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25 June 2021

Lucy Dacus: “It’s dark when adults fantasise about being teens again”

The US indie singer-songwriter on diary-writing, home movies, and the pull of nostalgia.  

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

In 2016, when Lucy Dacus was 21 and on the road playing shows in support of her first album, her tour bus was broken into and her backpack was stolen. Inside was a diary in which the guitarist had written almost daily for three years. It was a record of her senior year at high school, her time at college, her decision to drop out, the beginnings of a career in music; it held intimate details of friendships and romantic relationships, some that had both started and ended during that period. And suddenly it was all gone. “I feel an immense loss whenever I think about it,” Dacus said of the event. “I feel more connected to the versions of me that I have evidence of. I feel like those are lost years, even though they happened.”

Dacus had been keeping a regular journal since she was seven years old. A decade and a half into diary-writing, losing such a significant chunk of her record was “destabilising”, she said. After the break-in she stopped writing daily. She still keeps a less frequent, more reflective diary, and even with those missing three years has a significant physical record of her life. When we spoke over video call in early June, she moved her camera around to proudly show me a whole shelfful of finished journals. Dacus was in Philadelphia, where she has lived with old school friends since January 2020. The group waited out the Covid-19 lockdown watching films, playing table tennis, and kayaking on the Schuylkill River and Lake Nockamixon, outside the city.

Dacus moved to Philadelphia from her hometown of Richmond, Virginia, a place “some people describe as the biggest small town left in America”, she said. “It has some tall buildings and there is a little bit of industry, but there’s still that vibe that everybody knows each other’s business. I think everybody feels an entitlement to each other’s lives there, which some people describe as ‘Southern comfort’, but I think is invasive sometimes.”

Returning to live in a small town after building an international music career felt strange. Her debut record No Burden, a warm, candid indie-rock album, was originally put out by a local Richmond label in February 2016, and was then picked up and re-released by New York-based Matador. Dacus went on to tour the United States and Europe relentlessly, released Historian, her second critically acclaimed record, and, with Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker, formed “supergroup” Boygenius in 2018. “For a long time, I lived as if Richmond was me,” Dacus said, “and then I started touring and I realised that Richmond is just a part of me. And then I moved, and I realised Richmond is just a place, with or without me. It’s been really informative to realise that we don’t rely on each other.”

[see also: Hiatus Kaiyote’s jazz funk is pure musical sunshine]

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Though she has left Richmond, Dacus is anchored to memories of her childhood there, not only via the diaries that line her shelves, but also by the stories she tells on Home Video, her third album, which details episodes from Dacus’s youth in a “bluntly honest and factually correct” way. In the video for lead single “Hot & Heavy”, as Dacus sings about returning to Richmond (“Being back here makes me hot in the face/Hot blood in my pulsing veins”), she watches home videos recorded by her parents when she was a child. There’s a young Dacus dressing up with her brother, singing in a school choir, playing guitar on stage. These videos are just a few of hundreds of VHS home movies documenting Dacus’s childhood, which act as a visual companion to her introspective, personal accounts.

While she got to choose how to present herself on paper – “I wanted the journal version of me to be so cool. I wish I had written about feeling insecure and about friendship drama, but I ended up journaling ‘I went shopping today!’” – Dacus could not control what her father, who was most often behind the lens, picked up on film. “It’s so hard to know if my memories are genuine or if they’re constructed amalgamations of reality and photos and videos,” she said, though she can picture her dad, standing in the aisle, filming her in a school assembly: “I remember not so much the feeling of being watched by the camera, but thinking about how people were watching my dad get the right angle.”

Even without a physical or written record, our memories have a way of unwittingly leaking details we thought we’d forgotten. Dacus was driving to Nashville on the way to record the album in 2019 when she saw an advert for vacation Bible school, a church camp programme she attended during every school holiday between the ages of eight and 16. The sign provoked a memory of her first boyfriend, who she met at the programme, and who, she recalled with a chuckle, used to snort nutmeg in his bunk bed. On “VBS”, a steady, quietly wistful electric guitar track, she sings: “You were gonna win me over from the start.” “I love that feeling,” she said, “of saving a minor detail that could so easily have slipped through the cracks.”

Home Video isn’t sonically nostalgic – it doesn’t hark back to the sound of a particular decade. But its interest in re-telling stories that are sentimental only for Dacus and a handful of other people lends it a particularly intimate kind of wistfulness. “What a gift, to be able to say that you’re nostalgic about something, if the definition of ‘nostalgia’ is warm feelings towards the past,” said Dacus. At the same time, she acknowledged that nostalgia can be “a really redundant thing in art”, when, for example, large film companies re-make old movies to “play on people’s nostalgia, rehashing the past for money”.

While Dacus looks upon her own childhood and teenage years with warmth, she’s wary of youth being idealised once it’s passed. She certainly doesn’t want Home Video to make her listeners pine for their younger years. “It’s dark when adults fantasise about being teens again. We get so quickly pulled into the machinations of capitalism, where we’re working so much, and workers’ rights are not guaranteed, that as adults, we’re exhausted. So of course you would fantasise about your youth, a time when somebody else is feeding you and you’re being celebrated for little things like doing a dance or finishing a race. It makes sense to me, why people go there. But I don’t think it’s about youth in general. It’s about not embracing joy as you grow older: that’s what we need to change.”

“Home Video” is released on Matador Records on 25 June

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