Lucy Dacus released her debut album, No Burden, in 2016 when she was just 21-years-old. Her sophomore effort, Historian, was praised by critics as one of 2018’s best and she somehow found time to create a beautiful EP with a supergroup as a hobby.
boygenius is the trio of Dacus, Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers, three contemporaries that have set the new standard for not just great songwriting, but for rock and roll. Incidentally, two of those women—Dacus and Baker—are Southern (Dacus calls Richmond, Virginia home, while her longtime friend Baker calls Memphis, Tennessee home).
Before stopping by Saturn for a solo date with her own band, Dacus chats about her home, what spawned the boygenius project, youth in music, her style and about growing up as a Christian in the South and her own struggles with that identity.
Is Richmond still home? Or have you made the move to Nashville?
Richmond is still home. We spend a lot of time in Nashville; we record in Nashville. But Richmond is my place.
Is that something that you feel like you have to change to make work easier for you or do you think you can stay home and accomplish all of the same things?
I think that staying in Richmond makes sense. We’ve thought about moving to Nashville, but there, it feels like the whole city is the office. There’s such a pervasive music scene there. I don’t know if I would want to come home from four and still be surrounded by the music industry. It’s kind of nice that Richmond is quieter and slower than that.
I was actually fortunate enough to be in Nashville for the boygenius show at the beginning of November…
Oh my God, that was one of the craziest nights of all of our lives. We hardly remember it. Phoebe [Bridgers] said she just blacked out. It was stressful, but it was also beautiful. It’s kind of crazy that our first show was The Ryman—probably the most significant venue I can think of—yeah, that’s weird.
How was that tour and how much do you hope to pursue that project going forward?
It was amazing. Julien and Phoebe are two close friends and I really respect them and trust them. Honestly, that’s even more important to me than boygenius, the band. I don’t know what we’re going to do next. We still all like each other and we all really want to hang out, but we all have such busy schedules that we don’t really even have a plan in place to see each other again. But we text together all the time and get on the phone together just to catch up.
So I guess that you’re telling me what ended up being this amazing, artistic project that produced this beautiful EP was really just an excuse for some friends to hang out?
Yeah, well, the tour was booked first. The music kind of came pretty effortlessly. We’ve all done the actual difficult work of coming to know each other and trust each other. Once that’s in place, it’s pretty easy to make music.
At that performance, you each performed solo before performing as a group. Was it booked as just you each performing solo and boygenius just kind of came out of it?
Yeah, so Julien and Phoebe had a tour booked together and they asked their agent if I could open. And once we all knew we would be on the road together, we were like, “We should do a song.” And that became three songs, then it became six songs and that’s what everyone has heard.
You and those ladies—your contemporaries—you’re putting things out at a much younger age than the people that came before you. Liz Phair released Exile in Guyville on your label, Matador, when she was 26 and you’re putting out your first record at 21. What makes it easier to reach those heights at a younger age?
I think it has to do with the internet—accessing information, the demystification of technology that it takes to make a recording.
And the availability financially to have recording software. GarageBand…being able to get your first guitar off of Craigslist. These things are more immediate than they used to be. People in their 20s now had GarageBand when they were children, basically. I think it’s a language that people are learning more naturally than they used to—you used to go to school and be like, “Okay, this is my path,” before you would know anything about recording. I’m glad that it’s becoming more accessible. I hope it becomes more accessible.
And this isn’t about me or my genre or whatever, but I think that’s one of the reasons that there’s so many super creative hip-hop artists. You can do it all yourself on a laptop. I think it’s become the most flourishing genre in music right now.
Because of that, there’s a lot more art. There’s a lot more people creating. Does that quantity make it more difficult to find your audience?
I think it makes it easier. Audience is a vague term; I know some people consider that to be a wide audience. But I think in any city, it’s possible to have the audience of your peers, to book yourself local shows, putting it up on bandcamp—it doesn’t necessarily mean fhat everybody is going to sell out rooms of thousands of people, but I think there’s a growing middle class in music where people are able to sustain their work and live off of it and make money from it. Maybe not as extravagantly as pop stars do or stars of the past, but I think it’s a very positive development.
You’re probably the hardest rocking of this trio—Phoebe and certainly Julien are a bit quieter, but you have a song like “Timefighter” that is this big, monster rock and roll song. It defies the stereotype of the “genre.” Where do you find that heaviness within you and what inspires it?
I just think of my band as a rock band. If people ask what genre of music I play, I just say “rock.” Unless we are crossing the border, then I say “singer-songwriter.” [laughs]
I mean, I am a singer and I do write the songs.
What I care about the most is the message of the songs. So I try to listen to what I’m saying and recognize the emotion behind it and the feeling that I want people to have. The music unfolds from there. If it’s a song about being angry, then there has to be loud distortion. If it’s a song about telling a secret, then it’s got to feel really quiet and intimate. If it’s a song about being really hopeful, maybe there will be bright guitars or some pretty lead part.
The music is secondary to the lyrics, for me. The last record dealt with a lot of fear and anxiety. I think that’s why there are big jumps from being really quiet to being really loud. That’s how I think of anxiety.
You’ve talked in the past about how you grew up as a Christian in the South. How did that shape you? Did you ever feel bad about leaving that faith behind you over the past few years?
Luckily, everyone that I really care about has stayed with me. Luckily, the relationships that i made within my faith were strong enough to last in my leaving the church. I’m still very interested in the things that Christianity is interested in—how to live, how to treat people right—and more abstract thoughts like how to think about death and how to cope with evil. I don’t know exactly what evil is, but there were some pretty amazing topics that were brought up in my spiritual upbringing that don’t really stop when I stopped going to church. I just got to a point where I felt like saying that I knew God—I lacked so much humility in saying that. So I’ve just kind of become quiet about all of those things and just stepped away.
But everyone that I grew up with that was also Christian, we kind of went through it together. Either coming out of it or I genuinely care about them to continue my relationships with them. I feel like many people haven’t had it as easily as I have. Even then, there are stories I could tell that are extremely painful, but such is life. It’s worth it. Once you realize that you’re just going through the motions of something—and I definitely was with church—it was very freeing to let myself fail my prior expectations for myself. It now feels really good to opt into those questions as they come to me rather than force myself to constantly be centering my life around the question of faith.
You’ve said in the last that it’s something that kind of brought you and Julien together. How have you been able to grow together through those common experiences?
I was just hanging out with her yesterday and we were talking about it. She proclaims herself a Christian and I feel like I don’t have the wherewithal to do that anymore. But we still care about all of the elements of Christianity that pose questions to human existence.
It’s nice to have a vocabulary to share with somebody and beyond that, I value her thoughts and I feel like she is such a caring and thoughtful person. The way she manifests Christianity is only doing good for the world. I have no need to strip her of that title. That’s not the effort—if one person stops going to the church, it shouldn’t be the new goal; to get everybody else out of the church.
Was the state of the world over the past few years the catalyst for your moving away from self-professed faith or was it something that had already happened in your life?
No, I feel like if anything, hard times are what would bring people to faith—wanting to trust in something that they can’t understand; finding a place to place their hopefulness with a name.
But with me, it was just realizing that when I said, “I’m a Christian” to people, they would come to that word with all of their own baggage, so it was a meaningless word. Because everyone I would talk to, we would have to either misunderstand each other or work really hard to understand each other’s definition of what that means. And it was just really exhausting, and after fighting for a really long time for everyone to agree to what my definition of a Christian was, I just said, “You know what? This word. There’s a definition of it that I don’t personally resonate with.
You released two albums in 2018. Is 2019 as ambitious?
Everybody should be on their toes. I mean, if they’re interested.
Will we hear new music at Saturn?
Oh yeah, I always try to play new music live because it helps me get used to the song before going into the studio. And it feels special to share that, person-to-person, before recording. I really feel like I’m sharing the song.
Lucy Dacus comes to Saturn on Monday, February 4. Doors open at 8 p.m. and the show begins at 9 p.m. Illuminati Hotties opens.