For a crash course in how to lose one’s innocence in a hurry, few institutions are more eye-opening than the music industry. It took Lucy Dacus next to no time to discover this after making No Burden, which was one of the great albums of 2016. Self-recorded and released on the tiny indie EggHunt imprint, the Richmond, Virginia–based artist’s debut began attracting plenty of attention, the songs wickedly clever, hauntingly melancholy, and beautifully dreamy, sometimes all at the same time.
Before Dacus knew it, she was taking meetings with labels across the country, all of which promised things they probably couldn’t deliver. The 21-year-old would eventually sign with megarespected indie heavyweight Matador Records, which is famous for treating its artists with respect. Happy as she is with that decision, she suggests she’s lost some of the innocence that not only first got her writing songs but eventually led her to bail on film school for music.
“I haven’t lost all faith,” Dacus says with a laugh, on the line from her home in Richmond, “but it’s true that once you’re in it, a bit of the magic falls away. Maybe that doesn’t happen to everyone, and I really didn’t want it to happen to me, but it’s true that you start to meet people with business mentalities instead of creative mentalities. And so, I dunno, sometimes I don’t feel the same magic that I used to as a showgoer. Playing a show, there’s all this behind-the-scenes stress, like maybe your van breaks down, and you have to deal with it.”
While barely of drinking age in most American states, Dacus sounds, quite admirably, like an old soul on No Burden. It’s hard not to fall instantly for “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore”, where, over a rumble-in-the-surf guitar line, the singer drawls, “Is there room in the band? I don’t need to be the frontman/If not, then I’ll be the biggest fan.” The metal-heart postblues of “Troublemaker Doppelgänger” has her observing “No child is born knowing there’s an ugly or evil thing/When did my folks stop covering my eyes?”
“That lyric comes from a constant question I have,” Dacus says. “Whenever I’m trying to understand people that I don’t understand, or things in people or even in myself, I’ll say, ‘When did this negativity get here?’ I try to think back to how I was raised to deal with things, and then consider how the person that I’m dealing with grew up. It’s true that no child is born knowing there’s an evil thing. You learn what is ugly.”
Despite such existential moments, Dacus comes across as anything but jaded. Funnily, she ended up embarking on a music career almost by accident, picking up the guitar at age 12 after years of writing poetry and journals for herself. Everything would coalesce when a friend, Jacob Blizard, who was studying guitar in university, asked to record her for a school project. The songs that would make up No Burden were recorded in a day with Blizard (who is now in her band), with overdubs and backing harmonies taking a second day.
“We kind of stumbled into this,” Dacus says. “I never imagined that the album would affect people the way that it has. I wrote the songs over three years, just writing for myself—like an impulse. I wanted to express something and grow as a person. There was a realization that ‘Other people do this as well, so there should be nothing holding me back.’ ”
Except that few people do it as well as Dacus the first time out. If ever. She’s too humble to admit that, but will note that she couldn’t be more excited about what’s coming next. The magic, evidently, is anything but gone, despite the inevitable down days that come with being in the music industry.
“We were so limited on time for No Burden that we didn’t get to overthink anything,” she says. “There was no going for the perfect take, or even going for three takes. It was kind of nice because what you’re hearing is our first impulse. But I will admit we’ve just finished the second record, and it was so nice to spend 20 minutes instead of two minutes on a part.”
Lucy Dacus plays the Cobalt on Monday (July 24).