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Lucy Dacus Finds Comfort In Loss On 'Historian'

Mar 2, 2018
Originally published on March 2, 2018 9:16 pm

Lucy Dacus' playful 2016 debut, No Burden, positioned the Richmond, Va. artist as one of indie rock's most promising faces. For her second go around, Dacus wanted to go deeper.

Her new album, Historian, is in large part about family. Dacus has spoken openly about being adopted, and told the story of meeting her biological family when they showed up at the singer's first-ever L.A. show. On Historian, she dives into more private stories — including, on "Pillar of Truth," the death of her paternal grandmother.

"Seeing all of her loved ones come to her bedside and show their faces and tell her, 'You matter so much to me and you contributed to my life' — that has deeply affected me," Dacus says. The song was written before the release of No Burden, she says, but didn't feel quite ready for the world until now: "More than the other songs, it needed to be exactly how I imagined it."

Though much of Historian deals with loss, Dacus says that ultimately, it's about hope. "I like to think of hope as a fact, and something that wins out always," she says. "Whether you're hopeful or not, actually, you do get through what you're in the middle of. When you're in it, you don't feel like that's possible. But time and time again, we're proven wrong."

Dacus spoke with NPR's Ari Shapiro about the themes of Historian and the emotional toll of making it. Hear their conversation at the audio link.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The singer-songwriter Lucy Dacus recorded her first album in a day with some friends from her hometown of Richmond, Va.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I DON'T WANNA BE FUNNY ANYMORE")

LUCY DACUS: (Singing) I don't want to be funny anymore.

SHAPIRO: There was no pressure, no expectations. And she became an overnight hit. She toured with some of the biggest indie rock bands in the country. More than 20 record labels competed to represent her. And despite proclaiming that she didn't want to be funny anymore, the first song from her new album, "Historian," made me laugh out loud.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: The song is called "Night Shift," and the first lyric is, the first time I tasted somebody else's spit, I had a coughing fit.

DACUS: Yep.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

DACUS: It's true (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Really?

DACUS: Yeah. That's just a true fact.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NIGHT SHIFT")

DACUS: (Singing) The first time I tasted somebody else's spit, I had a coughing fit.

You know, it starts just me and a guitar, which is what I'm used to. And then it kind of erupts into this chaotic, distorted refrain that feels like screaming into a pillow. But I get to do it into a mike in front of hundreds of people.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NIGHT SHIFT")

DACUS: (Singing) You got a 9-to-5, so I'll take the night shift, and I'll never see you again if I can help it.

SHAPIRO: Those lyrics - you've got a 9-to-5, so I'll take the night shift, and I'll never see you again if I can help it - this album isn't all just witty charm.

DACUS: It's a little bit dark.

(LAUGHTER)

DACUS: I mean, the album is a lot about loss and confusion and death and all sorts of things people don't really want to listen to or talk about. But it's through a lens of hope. So it starts super relatable, like a breakup. And then it moves deeper into confusion about your place in the world, a loss of identity, loss of home, loss of familiarity, loss of your own life. I wrote a song about watching my grandmother die, which is actually a really beautiful song and was a beautiful moment in my life and hers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PILLAR OF TRUTH")

DACUS: (Singing) Your hands are folded. Your eyes are closing.

Seeing, like, all of her loved ones come to her bedside and tell her, you matter so much to me; you've contributed to my life in a way that has deeply affected me - and she just got to take all of that in. She planned her own funeral. She picked the songs. She found new piano teachers for her piano students. And...

SHAPIRO: She was a piano teacher, and she found people to inherit the students.

DACUS: Yeah. How amazing is that?

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

DACUS: And at that time, too, you know, knowing that you might not leave your bed.

SHAPIRO: Do you remember the first time you played it for your father?

DACUS: Yeah. It was at a show, and he didn't hear the lyrics (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Oh, so he had no idea...

DACUS: And I...

SHAPIRO: ...This was about his mother.

DACUS: He didn't know and, after the show, said, I liked the new one; it's awesome. And I knew that he didn't get the meaning. And so I sent him the lyrics afterwards. And every time he's in the crowd and we play that song, there's no one else in the crowd. The song is now for him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PILLAR OF TRUTH")

DACUS: (Singing) Turning to dust. Lord, prepare me for the shadows.

You know, some nights, I can't even play it. You know, sometimes it means too much to me, and I just can't bear playing it. But, you know, some nights, it just leaves me, like, laughing with happiness.

SHAPIRO: What an amazing gift to be able to give your family.

DACUS: Yeah. I can't believe that I get to give them a gift...

(LAUGHTER)

DACUS: ...Since all they've been doing is giving me gifts since I was born.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PILLAR OF TRUTH")

DACUS: (Singing) For they know not who you are.

SHAPIRO: This album is a lot about family, and you've talked very openly about having been adopted.

DACUS: Yes.

SHAPIRO: How does that shape the idea of family that you present in these songs?

DACUS: My parents raised me with the idea that everything is chosen. So innate to who I am, there's this gratefulness that I was taught from day one because everything I have has been built on something that could have been completely different. And that's been a great skill. I don't know if everyone is taught that skill from an early age.

SHAPIRO: You called this album "Historian," and the last track is titled "Historians." What does that word mean to you in the context of this album?

DACUS: Well, the song "Historians" is about two people who are chronicling each other through photos and writing. And then one of them realizes that the person one day will leave them or die, and they'll have all of these fragments of who they were leftover. And what do they mean once the person isn't around anymore? And what pressure does that put on the capturing process in and of itself?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HISTORIANS")

DACUS: (Singing) And I'll fill pages of scribbled ink.

It's an anxious song because pain still hurts even if you understand that it will pass. You know, there's this quality to the album that is really, like, positive and hopeful. But within hope, let pain hurt because you can't just put it away. It's just going to hurt. And that's a foil for joy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HISTORIANS")

DACUS: (Singing) Will come to take one of us away, leaving the other with plenty to read.

SHAPIRO: You said that this album, even though it is about loss, is ultimately about hope. How do you reach that point of hope after chronicling all of these different forms of loss?

DACUS: I have faith and hope because of the past, because hope has clearly won out time and time again. To me, I like to think of hope as a fact and something that wins out always. Whether you're hopeful or not actually, you do get through what you're in the middle of. And when you're in it, you don't feel like that's possible. But time and time again, we're proven wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUCY DACUS SONG, "NEXT OF KIN")

SHAPIRO: Lucy Dacus, thank you so much for talking with us.

DACUS: Thank you. It's been awesome.

SHAPIRO: Lucy Dacus' new album is called "Historian."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEXT OF KIN")

DACUS: (Singing) Reading in the phone booth, sucking on a ginger root - I never got to talk to you. Why is this the image I come back to?

SHAPIRO: And Lucy Dacus is also featured on NPR Music's Austin 100, the playlist of songs to hear before South by Southwest. You can find it at nprmusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEXT OF KIN")

DACUS: (Singing) Give it to the next of kin. I used to be too deep inside my head. Now I'm too far out of my skin to... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.