Record Of The Week: Lucy Dacus’ ‘Home Video’

From the very first verse of the opening song “Hot & Heavy,” Lucy Dacus’ third album, Home Video, is a trip back in time to the 26-year-old singer-songwriter’s childhood and adolescence in Richmond, Virginia. She compiled the 11 songs over many years, drawing from actual diary entries and, yes, family footage. With her calm and confident vocal delivery, atop alternatingly delicate fingerpicking and aggressive riffs on guitar, Dacus blends reflective commentary with her first-person source material in narratives of young love, self-discovery, teenage arrogance, identity and loyalty. During our interview, she said this musical openness and exploration were only feasible at this time in her life because her bandmates are also old, trusted friends, and it feels “safe…precious.” The care she gave to the process, including the pandemic months she spent editing her work, yielded stunning results.  

Home Video is at times somber and even sinister-sounding, as in the violent fantasy “Thumbs.” It’s also tender and sensual during “First Time,” “Partner in Crime” and “Triple Dog Dare,” songs alluding to “sexy stuff” that, Dacus and I laughed, shouldn’t be embarrassing to discuss as adults, except that the training in modesty received as a Christian kid can be tricky to de-program. “Is it rooted in fear or shame? I-D-K,” Dacus asked aloud, rhetorically. 

Church-camp-themed rocker “VBS” invites head-nods from those of us who were formerly part of the God Squad, especially when we hear her sing about “hedging our bets” for eternal life while crushing hard. Also relatable is “Cartwheel,” which covers the felt betrayal of a friend growing up faster than you. “Going Going Gone” represents a slight lean into folk, with choral help from Dacus’ boygenius bandmates Phoebe Bridgers and (former Nashville Artist of the Month) Julien Baker, as well as Mitski. It’s a great example of the poetry of Dacus’s lyrics: 

Daniel made a pass
We started flirting after class
Stealing hats and trading jackets
Locking lips and braces brackets

“Going Going Gone”

The upbeat “Brando,” which Dacus wrote in freewheeling 6+ verse form before the chorus came to her, is about platonic friendship based on a sort of cultural condescension. Such early evidence of mansplaining is appalling and obvious now, but when you’re in it, you can’t necessarily see it. Dacus agrees. “You can’t have perspective too close to something. I feel like [now] I have a more honest and open understanding of who I was at that time.” 

Home Video has been warmly received by fans and critics alike. And yet it’s the people in the songs, some named and others brought to existence through her vivid lyricism, who are keeping Dacus up nights—the people whose embrace or rejection of this music make the sharing of it harder than she expected it to be. The time she’s spent away from home since her rapid rise to indie rock prominence beginning in 2016—a breakthrough she describes as a “big surprise” after recording her first record No Burden in a single day at a Nashville studio where her friend was interning—has made Dacus’ telling of these intimate stories through song an anxious experience for her. A recent return to her Richmond high school to film a Tiny Desk from Home concert was “triggering,” she told me. “I don’t know why I’m doing this to myself.”  

She’s heard secondhand that adults who mentored her in those formative religious years are disappointed that she seems “not grateful” for her upbringing, an assumption that she said hurts, and which she refutes: “I am grateful for some of the lessons and all of the love I received as a child.” But perhaps Dacus has offended them by continuing to grow? By sharing widely what those lessons and love felt like then, and how she sees them differently now with some hindsight? 

Overall, this artist’s honest descriptions of how these songs are resonating with people and how emotional they will be to perform on an upcoming slew of tour dates, including September 15 in Nashville, illustrate what’s at the core of Home Video: that fragile tension between hope for the future and feeling lost in the present. 

On the Record: A Q&A With Lucy Dacus 

Celia Gregory:  I want to start with “Hot & Heavy.” The evocative opening line just feels like it sets the tone for the album, with you looking backwards and feeling hot in the face back at home, the memories flooding. You told writer Ilana Kaplan that you were nervous about releasing these songs because they so vividly illustrate some people from your past. Yet you just released the NPR Tiny Desk Concert filmed at your high school. Have you heard from any of the people in these stories and songs about how they’re resonating now that the album’s out?  

Lucy Dacus: I have seen a few people who are really grateful and it’s been good to talk about them. Then there are other people who just continue to be self-centered and controlling. It’s been actually really hard. There are a couple of things that I thought I put to rest that I didn’t realize I was reopening by putting this music out.  

So I wouldn’t say that I’m fearless. In fact, I think I tend to do stuff that makes me feel afraid, like going back to my high school — it wasn’t all good. I think that it was really fun and sweet and kind of full circle, but also a little triggering, walking around the halls being like, “Oh my God, this happened there. I remember this person.” I don’t know why I’m putting myself through this. It feels like there’s some big reason that I don’t know yet.  

CG: There must have been some calculation on your part, because I read some of these songs are several years old. It’s just that you put them all together in this concept record. So you had all this source material from your writing and the actual home videos, but you compiled them, it sounds like, sort of slowly.  

LD: Yeah. And that has been really cathartic for me to be like, “Just because the story is about someone else doesn’t mean that it belongs to them. It’s my life, too.” And I have really had to hold to that. That’s the lesson that I think I’m learning from the whole process. 

CG: With the song “VBS,” the story of it hits differently for the scores of us that did grow up religious and had these formative social moments in religious settings, like church camps and youth groups. So you had to know that that was going to resonate. Is that one of the stories that you feel like you’re ruffling feathers with in telling it like you’re telling it?  

LD: Yeah, a little bit. I thought that that song was funny. I feel like I’ve been trying to embrace a sense of humor. I think humor is such a key to unlocking the past; it makes you feel safe. Just being able to laugh at yourself is really important.  
But yeah, I’ve heard secondhand that some of the adults that raised me in church feel like I’m being, like, not grateful or [are] offended. And that really hurts, because, no, I don’t go to church anymore. But I am grateful for some of the lessons and all of the love that I received as a child. I guess maybe it’s indicative of something that I didn’t really want to admit, which is that if you’re not in, you’re out. And I feel out. I guess it was my choice. But it does feel kind of bad. Though, the fun thing about “VBS” coming out is that the people who have been to VBS (vacation bible school), there’s a deep bond between people that grew up in that setting and being able to just implicitly relate to people about that has been very, very nice.  

CG: Do you feel overall closer to that summer of ’07 version of yourself, having worked through these stories, or further away? 

LD: That’s a good question. I feel like further away in a way that feels good, but that I can look at it. I feel like the answer is somehow both. You can’t have perspective too close to something. So like I feel farther away, but I feel like I have a more honest and open understanding of who I was at that time. Whereas up until this time, I haven’t even really been able to look back and see that for what it was. 

CG: I’m thinking of the song “Brando,” too. Before you knew that you were writing this as an album, how did you go about translating these memories and that source material I referenced into verse structure and the actual songs? Can you tell me more about the songwriting?  

LD: With “Brando,” specifically, I wrote, like, six verses. I had this idea and I was just kind of cycling through different details and references to movies and music and games and things that had to do with this person. And it was more of an editing process. I think the writing came really easy and the editing took more time. And I also didn’t write the chorus line, “All I need for you to admit is that you never knew me like you thought you did.” That came much later, and it felt like an a-ha moment. Like, “Oh, that’s the crux of our relationship.” But it took circling around it for a long time in order to get there.  

CG: So production-wise, I understand you recorded here in Nashville and you had more time with the mixing and the finishing of the album because of the pandemic. So how did that extra time impact your production choices?  

LD: I feel like this is not the answer that maybe many people would admit, but is actually true: you just have to give up. I kind of feel like finishing a record is when you decide to give up. We mixed with Shawn Everett, and he told me that he would tinker forever. I think that he loves to work on a record for a really long time — to go down rabbit holes and discover sounds and get completely lost and have to find your way out, which I think is extremely cool approach. So mixing took a while and that was different for me because I’m a really quick worker. I’m kind of, like, the first impulse is usually the best, go with it. I really don’t want to get caught overthinking things, because I think you can lose your vision. So I don’t know if it really changed because I had an idea for everything before we even started recording and I was always trying to service that idea. Ultimately the record came out like pretty much exactly like I imagined.  

CG: You have some history in the city before recording Home Video. I think the debut of boygenius, your power trio, was at the Ryman, right?  

LD: Yes. But I’ve always recorded in Nashville, actually. The first recordings I ever made were in my friend Collin Pastore’s bedroom with Jacob Blizard. They were friends in middle school and we all became friends in high school. And the way we would hang out is that I would bring in a song, Jacob would play all the instruments and Collin would engineer and record it. And that’s like the crux of our friendship. That’s how we hang.  
So Collin got an internship at Reba McEntire’s studio, Starstruck. And Jacob was in school for classical guitar and asked if I had enough songs for him to make an album for a school project. I said, “Sure.” And Collin was like, “There’s an open Saturday. Do you just want to sneak in and make a whole record in one day?” So that’s No Burden. It was Jacob’s school project one day at Collin’s studio that he was interning at, and I didn’t expect for it to become what it did. It was really a huge surprise that my life changed so much after that. It’s not what any of us intended. But it’s more about Collin and Jacob than anything, and at this point, Jake Finch, as well. He’s close with Collin, they met at Berklee and he drums on our records and the four of us produced Home Video together. We also did Historian and now we record at Trace Horse, which is in Berry Hill, that’s run by Scottie Prudhoe and Preston Cochran, who were my high school band. So everyone involved is Richmond people and the people that I’ve known since I was 15. It feels very safe and important to me…precious. I feel like the reason why I’m getting more personal or being exploratory is because I feel so safe with them. It’s really very special with me.  

CG: You’re about to be on tour and perform these songs live for lots and lots of people. Anything you’d care to share about preparing for tours, maybe even the really amazing artists you have opening for you? 

LD: I guess I’ll say that I feel very unprepared. I feel like I can’t grapple with the fact that it’s going to happen. Like, it starts in a week. I’m going on a two-week tour opening for Bright Eyes, which is going to be bonkers. And then in the fall, we’re doing a seven-week U.S. tour. We’re coming to Nashville playing Brooklyn Bowl, which I know is like kind of new. I’m really excited and Bachelor is going to be opening — that’s the new band, the Palehound and Jay Som collab, and it’s just so good and they’re sweet people. Then the second half of the tour Bartees Strange is going to be playing and he had my favorite record of 2020. I think that he’s a total star. 

CG: I know you said you don’t feel prepared, but if you have had these songs in your heart and in your journal, in some cases for years and years, I feel like on stage it’s just going to pour out of you. 

LD: Yeah, I think that the first shows are going to be sloppy as hell, almost regrettably sloppy, emotionally. And then hopefully we will coalesce and it’s all going to be good. In preparing myself, I won’t really be able to expect what it feels like.  

CG: But for fans, it will be the best show ever if you just fall apart on stage and they can share that emotional moment with you.  

LD: We opened for Shakey Graves at Red Rocks two days before the record came out, and I did. I cried unnoticeably twice and then super noticeably one time. I wept, like, ugly, ugly cry. I sounded terrible. Watching the videos back, I was cracking up because I sounded so bad. I sounded like I was pretending to cry, that’s how bad it sounded. So maybe that’ll happen again.  

CG: When I asked about the production on Home Video, I was thinking about “First Time” and “Partner in Crime,” because they’re different, musically. You have more effects. I wondered if there was more massaging on certain tracks and you just had more fun with tweaking the overall sound on certain tracks than the others.  

LD: I love both of those songs. They feel gutsy in a way.  

CG: “First Time” is definitely a sexy song. I wrote sexy and then I was embarrassed and I didn’t want to put it in my final review. But I’ll tell you! 

LD: Yeah, I mean, I wrote [a] sexy [song] and then got embarrassed. No one has really been calling me out for that, so I don’t know if other people are embarrassed, too, but I expected more people to be like, “Damn!” I had not really ever written that way. I feel like I’m a mostly modest person and I’m trying to challenge that a little bit. Is the modesty coming from fear? Is it coming from shame? IDK. But I’m trying to not be embarrassed about sexy stuff.