Lucy Dacus on What David Bowie Taught Her

One year after Bowie’s death, an up-and-coming songwriter reflects on Blackstar.

In 1997, director Michael Apted released a documentary called Inspirations in which he interviewed seven people from different fields about creativity — both on a personal level and in broader applications. David Bowie was one of those participants. I recommend the whole segment, but there’s one quote that has stuck with me: his advice to a young creative person. It feels like the closest thing to a conversation that I could ever have with him. His lesson:

Never play to the gallery…never work for other people in what you do. 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. I think it’s terribly dangerous for an artist to fulfill other people’s expectations. I think they generally produce their worst work when they do that. The other thing I would say is if you feel safe in the area that you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth and when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.

The first David Bowie song I heard was “Five Years,” the first track of 1972’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. I was twelve and I remember unexpectedly crying and feeling desolate while imagining the world in the song — a world that would soon end. It made me sad to contemplate my own death and the death of the planet, but the most important takeaway was that it showed me how much I valued life. It was as if he was asking us listeners to understand the basic truth of impermanence by beginning the album with this song, to come to grips with absurdity so that we could all start at square one before moving on to the hope in “Starman,” the fun of “Hang on to Yourself” and the sense of belonging in “Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide.”

None of us wanted to hear that he was dying, but that’s the reality he was facing and wanted us to face with him.

2016’s Blackstar makes sense to me, since my first impression of Bowie was of a man who was willing to look straight at death as a fact, without fear. Although he advises artists to never work for other people, he was considering his fans all the time and knew what a final farewell would mean to them. That’s a lesson in and of itself: you can care about the people receiving your work without caring if it’s what they wanted to receive. You can be grateful to your fans and the faceless, nameless love they promise without appeasing them. None of us wanted to hear that he was dying, but that’s the reality he was facing and wanted us to face with him.

If it’s possible to step back and view the album separate from the man who made it and the context of his body of work, it still stands alone as a beautiful and innovative record. It’s contemporary — not a self-referential throwback or disingenuous attempt at modernity, like what’s usually expected from artists whose notoriety stems from hits of yesteryear. Blackstar proves that a man who sold more than one hundred and forty million records over the course of his career, with plenty of hit singles and chart-toppers, can still lean heavily into experimentation and blur the boundaries of pop music to deliver unexpected and exciting work. He tried his hand at the latest tools, mixing jazz and electronic elements fluidly (you can tell that Kendrick Lamar was an influence on this record). While genre-blending is often utilized for juxtaposition, the arrangements in Blackstar are far from disjointed. The sinister mood of the album, especially on the title track and “Lazarus,” is seamless and consistently effective.

I’m among many one-sided lovers and unfulfilled admirers who will never get to say thank you.

One of the major reasons why Bowie inspires so many is that loads of artists wish to be the celebrated freak, the beloved weirdo, fully expressive and adored for it. Not all of us are brave enough to be exactly who we are or make exactly what we want to make, so to witness someone who commits entirely to their art and ideas is a challenge to one’s own commitment. His courage is encouraging. As for his impact, as he says in the documentary, “I wish I could be altruistic and say, ‘No, it’s just for the moment,’ but I would love to feel that what I did actually changed the fabric of music. And I think I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve actually seen it happen within my lifetime.”

My relationship with David Bowie is typical: I never met him, but his life and work met me with unforgettable force. I’m among many one-sided lovers and unfulfilled admirers who will never get to say thank you or ask, “How did you become yourself?” We’ve been left with a mystery that feels frustrating, heartbreaking and fitting to his work. Although, as he stated with the final track of Blackstar, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” he gave more than enough.

Lucy Dacus is a singer and songwriter who emerged from the thriving indie rock scene of Richmond, Virginia, in the mid-2010s. She sports a buttery voice that commands both her thoughtful rock tunes and more intimate confessionals. Born and raised in Mechanicsville just outside of Richmond, her mother was a music teacher, and Dacus grew up singing. She began writing regularly via journaling in the sixth grade, and attended concerts, connecting with the Richmond music scene throughout high school. After graduating, she tried studying film at Virginia Commonwealth University with a plan to make music on the side, but soon dropped out and concentrated on writing songs. Her debut was put together relatively last-minute when a friend who worked at Starstruck Studio in Nashville let her know they had an open day. She had assembled a band from area musicians in guitarist Jacob Blizard, bass player Christine Moad, and drummer Hayden Cotcher, and the songs, which had been written solo, were arranged for the quartet in the week leading up to a ten-hour recording session. The friend at the studio, Collin Pastore, engineered and mixed the album, which was co-produced by Dacus, Pastore, and Blizard. Richmond label Egghunt Records took interest in the results and released No Burden in early 2016. The album quickly received buzz in the indie music press, and the band did an Audiotree Live session in March that was released as a digital EP. That June, 21-year-old Dacus announced she had signed with Matador Records, which reissued No Burden in September 2016.