Hand Habits and Jerry Paper Can Do Whatever They Want

The two friends catch up.

Meg Duffy is a songwriting and guitarist who performs as Hand Habits; Lucas Nathan is an experimental electronic artist who performs as Jerry Paper. Jerry Paper’s record Free Time was just released by Stones Throw in April, and now they’ve just kicked off their summer tour, so to celebrate, the two friends hopped on a Zoom call to catch up about it all.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Meg Duffy: Are you in your studio at home?

Lucas Nathan: Yeah.

Meg: I’ve been to your house. I haven’t seen this room, though.

Lucas: Yeah, that’s my secret room.

Meg: I like it. Did you figure out your technical difficulties?

Lucas: I did, yeah. I had to uninstall and reinstall all my software. It’s very annoying. I was trying to make a baby song for [their mutual friend].

Meg: It’s probably really terrifying to have a baby. [Laughs.] And also, it seems really terrifying to be born.

Lucas: Yeah. You come out screaming.

Meg: You come out screaming, and everything is new. Every sensation is new. Do you ever think about being a baby?

Lucas: All the time. I mean, my siblings both have kids and maybe four or five years ago, I remember watching two of them fight. And they were fighting about… none of it made any sense at all. They were two and five or something, but it was a fight about like, “You can use one of my shoes, but I use the other one.” You know, it’s baby style, like you’re just kind of making up the rules of the world in the moment and then trying to figure out how to make it work. And I remember just looking at them and thinking, Oh, yeah, that’s kind of what everyone is always doing all the time. [Laughs.]

Meg: Oh, wow. I like that — making up the rules of the world as you’re in conflict.

Lucas: Yeah. Because I feel like so much of it comes from this these internal feelings that we then rationalize — the feelings are where a lot of those things start. A friend came over with a kid the other day, and I had just met the kid and we were just playing around. And I remember thinking, also, of just how the world is scary and you’re learning about it, but also it’s so open with possibilities. Whereas I was like, “Hey, see this shed? This is a drum, check this out!” And just drumming on it. It was really fun.

Meg: I’ve been doing a lot of talking to my younger self, and thinking about [how] so much of your reality as a child is ruled by emotions you don’t understand, and I feel that way as an adult sometimes, too. 

Lucas: Totally.

Meg: I think I have more of an understanding when it comes to some of the more pressing emotions — or I have an understanding as to how not to launch from them into reaction. But they still feel very strong. I’ve been around some kids, and I’m excited for our friend to have a baby too, because we’re going to be able to see that baby just grow up from ground zero, you know? 

Lucas: Yeah.

Meg: Being around kids has taught me so much about play, too. Like they overcome so much shyness. My friend has a child that I’ve really connected with, and they’re experiencing so much at a rapid rate, and it must be… I don’t know. It helped me sort of be more in the moment, sometimes, when being around children, where whatever is in front of them is the thing that requires the most attention. And I think sometimes, as we get older, we lose that because we start to develop a past. They don’t really have a concept of the past yet.

Lucas: Yeah. And also a framework for fitting things into — I feel like little kids have the most basic possible framework for fitting things into, which is liberating and also terrifying at the same time. It’s kind of what trying to be free in your life normally opens up — it opens up both liberation and…

Meg: Terror.

Lucas: Yeah, exactly. It’s so much all at once. 

Meg: I was thinking about that recently in terms of gender presentation a bit, because as a trans person, I have gone through a lot of very different ways of presenting myself. And as a musician too, and I think they’re really interlocked. Maybe you can relate to this — I see a very hard divide between when I started HRT and before that. Someone sent me a photo of what I looked like in 2015 recently, and I was just really freaked out by it; but then also, I loved her too. But there is this whole past, and then now — I don’t think I’m in the future from that past, but there is such a terrifying, but also beautiful and inspiring, feeling of, Well, what can it be next? And this idea that you can do whatever you want in the way that you present, that links so closely to music for me. And thinking about not having a past sometimes is a fantasy that I have — not in an erasure sort of way. 

Lucas: I know exactly what you mean.

Meg: Yeah, like imagine not having context for the people that you were that you were unsure of.

Lucas: Yeah. But also, I think to open yourself to the continuum of it, of the experience of being a person who is open to growth and change, that’s kind of also part of being a musician. I find that that’s all very linked to play as well — like being open to play in your life in so many different ways, whether it’s gender presentation or exploring different expressions of music. And I feel like it’s always very difficult to put that into the capitalist framework of selling your work as well when you actually are truly open to trying tons of different things and not being super presentable in a really clear way. I feel like my gender expression also is a bit confusing for people. Like, it’s not super one way or the other. And there are certain things about myself that I don’t want to change, even if they are confusing for people. 

Meg: Yeah. What’s your relationship to confusing people like?

Lucas: Oh, it’s been a long history of confusing people. [Laughs.] You know, at this point, I don’t care. The whole point is to understand myself and be open to exploration, and all of it being a part of my journey of self-understanding, and also just the journey of the process of living and not being like, OK, this is who I am, and it’s locked in, boom! This is the kind of music I make! I just want to keep playing around. There’s so much in the world and we’re all so small and we only experience such a small part. So why limit that even further? I understand the impulse for simplicity, or for…

Meg:  Rigidity.

Lucas: Yeah. I understand the impulse, because there’s something that could make you feel you don’t have to try so hard or search so hard.

Meg: It’s easier.

Lucas: Yeah, it’s a lot of fucking work to try to know yourself and try to continue to grow. It’s difficult.

Meg: Yeah, not everybody’s up for the task. I’ve actually been thinking about that sort of sentiment a lot, like the occasional holier-than-thou attitude that comes with being somebody who’s accepted the journey of self-curiosity. It’s something I really have to check in myself sometimes, where I’m like, Well, I’m open to whatever is calling to me. And it does really stress people out, sometimes, around me. 

As you were speaking, I was sort of seeing how I play even in those situations when I’ve been hyper aware that I’m confusing someone by my expression, whether it’s music or identity or even just personality. I was on the phone with a family member the other day explaining some sort of complex relational situation that I was just on the fringes of, and she was like, “No more freaky shit! You know, as a mother, just no more freaky shit!” And I was at first really pissed, obviously, and defensive internally. And I was like, OK, tracking as I’m a freak and you’ve struggled with my identity changing. But then I was like, I’m a freak! And that is fun to me. It’s my own version of play. And we were able to laugh about it. 

I’d rather live my life exploring and being curious and being kind of infinite with the possibilities than be at the end of my life and say, I never tried all of those things that I always felt called to. And it does come at a cost, I think, sometimes, taking on new identities. Because then constantly, at least for me, I feel like that’s where grief comes in. And with music, I think as artists, people have to grieve periods of their work or accept change, and it definitely plays into mortality a little bit.

Lucas: Yeah.

Meg: The narrow ridges for me have never really worked. One time Mike [Hadreas], who I play with in Perfume Genius, said to me, “You can do whatever you want.” And I was like, “What!?” With gender and music, you can actually just do whatever you want, and I forget that all the time.

Lucas: I know. I think for me, for so long I always felt like I had to understand what I was doing before I did it. And I think that was a cage for me, because it it stopped me from exploring in certain ways. You kind of have to just do things because they feel right and then let that take you somewhere that you couldn’t possibly have thought through. 

I always try to take things to the dream world where you’re making unconscious connections that make no sense. I had a dream last night that I made someone spill soup in their fancy car, and then they turned their head into mashed potatoes and, like, scooped it. It was just a very strange dream, but it was like, OK, where did this yellow car come from? Why was I driving this Jeep so crazy? It’s so such an expansive play space that, I’m not even doing whatever I want, I’m doing more than that. I’m doing something more under the surface.

Meg: Yeah, like what your soul wants. Which is not what the self wants, necessarily.

Lucas: Totally.

Meg: Are you into Carl Jung?

Lucas: You know, I have I have not explored so much. I will say my resistance to it comes from probably from not understanding it fully. But I do have a resistance to universal dream interpretation. For me, I feel like the point isn’t to know what the dream actually means, so much as looking at the dream and then finding my own personal, what does that bring up for me in the waking world, and how can I explore that further? I think as a catalyst, they’re useful for me. But in terms of reaching into the collective unconscious, I feel an internal resistance of that idea.

Meg: Yeah. Are you weary of the collective unconscious?

Lucas: Yeah. I want to understand my life my way. I think it’s a similar thing of my general resistance to astrology, that also has no judgment for anyone else, but I don’t like to be put into a box.

Meg: You don’t?

Lucas: [Laughs.] Is that shocking? I don’t like to be put into a box, particularly by people I’m just meeting. Which of course I am all the time, and I don’t care — I don’t like it, but like, how much control do I have over that? But in terms of the collective unconscious, I feel like the idea that I’m tapping into some external truth to myself doesn’t feel helpful to me personally.

Meg: Yeah, I relate to that. But there’s this podcast called The Jungian Life — have you listened? 

Lucas: I’ve only listened to a couple of episodes, but I really liked it.

Meg: I like that they don’t spend the whole episode just on a dream, they save it to the end. And often I don’t even listen to the dream analysis. But I’m obsessed with the podcast.  I love that there’s three of them, because like you said, it’s not just one person sort of telling you what the archetypes are and what they’re supposed to mean. They usually all have three very different perspectives and examples for whatever the topic is. The one that came to mind when you were talking about how you’re doing more than whatever you want to do — to me, that just screams libido, like where the energy is and where the energy is flowing. Following that dream sense and whatever it means to you, that to me is sort of like the nexus of like why people make art. Does that resonate at all with you?

Lucas: Yeah, that does. I feel like there are so many different ways of making art too — I think it sounds like we make it in a similar way, of just an exploration. I don’t know. Can you explain a little bit more about what you mean?

Meg: Like the unknown — in one of the podcasts, they call it the “mythical layer.” And I feel like artists, in any medium — you know, there are a lot of people who have a plan and then they execute it and it’s perfect. But I think dipping down into the underneath and coming up with something and then letting that move you, and following wherever that wants to take you, regardless of the meaning that you think it holds…

Lucas: I think that’s the only worthwhile way, at least personally. That’s the only way of making art that I’ve found that feels good and that feels worth it.

Meg: Do you listen to records that you made in the past?

Lucas: Yeah.

Meg: What is that like for you?

Lucas: Always different. I mean, I’ve made so many albums, and I’ve always tried to not… I mean, I’ve gone through periods of overthinking things, but generally speaking, I think of them as snapshots of my life at different times. But depending on the record, it can take me right back there. I mean, there’s one album that I made when Grace [Lucas’s partner] and I were broken up, and that one always is interesting to revisit. I couldn’t revisit it for a while, and then more recently I’ve been able to like listen to it again and see my young self in pain and trying to understand things. And there are also so many ways of going back to my music and seeing my nonbinary-ness in it before I knew the language and how to express it. That was the focus of my music for so many years without me understanding how to dip into it, or how to talk about it. And I feel like learning to talk about it has also just made me be able to live it and understand myself in deeper ways. Do you do you go back to old recordings?

Meg: I don’t like to, because of how much of a snapshot it is. And because of the way that I historically have written music has been so closely related to how processing how I’m feeling. I remember when I recorded placeholder, somebody in an interview was like, “So you seem like a really anxious person.” And I was like, “I’m not an anxious person.” And then I looked at all my lyrics and listened with a totally new perspective, and I realized how much anxiety I was carrying and it was trying to come out. And so sometimes I’m a bit hesitant to go back into those recordings because I didn’t have the language and I didn’t know how to understand myself. I was trying to resist it recently, and not write so closely enmeshed with processing my life and my emotions, but that’s just part of me now. I don’t know how to do it a different way. And when I’ve tried to do it a different way, I don’t have the trauma bond to my song anymore. And other people seem to get something from that music, so…

Lucas: Absolutely. Everyone is feeling everything all the time.

Meg: Yeah. I forget that because you’re in your head so much, or I’m so closely in the music that I can’t really see what it’s doing for anyone, even including myself occasionally. But yeah, I try not to. I would like to be able to go back to some of the older recordings. It just feels like reading an old journal sometimes, and I have to be in the right headspace. Do you ever read your old journals? Do you journal?

Lucas: I don’t journal. I mean, music has always been my, like, weird public journaling thing. Are you a big journaler?

Meg: Yeah, but I don’t like to go back and read because, I don’t know, changing is hard and growing can be painful. But it is nice to know that change is possible. Some of the way that I used to position myself in relation to emotions has changed dramatically the last couple of years, and that’s helpful to see like, Oh, I used to take this all so personal and now I don’t. But music — it’s strange that a lot of it is so public too, because most people, I think especially dealing with identity or gender or anything, get to work all this stuff out in private. Or with their community exclusively — they are deciding with whom they are working it out with, and that’s something I forget. And here we are — this is going to be published. 

Lucas: [Laughs.] I know. I mean, I feel like our role in the world is just to process things. I’ve always seen the act of making the album as just like, you dip into this process then just throw it out and be like, “I hope this helps someone!” And then you go back in. It’s taken me a while to also just understand music as a process — you’re only there for the part where you’re making it, and then when it’s done and when it’s out in the world, you’re kind of not there. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, of how you reach in and take something incredibly personal and then throw it out to become a mirror for other people, and how weird that is — that something that means something very specific to me exists for someone to see themselves in where it has nothing to do with me anymore. I used to think of music as a communication, as a way of saying what I mean. But it’s not. It’s a way of just reaching inside myself, pulling out a blob and letting people do whatever they want with it.

Meg: Yeah. That’s a good reminder for me to hear that. Like, it doesn’t matter if you’re saying what you mean or not. And lyrically, always I get stuck [on that] — I’m like, “It was April, it wasn’t May! What rhymes with April? It wasn’t May!” And my friend’s like, “It literally doesn’t matter. Move on from this line. No one is going to take you to court for the facts of this song, no one cares what actually happened.”

How do you like being a mirror for someone? And — I’m gonna do it — how do you think being a non-binary person is like being a mirror for the world?

Lucas: I think being a person is like being a mirror for the world, because I think people will always project onto you what they can based on the stereotypes they know and the symbols they see on you. I think the complication of being a non-binary person — also the complication of being a musician, I think they’re very similar, [in that] you are exposing yourself, you are living openly. And the difficulty in that is not believing other people when they say things about you, when you know yourself so much better, and to just not let other people’s ideas of you get in the way of your clear channel to yourself.

I think that’s the challenge. It’s so hard, because when people say nice things, you want to believe it, but you kind of have to throw all of it away. You have to throw the nice things and the mean things away so that you can see yourself clearly instead of through other people’s eyes. The circuitous route will always lead you away from yourself.

I recently read the David Graeber book Dawn of Everything. It’s kind of a newer, posthumous book about different ways of creating societies throughout history. That’s a very simplistic way of putting it, but right at the end of the book, some anthropologist tells a story about finding a Samoan person laying on the beach and being like, “Why are you just laying there? There’s coconuts all around.” And then them being like, “Well, what do I do with the coconuts?” They’re like, “Well, if you cut them up and sell them, then you can make a bunch of money.” And he’s like, “What do I do with the money?” “Well, you can pay people to do it for you, and then they’ll be doing it, and then you can keep building up your coconut empire.” And it’s like, “Then what do I do?” “Well, then you can just lay around on the beach all day!” I feel like it’s so applicable to music, because I see people making music to get famous or get money or whatever, so they’ll be happy. But it’s like, you already have music. What could lead you to a more joyous place than music?

Meg: Yeah. But it’s seductive!

Lucas: Yeah, but it just separates you from yourself.  Music in particular is the most grounding and solidifying thing in my life. It makes me feel so deeply alive and in touch with myself. I don’t want to get away from that.

Meg: Yeah, me neither. And I think that — you know, not to mention her, but the pandemic really shifted a lot of that for me when I stopped touring. Because I was always building, building, building, and when you have an infrastructure with music, you’re within this system of people who are relying on you to keep building so they can survive. So it’s like this symbiotic network that’s always focused on building. And then when everything slowed down, I was like, What am I building towards? And what I’m building towards is basically what I’m doing now. I think that’s a great analogy.

I’m exhausted by it sometimes. And touring doesn’t feel the same, because it’s like, “Then what, then what, then what?” Hungry ghosts are all around us. It’s helpful to hear you say, and for me to remember, that seeing yourself through other people’s eyes does put you away from yourself. But I will say that I don’t think it’s as binary as that. Because there is something about being seen. I’ve been thinking about being seen a lot, because I just went through this experience where I felt very, very seen, but the way in which I was being seen was extremely private. And that’s confusing, because it’s like, Well, do I want to be seen by the world at large? That’s an impossible feat. And also, what is it about being seen that really empowered me?

I think that there are certain things that we need to keep that are reflected back to us, even the bad ones too. Like when you hurt someone’s feelings and you don’t really know why, and they’re like, “This way that you expressed this, X, Y, Z.” I have to be very choosy about what I do keep and what I choose to throw away. And some of the things I think that I have refused to keep have been the ones actually blocking me from myself, because it can be so easy to go into like, I’m bad. It’s kind of paradoxical, because the searching for it can just lead you back into the, I’m bad, and then you just continue the search. 

But there is something beautiful about playing music. It’s funny, when I play music, especially when I’m playing guitar, that’s when I disappear the most. And it’s not like a scary extinguished way, but in a way where I’m no longer in the mirror.

Lucas: Yeah, you get to step away and be yourself.

Meg: And people need to see that happening, I think, to sort of sympathetically vibrate with what that feels like. Let me ask you one more question. How does it feel to have your record out into the world? It’s out.

Lucas: I thought it was feeling bad, but then I think it feels totally fine. Again, I’ve just had to be aware that I was only there for the process of making it, and now that it’s out in the world, I don’t have anything to do with it. But I’m glad that people are listening to it and I’m glad people are seeing themselves in it, using it as a mirror. 

Meg: I love your record. Thank you for making it. I’m definitely projecting a lot onto it.

Meg Duffy grew up in a small town in Upstate New York and they cut their teeth as a session guitarist and touring member of Kevin Morby’s band. The Hand Habits project emerged after Meg moved to Los Angeles; it started as a private songwriting outlet but soon evolved into a fully-fledged band with Meg at the helm.

Hand Habits has released two albums, Wildly Idle (2017) and placeholder (2019). With producer Joel Ford, they’ve released a self-titled album as the duo yes/and, via Driftless Recordings.