Last year, Lucy Dacus almost crumbled under the staggering load of anticipation.
A rising singer and songwriter with a new record deal and an intensifying air of next-big-thing-ness, Ms. Dacus was forced to weather real life — including health issues, mounting personal responsibilities and the ambient stress of political turmoil — while also focusing on what had all of a sudden become her job. In Nashville last March, she made her second album — the first with any expectations attached, the one that is supposed to change her life. Then she had to wait for it to come out.
During that uneasy downtime, Ms. Dacus thought a lot about what her emotionally raw and intimate new work might mean to people — the album, “Historian,” is out March 2 on the storied independent label Matador — and also about what it meant to make music her career.
At a time of immense technological and aesthetic change in the industry, Ms. Dacus, based in Richmond, Va., is a timeless model: a guitar-based, album-oriented songwriter with a big, unadulterated voice and tattooable lyrics. But as she prepared to take the ambitious jump from local band to national act, opener to headliner, amateur to professional, Ms. Dacus, 22, was grappling with what it’s like to be a winner of that lottery and a product of the hype machine that keeps modern indie rock humming.
“I never considered a career in music because it was too unattainable,” she said, just a few years removed from dropping out of film school and taking a seasonal job as a photo editor for yearbooks and class pictures. “I just didn’t believe it was possible.”
But her ascent, while unlikely, is also representative in this slice of the music world: Spurred by her emotionally astute songwriting, Ms. Dacus has seen her early course accelerated by grass roots and media support, and guided by shrewd business decisions, even as she has aimed to remain fully in charge of her art.
In interviews spanning the last 11 months, beginning in the recording studio and ending on the edge of her album’s release, Ms. Dacus, a benevolent auteur-in-training, detailed the bizarre process of being deemed “up next” while trying to foreground what she called her “most precious thing — this music.”
“I feel so untrained and unprepared,” she said last month, “but it has been working.”
Ms. Dacus’s first album, “No Burden,” was recorded in 20 hours for a school project. Her live guitarist and studio multi-instrumentalist, Jacob Blizard, was required to make something over a college winter break, and he enlisted his friends, including Ms. Dacus and the producer Collin Pastore. “I had not once sang with a band before recording,” Ms. Dacus said.
But she had quietly been writing songs for years and journaling since second grade, honing a preternaturally sharp voice on topics like gender, faith and creativity itself. On the album’s standout first song and single, “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore,” Ms. Dacus sang with a wry wit about female archetypes: “Is there room in the band?/I don’t need to be the frontman/if not, then I’ll be the biggest fan.”
Tyler Williams, a Richmond musician, recalled being floored by his first listen. “This can’t possibly be made by a 20-year-old in Richmond,” he thought, and soon signed on as her manager, intent on finding a larger platform for “No Burden.” EggHunt, a tiny local label, agreed to back the LP, and a boutique public relations company in Brooklyn was hired for the campaign.
In November 2015, a few months before the album release, “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore” had its premiere on the website of the tastemaking magazine The Fader. That very day, Ms. Dacus was fielding interest from the major labels on down, along with publicists, booking agents and other background actors who make the business tick.
Mr. Williams, whose own group, the Head and the Heart, had signed to a major label, recognized what he called “the whirlwind of momentum picking up for a band, that hurricane of energy around an artist.”
Ms. Dacus, though, remained measured. Despite being wined and dined over the coming months — some labels would “make a point to say, ‘This is a very expensive restaurant,’” she said — Ms. Dacus ultimately went with Matador, a late entry in the sweepstakes, whose executives had approached after seeing her live, not online.
She also appreciated the label’s track record with longevity, citing career artists like Yo La Tengo who continue to make albums and tour long after any trendiness has worn off. Matador would go on to rerelease “No Burden” in September 2016, building on the buzz generated by Bandcamp streams and coverage from influential outlets like Pitchfork and NPR, as Ms. Dacus continued writing songs and making a name on the road.
As the pieces fell into place for a follow-up on a larger scale, all Ms. Dacus had to do was make it.
Last spring, the “No Burden” team reassembled. Ms. Dacus had first tried recording her fresh material with a new producer in Portland, Ore., but the sessions failed to jell. Soon after, at a Nashville studio known for Christian rock where the weekend rates were discounted, she was joined once again by Mr. Blizard and Mr. Pastore.
The rooms were stuffed with vintage equipment, and the rapport between the old friends was easy. Though Ms. Dacus referred obliquely to “sophomore album worries,” she had already meticulously arranged the music and planned a track list. As Mr. Blizard recorded guitar, Ms. Dacus exerted a firm but casual authority, taking suggestions and using “we” and “us” when referring to the process, but making every final decision — from the tone of a solo to the arrangement of a backup vocal — herself.
The compositions had grown more grand than those on “No Burden,” with space for horns and strings, but they hadn’t lost their sprawl or specificity. On the opening song, “Night Shift,” a nearly seven-minute slow-build about a necessary breakup, Ms. Dacus reached for the climax. “You got a 9 to 5 so I’ll take the night shift/and I’ll never see you again if I can help it,” she belted. “In five years I hope the songs feel like covers/dedicated to new lovers.”
In down moments, Ms. Dacus, wrapped in a blanket, journaled or tended to the stack of books she was devouring, including Susan Sontag’s journals, short stories by James Baldwin and “Home” by Marilynne Robinson. She was also shopping online for a home in Richmond, a once-impossible idea made realistic by her budding career.
On its seventh day in the studio, the group ran out of finishing touches and gave itself a small round of applause. Ms. Dacus, as usual, seemed content and levelheaded, with a touch of concern. “I wonder if I will ever stop feeling wound up until this album comes out,” she said.
In between may have been the hardest part.
As Ms. Dacus’s album was mixed and mastered, and she fretted over cover art and the title (she considered “Penultimatum,” but wondered if it was too punny), she also emotionally prepared to have her puncturing, diaristic songs heard on a scale they never had been before.
“I think it’s good,” she said in June, “and I’m very intimidated by what it might mean to people and how my identity is going to be dispersed by it.” With the first LP, Ms. Dacus said, “We had no concept of it mattering.”
A band that comes out of nowhere is easy to root for; but, as a part of the industry, with levers being pulled on her behalf, Ms. Dacus had signed up for more scrutiny. She mused about the need to develop “a thicker skin while also remaining vulnerable.”
As someone who had long created with no expectation of an audience, the path to professionalizing was fraught. “Even people who have never been involved in the music industry are like, ‘Watch out, it’s going to change you — things are going to get weird,’” Ms. Dacus said. “That’s a well-documented fact about artists as their careers go on. I’m actively, months in advance, trying to look out for myself and fight against whatever downward spiraling other people encounter.”
Julien Baker, another Southern singer-songwriter who also signed to Matador after a small, much-adored debut, has developed a deep kinship with Ms. Dacus as the two walk similar paths. Ms. Baker wrote in an email that Ms. Dacus “understands being a deeply creative person and having to try to fit one’s relationship to their art into a schema of what it means to be a career musician.”
“Lucy is acutely aware of her position to the world and extremely compassionate, but has a deep strength and self-assuredness,” she added. “Her confidence isn’t rooted in arrogance, it’s just rooted in the peace of self-knowledge.”
Still, there was room for doubts. “I’m, like, a kid,” Ms. Dacus said. “I might never be ready, but it’s going to happen.”
By January, with the album around the corner, Ms. Dacus had largely come to terms with the expectations that had grown around her. Though the sale was hectic, she’d settled into her new home in Richmond, putting down roots she hoped would ground her as her new life took off.
“I feel really lucky,” she said of the apparatus that was revving up to spread her work. “So few people get that, and that’s why this record is kind of intense.”
She had settled on the title “Historian,” from a poignant line on the album’s closing track: “I’ll be your historian/and you’ll be mine/And I’ll fill pages of scribbled ink/hoping the words carry meaning.”
The sentiment spoke to what Ms. Dacus considers her most important role as a writer, that of a collector and chronicler of her own life and the lives of the people she loves. Having sat with the finished album for months and having allowed it to settle, she described “Historian” as a song cycle about “living through loss and the inevitable darkness of life, and doing so hopefully and joyfully.”
From “Night Shift,” the breakup song, to “Pillar of Truth,” a devastating hymnal about the death of her grandmother, Ms. Dacus traced an arc of increasingly difficult grief that is processed and preserved in music, allowing her to ultimately choose optimism. “I am at peace with my death,” she sings on “Next of Kin.” “I can go back to bed.”
“There’s a lot of art that’s about loss and sadness,” Ms. Dacus said, “but I would love it if hopefulness were more of a cliché. That’s the work that always sticks with me and emboldens me in life.”
Having seized her opportunity for growth as an artist, she relished the thought of performing her new work far and wide, for audiences and also herself, for as long as she can.
“It’s important for me to write songs that feel good to sing every night and remind me of my core, truest beliefs,” she said. “If you can come out from under pain, why wouldn’t you? You definitely can. There’s no question.”
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