Lucy Dacus knows compassion is the best way to acknowledge the past
Lucy Dacus’ third studio album, ‘Home Video,’ may be steeped in coming-of-age nostalgia, but it also serves as a reminder that we owe a great deal to the people we used to be.June 23, 2021
Every morning, Lucy Dacus refrains from speaking for as long as she possibly can. It’s a routine that can keep her silent until noon most days, but she always strives for at least one hour. This practice isn’t all that surprising for someone who writes such evocative and perceptive songs, but it’s one that kept her grounded while she explored the past on her forthcoming third record, Home Video.
“It’s funny: Most songs you ever hear are about the past,” Dacus points out. “You know, we’re all talking about our experiences. I’m just looking back a little further, maybe. Maybe it just takes me longer to know what I need to say. So, it’s not like I’m going back and trying to conjure an old feeling. It’s like I’m finally ready to feel the things that I couldn’t feel in the moment.”
Across 11 meditative tracks, Dacus is an enthralling raconteur of her coming-of-age years in Richmond, Virginia. And, unsurprisingly, she’s a firm documenter of them as well, pointing to a shelf filled with journals sitting behind her during this conversation. As it turns out, so are her parents, who have filmed home videos of Dacus ever since she was born and provided much of the inspiration behind the project. But to be perfectly clear, Home Video serves as an examination of that time, not a confrontation or criticism.
Technically speaking, Dacus often heaved the songs into existence, penning them in quick bursts—akin to being struck by a vivid memory and seeing it unfold before your eyes. Emotionally, it’s arduous but not arbitrary.
Musically, Home Video takes a vastly different approach than Historian. Where the latter employed ripping guitar solos and satisfying rock arrangements, the most devastating part on Home Video comes by way of Dacus’ cold and controlled delivery when she speaks of pressing in the eyeballs of a friend’s estranged father on “Thumbs.” But there’s a satisfaction in how a specific smell or sound can ignite some of your most salient memories to come rushing back, too—and certainly a satisfaction in how much of the record basks in warmer tones, making use of piano, synthesizers and acoustic guitar. Ultimately, Dacus hopes it will “accompany people through good times” upon its June 25 arrival via Matador Records.
Recounting coming-of-age stories, in general, is intensely personal, and even though a lot of your songs already have a sense of nostalgia, you’re really leaning into it here. What were some of your fears or apprehensions about taking this kind of approach?
I guess I’ve been worried about the people in my life who are implicated in these songs feeling like I’ve used them or the memory of them, whether I like them or not. I don’t want them to think less of me. But so far, everyone that is in these songs that I’ve shown [them] to have felt honored by them, which is what I actually would hope for. That’s the best-case scenario. So, I guess I’m still a little worried about phone calls I might get once the record comes out. I guess I was a little worried about my parents hearing it, but they both listened to it and said, “We like it!” They didn’t really follow up about any of the subject matter, but they’re supportive.
The album has a whole mystique of nostalgia, and it makes me think about the power it has over us and just how strong those memories can be. What did you learn about your current self by looking back on former versions of yourself?
I think I defined myself by the other people in my life, which can sometimes be a really nice thing and sometimes not so much. Because when I lose people in my life, I feel a sense of discombobulation or like I don’t know who I am anymore if I’m not fulfilling a role for somebody else. So, I’ve tried to get better at just figuring out who I am alone and without anyone. But I think I just prefer to be in dialogue, I guess, with other people. I see myself as a friend and caretaker and maybe a security guard emotionally for the people that I love, and that does require other people.
Even just writing this record in the first place, does it make you feel like you’re removed enough from those people where you can accept and forgive them?
There are some people that I have forgiven, and there are some people that I haven’t, and there are some people that I hope I never do. I used to think that forgiveness was the most powerful thing a person could do. That definitely related to growing up in church. And only recently have I realized that forgiveness isn’t essential in life. Sometimes things happen that were just bad or people were just bad. And so maybe I’m being small-minded, but it actually feels mind-blowing to think that I don’t have to forgive everyone to be a good person.
How did you go about writing songs that are this specific? You said your parents filmed home videos of you since you were born, so when you were writing, did you think about those, or was it all from memory, or did you flip through any old journals?
I think it was all from memory, but the videos definitely play a part in that. I have really strong imagery from my childhood just because I’ve watched the videos. And so I guess I probably remember the videos even more than the events that the videos show. But I can return more easily to those times because of that. And the journals, too. I don’t tend to reread them because for me it’s more about the action of journaling and the process of putting things into words that’s really important and not as much making a result. So, I don’t really read them much, but by writing them, I’ve gotten to know myself better.
I remember you saying you can write a song in 10 minutes, but it almost feels like throwing up. Was it like that a lot for this album?
Yeah, I think that most of the songs actually felt that way. When you get triggered and you have this memory flood back to you, it’s all at once, and so if you try to tell a friend about it, you’re expressing what just happened to you. And I think the way that I tell what just happened is by writing a song and transposing it. So, it doesn’t feel hard in terms of technique—it feels hard on an emotional level.
And I bet hard to revisit when you’re recording it.
Yeah. And I have to decide, “Will I feel good singing this every single night?” Because if I don’t, I’ll either change the lyric or not share the song.
Did you feel that way with “Thumbs”? Because I know when you were doing it during your encore a lot, you told your fans, “Please do not record this.”
Yeah. I needed to practice playing it because I definitely didn’t know how I felt about the subject matter. It’s pretty violent. And I, in general, just don’t condone violence. But I felt like it was also very honest, and I did feel that way at the time. So after playing it with zero expectations from crowds before it came out, I have gotten used to it, and now I can just play it like any other song. But it still sometimes gets caught in my throat.
How important was it for you to speak with kindness toward all the people you’ve been instead of being overly critical?
I feel really out of sorts when I can’t follow a line back through my past. If there’s a dark patch, I don’t know what happened, and I dissociate, so there are some times when I’m like, “I don’t remember what happened that year.” I really like to find out, and I want to know who I have been the whole time because that’s the only way that who I am now makes sense, and it’s the only way I can learn anything. And I think that’s how history works. So, there’s no use in hating who I used to be. You just have to learn from it—and also, it’s not a good feeling. If you can end up being kind to a past self, that can help you be kind to who you are in the present.
Yeah, because it’s still you. You just maybe didn’t have as much maturity or knowledge.
Yeah, or you couldn’t avoid your context. You couldn’t choose when you were born, where you were born, who you were born to, what language you learned. You didn’t get to choose anything. So don’t beat yourself up.
Right. It reminds me of “Triple Dog Dare,” where you’re singing about someone who you could’ve been with under the right circumstances, but it just couldn’t happen.
That’s a good example because what I like about that song being the last one on the record is that the characters finally make a choice for themselves, for better or worse.
A line that I really loved was from “Cartwheel,” where you sing, “The future is a benevolent black hole.” Were you speaking in the present tense or the past tense?
I think from the present. I think that’s how I feel about the future in general. Like it literally doesn’t exist, and we’re all caught up in entropy. It’s just a fact, but it’s not personal. I think how I conceptualize the future is just like this all-consuming, both destructive and creative, transformative thing that is chaotic and uncontrollable, but it’s not malevolent.