Lucy Dacus Tells the Story Behind Every Single Song on Her Great New Album, 'Historian'

Lucy Dacus
Lucy Dacus is a 22-year-old songwriter from Richmond, VA. Her new album is 'Historian.' Dustin Condren

Lucy Dacus has been thinking about death.

The death of her beloved grandmother. The death of religious belief. The death of a five-year relationship. Her own eventual, inevitable demise. 

The Richmond, Virginia, indie rocker is only 22, but her bracing, excellent new album, Historian, is suffused with an awareness of mortality's grip. The songs are hooky and raw, with the occasional orchestral accompaniment, and the lyrics full of weighty proclamations: "I am at peace with my death," Dacus sings over and over on "Next of Kin;" another highlight, "Pillar of Truth," honors her late grandma. It's all personal. "I'm never writing as a character," Dacus tells Newsweek.

Dacus's music career began after dropping out of film school. Her first album, 2016's No Burden, won her attention from critics and a deal with the record label Matador. It also entered the personal rotation of 2016 vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine, who raved about Dacus in a New York Times interview. As it turns out, Dacus went to kindergarten with Kaine's daughter, Annella.

"I'm not trying to hide that at all," Dacus laughs. "Everybody asks, like, 'How did he find out about you?' I'm like, 'Well, he babysat me.' He was one of the dads in the carpool.'"

Dacus recently spoke with Newsweek and shared the story behind every song on Historian.


"'Night Shift' is the only breakup song I've ever written," Dacus says—and the song does not hold back. She wrote it on the road, months after going through a painful breakup. The opening line of the album is bracingly unromantic: "The first time I tasted somebody else’s spit / I had a coughing fit."

"That's true," Dacus says, then pauses to clarify: It wasn't an actual first kiss. "It was the first time I kissed somebody other than my ex. I dated this person for like five years. To kiss anybody else—it felt really weird. It felt kind of wrong. And it wasn't a happy or fulfilling or victorious experience." 


On the album's taut first single (which she describes as "kind of breakup-adjacent"), Dacus chides herself for developing a dependency on another person. "I'm personally very adverse to addiction," the singer says. "I don't even drink coffee. I try to avoid becoming reliant on any substance. The only addiction that I know I have experienced is to somebody else."

The theme is reflected in the song's insistent refrain: "You've got addictions, too / It's true." It's the singer's way of reminding herself that she has struggled with an addiction of her own. "The song is about being addicted to a person and cycling back to people even if your relationship has withered and it belongs in the past."


The album's third track is a strange rumination on creative burnout (doubly so, since the record would appear to be the result of creative flourishing). "You don't want to be a creator / Doesn't mean you've got nothing to say," Dacus sings.

"The song's about being confident through burnout and knowing that burnout doesn't last forever," Dacus says. "You don't have to make something in order to retain your identity as an artist or a writer or a creative person. A lot of people think they have to be producing in order to maintain that identity."

As for the song's title, "It's also about feeling a kind of emptiness when you're not creating," Dacus explains. "And feeling like your life lacks purpose or something. If you're not having ideas, you're just a shell."


Dacus was raised in a Christian family in Virginia. But she no longer considers herself a believer in the traditional sense. "Coming out of Christianity was kind of a big process for me," Dacus says. "I don't really talk about it that much anymore."

"Nonbeliever" emerged from several discarded songs, one which was "about telling my mom that I am not the Christian girl that she raised." She was also inspired by the story of her father leaving his hometown of Canton, Mississippi, for Chicago—a similar attempt to shed one's identity. The resulting song chronicles several different types of nonbelief: "nonbelief in a religion, nonbelief in a city, nonbelief in a friendship."

Historian 'Historian' is the great new album by Lucy Dacus. Matador Records


Dacus considers this track, which was inspired by the 2015 Baltimore protests against racism and police brutality, a centerpiece of the album. "The song is about admitting that you're afraid of pain and afraid of the consequences of protesting," she says. "But making a decision to show up."

Dacus was in Europe at the time of the unrest. "I felt like returning to the U.S. wouldn't feel like coming home. I had no pride in my country."

The song climaxes with a fierce guitar solo by bandmate Jacob Blizard. "I was a little worried that that solo would make people use the word 'Americana,'" Dacus admits. "There's a bit of a Southern twinge on it. [But] if you listen to the album, it's not Americana at all." 


The song takes its unusual title from the final line: "You take me aside / To solemnly confide / When it comes the time / You plan to give your body to flame." "It's something that actually happened," Dacus says. "One of my friends told me that they were going to light themselves on fire someday. And it hasn't happened yet. It felt like I was simultaneously really close to this person and far away from understanding them."

"Body to Flame" has a shimmering orchestral dimension to it, with strings arranged by Blizard. "It's about friendship and the ephemeral nature of knowing somebody fully," Dacus explains. "That point where you're really close to somebody and the point where you're coming out of knowing them." 


"That song is about recognizing your own death," Dacus says. "That's why it's so raucous. It's kind of a hard, harsh reality." Indeed, the song does feature a dramatic, squalling build-up, though the rhythm is bluesy and slow. "That's another song I started writing like five years ago, and I just needed a band to come together."


Speaking of mortality, "Next of Kin" centers around a hell of a couplet: "I am at peace with my death / I can go back to bed." It's a liberating sentiment. "When you can admit you're going to die—because clearly that is true—you can just decide to live," Dacus explains. "It's hard for me to think about all the books I'm not going to read. But I'm still reading books because they're still enjoyable. Time is running out."

Despite those weighty concerns, the singer describes this as a "more lighthearted" song—and the "overarching statement of the record."

Related: Deerhoof shares the story behind every song on their protest-heavy new album


At 7:14, this emotionally charged tribute to Dacus's late grandmother, a piano teacher who lived in Mississippi, is the album's lengthiest track. "It's about watching my grandma die," Dacus says. "Which was an actually good experience. I learned a lot from her. And she approached her death with such grace and contentment and calm. She planned her own funeral. She picked the hymns that would be played. She found new piano teachers for her piano students."

The death was a sobering education for Dacus. "I think the biggest lesson she ever taught me was how to die. When people think about the ideal of death, she came really close to what people wish for themselves. So the song has a lot of her in it. There are a lot of biblical references. A lot of hymn references. We got the horns in there because the horns reminded me of, like, an angel choir. A brass band from heaven, welcoming her."


The final song, anchored by majestic strings and ambient textures, is a slow, meditative conclusion of the album's themes of mortality and loss. "'Historians' is saying, even if you know factually that everything is going to be OK, it doesn't make pain less painful," Dacus says. "The song is considering the loss of the things you love and what it will feel like in the wake of those losses."

While the album title is Historian singular, the track is "Historians" plurarl. Why the discrepancy? "It's about two people: a person singing, and then the other person, their partner," Dacus explains. "In the song, they're writing each other's history. They're scribbling ink to capture each other's lives. Then, when one of the people dies, the other person has a whole library full of books they've written together. But the person is gone."

The songwriter considers herself a historian of her own life. "I'm a journaler and a musician. I've made these albums and I've written these journals, and they're going to exist beyond me and that's kind of a crazy thought."

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