Lucy Dacus on Her Approach to Life as a Musician, Bernie, and More

Lucy Dacus

We spoke with indie singer-songwriter Lucy Dacus about being a musician during the pandemic, her supergroup boygenius, the state of the music industry, and her very public support of and admiration for Bernie Sanders.

Among an emerging class of musicians that have risen to mainstream prominence, Lucy Dacus is helping to redefine what indie rock looks like. (Courtesy of Lucy Dacus)

Interview by
Karma Samtani

Lucy Dacus is a singer-songwriter who is among the most prominent and exciting members of today’s indie rock scene. Among an emerging class of musicians that have risen to mainstream prominence, Dacus is helping to redefine what indie rock looks like. Since her fan-favorite 2017 single Night Shift, Dacus has continued to create songs that chronicle her interactions with youth, friendship, and faith.

In 2018, Dacus formed the supergroup boygenius with fellow contemporary indie rock icons Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker, releasing an EP earning widespread critical acclaim from the likes of NPR and Esquire. More recently, Dacus’s 2021 record, Home Video, a collection of reflections on nostalgia and youth, was named one of the best rock albums of the year by Pitchfork. An ardent progressive, Dacus has used her platform to uplift leftist organizing and candidates, including by opening for Bernie Sanders at a rally in her hometown of Richmond, Virginia.

Lucy Dacus talked to Karma Samtani for Jacobin about the impact of COVID and TikTok on music, the “sad indie girl” trope, and her political journey.

Karma Samtani

How has life been for you recently, with touring and COVID and everything else?

Lucy Dacus

I would say that I was at my worst when I was alone. A couple of months into COVID, I convinced a bunch of friends to move in with me and have been a little bit better since then. Just having people to cope with made it really obvious how much we all need each other. Even if needing each other looks like watching shitty TV together.

But touring has been such a gift. I’m really happy that we’ve been able to tour for about a year. We’ve had the three tours affected by COVID — members of my band have gotten it. Luckily, no one’s cases were very severe, but we test frequently and we cancel shows and don’t want to be careless. But it’s been a really meaningful and precious atmosphere at the shows, because I think people have needed to come together.

I’ve noticed a lot of the kids in the crowd, the younger people, there’s a chance that they’ve never been to concerts before, or they just turned eighteen during COVID and can come to the show. I feel like they’re living their fantasy and going fully committed to the event. It’s been special to watch.

Karma Samtani

You released your third album, Home Video, during that period of uncertainty. How did COVID affect you and your team?

Lucy Dacus

Usually, I would have a big show, the day that a record came out. This year, nothing happened. Every time a song came out, I felt a little bit sad, because I was just in my house, doing chores. These things that I had worked on for so long, it just didn’t feel very momentous. But Home Video came out in June, and everyone I knew was vaccinated. We had a party at our house but still no shows.

So you have to find different ways to mark things. I guess images became more important, having cool photos, or making other things to share, making cool videos. Usually, I would just be full up on touring, but I had to figure out other things to do. I didn’t have to, but I wanted to. I don’t really want to stop making things. Or I don’t know if I can.

Karma Samtani

With Home Video, and your recent single “Kissing Lessons” too, I’ve noticed that there was this theme of youth that kind of came up over and over. Could you talk a bit about why the concept of youth was so core to this record? Was it the lens through which you wanted to unpack other topics like faith and queerness?

Lucy Dacus

Part of it is an overarching interest in nostalgia, sentimentality, memory, and youth and what that means to people. But also there’s also just a functional aspect. When I was writing the songs, I was barely old enough to concretely say that my childhood was over. So I felt like it was my first pass at reflection of the stories that I ended up telling.

I didn’t really set out with a hard goal, I wanted it to feel more like a discovery process, rather than fulfilling a goal. But I guess I’ve just realized, too, that I achieved some amount of notoriety when I was nineteen or twenty, and growing up, I was basically being told that my youth made me special.

And even before people knew who I was, growing up, adults would say, “Oh, you’re so young.” You’re told that youth is something special. So it is interesting to grapple with a thought like, “Okay, without youth, am I still special?” Or what experiences were happening that will affect me beyond that period of time? What am I taking with me? What am I leaving behind? That’s both a personal quest, and also it affects my professional life.

Karma Samtani

Could you talk about what got you started in music and how your career has been shaped?

Lucy Dacus

I grew up in a really musical house. My mom’s a pianist. My dad is a big music lover and plays a little guitar, and they both played in a church band. So it was always a very present part of my life. I wrote silly songs as a kid, and that just sort of evolved. I started playing guitar when I was in middle school, just teaching myself. I would write songs with friends for their crushes and would try to write praise songs. That felt like the most appropriate use of the skill at the time, everything folded back into church.

But it just kept changing. In high school, the songs started to get more personal. And then in college, I started playing shows and now, it just feels like an unbroken line from being a baby to now with music.

Karma Samtani

With COVID, the way music has been shared and discovered has changed. Obviously, there’s been the elimination of a lot of in-person aspects of music, but social media has filled some of that void, especially platforms like TikTok that have played a huge role in popularizing songs and artists, especially in alternative genres like indie. How do you think that level of very distilled consumerism has affected the music industry and how people interact with your work?

Lucy Dacus

I’m not bothered by how TikTok is changing things. I know a lot of artists that are either freaked out by it or just straight up hate it, but TikTok is real people. And there’s an element to TikTok where you can’t really fake it. So when an artist finds success there, it’s because people are sharing songs.

I think there are a lot of songwriters on TikTok and teens who are paying attention to lyrics and want their emotions to be spoken to. Most of the TikToks about me are about my lyrics, not my hair. It is actually about the work, and friends sharing what they genuinely like.

It’s not as gatekept as some other parts of the industry. You need people at Spotify to put you on to their playlist, and  publicists to coordinate articles and stuff. But with TikTok, it’s completely, as you mentioned, distilled consumerism, and that sounds bad. The word “consumerism” in general gives me a yuck feeling, but there is this sort of honesty to how people are consuming things, at least from what I can see on TikTok.

I also resent businesspeople’s resentment of teens. I think that part of the distaste for TikTok is, “Oh, we have to cater to the teens now.” Do you not remember being eighteen?

I’ve been in meetings with labels, and everybody mentions TikTok and rolls their eyes. And I’m just like, why are you being so upset about the place where teens hang out like that? I’m glad that there’s a place on the internet where young people, and everyone else, are finding places to interact with music in a genuine way.

Karma Samtani

Indie rock has long been very male-dominated. Could you talk a bit about your experiences being a woman in indie?

Lucy Dacus

I’m hopeful that things are changing. It’s true that, especially within indie music, it’s been a male-dominated field. Where I’m at now is, oh, there’s this swell of young women who are writing from, like emotional or literary places. And there are also tons of women making cool work that is not similar to mine. There are tons of electronic and ambient artists, tons of rappers and R&B artists. I’m really interested to see all of us get old.

There is this sort of rock star–guy archetype that gets to work for his whole life. Whereas we were just talking a couple questions back about youth being essentially fetishized or being highlighted as something special. And when it goes away, I’m hoping that nobody has to keep working who doesn’t want to. Maybe my friends will get bored, or they’ll want to do something else. But that’s what would make me think that things are really changing, if our careers get to like, keep going [if we want them to].

But beyond that, I’m really interested in how to develop solutions to class issues within music. There’s such a barrier to entry, not only getting people to hear your music, but even making it in the first place, like access to instruments or having enough time in the day when you’re not working in order to be expressive, or how you book a show in your hometown. Or if you’re trying to be emotionally vulnerable, are you in a safe environment to share those things?

There’s a lot of really potent, meaningful work that we never get to hear. I think that the question of gender will be ongoing, but that that question of class seems like it’s even harder to figure out how to deal with. You wouldn’t believe how many [musicians] I meet who were just rich to begin with, who are some record producer’s son.

Karma Samtani

You’ve been a pretty outspoken critic of the “sad indie girl” trope in music and the sexist connotations it creates by commodifying women’s pain and vulnerability.

Lucy Dacus

The first thing I think of is classic literature: The Awakening by Kate Chopin, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary. There are all of these popular archetypes of women who hate their lives and suffer. And their solutions are basically, no spoilers but, suicide.

And I’m like, why does everyone want to read that? Is it because nobody understands women? No, I don’t want to believe that. Also, “understanding women” isn’t an option. It’s about understanding each person. Yet that’s structurally what women are dealt. Matters of gender can get so cyclical, there are so many paradoxes. I’m really against that label, because maybe just personally, I don’t want to linger in that identity.

I’m trying to protect myself. Because if that’s what people expect from me, I don’t want my happiness to be a disappointment. If you listen to my songs, I don’t think that all of them are that sad. I have some songs that are really tough. I even occasionally cry when I sing songs.

I have a song about being willing to murder someone — those deep, dark feelings. I’ve got other songs that are just kind of fun bops or just like about friendship. I’ve seen over time, especially within rock music, the archetype of the martyr, where a lot of people die.

A lot of people have addiction issues. A lot of people have mental health issues that people confuse as a stylistic choice. When you’re listening to the music, you don’t know the person. Some of what they’re writing could be a product of unaddressed mental health issues that they may never address because they internalize it as a personality trait, not a state of mind that can be affected and changed.

I just don’t want me or my friends to get trapped in an identity that will limit our joy. That’s the crux of it.

Karma Samtani

I think that one way that joy has been really exciting to see has been the level of solidarity between a lot of women in indie and indie rock, like you, Phoebe Bridgers, Japanese Breakfast, and Mitski. It’s been really interesting to see the degree to which you support one another’s careers. What does that level of collaboration and solidarity mean to you?

Lucy Dacus

It means a lot to me on a personal, day-to-day level. Then occasionally, I’ll zoom out and feel really moved by the chance that it’s important for other people to see. I just opened for Phoebe in New York. She and I talk all the time and send each other stupid memes and also bring each other our personal life issues.

But then I kind of zoomed out and looked at the stadium of people and was like, oh, we’re just exhibiting that a good friendship matters to these kids and their parents. It’s weird, I had this moment of, oh, our friendship makes me a part of something that, like, put something good into the world.

I have many powerful friendships that are not on a stage that also put something out into the world. Friendship is transformative. I think that sense of competition is expected between women musicians due to being told that we have limited space that must be vied for. I get a lot from overtly acting in opposition of that. And it’s just more fun. When my friends are winning, I’m winning. I feel happy.

I’m also a fan. When the music’s good, you just want to support it. You want to go to a fun, huge show, and watch people take over the world. I don’t think that there’s a need for competition.

I think competition is a reaction to gatekeeping without placing the blame in the right place. You shouldn’t blame other people who are making things, you should blame the industry or try to work around it by building your own structures that lift people up.

Karma Samtani

I think one of the clearest examples of that has been boygenius. That’s something that’s really unprecedented, three extremely prominent solo musicians coming together to form a supergroup. What has that experience been like for you?

Lucy Dacus

We didn’t really ask anyone if we could do it — we just did it. Then we told our teams, “Hey, we’re putting this record out. Get it out in a couple of months.” We all noticed the defensive nature from each of our teams, because part of having a good manager is that they defend you and advocate for you. But I think that can sometimes steer really strongly into this competition paradigm that we’re talking about.

Lucy Dacus with boygenius, 2018. (Wikimedia Commons)

We had to tell them: “No, no, no, we’re equals, and we’re doing this together.” We don’t have to eke out the upper hand in any way. Even in the interview process, people would ask, “Okay, did you have any conflicts in the studio? What was hard about it?” We were like, “No, it was fun. There’s no drama here.”

Also, if there had been, how stupid to have that be a representation of women. I think that that is really corny, to want to reinforce some weird generalization about women through other women having conflict. Because it’s totally okay to have conflict and get through it and maintain relationships or end relationships, and it shouldn’t reflect on anybody’s personality other than the people involved.

I do like that, just by existing together, we showed an option of cooperation and fun that is not assumed for women.

Karma Samtani

Switching gears a little bit to electoral politics: in 2020, you were a very vocal supporter of Bernie Sanders for president, opening for him at a rally in your hometown of Richmond (which also resulted in this video).

For a lot of people who are in the public eye, there is a cost to using their platform to be politically active — especially when they’re embracing more leftist and progressive ideas — because of the constant refrain to musicians and athletes and other people who don’t have explicitly political occupations to “stick to music” or “stick to sports.”

Seeing you participate so strongly in a campaign like Bernie’s, I was wondering what it was like for you to make that choice.

Lucy Dacus

For me, the decision to support Bernie, as a person, was the real decision. To support him as a musician did feel like a no-brainer, because something overarching about my career is that I don’t have a persona.

I kind of wish I did sometimes, but who I am to you right now is also who I am on stage and who I am to my friends. And it just helps for me to not have to decide at every move if this is the type of thing I would do. I get to be one person.

The couple of people that say, stick to music, are really a minority. An annoying and loud minority. I think that most people want to know the people who are creating the art that they interact with. I don’t really read music biographies, or look up people’s Wikipedia pages that much, but I want to know what the people I support believe in, because that affects whether or not I support them.

But I just really thought that Bernie had the best platform. Every time he’s run, he’s pushed the conversation, and I think we would have a better government with him as president.

I wish it had worked out. But he’s still doing great work. I think he’s still being very vocal and changing people’s minds, and in that way, changing the country.

I grew up in a pretty apolitical house, my parents didn’t watch the news. I didn’t watch the news until high school. I don’t even know if my parents voted for a long time. But my mom was a Bernie person in a huge [Donald] Trump area.

Bernie occupied a space that, at least in my lifetime, I’ve never seen somebody occupy. I think it’s dangerous to worship any politician. No politician is perfect. Also, I think it’s hard to worship anybody in a system that’s completely fucked.

I don’t know if it can be changed from the inside anymore. But Bernie continues to be somebody I respect the most, somebody that I’ve been challenged by and learned from the most. I wish that people had more of a caring ethic the way that Bernie does.

Karma Samtani

I’m interested in how you went from that apolitical background to opening for someone like Bernie. Was there a specific experience that kind of introduced you to politics, or was your support for Bernie just a translation of the core beliefs that you had all along?

Lucy Dacus

I went to a high school in Richmond that was a public school focused on government and international studies. Suddenly I was around a lot of people that knew about politics. It was a bunch of high schoolers, so a lot of people had inherited their parents’ beliefs. There were still a lot of Republicans and conservatives, but I also met anarchists and socialists and communists and leftists — and also liberals, but I’m kind of off the liberal shit.

In high school, I was like, “Oh, the thing that sounds best is anarcho-communism. That really sounds like what we should all be working toward.”

I also still believed in God, and I thought Jesus preached anarcho-communism, if he had to pick one. I don’t know if I ascribe to that now, I don’t know if I ascribe to anything, but I definitely think socialism has a lot of points.

I don’t know exactly when I got radicalized. There’s also sort of an aesthetic to radicalization that I don’t know I ever was fully involved in. But just reading Angela Davis, and more poetic people like Audre Lorde and James Baldwin — people who are critiquing American life and tenets of being an American that suck, like homophobia, racism, classism, and capitalism, all of these truly American hallmarks. Just hearing how government has failed so many people that I love, that alone should radicalize anyone.

Karma Samtani

Being a musician now means experiencing the very stark divide that often exists in the industry. For a musician to be able to buy a cup of coffee with the money they earn from Spotify royalties, they need 786 streams of one song. We’re also seeing stories like the San Antonio Symphony workers who are organizing for basic working conditions and dignified pay. At the same time as this struggle to make ends meet, there’s also an upper echelon of executives who are profiting from a lot of the work that you create.

Has being a musician shaped your political identity or just reinforced it, and in general how you feel about the nature of the music industry today?

Lucy Dacus

I think it’s probably informed [my politics] because I started doing this when I was nineteen. I had jobs before doing this, but this has been my big major job.

It’s weird to think this is how I’ve been in the workforce, doing shows, because it’s such a fun, glitzy type of job. But maybe the biggest lesson is how insidiously people try to take advantage of you, even people that really love and respect you are still looking out for themselves.

People who I currently work with who are really great people are getting their slice of my work. Spotify is a good example. You get less than pennies per stream. Records too — it’s not like somebody spends $20 on a record and I get $20. That $20 gets eaten away by the store you bought it at, the shipping, and the warehouse costs, and the deal with the distributor, and then the label that puts it out, and then the cost of production and, like, I get a dollar.

[Even with] record deals, I was sent lots of record deals initially, and the sneaky ways that people try to exert ownership or power over your work is just how things are done. I was told by people, “Oh, yeah, this sucks, but you’re not gonna see anything better than this.”

I have friends that are making music and ask if they should be on a label. I say, “Well, there’s a tradeoff. Do you want control and power over things? Or do you want a lot of help from people who are going to benefit from it more than you?”

I think that [the music industry] filters into a greater conversation about economy and politics. It’s been enlightening.

Karma Samtani

Something that even precedes that whole process of getting a record deal and being able to distribute your music is the ability to get into the industry in the first place, to dedicate a level of time to it that is actually conducive to a decent chance of success.

That’s something that isn’t afforded to a lot of people, simply because they don’t have the safety net to fall back into if something doesn’t work out. As someone who has had many encounters with this system, do you feel that there are ways that this can be fixed, or does it take a much more broad systemic change outside of the industry?

Lucy Dacus

That feels like a bigger question than my pay grade. But I’m interested. I’m sure there are people who are working on it. I know in little ways, people fight for their rights. I know that there is a musicians’ union. I see them doing a lot of cool stuff. I think there are also some labels that are unionizing, I know that Dead Oceans and the Secretly Group, they’re unionized. I don’t know if that’s as close for musicians, indie musicians, but I think there’s some progress.

Karma Samtani

You mentioned you recently moved to Philadelphia. I’m curious about what that’s been like, because Philadelphia is a huge hub of grassroots organizing and socialist organizing. In recent years, there have been a number of socialists elected to state office in the Philadelphia area along with strong organizing against police brutality. Have you had a chance to interact with that infrastructure?

Lucy Dacus

Yeah, it’s part of what attracted me to the city. I know people who’ve worked with Reclaim Philly. I’ve been asked to campaign for people and go door to door, and I’ve offered my house as a place for people to gather for canvassing. My house has been an interesting hub.

I met Rick Krajewski a couple times, who seems like a really cool guy. Beyond political activism, there’s a lot of community activism to just do direct mutual aid and community fridges. There are a lot of smaller groups with good focuses. There’s a black trans mutual aid fund that does a lot of cool stuff.

I just really respect it. I really liked the organizing in Philly. I hope that it will be a part of my life wherever I live. I think that more cities could be more like this.

Karma Samtani

There is a growing wave of bigotry that’s being pushed in a really insidious way, so for a lot of people, this moment feels like now or never. So in that context, what sort of role do you think music has to play?

Lucy Dacus

I think music is in a really special position, because it’s something that is interacted with privately and publicly. It’s really hard to change publicly. I feel pretty comfortable asking the people in my life questions, but a lot of people don’t. Even on an emotional level, they don’t want to go there, or don’t feel safe enough to go there with family.

And so having headphones in bed, and being able to access emotions, and thoughts that way, is very important. But also communicating with people who feel the same way as you are, thinking the same way as us, is really validating and emboldening, it can be very joyful.

Underlying the defense of human rights is defending joy and defending everybody’s ability to live happily and healthily. So I think music does have an important place. I mean, I’d say fire on all cylinders when it comes to speaking to a family member or a crowd of people. If it matters to you, you shouldn’t have to section it off, you don’t have to compartmentalize your life that way.

Karma Samtani

There are a lot of good reasons to be very cynical right now. Is there anything, whether it’s political or not, that’s really keeping you hopeful and excited these days?

Lucy Dacus

I actually don’t feel that cynical. There’s a lot in life to enjoy. There’s just so many people in the world that are open to connection, and the world itself is still a miracle. The seasons changing and nature doing its thing will never stop being very beautiful and cool and humbling.

In terms of causes, I get really excited and emboldened reading books by and talking to Indigenous friends [about] movements that are happening. I’m trying to figure out a way to involve Indigenous orgs locally at our shows. I guess if there’s a specific one people want to check out, I think the Mariposa Fund are a great group in the Southwest. They have a lot of different projects, but they provide funds for abortion care in the Southwest.