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Rewind, Be Kind: On 'Home Video,' Lucy Dacus Writes Her Own Rules For Friendship

On Lucy Dacus' new album, <em>Home Video</em>, nearly every song focuses on a particular moment in her youth and teen years
On Lucy Dacus' new album, <em>Home Video</em>, nearly every song focuses on a particular moment in her youth and teen years

Lucy Dacus gets asked for advice a lot. "I feel very grateful that people care about what I have to say," the 26-year-old singer-songwriter says. Dacus speaks carefully, often pausing to collect herself before finishing a thought, though she's amused at the perception of her as some kind of sage. She doesn't like being prescriptive; she just thinks it's easier to help solve other people's problems. "Sometimes I wonder if I just come off as a really wise person, or am I actually wise?" she laughs. "Everybody has better perspective outside of themselves than within themselves, you know?"

It's that outlook — sweetly compassionate, astute without being self-serious — that characterizes Home Video, Dacus' marvelous third album. Home Video is a continuation of the wryly observational, graceful songwriting that has always characterized Dacus' music; her songs have a keen eye for how small moments between people can, over time, slowly accumulate until they take on a surprising significance.

But on this record, she narrows her scope. Dacus says she usually writes songs by musing on repeated patterns or recurring relationships in her life; on Home Video, though, nearly every song focuses on a particular moment in her youth and teen years. Its 11 songs survey elementary-school crushes, close friends with subpar boyfriends and deadbeat parents, religious summer camp and teenage heartbreak. Through it all, Dacus dispenses wistful wisdom in a low, contained voice — the kind you'd want to hear from your best friend on the phone after your first great love tells you he's moving on. In channeling her past, Dacus brings uncanny grace to those formative connections that help us understand who we are — and who we want to leave behind — before we're sure where we're headed.

***

The most striking song on Home Video is "Thumbs," a chilling, intense track about accompanying a friend to a fraught meeting with her estranged father; eventually, Dacus fantasizes about killing him. In friendships, Dacus says, she tends to characterize herself as a defender. "I like that role," she says. "It's not always easy, but ..." She pauses for a moment. "I believe that it's the right thing to do." She paints herself in that role frequently across Home Video: On "Christine," she warns a friend about sticking with an inadequate romantic partner; on "Cartwheel," she describes sneaking out at night to offer silent consolation. In both songs, Dacus' voice is calm and centered over gentle piano or acoustic guitar; dramatic swells, courtesy of violin or Mellotron, underscore her urging.

Home Video by Lucy Dacus was released June 25, 2021.
/ Matador Records
/

When "Thumbs" was first released, she admitted in a press release that writing it made her feel "weird, almost sick," and that her early attempts to play it made her feel "shaky," but her bandmates in the trio boygenius encouraged her to perform it on tour with them. When Dacus played it live, she'd ask the audience not to record it — "a request that seems to have been respected," she said, for which she was grateful. (Fans fell in love, though; a Twitter account, called "Has Lucy released Thumbs yet?" was even spawned.)

Unlike much of Home Video, "Thumbs" is spare — Dacus' voice over synthesizer chords — and her delivery is so sweet that when she cooly swerves from patiently sitting by her friend's side to admitting her murderous fantasies about the man they're meeting ("I would kill him / if you let me," she sings) the effect is shocking. Later, she drops her defenses for just a minute: "I imagine my thumbs on the irises," she sings, "pressing in / until they burst," pronouncing the last word on an exhale, adding just a little pressure to its final consonants, before re-composing herself for the next line, in which Dacus excuses herself and her friend and declines the father's offer of a ride home.

Some of this compassion, Dacus says, was there in the moment — she says she certainly felt it on the day about which she wrote "Thumbs" — but some of it took a little more time. "Compassion is really easy from many steps away," she says. "Maybe what I felt in the heat of the moment was confusion, and I wanted to feel compassion; now, I actually can." Home Video captures that transition. It's an intimate collection of snapshots from Dacus' past, but more than that, it's an album about the process of revisiting those moments with the wisdom of distance. It's simultaneously searching and empathetic, depicting both the vulnerable uncertainty of young adulthood and the particular pain of looking back on it, knowing the other choices you could have made.

In high school — the time during which many of Home Video's songs are set — Dacus says she was "cartoonishly intent on making people smile." She attended a magnet school for government and international studies, where "everyone was a nerd," she says. "I just was like, 'I'm going to be friends with everybody because everybody wants a friend.'" She'd blow bubbles in the hallway or "make, like, 70 pancakes and just bring them to school and leave them on the cafeteria table for people to eat." (She didn't get a yearbook superlative, though she wanted one. When I ask what she would have wanted to be awarded, she thinks for a second. "Gosh." After another moment of consideration: "Probably 'friendliest.'")

"It seems like she's such a good friend," says the songwriter Laura Stevenson. "You listen to these songs and you're just like, 'S***, I wish I had a friend that wrote such supportive, beautiful songs about me!'"

It was during her high school years when Dacus was introduced to Stevenson's music. Dacus calls her "one of my main and only influences," and says she was impressed by Stevenson's unique songwriting style and capacity for emotional details.

"Her music felt possible," she says. Stevenson's songs don't always follow traditional rock structures — she'd skip a chorus or a bridge if she didn't need it — and you can hear the room in her recordings. "I love how she plays guitar, and it didn't feel too out of reach — it didn't feel like an academic sort of thing," Dacus says. "And yet, all these things that felt technically attainable coalesced into some magic that felt unattainable, but specific to her."

Stevenson is a fan of Dacus now too; she says the younger songwriter's strong narrative instincts and eye for detail are especially present on Home Video. The songs are brimming with empathy, and "just such an open heart for other people," Stevenson says.

After high school, Dacus went on to study film at Virginia Commonwealth University, planning to write songs on the side, but stopped attending to focus more seriously on her music. Her debut record, 2016's No Burden, was recorded with friends, in part as a college assignment for guitarist Jacob Blizard, who still plays in her band today. A small local label, EggHunt Records, agreed to release it — and as soon as the first single was released in late 2015, Dacus got a torrent of emails from labels, publicists and industry folks. The attention landed Dacus national tours and offers from around 20 different labels (Matador won out); her sophomore record, 2016's Historian, and its enormously cathartic lead single "Night Shift," earned Dacus a reputation as one of the brightest rising stars in indie rock.

The first time Dacus performed in Washington, D.C., in 2016, she met fellow songwriter Julien Baker, and the two became fast friends. Two years later, along with Phoebe Bridgers, they'd form the trio boygenius and release a six-song EP. The three have collaborated on each other's solo albums ever since — Dacus and Baker sing on Bridgers' sophomore album, Punisher; Dacus and Bridgers sing on Baker's album from earlier this year. Her boygenius bandmates show up on Home Video, too, singing backup vocals on a couple tracks.

It was an intense period of creativity and exposure. At the end of the summer of 2019, Dacus was, at her doctor's recommendation, coming out of a month of vocal rest ("The doctor was like, 'If you're not silent for the next month, you're going to need surgery,'" she told Rolling Stone). She returned to Trace Horse Studio in Nashville with her longtime friends and collaborators, Blizard, Jake Finch and Collin Pastore. Dacus hadn't been intending to write an album about her youth, she says, but the songs came anyway. After spending so many months away from home on tour, Dacus realized her songs were circling around this theme. "I was just writing as I do, and realized that all of them were rooted in the past," she says. She figured it was "an album's worth of memories." The album was slated for release in 2020 before the pandemic put everything on hold.

In an album about what is often the most embarrassing, viscerally awful and emotionally turbulent period of one's life — which is to say, being a teenager — Dacus extends compassion to both herself and those around her. The closing track on the album, "Triple Dog Dare," finds Dacus navigating both emotional turbulence and a sort of wise kindness. It's written about a close friend with whom Dacus had a falling out; in high school, the friend had come out to Dacus, and expected Dacus to take the opportunity to do the same. "But I didn't take it," she says, "and I didn't see it as that." Their relationship fell apart after that; the friend's mother kept her and Dacus apart. Years later, Dacus came to identify as queer — and while writing the song, she realized her feelings about her friend had been complicated by queer desire. In writing, she says, "I kind of realized the potential that I didn't realize at that time. I thought, 'Oh, we're just really close friends,' you know? And I guess we were, because we weren't anything other than that. But I do think there was kind of an alternate reality that forked off from that moment that I didn't take."

The song ends with an escape: The young lovers steal a boat and run away together. Fiction, Dacus says, wasn't the point of this record — in fact, the closing verses to "Triple Dog Dare" are the only moments on Home Video that she didn't write directly from experience. But here, she explains, the imagined ending is what keeps her from feeling too precious about sharing such a sensitive song. "I made the characters characters," she says,"and it ended in this way where they actually prioritize each other and escape their parents' grasp. And whether they die at sea or they succeed, who knows? But they actively choose each other."

While the song imagines an alternate timeline, Dacus isn't in the habit of getting caught up in what might have been. "Sometimes I wish I had figured this out sooner, but that's not how it works," she says. "What if this is actually sooner? And there's another version of me who's, like, 50 years old and said, 'I wish I had figured it out sooner?'"

***

Lately, Dacus has been thinking about what a third album represents in an artist's career. A debut record, she says, gives people a chance to form their opinions about you; a sophomore record comes with more loaded expectations. But an identity for a third record, she admits, feels a little unformed. I posit that a third record is a pretty sensible time for an artist to stop and take stock of where she has come from, and Dacus agrees. She thinks that looking back at your past can help you feel connected to yourself, but she doesn't plan on staying there. "I am a nostalgic person," she says, "but I'm not planning on staying in the past. I have this record that's very focused on that, but I don't think that I'm stuck."

For now, she's living in Philadelphia, where she recently moved after her growing fame changed her relationship to Richmond. 2020, she says, was supposed to be a relatively slow year ("We still had a tour booked like every month," she admits, "but we had a lot of breaks") and she planned — before the pandemic intervened — on splitting her time between her new city and her hometown. At first, she moved in with a friend of a friend in Philly; then, she says, she tried convincing some of her closest longtime friends to join her.

"I actually had a dream where I saw all of us in a house together," she explains, "and then I looked it up, found this place, saw that it was for rent." It worked out — friends "came from around the country" to move in, she says — and she's been living there ever since, with six housemates.

Dacus chalks the move up to her friends' collective vision rather than her own wisdom: "I think we all just had been alone for a couple of months," she says, "and it became very clear what was important." It's not every friend whose dream can persuade you to move across the country and sign a lease. But Dacus is the kind of friend whose advice you take.

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