Lucy Dacus may not be able to fly or shapeshift, but her gifts are undeniably extraordinary. In an age of constant noise, where hot takes reign and only the loudest voices are heard, Dacus possesses the profound ability to be heard. Such is the power of the music she makes — it demands we kindly shut up and listen.
The songs on the 23-year-old Virginia native’s second album, Historian, are built on old wounds and sharp observations. There’s the lover on the way out in “Night Moves,” and the loss of a grandmother in “Pillar of Truth.” In both cases, Dacus takes autobiographical roots and flowers them into indie rock of the grandest design.
Dacus has said that Historian is intended as a work that aligns artistry with activism, but over the course of a whirlwind 2018 that has seen her net a flurry of accolades, tour relentlessly, and have The New York Times and Rolling Stone profile her, she’s come to realize that it’s the stage she steps onto every evening where her voice will be heard the loudest.
Recalling a day earlier this spring when her show at the Rickshaw Stop coincided with San Francisco’s participation in the March for Our Lives protest, Dacus explains she must often suppress the urge to bail on her obligations as a musician, jump out of the van, and join the crowd.
“I constantly feel like it’s such a selfish job to do my music,” she says. “I wonder why I’m not abandoning it and being more politically active — I have that internal dialogue a lot — but then I realize that my job actually puts me in front of hundreds of people every night who are looking at me and listening to me, and so that’s the time that I should be speaking up.
“Everybody has their different ways of contributing,” Dacus adds. “I try not to look down on people who can’t go to a protest for whatever reason, because there are other methods of insurgency.”
Gifted with a profound knack for self-introspection, Dacus is, in part, a reflection of the literary influences that have long guided her music. Her current reading list includes six books that range from the poetry of Raymond Carver to the The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (“I’m trying not to blow through it,” she notes, “because it’s just so comforting”). The songs on Historian were also guided by an array of diverse titles, including works by James Baldwin, Leo Tolstoy, and Rainer Maria Rilke.
The adopted child of two loving parents, Dacus shares that she also finds creative inspiration from the unique bond she and her family have formed.
“My parents raised me with agency,” she explains. “They didn’t have to want me. You come out an individual, but I think the way that they taught me about how they chose me and really wanted me — it just highlights to me that you can really create goodness in your life. I think I have a pretty atypical view of family in that it’s not really about obligation — it’s about choosing. There’s work involved, but the joy is something that everybody creates, and so, in a way, their initial creative act of making this family has probably encouraged me to be a creative person.”
As a musician, Dacus likes to dive deep into the murky waters of life’s chaos with a single breath. More often than not, she returns to the surface with treasure in hand. On “Pillar of Truth,” she focuses on the small details of what it’s like to stand beside a deathbed and say goodbye. Lacquered with a somber grace, the song is both an ode to despair and an elegy of strength.
Historian may not be a cheery album, but its strongest moments find Dacus grappling with concepts like hope and comfort, eager to uncover what they truly mean and their value to our lives. By deconstructing the feelings we most often seek when in need of solace, she has provided a path by which we may discover them anew.
Each time Dacus steps on stage, she’s counting on this intangible facet of her work to empower her. After all, her music commands attention, and Dacus doesn’t plan to waste the gift.
“I’m glad that I recognize these songs as hopeful,” she says. “If they were just desolate, I don’t know if I could tour and sing these songs every night, because it would just be adding more of that into the world, and this is not the time.”
Lucy Dacus, Friday, Aug. 10, 6:05-6:45 p.m., at the Panhandle Stage.
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