The day before she began a three-show run at Johnny Brenda’s to close out 2019, Lucy Dacus moved to Philadelphia.
Dacus had grown up in Richmond, Va., where she was attending film school at Virginia Commonwealth University when songs she recorded for a school project became her career-making No Burden, a breakout album of 2016.
After touring behind her 2018 follow-up, Historian, and joining Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers in the indie supergroup boygenius, Dacus (pronounced DAY-cuss) needed distance from her hometown.
That realization led to Home Video (Matador *** 1/2), her third and best album, which comes out Friday. It’s full of keenly observed, often funny, frequently devastating remembrances of her Virginia adolescence.
“Being back here makes me hot in the face, hot blood in my pulsing veins, heavy memories weighing on my brain,” she sings before guitars and drums kick in on the opening “Hot & Heavy.”
“Brando” recalls a theatrical high school friend who “called me cerebral, I didn’t know what you meant. ... Would it have killed you to call me pretty instead?” “Triple Dog Dare” is about a romance that never came to be, in part because she hadn’t yet come out to herself as being queer. In the haunting “Thumbs,” she fantasizes about blotting out the eyes of a friend’s villainous father.
Dacus, 25, shares a house in Philadelphia with six friends, including her guitarist Jacob Blizard. As live music returns to stages, she’ll be opening for Bright Eyes at the Levitt Pavilion Steelstacks in Bethlehem on July 29 and headlining Union Transfer on Oct. 20, with Shamir opening.
Dacus sat at a picnic table in Bartram’s Garden early this month to talk with The Inquirer about Home Video, her creative process, and how boygenius changed her life.
When I talked to you in 2017, you said if you ever left Richmond, you would move to Austin or Philadelphia. Now you’re here. How did we win?
It’s close enough that if my brother’s having a bad day, I can go see him, or I could go see my mom and dad for dinner. But it’s far enough away that I feel separate. It doesn’t feel like I’m in my hometown. It’s closer to New York, and I always end up having to go there.
We have tons of friends here and a lot of them do music, and also a lot of them don’t, and that’s really appealing to come off tour and hang out with people that are not engaged with the music industry.
At the time, you said, “it seems like there’s a real world of new ideas in Philadelphia.” Has that borne itself out?
I think that’s true. I have a lot of friends here that really inspire me and are involved in politics and art-related stuff. People are more involved in activism here than they were in my sphere in Richmond. It feels like you can make things happen. So yeah, I love it here.
Was it the idea of leaving Richmond, of realizing you didn’t fit in your hometown, that inspired Home Video?
It was after the No Burden album release tour. I had broken up with my ex, so not only was I gone for the longest I ever had, but my whole friend group was thrown for a loop, my housing. Everything changed. It was like a hard switch.
That led you to reconsider past experiences?
Yeah. If we talked in 2017, I was probably working on the beginnings of some of these songs then.
You’ve been performing “Thumbs” for a long time. There’s a Twitter feed called “Has Lucy released Thumbs yet?” But some of these other songs have been around for a while, too?
Yeah, “Hot & Heavy” I started when I was back in Richmond in 2017 and probably finished it in 2018. And then “Thumbs” I wrote in 15 minutes in 2018. It just depends on the song. Some are quick, some take a long time.
“Thumbs” is devastating. Did you write it immediately after the encounter that inspired it?
No, five years later.
Really? What provoked you?
No clue. Really. I’ve come to realize that that’s how my brain works. If I’m not ready to reckon with something, there’s no pushing it. I’m just going to have to wait and figure it out. I’m positive there are things that I’m forgetting now that I’m going to have a new perspective on in two years. I wish I could know everything now, but I just can’t.
When things come, do they come quickly?
Yeah, usually it’s like a flood. It’s very surprising and disarming and weird. But I’ve tried to learn to not be destabilized by it. And that’s part of why it ends up becoming songs. It’s almost a way to package those feelings.
I think I like the structure. You have a couple of minutes and you have rhyme and meter. It has to be communicative. And then once you finish, you’ve been able to say something. It’s very helpful to me to put things behind me.
You recently interviewed Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast on Zoom about her “Crying In H Mart” memoir, as part of her book tour. Do you think of “Home Video” as a musical memoir?
I loved her book. I really admire her. [Home Video] is a kind of memoir. It’s really just memories, based on youthful times. But it is like chapters in a book.
Are these your most autobiographical songs?
Yes. It’s funny, because they are more specific. Mostly they’re about other people. But I feel like I find out the most about myself, in terms of relationships and my role in friendships, by writing about other people. I think in my own listening it’s the most personal songs that are the most relatable. Because it feels like a gift, instead of a sermon.
What songwriters made you feel that way growing up?
David Bowie. Though his songs feel more like fiction. Carole King. She’s really widely relatable but still personal.
But I didn’t really expect to have a music career. So I think more of people I listen to now, like Big Thief and Andy Shauf and Haley Heynderickx. Michelle is a really good example. And Phoebe and Julien, of course.
How did boygenius happen?
Phoebe and I had both opened for Julien separately, and she had talked us up to each other. And then we actually met for the first time in Philly at NonComm [the noncommercial radio convention hosted by WXPN-FM]. We had talked on the internet, but that the was the first time we saw each other.
We knew we were going to tour together because she and Julien had a co-headlining tour and had asked me to open. We were going to write one song together, and it accidentally turned into six songs and a whole band.
What did that do for you?
I feel like my jaw unclenched, in a major way. Just knowing them makes me feel so much more safe. Knowing that I can rely on them to just complain to, or check to see if your experiences are the same.
I get a lot of solace from just checking in with them, and I feel like the breadth of what I’m willing to talk about has extended in both directions, where I’m more willing to go deeper into darkness and also into funnier, lighter territory.
We’re fans of each other, and show each other in-progress stuff. It’s like, ‘Man, your work is so good.’ But the real impact is that I’ve found friends that I’m gonna have my whole life. It’s pretty cool.