Lucy Dacus Takes Confessional Songwriting to a New Level

In November of 2018, while on tour with the group boygenius, the singer-songwriter Lucy Dacus began performing a recently written song, “Thumbs,” partly at the urging of Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker, her bandmates in that project. Dacus had already drawn on her own life for the wry and charged songs on her first two solo albums, “No Burden” (2016) and “Historian” (2018), but “Thumbs” — a confessional song about a violent impulse felt toward a close friend’s abusive father — with its blunt reminder that a survivor owes an oppressor exactly nothing, resonated particularly deeply with her fans. “I’ve probably received more messages about that song than anything else I’ve written,” Dacus told me recently. On her solo tour in 2019, she occasionally closed her sets with “Thumbs,” prefacing each performance with a request that no one record it.

Lyrically the song often feels like a short story — the father and daughter’s tense meeting at a bar after years of estrangement, as witnessed by a protective friend (“I would kill him / if you let me … I don’t know how you keep smiling,” the narrator sings); the way they “feel him watching / walk a mile in the wrong direction.” But like all the songs on “Home Video,” Dacus’s third album, out on June 25 from Matador, the source material came directly and almost entirely from the journals she’s kept faithfully from the age of 7. The album’s 11 songs, together a forthright exploration of coming of age, deep friendships and young queer love amid a Bible camp backdrop, volley between grief and humor and darkness. They are her most intimate and deliberately personal work to date.

It was intentional that I talk plainly on this album about things that actually happened because I hadn’t done that yet,” the artist says on an early May afternoon while on her front porch in Philadelphia. Dacus, who’s trying to wean herself off a habit of wearing all black, has on a dark blue sweater and bright red pants that match her shade of lipstick. We’re having tea and leftover birthday cake — cardamom, pistachio, olive — that a friend made for Dacus’s 26th birthday a couple days ago. The party occasioned the first reunion of newly vaccinated friends, which Dacus says felt “slightly skittish, but really fun.” On Instagram, she posted a photo of the aftermath, a table covered in so many Pollock-like swirls it was impossible to decipher what had occurred there. “I woke up this morning and deep-cleaned the table,” Dacus says, looking down at it a little ruefully. “We had a crab bake. I really hope it doesn’t smell.”

Dacus moved to Philadelphia — a city that had slowly grown on her while she was on tour — from her hometown of Richmond, Va., and after recording “Home Video” in Nashville, at the end of 2019. Heading into 2020, she felt oddly hopeful. When Dacus and her band did a three-night residency at the Philadelphia club Johnny Brenda’s, the audiences erupted in chants afterward for Bernie Sanders. She played her last show in March, in Florida. The release of “Home Video,” which Matador had slated for as early as fall 2020, was pushed back; a slowed-down, remote version of production continued throughout the pandemic.

In May of last year, two months into lockdown and recovering from back surgery, Dacus dreamed she was running around a house with her best friends and, as one does during a pandemic, promptly went on Zillow, where a fresh listing for a rambling, early-20th-century rowhouse appeared on her screen. She rounded up six roommates, packed up her sizable library and moved in last summer. As we talk, various housemates drift past us and the dogwood tree in the front yard, wheeling out the recycling, returning from rock climbing. Recently, Dacus signed papers to buy the house, where she’ll continue to live communally. “I think I need one week every four months completely to myself, but other than that I want to be around people,” she says. “I struggle with depersonalization, so it’s nice to have a hustle and bustle around me.”

In 2017 and 2018, when she began writing songs for “Home Video,” Dacus occasionally allowed herself to consult particular entries in her old journals, to check a detail for accuracy, and stumbled into a memoirist’s classic quandary. Dacus tends to lean on her emotional memory, layered with hindsight and grown-up knowledge, over what her childhood self was willing to put on the page. “Almost reliably the perspective is true and the entry is not and I’m pissed about that because I would really like to know what I thought in the moment,” she says. “Who’s to know which one I should trust more?” Otherwise, for a long time she says she stuck to another writerly instinct, to not reread the entries: “If I was too close to the event, it wouldn’t hit as an actual story.”

Early in lockdown, though, Dacus sat down and began to type up her journals, starting from the beginning grade school years and stopping at age 16, when she hit around 100,000 words. When she looked back at the writing of her teen years, certain omissions stood out. “I really was just hovering around the fact that I was not straight,” she says. “A lot of the songs, like ‘Triple Dog Dare,’ are about that.” “Triple Dog Dare,” which, more precisely, is about queer love forbidden by the church, closes the album with astonishing and dark undertones, intentionally referencing an idea from “A Little Life” (2015) by Hanya Yanagihara (also T’s editor in chief). “There’s a section in the middle of the novel where a parent is talking about losing a child and expresses the surprising relief that nothing worse can happen now,” Dacus says. “That idea really stuck with me.”

At 26, Dacus is thoughtful and forthright when describing her sexual identity. “Gay is the overarching word, queer is the better overarching word and more specifically bisexual or pansexual,” she says. “I have no allegiance. I think gender is a joke.”

DACUS WAS ADOPTED as an infant and grew up on the rural-suburban edges of Richmond, amid the kind of teenage wasteland territories of her songs — overpasses, cornfields, goat farms. “It was a little isolated but I was also around a bunch of people my age going through the same angsty time, so it was kind of a pressure cooker for weirdness,” she says. From her father, a graphic designer, she acquired a belated love of Bruce Springsteen that translated into her fantastically rocked-out rendition of “Dancing in the Dark” — a song Dacus says has been covered so many times it’s attained the status of a hymn — on her EP “2019” (2019). She credits her mother, a pianist who worked in musical theater, with turning her on to Prince and David Bowie. But as a kid, she admits, she mostly listened to Top 40 songs with her friends, musicians like the Shins that she’d discover from “Gilmore Girls” and church music. She wouldn’t buy her first guitar, a $100 Ibanez she found on Craigslist, until she was 19.

It was around this time that she came out to her then boyfriend and to her family. “I think they were cool with it, but they were not asking questions, not really following up,” she says of her parents. “It was more about me making sure they knew it than a piece of information that brought us together. I’m grateful there wasn’t a fight. It was more like, OK, next topic. Maybe one day. Maybe they’ll read this and ring me up about it.”

Dacus was raised in what she characterizes as a fairly progressive church, but she also attended her friends’ churches, places that are referenced in her song “Christine” (“We’re coming home / from a sermon saying / how bent on evil we are”): “There was one church I’d go to a lot where they separated you by gender and they talked to you a lot about sex,” she says. “Like, the purpose of this church was to make sure kids did not have sex.”

Talking to her parents about leaving the church was a conversation of coming-out-level difficulty that Dacus reserved for a drive. As she sings in “Brando,” “That’s only something you would say in the car.” “They’re both still Christian and I think they know that I’m not done with whatever journey I’m on and I think that brings them peace of mind,” she says.

She sings about the confusion of religious feeling on “VBS,” a song whose title is an acronym for Vacation Bible School. The Dacus of this song, in her early teens, smokes nutmeg in her camp boyfriend’s bunk bed and tries not to laugh at his bad poetry. “He was my first boyfriend and he was a stoner who loved Slayer and we danced in a field with all these people to Christian rock and I thought, this is literally God that’s making me feel so good, when it was probably just endorphins and hormones,” she says.

Concerts, Dacus says, fill a void that church once did. “For me, there’s no greater joy than hearing people sing together,” she says. On “Please Stay” and the stunning “Going Going Gone” (which was recorded in a single take), Baker and Bridgers join Dacus, the group reprising its boygenius harmonizing. In the days before my visit, the trio was commended on Twitter by the Chicks for their cover of “Cowboy Take Me Away.” They were also name-checked in an episode of “Mare of Easttown” when Mare’s daughter, Siobhan (Angourie Rice), is asked on a date to a boygenius show by a college radio DJ (Madeline Weinstein).

“We were talking about it in our group chat and Julien said something like, ‘Welcome to the gay cultural zeitgeist,’ ” Dacus says. “For our band to basically be an indicator of gayness in a TV show is so funny — and also we only did one tour, so like, did this scene happen in November 2018?” The improbability factor puts boygenius in the pop cultural realm of Sonic Youth appearing on “Gilmore Girls,” the Pixies on “Beverly Hills 90210.” While there are no reunion plans on the horizon, Dacus, Baker and Bridgers message almost daily. “We started doing tarot together,” Dacus says. “Julien didn’t have a deck until recently, Phoebe has a really ornate one and I have the classic Rider deck. I love it. It’s like having a shared lexicon, having a ritual.”

Dacus is eager to begin touring again this fall. She keeps a spreadsheet of song requests fans have made in specific cities. She’s excited to play the songs on “Home Video,” even though she hasn’t been able to listen to the entire album herself in a long time. To put out something so honest and vulnerable feels “scary, but good,” she says. It was her first grade teacher who gave her a blank composition book, her first journal — with the reminder that the writing she produced in it would be for Dacus’s eyes only, a pact she’s only now broken in adulthood. “It’s not that I had secrets to protect, but I wanted secrets,” she says. “So I had to find a way to create them.”

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