Jeanines and Yucky Duster Talk Their Songwriting Processes, Fourth Grade to Now

Friends Alicia Hyman and Maggie Gaster catch up.

Alicia Hyman fronts the Brooklyn-based DIY pop band Jeanines; Maggie Gaster is the bassist of the indie rock band Yucky Duster, also based in Brooklyn. Jeanines’ sophomore record Don’t Wait For a Sign was just released on Slumberland, so to celebrate, the two friends caught up about their past Blink-182 obsessions, songwriting processes, and much more.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Maggie Gaster: When did you start writing songs?

Alicia Hyman: So I never thought I could write songs, but I actually remembered recently: there was a there was a thing I was part of in fourth or fifth grade called Odyssey of the Mind, and it was this extracurricular activity where you form teams, and it was educational. There was some theme every year and you had to come up with your group with a skit or something that represented that theme. I remember my team made up a skit about an anthropomorphic rollerskate, and I made up this little song that was like, “I am a roller skate and my name is Dawn.” It was awful. But I did that and played it on keyboard or something. 

But aside from that, I never really thought I could write songs. Then in 2014, 2015, I had a job that I was really bad at and really hated, and I decided to do something that was actually useful for stress and started playing guitar again. At that point, I was dating Jed [Smith] and he really encouraged me to write songs. I was like, “I don’t think I can.” I grew up playing classical music, like sight reading, singing in choir, and playing violin, and I was like, “How can you make something out of nothing? That makes no sense to me, I don’t know how.” I don’t remember the very first one I did, but somehow I started writing songs and I got better at it. I still don’t really feel like I ever can control it or know exactly what I’m doing. But I have continued for the past seven years to write songs, so that’s pretty sweet. What about you?

Maggie: Well, I guess I would just sing and make up songs a lot when I was a little kid. I guess I was sort of copying other music that I had heard, and making up gibberish songs. And then I got this recording thing — it was like a Fisher Price 

Alicia: I had that too! Was it a tape player…?

Maggie: It was a tape player with a microphone, yeah!

Alicia: I used to get blank tapes and record myself singing along to songs. [Laughs.] 

Maggie: I would also get blank tapes, and I would just make up songs and record them. And I thought that they were really good, because I could hear them as a real song in my head, like what it was supposed to be. But, yeah, that was probably like when I started writing songs. [Laughs.] And then there was an after school program called The Boys and Girls Club. There was a music room at the Boys and Girls Club and I started jamming with some of my friends, and we were, I don’t know, 10. None of us knew how to do anything. But I was like, “I’m a really good singer. I’m going to sing.”

Alicia: I always thought I was a really good singer, too, but I could never find people who wanted to do anything with me. I went to a small private school and there may have been other kids in my class who were musical, but I’m not sure there were. I was in violin lessons, so I knew other kids who played violin, but never anything like what you’re describing. That sounds awesome. But, continue.

Maggie: Well, it was a cool setup because there was a recording studio in there that the people that worked there would use and stuff — I guess I don’t really know what they used it for, but it looked very professional. And then there was this middle room with lots of instruments in it and you could just pick them up and mess with them, and then there was one kind of quiet room with a drum set in it.

Alicia: So cool. Nobody ever took me to a Boys and Girls Club, but I had no idea they could be that cool.

Maggie: Yeah, this was a cool one. I mean, it was San Francisco and they were like, “The kids need to learn art.” I remember we started a band — were just all grasping at straws, nobody knew how to play anything at all. We made up these songs that just sounded kind of like songs that we had heard before, like, “Ooh, baby, baby!” [Laughs.] 

Alicia: [Laughs.] Amazing. 

Maggie: Yeah. The song that was like our hit, that we actually practiced, had something to do with, like, “pain in the brain,” or something.

Alicia: Amazing. So you didn’t play bass at this point?

Maggie: No, no, not at all. I played piano, but I was really, really bad. I never practiced or anything. I had this really mean Russian lady teacher who I found out was a Bush supporter, and I was like, “I don’t want to go to piano lessons anymore!” Anyway, I also played trumpet in elementary school, and I feel like I might have tried to play trumpet in our little band.

Alicia: If you’re trying to sing, the trumpet is not the best choice. 

Maggie: [Laughs.] I feel like you have to be a ska person.

Alicia: You know, I was never into ska. 

Maggie: Oh, I was. I was into ska.

Alicia: I was into emo and pop punk, so I can’t say that’s better. 

Maggie: I was into both. 

Alicia: I was like, “Please keep that brass out of my emo pop punk.”

Maggie: A purist. 

Alicia: [Laughs.] Yeah. Like Saves the Day, Brand New — who’s now canceled. The Get Up Kids. And then at the same time, I was really into Fiona Apple and Tori Amos, and I was like, “These are all angsty, so they’re the same. I’m seeing no gender things here!”

Maggie: It’s all just angst, just pure emotion.

Alicia: I was not aware. Saves the Day and Brand New sing all the time about wanting people to suffer bodily injury who have made them feel shitty, but it’s never just their ex-girlfriends! [Laughs.]

Maggie: I was more of a No Doubt person. I liked Blink-182 and Green Day. 

Alicia: I loved Blink-182 in middle school. I was obsessed. 

Maggie: Me too. I saw them twice.

Alicia: I never got to see them [as a kid]. My mom was kind of strict and I just wasn’t allowed. I did finally see them in college — me and a friend were sort of just like, “fuck it,” and we went to Madison Square Garden. We were in the nosebleed seats with a bunch of tweens. But they hardly played anything from Enema of the State or Dude Ranch or anything, they played a bunch of newer stuff that we didn’t care about. All I remember is they hoisted Travis up on a platform while playing drums.

Maggie: That’s what they did both times I saw them also. And one time it was on fire, the drum set.

Alicia: I did have their live album that came out maybe after Enema of the State, and they were just the songs but with more puns about dicks and sex and farting and whatever, changing the lyrics. Really dumb.

Maggie: Like, why did we like that?

Alicia: They’re great pop songs with great harmonies, that’s why!

Maggie: That’s true. 

Alicia: So when did you start playing bass then?

Maggie: I started playing bass when I was 12. We saw an ad that this guy Manuel was like, “Hey, do you young people want to start a band? We’ve got donated instruments, and I can teach you how to be in a band if you’re interested.” He had started this program called the Midnight Music Program — not that it was midnight at all, it was after school. But we would go to the Harvey Milk Center [in San Francisco] and there were basses and guitars and there was a drum set. And this guy Manuel was super cool, he played in all these Latin jazz bands, but his day job was working at the Harvey Milk Center. 

Anyway, so [some friends and I] went and each tried out an instrument. We didn’t know what instruments any of us were going to play, we just kind of had a vague idea. I thought I wanted to play guitar. Manuel was like, “Why don’t you each try something out?” And so we went around and I tried the guitar, then I tried the bass and I tried the drums, and I was like, “Oh, I want to play bass.” So then we just started learning covers of things that we liked, and we formed a band. The members ended up kind of shifting around, but we played from, like, age 12 to 19.

Alicia: That’s nuts. I grew up in cookie cutter, suburban sprawl in Northern Virginia, and my mom was really focused on me playing classical music. My school that I went to until eighth grade was really small, and then I went to public school where I didn’t know anyone. And I still feel like even there, there wasn’t many people who were into what I was into music-wise. I did take a few guitar lessons in high school from this man at the music store who taught in one of those tiny cubicles — I remember his fingers were stained yellow from smoking, and I was just like, “Teach me this Shins song.” But it didn’t really go anywhere. But I’m here now, and I make music now, and that’s pretty cool!

Maggie: You make really good music.

Alicia: So do you. I don’t really want to talk about the album, because I don’t have a lot to say about it. I was going to say, is there a band or a musician or a song that you remember was you’re like, “I’m really passionate about music now” moment? Or did you always just feel that way? What did your parents listen to when you were a kid? 

Maggie: Well, my mom listened to a lot of jazz, and old blues. Both my parents were really into the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin and the Beatles — the basics. My dad is more like your stereotypical dad rock music — you know, he grew up in the ‘70s and he loves Steely Dan. His favorite band was The Grateful Dead, though, so there was a lot of Grateful Dead, which I always hated. But I really liked Led Zeppelin.

Alicia: I don’t think I would like Led Zeppelin, but I don’t really know them. And the Grateful Dead — I like that “Box of Rain” song.

Maggie: I honestly am so scarred from listening to my dad’s bootleg tapes.

Alicia: I think there’s probably, like, three pop songs, and that’s probably plenty of Grateful Dead.

Maggie: Yes, that’s plenty of Grateful Dead. I would listen to hours and hours of their recorded concerts where they were so high, all their instruments were out of tune, and my dad would be like, “This is really cool, this is the space jam part!” Which was like, they all started jamming and that was what they called it. And it was just like, “This was really cool because it was jazz, you know, improvisational rock music for the first time ever!” And I’m like, “Cool… but I hate it. It’s so bad.” [Laughs.] But my mom was more kind of classic. And she also liked bluegrass, because she’s from West Virginia and grew up playing bluegrass and folk kind of music.

Alicia: I like bluegrass. I don’t know much about it, but I think the instruments sound really neat. I love like old timey stuff like the Carter Family. I love that sort of Appalachian style of singing and the harmonies.

Maggie: The harmonies are beautiful. 

Alicia: There’s kind of a haunting feeling, which is a little bit spooky. Well, my mom only really ever listened to classical music, and she only wanted me to listen to classical music. But of course, the popular world crept in. And my dad didn’t really play his stuff that he liked growing up until later — he kept this cassette tape of Revolver in his night table drawer, and one time he, like, secretly played it for me in the car, in elementary school. But I wasn’t supposed to tell. 

Maggie: So weird!

Alicia: It’s really weird. But I carpooled with other people sometimes — I remember hearing No Doubt. And I went to summer camp the summer after third grade, and I heard “I Believe I Can Fly” and [Shawn Colvin’s] “Sunny Came Home.” Then I found out later, my dad was really into Dylan and Joni Mitchell and The Band and Buffalo Springfield and the Beatles and all that stuff. But I have this moment — it was my classmate Katya’s fourth grade Halloween party, and I heard the Spice Girls for the first time and Hanson’s “MMMBop.” And then the next day, I made my dad or mom take me to Coconuts, which was the CD store. And I didn’t buy CDs — I just at that point had the My First Sony tape player. This was the first time I felt like, Oh, my god, I love this music, I have to have it. I got the first Spice Girls tape, and I got the Hanson tape. And I remember shortly thereafter, I got the Aqua tape, which, you do not need the whole album of that.

Maggie: No, you only need the one song

Alicia: Somebody gave me the Chumbawamba CD for my next birthday, and someone gave me Britney Spears. But I kneeled in front of that plastic tape player and I was like, Oh, my god, I love this music. I was obsessed with the Spice Girls. I’d do girl power symbols all over my notebooks.

Maggie: I was also obsessed with the Spice Girls.

Alicia: Yeah. And then my next big obsession was Blink-182 in sixth grade. My pop progression, I guess.

Maggie: My dad used to play Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs, and I was really, really into Natalie Merchant. That was the first concert that I asked to go to, and that was the first CD that I asked for. But I didn’t start getting into my own music until I was probably eight or nine also. I was really into TLC, I was really into Britney Spears, I was really into Destiny’s Child.

Alicia: I liked Destiny’s Child, too. And then in middle school, when I was listening to the alternative station, I had a boombox by that point and I kept blank tapes in it and would dive to the foot of my bed and press record as soon as I heard the opening chords of something I wanted. I would make mix tapes. The earlier ones are so funny — they’ll be, like, Britney Spears and then the Offspring. [Laughs.] I was not discriminating.

Maggie: Yeah. I feel like as a kid, I listened to the radio all the time because it was always on in the car, and growing up in California — and I’m sure because you were growing up in the suburbs — you’re just in a car all the time. So that was where most of my musical taste came from. 

Alicia: Oh, yeah. And then in middle school and high school, I had my Discman and my binder of CDs that I took everywhere, and wrote angsty lyrics from songs I liked with whiteout pen on it and stuff.

Maggie: I would walk around with my little binder of CDs and my Walkman. I’d skip school sometimes and just walk around, and I had a little notebook that I would write in and draw pictures and then write lyrics in the margins of the notebook about how stupid my parents were.

Alicia: I never wrote songs, but I did write angsty poetry for many years. In middle school and high school, I was especially prolific. I’ve looked at them a couple times, they’re so bad. [Laughs.] And I briefly entertained poetry — I did take a poetry seminar in college. But it turns out writing lyrics is easier and more beneficial to me. 

Maggie: So how do you come up with lyrics?

Alicia: I don’t have one thing. Sometimes a line will pop into my head, and if I’m near a guitar, I will try to make that into a song. And sometimes I succeed and sometimes I don’t. Or sometimes I take out the guitar specifically to try to write a song, or maybe I have to practice, and then I’m like, Well, before I start practicing, let me blah blah blah… If I don’t have anything in my head off the bat, I will maybe just play some chords, and maybe that will spur something. But it really varies and it’s certainly not foolproof at all. So if it doesn’t work for a few times, I still always get nervous. I’m like, What if I can’t write songs anymore? It hasn’t yet turned out to be true, but it’s still nerve wracking.

Maggie: Yeah. I always wonder if there’s a finite amount of songs allowed to any songwriter. Like, is there a limit, or is there a point where the Muses are just not giving you the inspiration anymore?

Alicia: That’s sort of what I wonder — if somehow music could be my full time career, would I just not have enough ideas? Whereas now, if I try to write a song every three weeks or every month, I usually can, because I only have, like, five minutes a week or something. Maybe there is no limit, but maybe it’s different for different people. I’m not really sure.

Maggie: Because Dolly Parton seems to have like an infinite amount of songs that she is able to write. She’s like the most prolific person ever.

Alicia: Or Jed, but he just doesn’t finish them and put them out into the world. But lyrics-wise, if I’ve got that first line, there’s usually an image somewhere in there that I can follow. One funny thing is that I almost always use, which still exists. Because I usually write lyrics that rhyme, and even if I have an idea for a couplet, I usually like to look at the different rhymes I might have forgotten in case there’s a better option for a lyric. I feel like RhymeZone is an old internet thing. I’m happy it still exists. There must be enough people like me who are like, What does rhyme with “curl”? OK, so you’ve got unfurl, girl, pearl, whirl, swirl. [Laughs.]

There’s not always a specific idea or thing that my songs are about, but usually at least within a verse or a stanza, there’s an image that I can sort of enter into and follow out lyrically. Something that’s sort of poetic, but not too obvious or cringey. I think it’s much better for the lyrics to be a little bit forgettable than to be standing out and someone’s like, “Those are cringey.” So that’s my process.

Maggie: What do you mean by an image? 

Alicia: Like if I’m using… I also have these dumb tropes that I’m always returning to. Like, I was wondering how many songs I use the words “shadow,” “echo,” “fear,” something about time, because I’m obsessed with time and mortality and stuff. Thread unwinding and unraveling and stuff. But say there’s a lyric about a path or something, I might picture walking down a path, and whether that path is dirt or dusty, or is it shadowed or is it in a woods or something? That creates some kind of image for me to follow lyrically. Not always, but yeah. What about you? 

Maggie: I get flashes of images, but it’s more like the feeling of being in a place. I write based on kind of the feeling of being in an atmosphere of some kind. Sometimes I drop myself into memories, and that’s where I kind of take my inspiration from. Or just a strong feeling — I’ve definitely written songs before where I was just feeling a lot of emotion or something, and I’ll even sort of be crying while I’m writing it or whatever because it is really therapeutic. That’s not super common for me, but that’s definitely happened.

Alicia: That’s happened to me a few times, but I sort of find it challenging to finish the task when I’m that emotional.

Maggie: Me too. I often don’t finish. I usually don’t sit down and write a song and start to finish 

Alicia: For me, I prefer to, just because to edit is so hard to get yourself to do. And my songs are short, so if I can do it in one session, I’ll feel satisfied. Like, I can record this at some point, I don’t have to worry about, Oh, the song needs more lyrics. The song needs another part. It’s not always possible, but…

Maggie: I’m always like, Oh, this song needs more lyrics and needs another part. It takes me, I think, a couple of sessions to sit down and do it. Or it’ll just be in a day — I’ll start writing it and then I’ll take a break and go off and do something else, and then I’ll come back to it. Because even if I’m not aware of the fact that I’m ruminating on the song, I actually am, even if I’m just cleaning or doing whatever. And then I’ll be like, Oh, I could do that, and then I’ll go back and finish it.

Alicia: Yeah. I mean, sometimes if I am stuck, something will come to me in the shower.

Maggie: Oh, in the shower always.

Alicia: Of course it’s when you literally can’t write it down. 

Maggie: I’ve gotten out of the shower before singing a line, because I’m like, No, no, I can’t lose it! And then I’ll go and record a voice memo of it.

Alicia: I know. But sometimes by the time you get to the voice memo, it no longer makes sense. You’re like, Oh, well, I hear the words, but I’m missing some key part of it, and I’ve lost it.

Maggie: That is very frustrating, when you feel like you had a really good one, and then it’s just like, Oh, fuck, it’s gone. I don’t think that happens to everybody. I feel like that does not happen to Jed. 

Alicia: I mean, he’s literally said that sometimes he dreams that he wrote a song, and then when he wakes up, he’s able to remember the full song. 

Maggie: That’s incredible. I write the best songs in my dreams. I’m like, This is great. Or at least I think it’s really great in the dream. 

Alicia: Outside of lyrics and stuff, don’t you write a lot?

Maggie: Well, I journal every day as a practice.

Alicia: Yeah, I used to almost every day when I was growing up and even into college. I’m so spotty. Usually only when I’m really upset about something.

Maggie: I’ll stop doing it for a while. Sometimes I’ll go months without writing and then I’ll get back into it. Usually when I’m processing something, when something serious is going on. Or I’ll come home late at night from being out, and I’ll be stoned or a little bit drunk or whatever. And I’m like, I have to write. And then I’ll stay up for hours, just stream of consciousness writing.

Alicia: So how do you make up the melodic part, or the bit you write on bass? Do you ever get a bass line first?

Maggie: I often get a bass line first, and then I’ll like hear the melody. I’ll play it over and over again, and all of a sudden, I’ll hear it. Like, out of the ether or something? [Laughs.]

Alicia: Yeah. With guitar chords, it feels like the melody is singing itself to you, through the tones of the chords or something.

Maggie: I feel like it is through these extra other tones that are happening.

Alicia: For lyrics, sometimes I feel like when I start going in one direction with them, I’ll feel like a line exists already and I just have to pull it down. Sometimes I can’t find it, which is a weird feeling. I know that other people like Jed, they know what the lyrics should be, like the shapes of them, and they just have to sort of pull that down into actual words, which is interesting to me. That’s not quite what I mean.

Maggie: Yeah, I don’t see it as shapes at all. I experience my lines as shapes — those are totally shapes. The words need to mean a certain thing to me, so I can’t just choose a word because it sounds right. I choose a word that also feels right and is part of whatever story I’m telling, whatever I’m processing, whatever emotion I’m trying to put out into the world. 

Alicia Hyman and Jed Smith are Jeanines, a DIY indie pop band based in Brooklyn. Their latest record, Don’t Wait For a Sign, is out now on Slumberland.