But her ascent, while unlikely, is also representative in this slice of the music world: Spurred by her emotionally astute songwriting, Ms. Dacus has seen her early course accelerated by grass roots and media support, and guided by shrewd business decisions, even as she has aimed to remain fully in charge of her art.
In interviews spanning the last 11 months, beginning in the recording studio and ending on the edge of her album’s release, Ms. Dacus, a benevolent auteur-in-training, detailed the bizarre process of being deemed “up next” while trying to foreground what she called her “most precious thing — this music.”
“I feel so untrained and unprepared,” she said last month, “but it has been working.”
Ms. Dacus’s first album, “No Burden,” was recorded in 20 hours for a school project. Her live guitarist and studio multi-instrumentalist, Jacob Blizard, was required to make something over a college winter break, and he enlisted his friends, including Ms. Dacus and the producer Collin Pastore. “I had not once sang with a band before recording,” Ms. Dacus said.
But she had quietly been writing songs for years and journaling since second grade, honing a preternaturally sharp voice on topics like gender, faith and creativity itself. On the album’s standout first song and single, “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore,” Ms. Dacus sang with a wry wit about female archetypes: “Is there room in the band?/I don’t need to be the frontman/if not, then I’ll be the biggest fan.”
Tyler Williams, a Richmond musician, recalled being floored by his first listen. “This can’t possibly be made by a 20-year-old in Richmond,” he thought, and soon signed on as her manager, intent on finding a larger platform for “No Burden.” EggHunt, a tiny local label, agreed to back the LP, and a boutique public relations company in Brooklyn was hired for the campaign.
In November 2015, a few months before the album release, “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore” had its premiere on the website of the tastemaking magazine The Fader. That very day, Ms. Dacus was fielding interest from the major labels on down, along with publicists, booking agents and other background actors who make the business tick.
Mr. Williams, whose own group, the Head and the Heart, had signed to a major label, recognized what he called “the whirlwind of momentum picking up for a band, that hurricane of energy around an artist.”
Ms. Dacus, though, remained measured. Despite being wined and dined over the coming months — some labels would “make a point to say, ‘This is a very expensive restaurant,’” she said — Ms. Dacus ultimately went with Matador, a late entry in the sweepstakes, whose executives had approached after seeing her live, not online.
She also appreciated the label’s track record with longevity, citing career artists like Yo La Tengo who continue to make albums and tour long after any trendiness has worn off. Matador would go on to rerelease “No Burden” in September 2016, building on the buzz generated by Bandcamp streams and coverage from influential outlets like Pitchfork and NPR, as Ms. Dacus continued writing songs and making a name on the road.
As the pieces fell into place for a follow-up on a larger scale, all Ms. Dacus had to do was make it.
In the Studio
Last spring, the “No Burden” team reassembled. Ms. Dacus had first tried recording her fresh material with a new producer in Portland, Ore., but the sessions failed to jell. Soon after, at a Nashville studio known for Christian rock where the weekend rates were discounted, she was joined once again by Mr. Blizard and Mr. Pastore.
The rooms were stuffed with vintage equipment, and the rapport between the old friends was easy. Though Ms. Dacus referred obliquely to “sophomore album worries,” she had already meticulously arranged the music and planned a track list. As Mr. Blizard recorded guitar, Ms. Dacus exerted a firm but casual authority, taking suggestions and using “we” and “us” when referring to the process, but making every final decision — from the tone of a solo to the arrangement of a backup vocal — herself.
The compositions had grown more grand than those on “No Burden,” with space for horns and strings, but they hadn’t lost their sprawl or specificity. On the opening song, “Night Shift,” a nearly seven-minute slow-build about a necessary breakup, Ms. Dacus reached for the climax. “You got a 9 to 5 so I’ll take the night shift/and I’ll never see you again if I can help it,” she belted. “In five years I hope the songs feel like covers/dedicated to new lovers.”
In down moments, Ms. Dacus, wrapped in a blanket, journaled or tended to the stack of books she was devouring, including Susan Sontag’s journals, short stories by James Baldwin and “Home” by Marilynne Robinson. She was also shopping online for a home in Richmond, a once-impossible idea made realistic by her budding career.
On its seventh day in the studio, the group ran out of finishing touches and gave itself a small round of applause. Ms. Dacus, as usual, seemed content and levelheaded, with a touch of concern. “I wonder if I will ever stop feeling wound up until this album comes out,” she said.