A couple of years ago, Lucy Dacus was a 19-year-old indie-rock songwriter with a day job working in a Richmond, Virginia photo lab – the kind of person who was happy to kill a Friday night by tucking into a Russian novel. So she needed to do some adjusting when her debut LP, 2016's No Burden, touched off a 20-plus-label bidding war and two years of constant touring.
"My sense of community was crippled," Dacus says on a recent afternoon, sitting on the bed of her quaint New York Airbnb. "I wasn't talking to my friends, and I was interacting with fans who think they know me, but I know that they don't.
"Even if somebody wanted to tell me what one of my songs meant to him or her, I can't do it – I would be probably put to tears every time," she continues, flicking on a reading lamp that casts a shadow on her apple cheeks and thick brown hair. "And I feel cold if I'm not able to get on the same level. I don't know how to combat that disparity." If the starkly personal songs on No Burden inspired this weird sense of familiarity, her even-more-intense new album, Historian, isn't likely to alleviate the situation.
One highlight is "Night Shift," a seven-minute distortion-soaked ballad about her relationship with her former bassist, whom she dated for five years and broke up with the day after they finished touring for No Burden. "I didn't realize how bad he was treating me until I realized how bad he was treating my band," she says.
The rest of album is similarly cathartic, as the 22-year-old singer-songwriter tackles everything from the pitfalls of toxic relationships ("Addictions") to coming to terms with mortality ("Next of Kin"). On "Kin," Dacus sings about being "Too deep inside my head/Too far outside my skin," a pattern of behavior she's trying to break out of. "I think I've had extremes of being unable to exist outside of my own head, and then I only am existing for other people, … There's a middle ground where I should take care of myself and other people. Writing the line is setting a goal for myself that I then have to achieve."
Dacus wrote "Next of Kin" last winter, after she experienced her first anxiety attack. ("My throat would close up, I would start losing my vision, get dizzy, get nauseous; I could tell myself, 'Nothing's going on, chill out,' but I'd just be shaking.") That trauma made her question her lifelong obsession with writing about her life in journals – and eventually in songs. "I don't know why I do it," she says. "But it's an impulse that defines who I am."
Dacus grew up in rural Mechanicsburg, Virginia. ("Corn fields and goat farms and suburbs," she says.) Her parents are liberal, creative types who met through a mutual friend in community theater, and they shielded her from the religious dogma that engulfed the town.
As a child, she combed her dad's CD collection for sustenance beyond musical theater and Christian rock, finding companionship in Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits ("I'm going to name my daughter Emily"), Led Zeppelin I and – most importantly – David Bowie. "When I heard 'Five Years' I just started crying," she says. Years later, the song is still a significant influence. "['Five Years'] is what got me started on this whole train of thought: How are you going to fit everything in one life? What's the most important?" she wonders. "The album itself, I hope, asks people to prioritize the things that make them content. And to be aware of, but not caught up in, the eventuality of death."
She explores that theme most poignantly on "Historians." "I was contemplating just anyone in my life that I love dying," she explains, "and what these efforts to capture them in journals or songs really amounts to."
Lately, Dacus has turned her attention to the idea of stability, perhaps as a reaction to her hectic life on tour. "Having familiar facets of my life means so much more now," she says. She just bought a house in Richmond, and has been focused on weeding out the people in her life who don't make her happy.
"If there are people who treat me wrong, I either talk to them about it or I don't talk to them anymore," she says. "It's been the most thoughtful and considerate thing I could do for myself and other people. I am going to try to do that forever." In fact, she says, she wrote a song about it.