A few weeks ago, Lucy Dacus got her first tattoo. It's a tooth on her wrist, a reference to her song Bite the Hand with her indie trio Boygenius, featuring fellow singer-songwriters Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker.
"That song is about biting the hand that feeds you," Dacus said by phone from a recent tour rehearsal in Nashville. "Like, don't feel beholden to the people that buy concert tickets. You still have to make art that's true to yourself. Don't be a people pleaser. Don't feel compelled to come out after the show, because people are widely disrespectful. Even with kindness, people ask for more than anybody should give — to go out to dinner, or to kiss you on the cheek, or have a five-minute photo session or a one-on-one therapy session. It can be extremely taxing on the road, and I think all three of us need to remember that it's okay to say no to the people that are funding your art."
It sounds like tough love, but it's become an essential part of being Lucy Dacus. The 24-year-old Richmond, Va., singer has received wide acclaim for songs so intimate and penetrating that fans feel like they already know her. Dacus' sophomore album Historian and Boygenius' self-titled EP both ranked among NPR's top dozen albums of 2018, with Paste magazine proclaiming Historian the year's best.
For all her lyrical honesty, though, Dacus still has a quirky side. Throughout 2019, she's releasing a series of singles loosely themed to major holidays like Halloween, Christmas and "Bruce Springsteen's birthday." For Valentine's Day, she dropped a muscular, bilingual reimagining of La Vie En Rose. Her latest, My Mother and I, should pop up when she plays Tampa's Crowbar on Tuesday, the same week as Mother's Day.
Before the show, Dacus talked about Boygenius, discomfort, crying at concerts and more. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Are you close with other musicians who have made it big out of Richmond? Natalie Prass? Lamb of God?
I used to practice in the same practice space as Lamb of God, but we never met. Natalie Prass, though, is a friend, but she moved to Nashville recently. So I see her around here.
Did you ever have any Gwar encounters growing up in Richmond?
I didn't see Gwar. But I've been to the Gwar bar, which, I don't know if you've been to, but it's a bar completely dedicated to Gwar, with many of their effects. The menu is Gwar-centric. It's actually very good.
Did you have a metal or punk phase growing up? There's some good distortion on Historian. Where did that come from?
I actually had a punk phase, more so for the shows than the music individually. I don't really remember them much. But I would just thrash around. And then I had a noise phase, too, supporting my friends who did noise music. I don't know how much any of those things have influenced me, but I guess, like you said, there's little echoes of that part of my life.
When you go to a noise show, do you genuinely enjoy it? Or do you look back and go, "Was I just pretending to enjoy that?"
You know, there's a lot of variety within noise. Harsh noise was painful, and so the point was to make the crowd uncomfortable, which is pushing a barrier that a lot of people don't want. It's interesting in concept, but in practice, it was just hurtful. But there's noise music that can be complex and exploratory and not painful and performance-based, almost like a devised theater piece, or performance art. It depends on the person and their goal. It just so happens that noise attracts people that maybe don't have their audience's best in mind. (laughs)
Do you like making audiences uncomfortable? Or do you feel like it's your role to make people feel at home?
I would say that I do not want people to feel uncomfortable. It's definitely useful if you bring people to an uncomfortable place, but with love. I want people to feel at home, so that when I get into uncomfortable stuff, it doesn't feel like it. I just want to be able to talk about difficult things, not abrasively.
The Boygenius tour seemed like it was this emotionally devastating night, like people would leave those shows in pieces. Was that your intent?
That, I think we knew it would happen. But it was a side effect to what we wanted to do, which was just make songs that we liked. So there wasn't a goal to make people cry. But I think we'd get done recording a song and go, "Gosh ..." (laughs)
I assume Julien is pretty used to it. Everything she sings seems like it's hitting the bottom of your gut, and people go in feeling like, "Okay, I know I'm going to cry at this show; I've got to get through it."
Yeah, I witnessed many of her crowds, and it seems like people bring tissues and a friend's shoulder to cry on, which is a very cathartic experience. I can't imagine what it's like to be her every night, because everyone in the crowd's going through it for one night. We've had conversations about that. But I really appreciate her for going there every single show.
Do you remember the last time you cried at a show?
The last time I cried at a show was seeing Yo La Tengo for the first time in the U.K. I've seen them once since then, actually, and got to meet them, which was wild. I've been listening to their music since high school, and every next song that they played, this flood of memories would come back of particular places and people, feelings I had while listening to it. It was like they were playing the soundtrack of my life. And I just got really overwhelmed. I feel like I talk about that band every interview; they probably think I'm such a creep. But everyone asks, "Who's your influences?" or "Why did you sign to Matador?" And I can't change the answer to those questions. It just comes up a lot.
Behind the scenes with Boygenius, what was the gender split on the crew and production? Was it more women than men? Was it more men than women? Was it about even?
Well, Phoebe and Julian and I produced it ourselves. We got our friends Camille Faulkner on violin, Anna Butterss on bass and Beth Goodfellow on drums, so everything you hear is by women. We had an engineer named Joseph Lorge at Sound City, who was setting up mics and pressing record. Then we had my friend Collin Pastore, who produces our records with me. He mixed it, and then Heda Kadry mastered it. So there's two men who were involved, both behind the scenes. I appreciate that everything that you hear on the record is nonmen, and also Heda kind of got the final say — mastering's like the final person that lays hands on the record.
I think if we were to make another record, we'd have more time and be able to hire a fully nonmale crew. But we had one month from start to finish to write, record, mix and master this record. Actually, I think it was three weeks. And we didn't know it was going to be six songs. So everyone was really thrown for a loop. We didn't even know what the thesis statement of Boygenius was when we went into it. Now we know. So if we ever did anything again, it would be far more intentional.
How does it change things having more women than men backstage?
I feel like everybody can breathe easier. We all work with plenty of great men who we're friends with. But there's a particular knot that can loosen when you're just surrounded by ladies. There's things that you can talk about, there's things that you don't have to talk about. We definitely felt like we could speak more easily. The women that would come in would be like, "Wow, I've never had this many women in the studio. I've never seen this." And we were all, like, "Yeah, that sucks. Why not? Why doesn't this happen?" Everyone was very relieved for that short amount of time.
How are the rest of your holiday songs coming along? Do you already have them plotted out?
They're all recorded. Some, I recorded two years ago, and they were just sitting around, and I realized I wanted people to hear them. We kind of worked through a throughline, and this temporal quality of each song either fitting in with a holiday or making an excuse for a holiday. Essentially, the idea came after the songs themselves, so it's not a marketing ploy or something. It's just a way to put the songs out throughout the calendar year. And we got to try things that we don't usually on our own records. None of the songs indicate a direction, but we have learned a lot, and we'll probably take it into the studio for the next record.
Did you record La Vie En Rose before or after A Star Is Born?
Oh, before. (laughs) Far before. And when I saw A Star Is Born, I thought, Damn, people are going to think I'm doing a Lady Gaga cover! But I've been playing that song for a really long time. A lot of people who came to my early shows know that I played it solo. It's just one of the most beautiful songs.
Is the Halloween song Monster Mash? You can tell me. I'll only be slightly crushed if it's not.
(Laughs) You know what? We honestly tried Monster Mash. I was like, This is unbearably corny, and we already have one unbearably corny song. I won't say which one. But we filled our quota for corny.
Speaking of cheesy songs, would you ever do an ironic cover? Not to throw Weezer's Africa up as an example, but a cheesy song where you try to make it your own — have you done that before? Could you do it?
We did. I'll just say, watch out for Christmas. I can't say what. But I'm not a huge fan of Christmas, and I think that comes out through this cover.
So I'll set a Google alert for "grandma" + "run over by a reindeer" + "Lucy Dacus" and see what happens?
(laughs) Oh my god, that would have been iconic.
Contact Jay Cridlin at email@example.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.
Mothers open. 7 p.m. Tuesday. Crowbar, 1812 N 17th St., Ybor City. $12 and up. (813) 241-8600.