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Lucy Dacus Is The Author of Her Own Story

The 21-year-old songwriter talks about her strikingly original debut, No Burden

Whenever she finds herself in a new town, Lucy Dacus looks for a bookstore. "They have good stuff in the window!" the 21-year-old Richmond, Virginia, singer-songwriter says excitedly, standing outside of a cozy independent shop in New York City's West Village and eyeing the literary riches inside. It's a Monday afternoon in July, her first day off from her biggest national tour to date. "Really, if we have time off, I should be walking around and seeing what a city is about," she reflects. "But walking around a bookstore is just as good, I think."

Dacus enters Three Lives & Co. and checks out the paperbacks on a display table, hunting out a new read for the road. An eager consumer of classic and contemporary fiction since childhood, she has no intention of giving up the habit now that No Burden, her strikingly original debut album, has made her a moderately famous indie-rock star. "I do a lot of reading in the van," she says. Things are happening fast for Dacus: Released early this year by a small Richmond label, the album drew enough word-of-mouth praise to land her a bigger deal with indie mainstay Matador Records, which is reissuing No Burden in September, and a coveted booking at Lollapalooza.

Walking past a corner nook filled with memoirs, she mentions a recent encounter with a volume of essayist Susan Sontag's posthumously published private notebooks. "Really unfiltered personal writing is cool to me," Dacus says. "I'm like, how did you show that to everyone? Am I ever going to open up my journals to the world? Right now, no. But maybe someday."

Dacus herself has been an avid self-chronicler since the fifth grade, diligently filling 11 handwritten hardcover journals, beginning with a pink book whose memory makes her laugh today. "So many sparkly pens!" she says. "And a lot of hearts. I would sign off every entry with 'Yours truly, Lucy.' I thought, This is what people do, they keep diaries. I didn't know what I was doing. But it trained me to express myself." Her later journals have evolved in tone but remain neatly organized by date. "It's half fact, half feeling. A journal is your completely unaltered voice — it's just for you. And if you know that voice, and you like it, you can bring it out to everyone else, and that's the most honest and vulnerable thing you can do."

I get smoke in my eyes every time I try to look you in the eye

Do I even know what your face looks like

Or just the cloud of smoke in its place?

It took years for Dacus to come around to the idea of a career in music, though she'd been writing songs for longer than she can remember. "Maybe I thought it was a little bit selfish," she tells me over vegan ice cream after leaving the bookstore with her purchases. "It's one thing to make something, and then it's another thing to put it in front of other people." After high school, she enrolled at Virginia Commonwealth University to study filmmaking, with vague plans to travel the world making documentaries. Every once in a while, friends in local bands who knew she played music would ask her to open for them at gigs around town, and she usually went along with a shrug — "like doing them a favor, kind of. It wasn't top of my priority list."

But she kept writing songs, and they kept getting better. Soon she had soured on her silver-screen dreams. "It's such an exclusive infrastructure, and there's so much money involved," she says of the film world. "I just couldn't imagine editing some horrible rom-com or something that I didn't believe the message of." It was around this time that she heard from an old friend from Richmond: Jacob Blizard, who had gone off to Oberlin College to study guitar, needed help finishing an end-of-term music project. "He's like, 'Do you have enough songs for a record that I can play guitar on?' And I'm like, 'Sure!'"

In January 2015, Dacus and Blizard took her songs to Nashville, where another friend from home, engineer/producer Collin Pastore, was working at Reba McEntire's Starstruck Studios. They sketched out new arrangements for Dacus's solo tunes, waited for an off day at the studio, and recorded No Burden in less than 24 hours. Expectations for the project remained modest beyond Blizard's Oberlin credit. "This album was not intended to become a career kind of situation," Dacus says. "We were just going to give it to our family and friends and put it on Bandcamp."

Inevitably, though, No Burden's poetic intensity made a name for itself in the months that followed. Not long after its initial release on EggHunt Records on February 26 of this year, Dacus got an email at her personal address from Matador co-owner Gerard Cosloy expressing interest in reissuing the album for a wider audience. "I kind of flipped out," she recalls with a smile. After a quick brush-up on Matador's storied past and present roster, she was sold. "Cat Power, Yo La Tengo, Belle and Sebastian — these are people that have been playing music forever. I'm like, 'Cool, I would also like to play music forever!'"

Dacus continues to wrestle with what it means to let the world in on her deeply personal music. "I'll write [songs] and end up trying to think through something before I know what I think," she says. "It's sometimes hard to share a song that contains so much doubt." She cites "Dream State…" and "…Familiar Place," the paired ballads that form No Burden's conflicted emotional core: "That was me trying to figure out how to treat people that I cared about," she says. "There's no beginning-middle-end arc in that song. It's all middle."

We had a lot to measure.

We had more past than pleasure,

and time grows deep like weeds.

You catch me when I’m falling.

Sometimes, I wish you wouldn’t.

I can’t tell if I’m learning.

On recent opening dates for the Decemberists and Daughter, she's noticed her lyrics resonating with audiences in unexpectedly strong ways. "Most of the people are there for the huge headlining act, but every now and then, there'd be a couple people at the front knowing the words," she says. "I try to look them in the eye, like, 'I see you. Thank you for caring.'" At one show, she met a young woman who'd tattooed a line from "Dream State…" on her leg. "We didn't even play 'Dream State…' that night. I felt kind of evil."

"I Don't Wanna Be Funny Anymore," the sharply observed adolescent complaint that opens No Burden, is one of her most reliable crowd-pleasers on tour. "The last line in the song is, 'That funny girl doesn't want to smile for a while.' And uncontrollably, I smile every time after we play it," she says. "It's funny to harken back to that era when I was an unformed version of myself — forming, and clumsy."

Dacus laughs. "What's great about that song is, people seem to feel like, 'That's how I felt at that age, too.' And I'm like, 'I wish we could have talked about it then. We probably would have found so much solace in each other.'"

BONUS: LUCY DACUS'S SUMMER READING PICKS

Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life

"This is the most intense book. I recommended it to a bunch of people [when I was] halfway through, and I had to go back and say, 'I had no idea what I was getting you into!' It's a really good read if you're ready to be thrown into a pit of despair."

Eka Kurniawan, Beauty Is a Wound

"When I finished reading 100 Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez, I got really sad. I thought, This will never happen for me, for the first time, ever again. Then I opened Beauty Is a Wound. It's a completely different story and writing style, but it has a similar place in my heart now. It's very jovial and comedic, half magical realism and half historical fiction; it twists history to be something that it wasn't, and the characters are so rich."

Nancy Milford, Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay

"For my whole life, I've been a fiction purist. I had never read a biography that I liked [until this]. Milford's writing style makes it feel like she cares about her subject as a person. Edna St. Vincent Millay was ahead of her time. She was a very simple speaker; her poetry isn’t difficult to read at all. It almost feels like a child is telling you something wise. That’s the best."

Elena Ferrante, The Neapolitan Novels

"I'm about 80 pages into the second book. They're super-readable — it's the story of these two women's friendship through their whole lives, and you think, That's so cute, but it's not cute. It's not all happy. In My Brilliant Friend, they're children, and she writes kind of like a child. Then immediately in The Story of a New Name, it's almost like her writing style changes: They're older teenagers, getting married, and it's angsty. I'm so interested to get to the last two books, where I haven't really gone yet as a person."