeners to think and grow in a more complex way with her debut album No Burden, out tomorrow. When I spoke with Dacus, she’d just finished reading James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.
“He was a bisexual black man writing in pivotal decades in America,” Dacus said. “He’s so eloquent, and it felt like a really important read to me. It’s kind of what I want to be able to do for people. It is so loving and eloquent, and asking for understanding in such a caring way. I recommend that book so much.”
Speaking with Dacus is to be let into the compassionate backdrop of a mind that is working itself through youth with sharpness, skepticism and humility. No Burden traffics in themes of understanding one’s place in a group of friends, challenging society’s gendered stereotypes, and being sold self-worth wrapped up in image. Or, “a throne out of magazines,” as Dacus sings on “Trouble Maker Doppelgänger.”
She shows her tendency to wax philosophic on this track, which deals with the unfairness of gendered narratives fed to girls.
“There’s a learned entitlement that comes along with beauty,” she said. “Watching my friends grow up and learning that on basis of beauty was not a positive way to start a relationship. Basically, warning people not to prioritize this. First of all, to kids, don’t teach the importance of this early on. And second, the people who have been taught that, be conscious — because their mindset about themselves is more complex than you think. There’s so much backstory to a beautiful woman. You can’t help that the first thing you know about a person is what they look like; it’s not anybody’s fault. We have to remain conscious about what this is in our society.”
The brutal honesty and vulnerability of her lyrics is upfront, especially in tracks with titles like “I Don’t Want to Be Funny Anymore,” which has earned her comparisons to Courtney Barnett and Sharon Van Etten. She navigates a series of potential personas with wry and hyper self-aware lyrics that are extremely relatable, and cover everything from ascension to the woes of normal friendship dynamics.
Some of her favorite artists are ones she’s played alongside, and is also compared to, such as Julien Baker and Eskimeaux. “They’re so nice,” Dacus says in her genuine way, adding, “It’s cool when you play with someone and you get to find out that not only is their music good, but they’re a really awesome person.”
She has reverence for the artists she’s compared to: “I really love all those honest ladies out there. Luckily, people have been drawing that connection, like Sharon Van Etten, Angel Olsen, or Courtney Barnett, where you can tell from their music that they care about philosophy.”
The hefty comparisons, though positive, shouldn’t stop listeners from digesting Dacus as her own artist. Vocally, her deadpan delivery is punctuated with harmonies and clever, subtle guitar hooks.
Dacus said writing lyrics has always been easy for her, but arrangements take more work.
“That’s always been the part I really have to focus on,” she explained. To remedy this, she often looks for inspiration from friends and artists like Shakey Graves. “I play in an alternate tuning, and the day I figured out my tuning, I realized it was the same as Shakey’s and watched every single one of his videos.”
Shakey Graves kickstarted her songwriting style, but she also sites Broken Social Scene’s arrangements as a huge creative influence, along with Wilco.
“I also just saw Wilco and was uncontrollably writing during the show,” she said, but explains that finding people personally is the most enriching form of compositional inspiration. “I have some singer-songwriter friends here. For them to share anything with me makes me want to do the same,” she said, adding, “It’s such a valuable thing people can do.”
Despite the fact that No Burden is her debut album, Dacus has already received quite a bit of critical attention. She said she’s grateful and a bit in awe of being called Bob Boilen’s No. 1 discovery of 2016 so far.
“Bob and All Songs Considered have been such incredible resources for me in the unending search for music,” she said. I really respect him and I can’t think about my music the way I can judge other people’s music. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, I just know I made it.”
For young musicians, having the backing of a few tastemakers is so pivotal, especially when trying to break into an oversaturated pool of talent. One of the primary ways to gain attention in the current climate is to play festivals, and Dacus will play her first later this year. It’s a season of firsts for Dacus and her band, whose final lineup solidified mere months ago.
“I’ve never been to SXSW, Boise, Idaho (where they will be playing Treefort Music Fest),” she said.”Everyone we play with we listen to in the car on tour. We get really hyped to see them.I’m so into it; I’ve been to a bunch of festivals. I love that atmosphere; it feels like such a celebratory thing. At least as a viewer, it’s a celebratory positive experience, so to be a part of it on the other side — it’s almost like giving back.”
As for Richmond, Dacus loves the city and admittedly has no desire to leave or relocate anywhere bigger.
“Luckily everyone I know who’s involved in the scene feels like it’s a really positive community,” she said. “Everyone’s been paying it forward so long. There isn’t any nasty competitiveness.”
Dacus also feels there’s finally “a greater national consciousness happening” surrounding Richmond music outside its longstanding punk and hardcore roots.
“People are starting to be curious,” she adds, enthusiastically listing off a slew of bands people should check out, including: No BS Brass, Antiphons, The Trillions, Avers, Lobo Marino, Blanks, and Spooky Cool, who reminds her of one of her all time favorite New York-bred acts, Ava Luna.
“We’ve actually convinced a couple bands to move to Richmond,” she said. “Because they come play here and say they had no idea it was like this.”
Her album is Richmond through and through, being released on RVA label EggHunt Records, who are self-described as “an inspired family.” New Yorkers can catch Dacus at Baby’s All Right this Sunday, February 28 with Odetta Hartman and Margaret Glaspy. Get tickets here.