Lucy Dacus Is Her Own Unreliable Narrator

Jun 25, 2021
Originally published on June 26, 2021 7:59 pm

Songwriter Lucy Dacus grew up spending summers at Vacation Bible School and during the school year, sometimes skipping class to go to the movies with her friends in her hometown of Richmond, Va. Her third and latest album, Home Video, is an autobiographical, coming-of-age tale that borrows from those real life events she's tracked in journals since she was young.

"While I was writing all the songs, I would think of a specific memory and then just go find that one entry," she says, "and it's weird to see how your memory and how your documentation are different."

What Dacus discovered while reading her old journals as an adult was what an unreliable narrator she was as a kid — how the act of writing down memories isn't a perfect encapsulation of truth.

"It really shows you how memory is just like a fiction that you come up with," she says. "I'd like, write what I wanted to remember and leave out the details that I wouldn't."

Just like writing down a memory in a journal crystalizes a moment in time, Dacus says that writing a song feels like a culmination, too — but she's starting to wonder if it's possible to pen an ending.

"I've always thought it's the end of a story to write a song; it's like the credits rolling," she says. "But I recently realized that's just the middle of understanding, and I feel like more of my life just feels like the middle. I've just been sitting with this feeling that there's no such thing as closure."

Lucy Dacus spoke to NPR's All Things Considered about playing with memory on Home Video, how she's changed her mind about objecting at her friend's wedding like she sings about on "Christine," and how the violent, bad dad anthem "Thumbs" is about love more so than pain.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOT AND HEAVY")

LUCY DACUS: (Singing) Led me to the floor even though I'm not a dancer.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Songwriter Lucy Dacus grew up spending summers at vacation Bible school and, during the school year, sometimes skipping class to go to the movies with her friends in her hometown of Richmond, Va. She would scribble away in her journal back then to document these memories, and now some of those journal entries have made their way into her songs on a new album called "Home Video" that digs deep into her childhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOT AND HEAVY")

DACUS: (Singing) When I went away, it was the only option - couldn't trust myself to proceed with caution.

CHANG: What Dacus discovered while reading her old journals as an adult was what an unreliable narrator she was as a kid, how she would bend the truth in those journal entries.

DACUS: While I was writing all the songs, I would think of a specific memory and then just go find that one entry. And it's weird to see how your memory and how your documentation are different.

CHANG: And if journal entries can revise memories, I asked Dacus, what about songs?

DACUS: It kind of feels like a culmination. Like, when I write a song about something, I'm like, OK, finally I was able to say what I needed to say. But then the song itself becomes a new memory, you know? Like, I feel like I've always thought it's the end of a story to write a song. But I recently realized, like, that's just the middle of understanding. And I feel like more of my life just feels like the middle. And I've just been sitting with this feeling that, like, there's no such thing as closure.

CHANG: Is there a particular song on this album that represents the middle of the evolution of a memory for you?

DACUS: Yeah. I think "Partner In Crime" is probably a good example.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PARTNER IN CRIME")

DACUS: (Singing) When I asked you to coffee, could you tell I don't drink it?

I wanted to write that about this relationship I was in when I was much younger, and the person was older than me. And when I wrote it, I just wanted to write about the feeling of, like, wanting to be taken seriously and maybe even, like, falsifying your life in order to feel more like an adult.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PARTNER IN CRIME")

DACUS: (Singing) When you asked me my age, I lied. I saw relief dawn on your eyes.

But then after I wrote it, I was like, wait. I just look back, and it just completely invalidates how I used to feel because I'm like, you are a child. Teens are obviously autonomous, full beings, but...

CHANG: Who are not adults.

DACUS: Who are not adults. Yeah.

CHANG: So interesting. I also want to ask you, you know, your songs reference what seems to be a lot of real people in your life. And when you're writing about these memories involving these real people, how much are you thinking about how they are going to react to a particular song about them? Like, does that affect the way you write the song?

DACUS: I don't think about it at all when I'm writing, but then I think about it a lot when it's done. I hear a lot of people prioritize their music over their relationships. And, I mean, if that's what is true for them, go for it. But I don't know. I feel like music is just a facet of my life. Like, it doesn't take hierarchical dominance over the people that I love, and it never will.

CHANG: Yeah. There is a song called "Christine" where you're telling your friend that she should not settle for a guy that you think isn't right for her.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTINE")

DACUS: (Singing) He can be nice sometimes. Other nights, you admit he's not what you had in mind.

CHANG: I mean, I've had my own experiences being honest about my friends' romantic choices, and I'm curious. Was this song the first time you brought up this issue?

DACUS: Yeah. I had said a few things, nothing so resolute. I told her, like, you know, he shouldn't have done that, or, you don't deserve that. But it was the first time that I told her, I would object at your wedding.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTINE")

DACUS: (Singing) But if you get married, I'd object, throw my shoe at the altar and lose your respect.

CHANG: Is she engaged?

DACUS: So she's not engaged. They are still dating, that couple. But things have changed, and I don't feel that way anymore. Like, I think that everybody has matured, including me. And, yeah, I don't think I would throw my shoe at her at the altar the way...

CHANG: Like you said.

DACUS: ...I describe in the song. But that captured a feeling for me that was so important at the time, and I think it will remain important.

CHANG: I mean, this is an example of how a song represents the middle of the evolution of a memory. Like, now you feel differently. Well, there's another memory about friendship on this album, a really intense one. It's the song "Thumbs"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THUMBS")

DACUS: (Singing) Your dad has come to talk.

CHANG: ...Where you describe joining a friend who is meeting up with her father for the first time in something like a decade.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THUMBS")

DACUS: (Singing) You don't have to see him, but for whatever reason, you can't tell him no.

CHANG: I read that you felt almost sick when you wrote this song. Why was that?

DACUS: I think that for a lot of my life, I just, like, thought the violence was abhorrent, and I still do. I think that violence isn't a, like, good solution long-term. But the day that I went to meet my friend's dad with her, I felt a violent urge in a really intense way for the first time in my life. I just wished pain upon this man. And it was very revealing to me that I wasn't exempt from that, like, very human feeling.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THUMBS")

DACUS: (Singing) I would kill him if you let me.

The song has become very important to the friend that it's about and to our friendship. And she's the one that told me, like, this isn't a sad song. This is, like, an emboldening song. This is a song about how much you care about me. And that's true. And, like, she gets to say what the song is about, honestly, I think even more than me. So I appreciate that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THUMBS")

DACUS: (Singing) I love your eyes, and he has them, or you have his 'cause he was first.

CHANG: Well, now this song is on this album that you're releasing. I'm just curious. What does it feel like to go from processing a memory fairly personally to now sending it into the world for everyone to process it with you in their own ways?

DACUS: I think it feels really good. It kind of feels like the pressure is off of me because it is a specific experience. But I think that there's things about it that are relatable. And if more people are processing it, it's like I'm not alone. People listening to this makes me feel like it exists beyond my life, and it feels like this weight, like, taken off of my shoulders.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THUMBS")

DACUS: (Singing) So we walk a mile in the wrong direction.

CHANG: Lucy Dacus - her new album is called "Home Video." Thank you so much for sharing this time with us.

DACUS: Yeah. Thank you, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THUMBS")

DACUS: (Singing) If you let me, I would kill him quick and easy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.