It was never in Lucy Dacus’s plan to become a musician. The singer-songwriter may be on the cusp of releasing her third album, Home Video, and have a successful side-project, Boygenius, with musicians Julien Baker and Pheobe Bridgers, but it is words that motivate her work. “I feel like I'm more inspired by authors than other musicians,” she tells me. “It just so happens that I make music. Whereas really, I love words and stories. And music is just the shape that it's taking right now.”
Dacus’s first words, she laughs, “were Bible, bubble and book, which probably says a lot about me.” Before she learned to read, she pretend to. Ever since, she’s remained a voracious reader. Over Zoom, where her walls are clad in tall bookshelves, we talk about the titles that have impacted on her life and work.
Can you talk me through your bookshelves?
So that’s [pointing] non-fiction and essays. And then over there, we have film. And then downstairs we have poetry and journals and nature. I moved in with six of my friends over quarantine, and almost all of us are big readers. So all of our book collections just became one. I actually have an embosser that says 'From the Library of Lucy Dacus', which was the best gift, I use it all the time.
That’s very cool. Have you always been a reader?
Yeah, I’ve always loved books. In fact, I’ve got my childhood copy of A Wrinkle in Time (by Madeleine L'Engle, 1962) here. You can see I've read it, scribbled in it; it’s got a sticker with my name on in it. I used to re-read this book every year. I would usually bring a book to school and during recess just sit under a tree, read and exit the world to enter a new one.
What else is in the stack you’ve got there?
I know everyone freaks out about these books, but I just love Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels (2011-2014). I like the representation of female friendship over many decades, and I like how they are bonded in a way that is like family, even in times when they wish they weren't. They're just a part of each other's past. And they always circle back. So much of [Dacus’s third album] Home Video is about friendship and the nuance that can occur in childhood. I think that in retrospect, a lot of my friendships had different, like, backbones than I thought they did.
Next up, Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke (1929). I remember lessons from this a lot. It's so wise and gentle. I’ve underlined this: "The more still, more patient and more open we are when we're sad, so much the deeper and so much the more unswervingly does the new go into us. So much the better do we make it ours." That's great.
I feel like that must have been really helpful as a tether during your career.
Yeah, for sure. And I’ve met other musicians who also lift up that particular book as like a source of solace. The thoughts that are expressed are so simple, but it can be difficult keep hold of them. It can be easier to overcomplicate life. I’m re-reading James Baldwin’s Collected Essays (1963) right now. In particular, The Fire Next Time is the one that has made such a huge impact on me for similar reasons to Rilke – in how to greet the world and not be destroyed, and what’s at the core of the human experience that can be clung to.
Your books seem to be really beautiful, clearly quite old copies. You’ve got a number of vintage hardbacks there.
I've been buying books for a really long time. When I was a kid, if I got birthday money or something, I'd collect it all, go to Barnes and Noble, and spend the whole day there. I'd find a little area and make a full stack, and then I’d read a little bit of each one and then decide on what my money could afford. This copy of War and Peace is one of my favourite old copies of something; it’s so pretty and has this little guidebook that you can tear out and use as a bookmark.
When did you read War and Peace?
At the beginning of last year. It was a classic quarantine thing to just pick up a giant book and read it. But I loved it. I think Tolstoy is probably in my top five favourite writers; Anna Karenina has had a huge impact on me, too. It's just so beautiful.
How do you manage to read so much?
I usually have, like, a modern fiction; a classic fiction; a non-fiction research-based book; a memoir-type of book; and a poetry book on the go at once. It's chaotic, and it’s heavy to carry around – there are, like, six of them. But I like it, because it gives me variety. As for reading time, I like to read in the bath, a nice thing to do.
But also, in the morning, before I let myself leave my room, I read one poem or one essay. And then if I want to keep going, I'll read a book, but definitely one poem every morning. It's just really accessible; you get to finish it. And that kind of fuels you up to read a whole essay, which may fill you up to just like, read a whole book. So I love doing that.
That’s a brilliant tip! And what reading discoveries have you made lately that you couldn’t believe you’d not read before?
Braiding Sweetgrass (2013) by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I limited myself to one essay per day, because I didn't want to just burn through it. It's just so gentle, it would quell panic attacks as I was reading it. And what a gift to interact with indigenous wisdom. I felt really lucky reading it. I'll probably be re-reading that my whole life.