On her new EP, 2019, the Richmond, VA songwriter ponders the most “emotionally dense” days of the year.
This article originally appeared in print in AdHoc 28.
Lucy Dacus is an eminently thoughtful songwriter. Her 2018 sophomore album Historian, she tells me over the phone from on the road in Norway, was inspired by deep dives into novels by the likes of Virginia Woolf, Leo Tolstoy, and Kate Chopin. Unsettled by classic literature’s predilection for doling out death as punishment to women who refuse to live by society’s rules, she sought to create a new narrative. Shame is largely absent from Historian, but death is omnipresent: “Next of Kin” finds its hooks in lines like “I am at peace with my death,” facing mortality not as adversary but inevitability.
2018 was a whirlwind for the Richmond, Virginia singer and guitarist, with Dacus swiftly following up Historian with the boygenius EP, on which she was joined by fellow reflective folk-rockers Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers. With her new solo EP, 2019, Dacus is giving herself the space to loosen up a little. The release features seven songs—three originals and four covers. Each is an attempt to capture the spirit of a particular holiday, and she’s rolling them out on streaming services throughout the year. She spoke to us about “My Mother and I,” her choice to use an unsettling portrait series as the art for the 2019 singles, the hard work of forgiveness, and what to expect on her next full-length.
AdHoc: How did the holiday theme of your upcoming EP come about?
Lucy Dacus: I had a bunch of songs recorded [and/or] written without the idea of this holiday series, and I just wanted some kind of unifying factor between them all that would justify their release. I tend to write around holidays anyway—they’re really emotionally dense days of our lives and I often write to escape or understand the moment that I’m in. I have even more holiday songs than [the ones] that will come out this year, and these covers that we’re doing are just songs that I really love, and the holiday theme gave the project structure that it needed.
Do you think you’re going to continue that project?
I don’t know! It has been really fun [to be] able to share music so often but [in a way that] feels low stakes to me, though I am really proud of each song. I could do it again but I’m thinking about the next record before I’m thinking about the next holiday series.
I am getting all these ideas now. I’d just forgotten about certain holidays. Like there’s not a Father’s Day one, but I have so many songs that are about fathers that I could have put out. I could have done so many things. There were four different options for the Valentine’s Day one too.
I wanted to ask you about the Mother’s Day song. I saw you actually performed it with your mom, which was so moving. What was that like?
It was definitely such a gift on her part to be willing to do that. I was really surprised that she wanted to. She initiated it. She texted me and she was like, “I learned the harmony, I’m gonna come to your Mother’s Day show.” That was a really dense day because not only was the show on Mother’s Day but she was there, singing that song of all songs. And it was in Asheville where my birth mother lives, so she was at the show as well. Also the opening band was [called] Mothers, so it was the most maternal thing I could have ever imagined.
Have you and your mom had a conversation about the song?
At first, she didn’t really want to believe that it was about her. In a way, she’s right that it’s not only about her, it’s about many mothers and daughters. I feel like the dynamic that I’m trying to communicate is pretty common, where mothers watch over their daughters’ bodies and want them to be beautiful or to be healthy—or just kind of transfer their low self-esteem—and their daughters secondhand inherit a lack of confidence. We have talked about it and clearly she sang the song, so at this point I think she is happy that it’s out there.
I was really struck by the compassion and the forgiveness in that song and so many of your songs. How do you find yourself dealing with problems or questions of where forgiveness is possible and where it’s not?
That’s a huge question, and I feel like my answer changes all the time. Right now, I feel like my answer is sort of directed inward. There are some people that you don’t need to communicate their absolution to them. But you should forgive your part of a situation, forgive yourself for stepping away. I think it’s really easy to feel guilt in the face of people that have wronged you, or people that tell you that you’re doing something wrong [by stepping away, and] it’s hard to see [those people are] actually wrong.
[A friend] taught me a really important lesson about forgiveness. Growing up Christian, I used to think you should forgive everyone, for everything. Even the worst things, you should have the strength to forgive them. And she taught me that, no, you don’t have to forgive everybody, at least not in the normal form that you’d think of, like a lunch where you shake hands or hug at the end and both people feel good. I feel like part of forgiveness is not requiring anything of the other person, and that is a form of grace, even if it means that you’re cutting somebody out or doing something that feels bad. Forgiveness won’t feel good every time.
The EP is called 2019. Do you see the EP as being of its time, or for its time?
You know, what’s funny is, I’ve thought about how none of these songs were recorded in 2019. All of them were recorded between 2017 and 2018, so it’s kind of wrong to title the EP 2019. But also, these songs have shaped this year for me. Only two are out, but each song has represented a season for me, and I’ve had to really think about the topics that each song brings up. Before, during, and after “My Mother and I” came out, I’ve been constantly thinking about motherhood and having conversations about motherhood, and for [the Valentine’s Day track] “La Vie en Rose” there were a lot of conversations about love and nostalgia and the passing of time, and what a classic song means, and parallels between music and romance, so I anticipate with each song there’s gonna be a thematic season of my life, which I didn’t expect, but as it’s unfolding, I’m pretty happy about it.
The album art for the singles has your outfit and the background in different colors, while your expression is exactly the same. Is each one a unique photo?
Yeah! Each one is a different photo. The photos are by Elizabeth Weinberg, who’s so great, and I was really surprised that she was able to essentially capture my face at the exact same angle and with the same expression every single time, freehand. I’m pretty good at making that one face. That’s my poker face! So it wasn’t that hard on my part.
What was the intention there in making them look so similar?
I thought it would be a little unsettling, though I didn’t know if people would really notice. I know some people just think that the colors were changed digitally.
Holidays have a lot of color symbolism, so I wanted to mark each song seasonally, with the colors associated with each season or day. But I didn’t want to be too corny about it, so I feel like this strikes a balance between the requisite amount of corny that holidays just are, while also being maybe just a little bit confusing or visually uncanny.
You’re a big reader, and your own work feels very literary to me. Are there any books that have had a big impact on your songwriting?
I feel like books have a bigger impact on my songwriting than music does. It’s hard to even pinpoint which books sometimes. But I know that for Historian, Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking was a huge resource for me. I was reading [Leo Tolstoy’s] Anna Karenina when I was writing material for Historian; also [Gustave Flaubert’s] Madame Bovary, [and] I revisited The Awakening by Kate Chopin. All of them have a similar theme of this distraught woman who’s in the end punished for living out her desires. Same with Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf—kind of a similar theme there and that theme bothered me. I don’t know if it comes out overtly in the record, but I wanted to convince myself that that’s not the only narrative for women, and that when a woman is facing the idea of her own death, there should be an optimism or a sense of pride or control. Ideally, you’d come to the end of your life and you’d feel like you weren’t simply adhering to the maxims of society or what was expected of you. Yeah. If I keep going, I’ll just ramble on about books!
What books have you been reading while writing and recording your new album?
I’ve been really affected by My Brilliant Friend and the Neapolitan series by Elena Ferrante. I read all of those last year through the year before; they’re this really in-depth look at a female friendship from childhood to old age, and I’m just a sucker for that. They’re completely amazing.
She kind of opened something in me that I haven’t been able to close yet. I’ve been looking at my own childhood friendships and formative moments of my youth that taught me what being a girl was, correctly and incorrectly. I feel like those kinds of themes are going to come out with the next record.
I’m really excited for the shows coming up in Central Park with Mitski. How did you two connect?
We’ve met twice before. She played Charlottesville on the Bury Me at Makeout Creek tour and then came back for Puberty II. I went to both of those shows. What was funny was that at the first show, none of my music was out, and then at the second show my music had come out. It was kind of cool to see her as just a fan and then come back and see her after we’d been put in a similar realm by press, equated as people who are out here making [songwriting-driven] rock music right now.
I’m really happy to see her again and see her play. I think she’s one of the smartest and most important artists out there. I’m just glad I get to go to the shows! That’s what I keep thinking about. It’s a bonus that I get to play, but I would have wanted to go to these shows anyways. We haven’t really given much thought to what our show is gonna look like. We’ll probably play our songs and then take a seat sidestage and enjoy her music.