Lucy Dacus turns 21 this week.
Last Monday, she and her band stopped at a Dairy Queen and were still basking in the afterglow of playing for the first time at the famous 9:30 Club in Washington. They’d opened a sold-out show for the group Houndmouth.
Lately, Dacus has been performing sets that include her hushed cover of the Prince classic, “I Would Die 4 U,” with friend Hayden Arp joining her — a song they recorded and offered as a free download on Bandcamp. It was originally created last summer to be used for the first dance at a friends’ wedding.
They heard about Prince’s death while on the road, Dacus says, and Hayden came along for a few shows. “All of us have seen shows at the 9:30 that were life-changing,” she says. “So to be on the other side of it is something you dream about.”
So far it’s been a dreamy year for Dacus, a poised singer and songwriter who's being hailed as one of 2016’s best new finds by national critics from NPR, Rolling Stone and Spin, as well as blogs such as Stereogum and Consequence of Sound.
Her smart debut album, “No Burden” — filled with confident indie rockers and warm ballads intimately delivered through her achingly lovely, almost parched vocals — was released on local EggHunt Records. Almost instantly, she was placed alongside leading indie musicians Angel Olsen, Sharon Van Etten and Courtney Barnett.
Guitarist Jacob Blizzard says Dacus’s debut album was her first time playing with a band and she’s picked it up remarkably fast. She also managed to learn a lot about the business side of music, he says, with her calm and levelheaded approach.
“She doesn’t have any interest in the stereotypical excesses of the rock and roll lifestyle,” he says. “Her main vice is probably Thai food. I could see that being an issue down the road if it goes unchecked, but for now I don’t think it’s much of an issue.”
“It feels really lucky, I’m not used to it yet,” Dacus says about her success, adding that two friends from her high school days at Maggie Walker are following her around filming a documentary of indeterminate length. The singer will be off tour this week and back in Richmond for two days before her 21st birthday.
“I think we’re going to try to go to the Sleepwalkers show at the Broadberry,” she says when asked about her birthday plans. She’s supportive of the local scene and especially into the newer band Spooky Cool [see profile, page 21].
Style spoke with her about her time as a Maggie Walker student, her musical family, and her hopes for her highly anticipated follow-up record — which we’ll likely be hearing major news about later this month or in June.
Style: How did your approach to singing come about?
Dacus: I kind of wonder that as well. I’ve realized the two biggest places I was asked to sing growing up were in church, and my mom does musical theater, so I would do that. And that is some of the grossest, most overly saccharine, disingenuous music you can find, Christian rock and musical theater, with exceptions. I’m really glad I’m not in those realms of performance anymore.
I remember finding music for myself, with help from friends in high school. Finding out about the Stooges, Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo — stuff that was much more expressive — and I kind of flipped out. They became so much more important, Yo La and Ava Luna were really important. Music like that wasn’t on the radio. I realized then that I could like music just because of the quality and not some social obligation.
But the quality of my voice is hard to pinpoint where that would come from — I never tried to make it any way.
You were adopted — were both your parents musical?
Yeah, they were both involved in the church. My dad played guitar and my mom is a professional pianist and teaches elementary music in Hanover. All of my music leanings were very encouraged. … I went to Northminster Baptist, which has changed [ownership] since. … They were really interested in teaching people love and forgiveness and patience. I don’t feel messed up the way some people do who grew up around the church.
Have you ever met your [biological] parents?
I met my birth mother two summers ago. She’s not musical at all, but she used to work at a record store and she loves music. She’s cool. I don’t know her very well … My birth father I think was in a band, but I haven’t met him or communicated with him, so that might be interesting some day.
My mom actually came to our album release at the Broadberry. I hadn’t seen her in two years, since I met her. She came and — for her, she sees me or hears about me so rarely, the changes are not subtle. There’s a definite shift. She knew me when I was a baby, then got pictures as a toddler, then we met in person, then two years later I’m standing there playing in front of 400 people.
I can’t imagine what that’s like for her.
What was your time like at Maggie Walker?
I graduated in 2013 and I love it still. They were responsible for a lot of positive life decisions and behaviors for me. They really cared about figuring out what you love and how to learn it. It was a really supportive arts community.
I feel like a lot of high schools could be this way, if teachers treated kids the way they do at Maggie Walker. Like from the onset, “You are intelligent — therefore we expect a lot from you.” That’s why everybody excels. I’m still friends with so many people from Maggie Walker, some I’ve lived with since high school.
Were there teachers who had a big influence?
I never took music classes there or got into an academic space to learn about music. But I guess if there was one teacher who really encouraged me, Libbie Germer, my freshman history teacher, cared so much about everybody. She took me aside and asked what I was about. I mentioned I was learning to play guitar and write songs. So she told me to bring my guitar the next day and meet her for lunch. We ended up going to a stairwell at the school and a bunch of people gathered around. That was kind of the first time I played music for anybody else.
I don’t even know if she knows what she did for me.
Did you think “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore” would be your breakout song?
[That song] is two minutes and 43 seconds long and that’s about how long it took to write. Some songs happen easily like that because the thought has been crystallizing and solidifying for so long that it’s fully formed by the time I go to sing it. It was sort of a surprise to write and when I showed it to friends, people said, “That’s your hit.” At the time I didn’t imagine even being in the position to have a hit, but I guess there’s something simple about the lyrics that people can easily relate to. People appreciate honesty, straight up, no frills.
So where are you on the new album?
It’s not recorded but I think I counted 16 songs we could record for the next album. We haven’t figured them all out yet, but we’re all excited to do another album with more time and rehearsals. The last one was basically one day, and the next for overdubs … under 20 hours. We did really enjoy doing it in one day.
My preference would be to get everything in order, do a lot of prep work, and not dillydally in the studio. Get it done as quickly as possible, that’s kind of the agreed-upon plan of action.
The big difference about the second album is it will be written with other instruments in mind — the first one was written for me to play solo. So yeah, we might be adding more people, more instruments. We have ideas about adding brass and strings. I don’t know what it will be like, and that’s what excites me. …
I don’t think [the overall sound] will be more pop, I can only say I’ll be experimenting more.
I’m inclined to say they’ll all be different.
Lucy Dacus performs at Brown’s Island with Kurt Vile and the Violators for the Friday Cheers series concert Friday, June 10.