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Lucy Dacus isn’t playing to the gallery

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Singer-songwriter to open for Hamilton Leithauser at Johnny Brenda’s on Feb. 9

STORY WRITTEN BY DUTCH GODSHALK

dgodshalk@21st-centurymedia.com
@dutchgodshalk on Twitter

In a recent essay for The Talkhouse, indie-rock artist Lucy Dacus paid tribute to the late David Bowie, citing the 1997 documentary “Inspirations” in which the music icon offered advice to young musicians: “Never play to the gallery.”

Lucy Dacus / Courtesy Matador Records

Lucy Dacus / Courtesy Matador Records

“Never work for other people in what you do,” Bowie said. “Always remember that the reason you initially started working was that there was something inside yourself that you felt that if you could manifest it in some way, you would understand more about yourself and how you coexist with the rest of society.”

It’s hard not to imagine this advice seeming significant to Dacus, 21, who recorded her first album in a small studio in Richmond, Va., about a year ago. At the time, she was an unknown artist, with nothing to prove and no one to satisfy but herself.

“There wasn’t this expectation to have this career,” she says of making “No Burden,” a lo-fi collection of confessional tracks, peppered with dry and at times biting lyrical wit.

Something of a coming-of-age story when taken as whole, the album is a blunt and uncompromising work, with refreshingly honest depictions of twenty-something insecurity. Dacus says this sort of artful self-exploration is the product of trusting her instincts and not worrying about convention.

“I hear a lot of bands recording with a career in mind, and I think they make compromises to their instincts, trying to get a read on what’s popular, what will work,” she says over the phone recently. “Even if it’s possible to make work — maybe it’s cold to say this — heartlessly, and just make work that you think people will enjoy and will translate into money, I cant imagine enjoying doing shows.”

Granted, the stakes were low for Dacus, an artist with no previous releases, but she adhered to Bowie’s advice. She bared her heart in one 24-hour recording session and made something true to herself, the gallery be damned.

“I just feel like your job would suck if you don’t actually believe in the music that you’re making,” she says.

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Lucy Dacus / Courtesy Matador Records

As it turns out, other people also believe in the music she’s making. That became clear pretty quickly.

By Spring, “No Burden” had triggered a 20-label bidding war (Matador Records eventually won) and began raking in critical acclaim as well as newfound fans. Dacus performed an NPR “Tiny Desk Concert” in June and took the stage at Lollapalooza by July. By year’s end, Philly’s own Magnet magazine gave her Best Album of 2016. That’s a banner year, by any stretch.

But all this success makes one wonder. Now that she’s back to work, writing and recording her second album, does Dacus ever need to remind herself of Bowie’s advice? In other words, now that she has a gallery, is it more tempting to play to it?

Over the phone in her home in Richmond, the artist takes a moment to consider this. After a beat, she decides no, her approach to songwriting won’t change. It couldn’t even if she wanted it to.

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Cover art for “No Burden.”

“I don’t have a lot of control over my songwriting,” she says, “which is scary because I can go a long period of time without writing anything. But what’s good about it is that it feels like I don’t influence it a lot. It’s not the best method because I don’t have a lot of control, but it does make it so that the music isn’t catering to anybody.”

She does admit that her writing process is in flux, undergoing a sort of forced evolution. What once was a more solitary activity reserved for long walks around Richmond has recently been pushed to the highways, crammed into vans, flung far from her comfort zone.

“Now I don’t have a lot of alone time,” she says. “Being on tour, you’re with your band in your van every hour of the day, and so I kind of had to basically make my body my personal space. You know, pretend that I’m alone within the confines of my skin. Which has been a really hard adjustment.”

Currently taking a “winter break” from touring, Dacus says she’s reveling in the more humdrum, domestic parts of life — “the ability to cook in a kitchen and do mundane things like wash dishes” — but she’ll soon be back on the road.

On Feb. 9, she’ll be performing at Johnny Brenda’s as an opening act for former The Walkmen singer Hamilton Leithauser. For more information on the show, visit JohnnyBrendas.com.

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Lucy Dacus / Courtesy Matador Records

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