“I had to see the women of Richmond get on stage and play songs before I thought I was allowed to.”
By Margaret Welsh
It’s easy to feel connected to Lucy Dacus. Her lyrics are wise, candid and quotable; her rich alto hovers in a sing-along-able octave; her melodies are full of unexpected hooks and big riffs. At 24, the Richmond, VA-based singer-songwriter is an old soul, with an extraordinary capacity to articulate complicated emotions. But that ability to connect can be a burden, one that sometimes results in emotional and physical boundary-crossing from fans. Over the last several months, Dacus has become an important voice in an ongoing conversation about the comfort and safety of touring musicians, especially women. (Her song “Bite the Hand,” with Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridges, addresses this directly: “I can’t love you how you want me to.”)
When the Current caught up with Dacus, she was on her way to play some shows in New York while recovering from a late-night performance at the Hopscotch Music Festival in Raleigh, North Carolina. “I’m trying to be extra careful,” she said, of her sleeping habits. “I’m kind of worn down from all the touring and we don’t really have a break until 2020.” Even so, there’s a measured excitement in her voice when she talks about everything she’s doing, from her solo work, to boygenius (her band with Baker and Bridges), to the op-ed on Woodstock 50 she recently wrote for the New York Times. There’s plenty ahead – she brings her solo tour to Mr. Smalls Theatre on Friday, Sept. 20 — but in the meantime she’s doing her best to take care of herself.
I really enjoyed your New York Times op-ed, and I was wondering if you see yourself moving more in that direction as a writer?
I feel like a huge baby when I write because I can tell what a novice I am, but it is fulfilling and nice to do something that I know I’m not good at yet. It’s not that the article is bad, I wouldn’t have agreed to publish it if it was bad. But it’s not up to par with the writers that I admire. So I think that I’m going to have to make a couple years-worth of mistakes to learn something. It’s kind of annoying that that may happen within the public eye: just cause of the music, people may read my stuff not for the writing itself but for the music I write. I expect to be not [up] to my own standards for a while, but I do want to put in the effort with hopes that I’ll one day be good at it.
You already journal all the time, so you have a bit of a leg up.
That’s true, but that writing is not meant to be beautiful or even communicative. It’s, like, me at my laziest. It’s for me, so it doesn’t need to be presentable, so I don’t even read them most of the time … Writing for other people is such a different feeling.
I was struck by your summation of the lasting impact of Woodstock — and of the romanticizing of it — as coming from desire to find solace and feel free. Does that resonate with you as a performer?
Yeah, I think that in a lot of ways playing shows has taken the place of church for me, like a place for community and for unspoken understanding, and being able to bring whatever to a place and look in the same direction, and witness something with a lot of other people, and sharing that. I think there is a lot of solace, even in the physical space of a show. I’ve felt it myself, I’ve felt freed or opened up by different musicians, which is probably why I started writing music. I think a lot of people are drawn in by that particular sorcery, making something out of nothing. I’ve benefited from it so I’m happy to be on the other side of it.
When do you remember first feeling that as an audience member?
The first time I went to a local show in Richmond, which was my freshman year of high school … I realized that music was something that wasn’t manufactured exclusively by pop stars for the radio. I hadn’t really thought of music as being a local phenomenon and then all of a sudden, people are playing and coming down into the crowd and are friends with each other, so that sort of distance was deconstructed. … I’ve always said you have to see it to be it – I’m not the first to say that, I don’t know who said it first. But I had to see the women of Richmond get on stage and play songs before I thought I was allowed to.
Are there any other ways that the scene in Richmond specifically influenced you?
I think the lack of industry was really helpful for me, when it came to writing and sharing music for no other reason than to participate. No one that I grew up doing music with was really interested in [going] beyond Richmond. It was everyone’s hobby. … Playing felt really supported and I felt really safe. And I think that [without that] I would have been too intimidated to share anything, if the stakes had been any higher.
Your songwriting is incredibly vulnerable, and I’m curious about your ability to maintain vulnerability as an artist as you’re more in the public eye.
It’s funny because in a way you’re getting more vulnerable, because the quantity of people that are listening to my message is growing. So quantitatively I’m more vulnerable than ever, while qualitatively I do feel myself closed off more and more, people abuse the projection of empathy, or abuse the vulnerability.
Even last night at Hopscotch some lady kept breaking into the green room and trying to pretend that she knew one of us in the band, like two or three times, just trying to talk or … she needed something from me, I don’t know what it was. She could have been really nice, but it was threatening. Entering a space where you’re not invited is always odds, and green rooms are small. There was no exit. So I closed off a little bit, not because I want to. I’m just a little bit tarnished by that type of stuff.
In May you tweeted asking people to respect boundaries by not coming to the stage door during load-in, not coming into the green room, not following you, etc. It was so basic, but it speaks to a serious issue of boundaries between performers and fans. Have you had any encouraging feedback since then?
Yeah, I think that a lot of people have been like, ‘Oh, wow, I never thought about it this way. Thank you for letting me know.’ Usually I’m fine with people coming up briefly … if we run into each other naturally it’s ok to say something, I am usually very happy to meet people because a lot of my fans are really kind. But it’s when people encroach on my personal space, my safety, day of show: it’s just really unsettling. I’m finding what works for me and what doesn’t, and how to handle situations.
I have friends that want to tour full time and really do the music thing, and I tell them, just so you know, this is really a bad part of it. If you feel like you couldn’t handle that, you don’t need to get into this. Hopefully it goes away, but I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.
Considering how central obsessive fandom is to the rock ‘n’ roll ethos, we’re not necessarily taught how to interact with artists that we admire. Like, just because you relate to something doesn’t mean you have a relationship with the artist.
I’ve made some friends recently that have told me [what my music meant to them] and I’m really grateful that they afforded us the time to get to know each other on equal footing. When you encroach on someone’s space, you’re basically ruining the chance to actually ever know them, if the first thing you do is threaten them. I think it is possible to get to know the people you admire, but it can’t be in the context of fandom, honestly. It would have to be the way you meet anyone else, it happens naturally, it can’t be forced.
What do you think can happen on a larger scale to help protect artists?
I would just hope that people would spread the word, and that this behavior catches on, and that being a zealous fan should stay in the crowed. There’s nothing cool about taking advantage of someone’s personal space. I think the more I say it, the more people will end up hearing it, because not everyone sees every tweet, not everyone reads every interview. But I think that the more it’s spoken about, the more likely that people will adapt and learn how to treat each other better.
I wanted to ask about boygenius: What has it been like to be part of that project vs. being a solo artist?
It’s such a relief playing with Julien and Phoebe when we do, we can lean on each other when each of us kind of runs the ship for our own projects. I love both of their minds and their work, their ideas, so it was very easy to come up with something we all loved, and we all love it more easily than our own work because it’s of each other. And I think we’ve all taken lessons from that project into our [own projects]. We all share music with each other, we’re all working on new stuff, and I can see each other’s influence. I definitely feel influenced by them, and I know each of them has been influenced by the other two, and I have been blessed with that friendship, I don’t know what I did to deserve such friends.
I know you’re a big reader, what has been inspiring you lately?
I’m literally holding Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin, and I read The Left Hand of Darkness by her earlier this year, I think she’s one of the best writers ever. And it’s nice to read sci-fi in the van because it’s something so different from everyday life, it feels like an escape. But meanwhile there’s so much truth and wisdom in her writing that does apply to the real world, and not just a land of wizardry or dragons. I also try to read The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying as much as possible. It’s a really good text about coming to peace with death and being able to carry that through your life. But…what else do I have going on? Oh, I just got the new Tegan and Sara memoir, it comes out in a couple weeks. I’m so excited to read that, it’s such a unique idea, two people writing a joint memoir. I’m so in, I’m so ready for it.
Anything you wanted to add that I didn’t ask about?
This is for Pittsburgh, right? So my brother goes to school in Monessen, and he’s a drummer. He is SO rad, he’s going to come to the show, and may or may not hop on the drum kit for a song….I’m hoping we have time to practice, but that will be incredibly cute.