When 22-year-old singer-songwriter Lucy Dacus told her parents she was done with art school, they weren't happy.
She considered joining the film program during her year-and-a-half at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, but a trip to Europe changed her mind. Turns out kids across the Atlantic aren't used to spending their 20s paying off four years of classroom instruction.
So she packed her bags, flew back to Virginia, quit school, and got a job.
"Working a job that didn't matter to me was amazing," Dacus says. "I encourage people to do that just to give yourself time to see what surfaces and what matters. I'd get home from work and write songs. I would encourage gap years. You don't have to be productive from kindergarten to death."
That calculated abandon, simultaneously free and fleeting, instinctive and deliberate, is best heard on "The Shell," a sweet four-minute-and-38-second advice column from Dacus' sophomore album Historian, out on March 2 (Matador).
"You don't wanna be a leader, doesn't mean you don't know the way," she coos after a climactic instrumental interlude. "Hold your own hand, walk on without a plan."
Just when you think Dacus' piercing words might guide you through your newfound liberty, the song ends, and it's replaced by the beginning of "Nonbeliever," a second-person narrative about a protagonist who throws her (or his) books into a river and leaves a small town.
Dacus knows that feeling all too well. She was raised in Mechanicsville, Va. "I guess I like the South," she confides. "I'm familiar with it and also I know what it's like to be a concertgoer in the South, where music occasionally acts as a respite from maybe an oppressive culture. So I've always really appreciated national acts coming through, 'cause I know everyone at the show has elected to be there."
After a hell of a 2016 that featured everything from a stop at the charming NPR Tiny Desk studio to a shout-out from Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine in the New York Times ("People don't know that he's a good friend of my family's. I used to have sleepovers in the governor's mansion"), Dacus has grown more used to the buzz-and-bust release cycle.
"It's been crazier quantitatively, but calmer qualitatively," she says of the rounds of promotion that have filled her schedule leading up to the release. "I've done interviews before, and now I get what it's like working with the label and the agent."
Historian is lyrically and thematically denser than its sparse predecessor, No Burden, a set that sounds like it could have been recorded from the front row of a dimly lit stage. Two years of watching your star rise engenders some mixed emotions, some of them on display throughout the new album's 48-minute run.
"No Burden kind of treaded lightly through the world and I feel like maybe Historian just carries this weight," Dacus explains. "There's a lot to do with loss, fear, and dissolution of identity."
In the meantime, her own identity undergoes the pivotal transition from elusive, budding songwriter to rock idol headlining 42 shows across the United States and Europe.
"It is such a huge part of the day-to-day touring experience, where you meet people just confronting their built-up idea of who you are based off of your lyrics or your music," Dacus says, though she pauses to clarify that she, too, would freak out in the presence of an artist she respects. "I don't know if I'll ever be comfortable with how intense that is."
Balancing experiences that range from personal to objectifying, taking time off has remained her most useful habit.
"I don't really go out after shows any more because I don't want people to ask where I'm sleeping or ask for my number," Dacus says. "It's really hard to tell a person, 'No, I'm not going to be what you're asking of me beyond the music.' I've already given a lot, and it's healthy to know when to say no."