When I watched NPR's Tiny Desk Concert with Lucy Dacus, I couldn't help but laugh. It was filmed in the singer-songwriter's high school, back in her hometown of Richmond, Virginia. To announce the concert, Dacus posted a video on her Instagram stories that showed her writing the words "Lucy was here" on a dry erase board at the school. After scrawling the familiar phrase in green, she smudged out the "was" and replaced it with "wuz."
I laughed out loud when the short clip ran across my screen, because I knew what was coming as soon as I saw her begin to rub the word out with the back of her hand. It's something I — and probably millions of other middle and high schoolers — wrote anytime we had to work out a math problem or diagram a sentence in front of classmates, or maybe found ourselves unexpectedly alone in a usually full classroom, unable to resist the temptation to leave a reminder of our presence. I could almost smell that strong chemical scent of the Expo marker, and feel that rush that comes with getting away with something. That specific, cheeky feeling is one that Lucy Dacus is an expert in evoking. The word for it is nostalgia.
Dacus released her third album Home Video in 2021, and, as the title suggests, it was an exploration of the past — hers, but also, it feels, all of ours. The fourth track, "VBS" — three letters some, including myself, immediately recognise as an abbreviation for "vacation bible school" — is all about lessons learned — both useful and not — and antics enjoyed or endured at Christian summer camp. "Brando" is a lighthearted look at a youthful friendship with someone who has a serious case of main character syndrome. "Cartwheel" examines that uncomfortable period when some members of a tight-knit group of friends have moved into adolescence, while others continue to adamantly cling to childhood. Though Dacus' lyrics are deeply personal, each song transports me back to moments of my own life.
When I recently had the chance to ask her how she was able to extract those evocative experiences from her past for the album, the 26-year-old tells me, "I don't feel like I tapped into it as much as it tapped me. Like, you know when you get flooded by a memory that you maybe didn't even ask for?"
Dacus credits this newfound ability to dig deep into her history to the fact that she's recently finally started to feel settled in her present state of being. "In the past couple of years, I've been the safest I've ever been in my life, and I feel like when you have stable footing, your brain is like, Okay, well, maybe now let's go through some of the boxes up here and see what's in them."
When those memories surface, she often consults the many childhood friends with whom she's still close to see what they thought of the experience in question. Of course, the exercise isn't always met with eagerness. "I have some friends that enjoy remembering more than others. Some friends are like, 'Don't talk to me about the past,' which I guess I can understand," Dacus says. "I'm just not one of those people."
While Dacus may not have actively sought out the memories she embedded into nearly every line of Home Video, it's clear that she is someone who loves to reminisce and interrogate the past. She understands that thinking about times-gone-by can be difficult for many, but for her, there's a level of comfort and even power in looking backward.
According to Dacus, the bittersweet element of nostalgia, which she says she's "just a sucker for," can be harnessed. "I feel like if you practice nostalgia, if you look back and seek the warmth and the positive stuff, it's almost like a homing device for the present and future. You're telling yourself, 'I liked this,' so you can seek it out more. It's almost like an editing process," she explains.
"You won't be able to return to being 16, and you won't be able to return to your first kiss, but those feelings are accessible through other means. So I kind of feel like you just get to learn about your own joy, and yeah, maybe the sad part is that life isn't constantly that way, but I think you can really direct your life knowing what made you happy."
"Some friends are like, 'Don't talk to me about the past,' which I guess I can understand. I'm just not one of those people."
This re-interpretation of nostalgia as a practice, a way to channel the light parts of your past in your present, felt groundbreaking to me. While I wouldn't say I'm one of those people who hates thinking about the past — nothing makes me laugh harder than talking to my best friend about something absurd we experienced in our teenage years — recently, thinking about the end of my youth has left me feeling overwhelmingly sad.
"I think some people never admit that [their childhood is over] and never get to reflect on it as a gift. It is a gift to be able to mourn the loss of some beautiful time of your life," she says. She shares that her therapist once told her that being able to recognise that a phase of life is over means that you've grown past it. It's all part of evolving as a person.
Processing those past phases is something that Dacus is okay admitting she'll be doing for the rest of her life. "I feel like I'm always doing that work. I don't feel like there's been a start or a stop," she explains. "In my case, it's better to admit that than to shy away from it."
When I ask how she got to a place where she was open to accepting that fact, she says, "The world fills in every single blank for you, and then growing up is the process of making the blank empty again and then filling it yourself."
Her words bring to mind the image of her hand grazing that dry erase board, and she continues: "I think there are some people who are just cool with the way they're filled from the get-go, and they just roll with what they're handed. I think that it feels more like I chose my life or I'm more connected to my life when I'm able to fill in those blanks myself."
"Compassion for your past self is such a gift to give yourself in the present moment."
Just as Dacus says there's beauty and power in mourning those pleasant moments from the past, she believes there are opportunities for growth in remembering the painful and confusing times too, even if it's hard. That's also exhibited in many of the songs on Home Video like, "Thumbs," "Partner in Crime," "Please Stay," and "Triple Dog Dare." "It's kind of difficult to put yourself back to who you were before you really knew yourself," she says. "Again, that's why I think of it as a practice because I just don't think that it comes to people naturally."
Dacus tells me about going through actual home videos with her mom ahead of making the music video for "Hot and Heavy," which included some of the old clips. According to the singer, the ones capturing her 5th-grade self were especially difficult to watch. "It's maybe the hardest version of me to see because I remember just kind of dissociating a bunch and not really having much faith in the future."
Sending warmth to that younger self, however, is healing. "Compassion for your past self is such a gift to give yourself in the present moment because when you do it, you can extrapolate that out and think, In the future, I'll be kind to who I am now or I should be kind to me now."
Knowing those hard times have passed and that our perspectives on them can shift is also a comfort to Dacus. "Those painful things, I'm like, that happened, so it's not like it can get any worse," she says. "I feel like as I reflect on things, the picture comes more and more into focus. I can admit that the way I understand things now is not going to be how I understand them in 10 years, but it's just the best I can do right now."
This instability that memory tends to have is exactly why Dacus referenced her old journals during the song-writing process to try and understand how she was feeling about an event as she was actually experiencing it. Still, there are some experiences that can simply never be fully told and retold. "[As writers,] we have to deal with stories all the time — and being concise and communicative. I guess I'm trying to live with the fact that I probably won't be able to put words to everything that has happened to me," she shares.
"There's almost something sacred about the fact that I won't ever be able to touch on all of my experiences. Yes, I feel catharsis when I'm able to name myself and able to tell my own story from my perspective, but there's also this even deeper, deeper level that will never be packaged to share. I think that would have used to make me feel panicked or something, but I am realizing that it's actually kind of nice to have things that will never be spoken or expressed."
Even with such a personal new album out in the world for all to hear — and for fans like me to project our own experiences and emotions onto — Dacus has some memories that she's kept for herself. "There are songs that I wrote that I didn't even show to my band or anyone I record with," she says. "That's actually kind of a trend, like sometimes I write a song and I'm not ready for it to exist, and then either I never show it to anyone or I wait many years until I feel farther from the epicenter of the intensity."
"Nostalgia feels like getting a gift from no one in particular."
Those tougher remembrances, though, Dacus says don't count as nostalgia. Her interpretation of the word is glowingly affectionate, and it's something that she imparts to others through her music, videos, and even merch — remember Soffe shorts?. "Nostalgia feels like getting a gift from no one in particular. When I encounter nostalgia, I feel that gratefulness, that surprise, and that warm feeling," she explains. "I think that my goal is to be able to feel maximum nostalgia throughout my life, because the alternative is just a coldness and resistance and disconnection."
Home Video not only channelled that warmth of the past, it also provided opportunities for Dacus to bring the warmth of the present with her down the road. The songstress returned to Richmond to film the music video for "Hot and Heavy" at The Byrd Theater, and nearly all of the extras that appear in the video are family members and friends. "I found myself laughing a lot, just like compulsively laughing — maybe out of anxiety, but also that bittersweet nostalgia feeling of just like, Aw, wow," she says. "I think I've always had this impulse to capture everybody that I love and basically, I guess, make future nostalgia."