Pride Issue

Lucy Dacus: Past, Present, And Future

The singer-songwriter reaches a crossroads as she examines the past on Home Video and begins to confront her future.

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On her new album Home Video, out June 25, Lucy Dacus examines her past over the course of 11 nostalgia-fueled songs that re-analyze her formative adolescent years. But today, she’s here to confront her future.

“What does it mean that it’s inverted?” she says, peering down at the Ace of Swords tarot card that’s just been laid before her. Dacus is a big believer in all of this; meeting on one of the first truly warm days of the year in May in her temporary Brooklyn Airbnb, it’s only two weeks after her 26th birthday, meaning we are still firmly in the midst of Taurus season. Birthdays in general signal a time of change; announcing your first album and headlining tour in three years — following a global pandemic, no less — does as well. So, there’s a lot to ask of the cards today.

“This album has brought up a lot, and once we tour, I’m going to be singing these songs every night and really deeply in the past,” she says as she shuffles the deck. Dacus is a novice tarot reader herself, having spent a good portion of quarantine reading cards with her roommates in the house she shares in Philadelphia. Today, she’s taking the backseat, letting David Odyssey, a professional tarot reader and NYLON’s in-house astrologer, lead the reading. It’s more than a month out from Home Video’s June release, but what follows is heavily on her mind. “I’ve been feeling really murky about letting these characters into my life,” she continues. “I can feel it in my stomach.”

The last time Dacus toured was in the fall of 2018 in support of Boygenius, her side project with Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker. This time around will be all her, and for an album that’s deeply personal — somehow, even more so than its deeply personal predecessors No Burden (2016) and Historian (2018). She’s worried what emotions these new songs, all closely ripped from the journals she’s been keeping for her entire life, might drudge up. As the cards flip up, it’s clear that her fears aren’t totally unfounded; a trio of the Ace of Swords, Knight of Cups, and Page of Swords paints a bigger picture of what’s to come. “The Ace of Swords is rooted in the Earth and saying that you are writing about the truth and speaking about the truth,” says Odyssey. “And this Knight of Cups is really expressing this true authenticity that people are so drawn to. But there is a bit of a fear of losing yourself. Which is OK. The Page of Swords pulled upside down is saying you won’t. You know what the work is about and you know what you represent. And I think that gives you a lot of perspective.”

“It’s kind of assuring to be like, yeah, the thing you’re afraid of is real. But it doesn’t have to be so bad,” Dacus says. Her focus shifts to a card at the center of her drawing: The Tower, commonly interpreted as meaning danger, crisis, destruction, and liberation, or, as Odyssey describes it, “You are in the tallest cell of the highest tower. You’re about to get blown out.”

“Here we go,” says Dacus. But she’s ready, or at least, she’s trying to be. “Sometimes I love the Tower because it’s not too bad, whatever you thought. It’s just like, life will just smack you into wherever it wants you to go. But I do have this fear of getting destroyed. And yeah, I’m going to get destroyed. But I think I’m afraid of a dark destruction, and I need to open up to more types of destruction.”

Here, Dacus gets candid about the new album and how it confronts her past, present, and future.

Home Video is not a traditional concept album, but if you had to give it one overarching story or theme, what would it be?

Memory and nostalgia. Growth. I don’t know if that all sounds corny, but I said nostalgia and I stand by it. I think that like a concept album, nostalgia gets a bad rap. And I think that that’s messed up because I think nostalgia is a good feeling. It’s a feeling of warmth. If you get to feel warm about your past, what a gift.

Why do you think nostalgia gets such a bad rap?

I don’t think that nostalgia is getting stuck in the past. I think it’s that ineffable feeling around good memories. You know, whenever you say “aww” about something. I like that feeling. I think that nostalgia within capitalism kind of sucks because people are just remaking the same movies. Nostalgia can take up space where new life could be, and I think maybe that’s why people are dismissive or afraid of it. They’re afraid that they will be cutting themselves off from new experiences or motivation toward the future if they’re just thinking about the past. But I think that the scale is actually tipped too deeply away from looking at the past. Progress just for progress sake is no good, and often you forget about origins. You forget about the myriad involved factors of any one situation. I think you have to start at the past in order to get to the future anyways.

When you write songs about your own past, like on this album, do you try to focus more on telling the real story of what happened, or how you personally remember it? Are you ever afraid that your memories might be clouded?

I think that I actually trust my memory more than the way I process things in the moment. I’ve gone back and read journals where I’ve completely misrepresented what happened in the moment, probably out of some self-saving device. It was just too much. It’s such a shame that humans can’t process what happened to them in the moment, and you just have to carry around all this baggage. Therapy rocks.

On “Partner in Crime,” you talk about lying about your age to impress a potential romantic partner. It could be very easy to gloss over or not include details like that that might not paint your past self in the best light, but you go out of your way to include it.

I like the feeling of being humbled. That is embarrassing, and I think embarrassment is essential. I don’t think you can really tell how much you’ve grown unless you cringe at who you used to be. I said this to my friend the other day, how life is innately cringe, and that is just something you must cope with. If I could find my old MySpace… I remember that my profile picture was one of those Photobooth pictures with the heat lamp feature. And I’m doing a peace sign with duck lips. That’s the stuff I love. It’s better to just enjoy how much you’ve grown.

How long have you kept a journal?

Since I was, like, seven. I was journaling pretty much every day until one of my journals got stolen on my first big tour in 2016. I lost three years of journaling: the end of senior year, my entire college experience, and the beginning of touring. And the recording of the first album. All of it’s gone. Whole friendships are contained in that that I will never get back. They happened, but it does feel like it broke my practice a little bit because the next journal so much at the beginning was spent like, Why do I do this? What is the point of this? Is it an action? Am I making something? Am I thinking about a reader? Am I the reader?

How often do you go back and read old ones?

Not often at all. I only did a couple of times when I was writing the record to cross-reference about some memories. But then about a month into lockdown, I started typing up from the very beginning, which I told myself I wouldn't do until it felt like the right time. And I was like, maybe this is a sign. I got to age 16 and then stopped, partially because I was like, I don’t know, that’s 10 years ago. Maybe I can wait more time. But also an ex of mine that I really don’t like came into the picture and my journaling just started to get really hurtful. I was just like, Why did I stomach this? I was just getting pissed at myself, so I just put it away.

Were there also memories that you had just completely forgotten about?

Yeah. And there were things that I remember as truly integral to who I am that were not represented. I was more mad about that.

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Do you ever find yourself going into songwriter mode when journaling, where you’re really focusing on succinct lines or themes?

When I journal, I’m not even thinking. I’ll read it back and I’ll have skipped words because it’s just more about the process. Occasionally I’ll put lyrics and be like, I wrote this today, and then I’ll try to figure out why I wrote the song.

Journaling can be so hard for some people because you have to examine your present right at the moment it’s happening. Do you ever struggle with that, or just living in the present in general?

I think what I’ve noticed is that I have to plan when I’m going to be in the present. I’ll have a period of time where I’m planning, and then because I told myself it’s allowed and I carved it out and I protected it, I can actually do it. I think I’m getting better at it.

How does that play into a time like now, when you have been inside for more than a year and are now staring down a summer that involves an album release and going back on tour?

I feel isolated from what it is. And I think the first show is going to kick my ass. I'm going to f*cking cry — or maybe it'll just be like soup, where everything is zen and feels right. I have cried thinking about it, which isn’t a great sign that I'll be composed there. But it does feel really good. Even just that reading with David showed me to be present. Don’t worry about who you owe and don’t worry about what will be. Just do the best you can at whatever juncture you’re at. I just have to remember that. Why is it so easy to forget?

How do you compare albums versus journals? Do you ever view your albums as journals?

Oh my gosh, I’ve never thought to compare them. I would relate songs and songwriting to journaling. But with albums, I know that I’m going to share those with people. I don’t know that I’m going to share my journals with anyone. And then the songs are kind of in the middle, where when I write them, it’s like a journal entry — I don’t know why I’m writing them. But then to choose to record it is like its own thing.

Does listening to your older albums begin to feel like reading old journals, where you’re more removed from the situation? Back in April, you posted to commemorate the five-year anniversary of the breakup that inspired “Night Shift,” and the lyric “In five years, I hope these songs sound like covers/Dedicated to new lovers,” writing: “As of today, it’s been five years and these songs do sorta sound like covers.”

They feel more personal because more people have taken them in. They matter the same amount to me and then they matter more to everyone else. And by then, my experience with it is not just about the song itself. I think “Night Shift” is a good example, which is what that tweet was about. I wrote it and it was about my life, but now I have memories of playing it. I have memories of people talking to me about it. And I have memories of having to show it to certain people. Its lifespan is so much more than just wrote it, put it out. It feels like it has its own thing going on. And I like it out of my hands.

This is your third album, and you’ve toured all over before — does that prior experience make it easier or harder for you to prepare yourself to jump back in? Is it better to know what’s about to come or go in blindly?

This album is more scary because of the type of songs they are. Historian, I made it because I wanted people to hear it, wanted people to understand me better because No Burden was so incidental. I didn’t put much thought into that record at all. And then Historian I was like, “OK, I need people to understand me.” This one it’s like, I don’t need really anything. This is just because. It feels a lot more open because there wasn’t as much of a goal. It feels like there's more room for more meaning to get in.

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