Hometown Hero: Lucy Dacus Rises From River City

The up-and-coming singer-songwriter is the latest in a suddenly strong line of musicians who call Richmond, VA, home.

On an entirely average midday afternoon, Lucy Dacus and I are walking the paved pathways of Richmond, Virginia’s historic Hollywood Cemetery. A sprawling expanse of land near Dacus’s (pronounced Day-cuss) home in the neighborhood of Oregon Hill, the popular tourist site overlooks the nearby James River and serves as the final resting place for thousands, including a few presidents and enough Civil War figures to fill a Ken Burns documentary.

Though we were initially in search of a massive granite pyramid built as a monument to the soldiers of the Confederate army—a memorial that supposedly takes on a fairly spooky vibe when the wind howls through the cracks of the structure’s loose stones—Dacus and I have lost all sense of direction and have instead stumbled upon something with even more haunted-city lore: the mausoleum of W.W. Pool. “Do you know about the Richmond vampire?” asks Dacus, questioning with the kind of glee that is clearly hoping for “No” as an answer. “This is his house.”

As she tells it, at the beginning of the twentieth century a train tunnel collapse occurred in the city, burying a number of people in the accident. “One person, however, was seen to escape blazing in fire,” she says. “Apparently he ran here—which doesn’t make sense since the location of where it happened is so far away—but he was seen entering this tomb. People went to look for him but he wasn’t there. Then there came all these stories of seeing somebody lurking in the doorway like some dark figure over the decades. Obviously there are flaws in the story, but it’s lived long enough that people still keep it up.”  

While certainly not an apparitional ghost or vampire, Dacus has herself become a fixture for the citizenry of the Virginia capital, thanks in part to the breakthrough success of her debut album No Burden. Joining the ranks of fellow natives Matthew E. White and Natalie Prass, the twenty-one-year-old songwriter has become the latest addition to a small but growing indie music community that is changing the perception of a city whose most notable musical exports have been the heavy metal theatrics of GWAR and Lamb of God.

“The city isn’t very [music] industry–minded, which hurts and helps,” Dacus says earlier in the day in a local coffee shop. “It’s cool to live here and be a part of that. It’s a really passionate place and people genuinely support each other, but then when something or someone gets really good creatively, it’s hard for it to be seen by the world outside.”

“It’s a really passionate place and people genuinely support each other.” — Lucy Dacus

With a blend of guitar-driven melodies, reflective missives, and observational ruminations that place her in the company of such revered artists as Sharon Van Etten, Kurt Vile, and Angel Olsen, Dacus is resonating beyond Richmond’s city limits. Her songs deal with everything from identity politics (“I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore”) and the nervous energy of potential love (“Green Eyes, Red Face”) to insecurity and the fear of being forgotten (“Trust“). “I’m obviously writing to sort out stuff,” she says. “I don’t always end up sorting it out and the song doesn’t usually reach a resolution. They exist in that period of not deciding and not understanding.”

“What makes Lucy so fascinating and unique to me is that there’s no degree of affectation with what she does,” says singer-songwriter Julien Baker, who formed a friendship with Dacus after the latter opened for her at a Washington, DC gig; Baker says she was brought to tears by Dacus’s performance of No Burden’s “Map on a Wall.” “There’s no point at which I feel her lyrics are condescendingly intelligent. She’s one of—if not the—smartest person I know who is not speaking from a super-insular, hyper-academic point of view.”

The adopted daughter of an elementary school music teacher mother and graphic designer father, Dacus grew up just outside Richmond in the suburb of Mechanicsville. While in her youth she listened to selections from her parents’ record collection—Prince, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen—but it wasn’t until she started attending high school within Richmond proper that her true musical education began, as a number of the city’s better-known music venues were all within walking distance when classes ended.

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photo by Dusdin Condren

“I would stay after school, walk to shows, sleep over at friends’ houses, and then go to school the next day,” she says. “That contributed heavily to my involvement in the music community here.” Dacus was eventually encouraged by her peers to share her own songs with an actual audience. While attending college at Virginia Commonwealth University, a childhood friend who was interning at Nashville’s Starstruck Studios (owned by Reba McEntire) informed her of a brief window where no one would be in the studios and proposed that she come in and record her songs. With the help of Jacob Blizard, another childhood friend who is now Dacus’s go-to collaborator and a member of her touring band, she managed to turn songs that were originally accompanied by just a single guitar into works arranged for a full band within a matter of days. “I had never played a show with a band or anything,” says Dacus. “We wrote all the parts for the band three or four practices before recording.”

“There’s no degree of affectation with what she does.” — Julien Baker

The timeframe for the album’s actual recording was even shorter than this preparation, with Dacus and her newly formed band completing the initial tracking in roughly fourteen hours, with another six tacked on for overdubs. With everything depending on getting in and out as efficiently as possible, Dacus says that “the album is mostly live takes of everyone playing at the same time.”

Dacus insists that she wasn’t expecting anything to come of the album once it was finished. Her first thought was to simply upload it to Bandcamp and give it away to family and close friends. “But then it came out better than we thought,” she says. As soon as No Burden‘s lead single “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore” landed online late last year, an unanticipated torrent of e-mails from labels, management groups, booking agencies, and promotional companies began flooding her inbox. After initially releasing No Burden at the beginning of the year through a local Richmond label, Dacus eventually signed to Matador, who have since reissued the LP.

With more than enough material for another record—one that will very likely see release sometime next year—Dacus is ultimately still playing catch-up to the success she’s made for herself. After performing a massive homecoming show at Richmond’s premier venue The National, she took her show abroad to Europe. But now, Dacus is enjoying the opportunity to be home, in a city that has enthusiastically claimed her as its own, and that she has claimed right back. There might even be time to actually decorate her new place. “I moved in July but I haven’t been home enough to have unpacked any boxes at my house,” she says. “I’m still nesting.” FL

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