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Lucy Dacus: No Place Like Home

The indie songwriter pieces together archival memories in new album, Home Video.

by Isaac Page

Lucy Dacus has emerged as one of the most powerful songwriters of the last decade. Her songs portray moving stories of strength and failings. Her writing pours out with honesty and has made audiences wallow and weep in self-reflection. Honest songwriting is typically an exhausting ordeal. Still, Dacus won’t stop her steady rhythm.

On her latest record, Home Video, Dacus stepped into her past for inspiration by revisiting old family movies. Released by indie imprint Matador Records, the title could allude to the digital video snippets we consume every day on our screens but Dacus knows better; the home videos she’s talking about are way more intimate and far less ephemeral. “My dad took a lot of home videos growing up, and it had a tremendous impact on how I see myself and how I think about memory and art-making and documentation,” she says over the phone from her home in Philadelphia. “I feel like they influenced some of the most integral aspects of who I am. Not just the videos, but also his dedication to doing them and what that meant to him.” 

Dacus’s songs on the album operate much like her dad’s old camera and home videos, capturing and preserving old memories. “When I was writing these songs, they felt like scenes from the past, like a movie made from a home video. Just clips,” she says.

When putting these private clips together, it might be easy to go for the cheap shots, using the most embarrassing and vulnerable moments of somebody’s life for a quick laugh or indulging in schadenfreude. But Lucy Dacus is not Tom Bergeron, and this album is not America’s Funniest Home Videos. “I feel like I’m slowly approaching [my family] as subject matter because I never wanted them to feel like their lives were on display, or the fact that I make music would affect what they share with me,” Dacus says in regards to including people in her life in her songs. 

Dacus acknowledges her songs will expose the stories of others. “I don’t want anyone in my life to feel like fodder for my songs, and nobody does because I check in with them, and nobody feels that way. But I feel like I’ve been circling some topics with my family, and Home Video is the closest so far,” she recognizes. “I feel like part of a rite of adulthood is to be critical of your parents, with as much love or as little as you have. I have a lot of love. And I think it’s a part of life that you realize that your parents weren’t perfect or your life wasn’t perfect. And maybe other things raised you, like a teacher, or a pastor, or your friends.”

Music and family have always been tied together for Dacus. One of her early musical memories is listening to her great-uncle Dan play “Up A Lazy River” on the piano repeatedly at family gatherings. “He was super aggressive and would have his eyes closed, and it was slow like molasses. So as a kid, I would just listen to him for hours, just this one song.”

More significant to her life and musical development is her mother. Dacus’s mom is a teacher and pianist who has worked as an accompanist for church and musicals, and she gave Dacus her first piano lessons when she was five. However, piano lessons didn’t last long. “She would say ‘this is a C,’ and I would say ‘no, it’s not.’ She’d say, ‘you little bitch, I’m not going to teach you how to play the piano.’ I mean, she wouldn’t say ‘you little bitch’, but I was a little bitch because she’s an adult woman who does that for her job, and I’m just a five-year-old.”

Shortly after attempting to play piano, Dacus began playing guitar. “I never took lessons. I still don’t know shit about guitar, but it’s done me right.” Whatever teacher-student relationship ended between Dacus and her mother after the failed piano lessons, the support of her mother has been there from Dacus’s early songwriting efforts. “I won second place in a contest in maybe second grade — a songwriting contest at my school. It was for heroes, and I think I wrote about Mother Earth as a ‘hero,’ and the lyrics were something like:

I hold in my hand a patch of dirt
I hold in my hand a beautiful flower
I hold in my hand pebbles and rocks

You know, something like ‘I’m seven years old, and I wrote a song.’ I remember the winner was in kindergarten and wrote a song about firefighters, and it was not as good, and I remember my mom being like, ‘you should have won the first place! That firefighter song was shit!’ She wouldn’t have said shit; I keep making her cruder than she is. But she was like, ‘you should have won first place.’”

Lucy Dacus has grown a lot since those early, second-place songs. For her, songwriting was never a plan or the end goal: it was just a part of life. “I never wanted to be a songwriter in a professional way,” she confesses. “I think I always thought that I was a songwriter, and that was fine. I was as much a songwriter as a kid as I am now, and that’s all I ever expected it to be. I didn’t even think that this was a possible job until the year of doing this job. I never thought that it was an option.” 

The option emerged after Dacus went on tour and ended it with a profit. “I used to go on tour for fun. I’d go with friends, and it was a lot of fun to sleep on people’s floors, and meet people, and have fun, and simply lose money because the only money you’re making are tips in a basement, since someone’s passing around a bucket during the show. But in 2016, after the No Burden tour, I had enough money at the end of it to pay my rent. My rent at the time was $195, but still, I could live on it! It was a total surprise.”

With gigs on the horizon, including a recently announced string of shows supporting Bright Eyes, and a full tour of her own supported by Bartees Strange, there is a lot more than a basement-show tip-bucket for Dacus to look forward to. Admirers of emotionally challenging indie rock can rest assured that Dacus will guard the torch and its sacred fire.