A few years ago, Richmond, Virginia native Lucy Dacus recorded her debut album No Burden over a one-day session in Nashville, initially as a favour to guitarist Jacob Blizard after he invited her to make a record for his college project. From these relatively humble beginnings, Dacus abruptly found herself a breakthrough artist. She released the album in early 2016, and a few months later she was signed to the fabled Matador Records.

Her sophomore album Historian, out now, started coming together as Dacus, a compulsive journaller, began noticing the threads of her songs intertwine with one another. “The first song on it I started writing in 2011 so it’s been a long time coming. I made a list of songs I’d written and realised these ten songs all shared a similar theme and direction.”

The album’s prevailing theme is, at its core, one of endurance and strength through times of uncertainty and darkness. On opener ‘Night Shift’, Dacus navigates heartbreak by addressing a former lover directly – “Don’t hold your breath / forget you ever saw me at my best”, she fires. Throughout the album, Dacus has an ability to make intimate, unique narratives feel almost universally applicable. To that end, Historian feels in equal measure personal and political, a frank reflection on surviving loss and catastrophe amidst what was – for many – an almost unbelievably bad 2017.

When I ask if it was comforting to have something to devote creative energy to during that time, Dacus replies yes – in the same way breathing is comforting. “I have to do it – I don’t know what I would fill my time with otherwise. Especially at a time when I feel quite helpless and powerless, it was good to take control of something constructive and productive –something that means something at least to me and hopefully other people as well. There’s no getting around how awful and occasionally horrific life has been in the US in the past year.”

Dacus and band returned to Nashville to record Historian, this time having a full week rather than a single day. It shows – the record is far more texturally rich than the relatively barebones one before it. Flourishes of horns and strings complement fuzzed-out guitar chords and Dacus’ voice, which sounds confident and self-assured even on the record’s most personal moments.

“This one I got to write the songs with the band in mind. All the songs on No Burden were written solo and so my big concern was how to make it interesting. Really, every consideration beyond that is new to me – I had never recorded before when we recorded No Burden so I didn’t really know what I was dealing with there.”

There’s no getting around how awful and occasionally horrific life has been in the US in the past year.

While No Burden was something of a happy accident, Dacus describes Historian instead as a happy victory – each choice a purposeful and considered one. “Every decision was intentional and I can stand behind every sound you hear and every word I say. That feels really good. I’m even more invested in it than I was with No Burden for that reason and that does make the stakes higher on a personal level – I want the record to mean more to people than No Burden did.”

With those stakes heightened, Dacus says she took several risks with the album. “Recording felt more risky or more innovative, using sounds we hadn’t before and asking – is this going to work? We’ve never done this before.” Ultimately, those risks paid off – Historian stands as a compelling statement to Dacus as a songwriter.

Writing the album’s lyrics was a similarly vulnerable process for Dacus. “A lot of the content is a lot more sensitive, it’s much closer to home for me. There are songs on the album that are about people who know that the songs are about them, for better or worse.” It’s not hard to see the album’s title as somewhat eponymous – Dacus the historian, holding onto personal histories and translating them into a kind of living document.

“I’m a historian in more ways than one – as a musician but also as a photographer and writer, and just as a person who interacts with my friends and family. We all contain a personal history of ourselves and the people around us. I contain a lot of my family, and the stories I remember of my friends – I’ve always had that impulse to contain and capture into paper and music and art. I’m a historian more than a musician by my own metric.”

I’m a historian more than a musician by my own metric.

On the album’s slow-burning final track ‘Historians’, Dacus speaks to the power of those personal histories as a survival method, a way of coping through the darkness. “I’ll be your historian and you’ll be mine / and I’ll fill pages up scribbled in, hoping the words give you meaning” she sings, offering a cautious optimism in the capacity of our words to provide a way of navigating inevitable pain. It’s a fitting close to an album that dives headfirst into the depths of human despair, to come back up to the surface with resilience and a resolute conviction to making it through.

Historian is out on Thursday March 2 through Remote Control / Matador.

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