A small, dark-haired child sucking on a piece of grass, happy outside on a sunny day, is the image that greets me over Zoom when singer songwriter Lucy Dacus picks up the call. It’s a family snapshot, candid and unfiltered, one of those you’d find in an album on a shelf at your mum and dad’s. It’s fitting as a profile shot for the artist whose latest album is entitled Home Video and serves up stories from her years growing up in Richmond Virginia. Her third album after 2016’s No Burden and 2018’s Historian, it has delighted fans of her indie folk rock blend of melody and poetry, honesty and humour, and will feature heavily at her Edinburgh International Festival gig at Leith Theatre.
“Yeah, that was taken at my dad’s place in Mississippi. It’s a Southern thing, to suck long grass. They all have a different flavour,” says the musician who metamorphoses into her 27-year-old self, walking on camera through her Pittsburgh hotel room, looking for a “not messy part” for a backdrop. She and her band are in the middle of a four-week tour of the US before heading for Edinburgh this week and Dacus was up late after last night’s gig.
Dacus is a storyteller and her music often focuses on relationships and their patterns but Home Video saw Dacus going right back to her youth, revisiting diaries and videos from between the ages of seven and 17. Zooming in with wry, adult yet compassionate eyes, she unashamedly puts the memories out there, the awkwardnesses and achievements of her coming of age.
As she says in the chorus of the track Hot and Heavy, “Being back here makes me hot in the face… Couldn't look away even if I wanted… Try to walk away but I come back to the start”.
“I think that’s what the record’s about, like no matter how far away I get from my past I always come back to it and I might as well face it. Even if it makes me feel nervous, or makes me feel embarrassed, there’s a lot to learn from looking at the past.”
Tracks from Home Videos, referencing skipping school to go to the cinema, crushes, heartbreak, feckless parents and religious summer camp and will feature in the show, along with fan favourites and maybe a cover or two, the likes of Dancing in the Dark or La Vie en Rose.
“It’s the first show of the tour so we might be a little nervous which I think actually ends up making for good shows. I think it should be a good one. I’ve heard really good things about the Festival,” she says.
“We always play Night Shift which is always fun but I try to do different sets, play people’s favourites but different covers or a couple of older songs. One of the main ones we have to decide is Thumbs because that’s a crowd favourite but it’s also very quiet.”
Quiet it may be, but the use to which the thumbs are put is not for the nervous, despite Dacus’s melodic voice and harmonious delivery.
For anyone who hasn’t heard her music, and didn’t catch the 2019 Edinburgh gig or sold-out show at St Luke’s in Glasgow this spring on their European tour or seen her as part of Boygenius with Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers, she describes it as “literary,” and laughs.
“The writing is probably the stand-out part. It’s singer-songwriter, rock or indie rock, but I don’t really feel affectionate towards any genre. I do try to have really good songwriting and hope people will hear the lyrics. I hope it’s kind of cinematic or literary, just good storytelling.”
“I sing about other people a lot. I sing about my friends and relationships and scenes from my past. On Home Video I feel like a historian, trying to write about my core beliefs, like identity and loss and grief and life and death, big themes. On No Burden I wasn’t really paying attention to what I was writing, that was just what was coming out, about travelling and having crushes and wanting to fit in. I think anything is fair game. There’s a couple of categories I haven’t written about much yet, like Love or Family, big behemoth categories I’m interested to talk about some day. But it feels easy for me to write about other people.”
Ducas is always thinking about what’s next and always writing songs, at home or on the road. “Usually by the time an album comes out I’ve got another one half written. I dream and I scheme all the time. There’s a planner in me always trying to kinda build up the future. And it’s fun to do.”
On stage from a young age - her parents were Christian although Dacus no longer describes herself as religious - she often found herself performing in church groups and singing, but also watching others.
“I think I was observing a lot. My favourite thing as a kid would be to sit under a big tree and pretend I was part of the tree and looking out on everything. People would be playing on the playground and I would just sit and watch. I had friends, and I’m not an introvert or an extrovert, but I’m deeply either one of those sometimes.”
With a mother who was a piano teacher, Dacus grew up surrounded by music.
“My mother tried to teach me piano but I was such a little jerk about it. She would say here is a C chord and I would say ‘no’. I would just negate her, and she would say ‘OK, I’m an adult and I’m a pianist, you are a child, you don’t know what you’re talking about’. But I performed at church when I was four or five, so I’ve always been on stages but it’s never really felt like it was about me. I also did theatre as a kid and I was in ensembles but even if I was like a main part, you’re part of the cast and making something that doesn’t have to do with you, and church is about God, not you, so it took a while to start performing something representative of who I am. But it’s probably why I’m pretty comfortable with it, just like, it hasn’t been an abnormal thing throughout my life.”
With piano problematic, Dacus opted for guitar, and since she picked up her Ibanez has never looked back. These days her favourite is her custom blue Fender American Ultra Telecaster. “It’s such a solid guitar with strings that sound incredible, very true sounding and really easy to play. I love my Epiphone though, the Ibanez. That has a lot of low end and I have a really low voice so when I was playing solo that would make my voice sit up higher.”
After school Dacus’s music career took off and now with three albums behind her and a life of touring internationally, alternative jobs aren’t something she needs to think about but what would she do if she wasn’t making a living out of her music?
“The job I had before this was photo editor, working nine to five and batch editing yearbook photos - portraits and sports teams photos, engagement photos, wedding photos and that was fine. I actually kind of like tedious, repetitive tasks, so maybe I’d work in a factory. I think I’d alway be writing, so maybe I would have ended up writing a book or something. I don’t know if I have the guts to write a book but it’s a dream of mine.” For the moment her literary ambitions are on hold while Dacus takes her music on the road, although after a gig she likes nothing better than to lose herself in book - “when I get back to my bunk I usually like to read and give my ears a break” - and after Edinburgh it’s London then Paris.
For all that Dacus writes about personal, potentially cringe-worthy moments, she manages to make them universal, sparking recognition, and there’s nothing shaming about her ‘fess up style.
“I want the audience to feel safe, like they belong and to walk away feeling joy, even if they had to cry at some point. I want people to feel like they can lose control and nothing bad will happen. Like there’s a lot of people that cry [at her gigs] which I think is a very big compliment. I don’t want to push people into feeling something they’re not ready to feel but I guess they did kind of buy a ticket so they kind of knew what they were getting into.”
“Any time you let yourself feel what you’re feeling, that’s a little victory. I think crying is a really beautiful reaction and losing control and letting yourself feel things is a very magical moment, so it’s cool when that happens, but it’s not what I’m trying for. I wrote some of the songs a long time ago and I just have to hope that they stay potent and still matter to people.”
You didn’t need to grow up in Richmond, Virginia to experience the awkwardness of youth and Ducas’s experiences touch a chord, but the city in particular is a place that keeps pulling her back, despite a move during Covid to Philadelphia.
“Richmond’s a great town. It’s the beginning of the south. If I hadn’t grown up there I would want to be there and I probably will move back some day. It’s pretty small and there are a lot of people who never leave so the sense of community is really strong and also insular. There's a river running through it that is just gorgeous and the food is incredible. I was in Richmond recently and was like, this is exactly where I am myself, on a hot, humid summer night, walking around, while nobody’s driving, in the middle of the street. I have a lot of sentimentality for that place.”
Because of Covid restrictions Ducas is still discovering Philadelphia and it still feels new.
“I love it. It’s chaotic, but it’s got a lot of good people. It’s just big enough that a lot of stuff happens but not so big that it’s got an oppressive identity like New York or LA, or even Portland Oregon, where people just talk about where you are. In Philly I feel like I get to the heart of a conversation much quicker. People are interested in their passions more than their circumstances.”
Ducas loves the travel element of her job, seeing new places and meeting new people, but it’s often a fleeting experience. “I don’t know if I’ll get to the heart of Edinburgh but I remember it being really beautiful, all the stone buildings downtown.”
Memories of its beauty are not all she took away from Edinburgh last time.
“That’s actually the city where I wrote Partner in Crime and where I played it for the first time at the Voodoo Rooms, because if I write a song on tour I try to play it that same night. It’s also the city where I injured my throat and ended up having to cancel the rest of the tour and go home and be silent for a full month,” she says.
Sounds dramatic, what was she doing?
“Well, I don’t usually drink coffee or alcohol, but I was drinking coffee to stay awake and I was drinking alcohol because every city you go to everyone has their special drink and I wanted to engage with that, and both of those things are really bad for your voice. I wasn’t sleeping enough and yeah, my throat just gave up on me.”
What was this local brew that rendered the songbird silent?
“I think it might have been just a local beer someone said was their favourite,” she says.
Maybe better to try whisky and honey as a nightcap next time, to soothe the vocal chords?
“Yeah, that sounds good,” she says gamely, receptive to suggestions. Ditto when she mentions that the Edinburgh gig is the first of the tour and they might get here a day early.
“I might have a day to walk around and see things, what should I do?” she asks.
Put on the spot and since her gig’s in Leith, I suggest a wander up or down Leith Walk, with its vinyl and book shops, independent stores, bars and cafes with people-watching opportunities galore, starting or ending in the city centre from which she can see the skyline and hills, satisfying her desire to see some of Scotland’s scenery within the time constraint.
“Yeah, sounds cool. A volcano?” she says, intrigued, ready for new discoveries.
For Dacus the travel and performance of her music make for the perfect job, although if she didn’t have an audience, she reckons she’d still write songs and sing them.
“The act of singing is so pleasing to me. I like words so much, I like writing and figuring out what I think and I like recording. I like travelling. I like every part of it pretty much. I wish I could live two lives and tour constantly AND be at home full-time. The only downside is not having a home life as much but I feel like I can’t complain!
“It feels very lucky that people connect to my songs. It wouldn’t mean as much to me if it didn’t matter to other people. Like I get messages from people and letters at shows and little gifts that remind me that the music matters. I show them to my band and we all feel like we’re a part of something that is doing a net positive thing for people.
“But yeah, if nobody wanted to hear it I would just sing to myself.”