Rising indie-rock star and singer-songwriter Lucy Dacus took a leap of faith by leaving film school at 19 in order to focus on music. Although she says it wasn't easy, her decision led to a record deal with Matador at just 21. This month brings the physical reissue of her debut No Burden, which was released digitally last February. Her songs, much like their creator, are warm and candid. From the buzzing riffs of "I Don't Want to Be Funny Anymore" to the melodic calm of "Familiar Place," her album proves she's not afraid to be real.
Last month I spoke with Lucy over the phone while she was on a break from tour about why she chose music over film, why middle school was the worst time of her life, and how she's coping with the pressure of success.
Dianca Potts: What initially attracted you to storytelling through music?
Lucy Dacus: One of my earliest memories is the first CD that my mom gave me, her copy of the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack. I would lay on my back in my room for hours and listen and just be torn apart emotionally as a seven-year-old. So I guess musical theater was the first form of storytelling I knew about. It was also maybe the least subtle and most obvious example of narrative storytelling. That's how it all started for me.
DP: How did your relationship with music change as you got older?
LD: It was always functional. My mom is a musical-theater director, so music always functioned as storytelling. I also grew up listening to Christian rock, and in that context music functioned as emotional manipulation. Music wasn't about personal taste at first. It was in your life because of the sphere you were situated in and the group of people you were surrounded by. Honestly, it wasn't until high school that I developed my own sense of taste.
DP: You decided to leave film school in order to pursue music. What led to your decision to switch mediums?
LD: The decision to leave school wasn't easy because I lost financial support from my parents and had to be an adult person. I took a semester off because I wanted to make this album and travel around Europe. When I was there, just getting away from day-to-day life showed me that I actually wanted to come home. I try to suggest to all of my friends to get out of whatever they're used to, to see what they miss, and see how they want to be spending their time. When I got back, I was like, "I'm going to drop out of school, move in with my boyfriend, get a job, and I don't know what's next," and my whole family was kind of gasping [laughs]. But it worked out and now that things have turned out all right they're really proud of me. They've been really supportive of me in terms of making music. They encouraged me long before I even knew that I wanted to do music.
The cool thing about music as opposed to film is that film has the stupidest infrastructure because it's just so money-centric. In order to make a high-quality film or to be considered for distribution, you have to convince rich people that they can make money off of you. I bet you could make a movie, and people do, with really low budgets or by just using friends, but if I was to get a job straight out of film school it would be editing or assistant editing a rom-com that I hated. I just got kinda cynical about all of the jobs that I'd have to take on in order to support myself. I feel weird about having to put in work and time and energy into projects that I don't care about, and the cool thing about music is that every night I'm singing words that I thought of and things that I want people to hear, so there's no conflict in that at all.
DP: What was it like revisiting the songs off your debut album for this month's reissue?
LD: I actually haven't listened to the album in months, which is funny because I probably should. We play the music every night when we're on tour, but I haven't listened to the recordings. A lot of the songs were written in times of indecision, and that's one of the biggest reasons why I write, to work through what I don't already know.
DP: Your single "I Don't Want to Be Funny Anymore" captures the search for self so well. Can you talk a bit about the story behind that song and what it means to you now?
LD: I wrote that song maybe two years ago, after years and years of trying to reflect on what I view as the worst time of my life, which was middle school, and finally having words for what I was going through at the time. Those years are hard because you're forming your identity but everyone else is putting in their opinion, and it's hard to sort through who you would like to be versus who you actually are versus who you are becoming versus what other people want from you. It goes past middle school too. I've talked to some of the middle-aged people in my life who are like, I still feel that way at work. Everyone feels the weight of their personality because people are afraid to change and defy others' expectations.
DP: "Strange Torpedo" and "Trouble Doppelgänger" explore what our personal faults can teach us about who we are. Has focusing on faults in your songwriting made you think differently about your own shortcomings?
LD: It depends on how you define faults, you know? By what standard, whether it's societal standards or your own. "Strange Torpedo" is about wanting to get better and wanting to see someone change, but loving them anyway. You have to be honest about your faults to know anything about yourself; those are the things that make you want to be a better person.
DP: Have the past few months been an affirmation in any way of your journey as a creative?
LD: Yeah. It's crazy. I'm finding out a lot about myself that's really surprising. The affirmation part is weird. You'd think it'd always be positive, but sometimes the way people want to affirm or what they want to affirm is uncomfortable. I'm back home in Richmond right now for five days in between touring, which is amazing. That's one thing that I've learned about myself, is that I get homesick. I love touring, but I also love being home. Just knowing where I am feels good. We had a housewarming party, and people were saying congrats on the Rolling Stone thing, congrats on your record deal, and congratulating me on the things that translate to prestige, or I guess the things that are one step away from the music. I wonder sometimes if people who congratulate me listen to the music. I don't think that I deserve anyone's time, it's not like that, and any form of congratulations comes from a positive place, but it seems to me that people respond better to the glory rather than the guts of the thing. I kind of wish that they would look at the guts more, the guts being the music, and what my life has turned into as someone that they knew before any of this happened.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Dianca Potts is an assistant at Lenny Letter.