by Mia Hughes
photo: Mark Jaworski
Stillhungry are laughing. They’ve been laughing a lot. The three-piece – Jenna Murphy, Erik Kase Romero and Matteo DeBenedetti – are on a FaceTime call to me, joking about New Jersey, the state where they all grew up and still reside.
“Erik has been watching Survivor a lot recently. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the show Survivor,” DeBenedetti is saying. “But apparently there have been 37 winners total over the course of the almost 20-year span of the show being on TV, and ten of those people have been from New Jersey.
“That says something,” Murphy laughs. “I think what you’re trying to say is just New Jersey breeds sociopaths. That’s all you’re saying.”
The conversation extends to pizza (“If you’re from anywhere except New Jersey and New York, and you think that you have good pizza, you are absolutely wrong”), bagels (same deal), and The Sopranos (Murphy proudly tells me that DeBenedetti’s aunt had a small role in season five). Much like in every other facet of our hour-long interview, when the trio laughs at each other’s jokes, trade off hot takes and express agreement on their shared hometown pride, it’s with the unmistakable ease and familiarity of three best friends.
On February 26th, the band surprise-released their second album, and second self-titled album, Stillhungry. The alt-country earworms that populate it share that sense of comfortable rapport; the band members share lead vocals equally, and in each song they meld in harmony as if it comes naturally. And though their sound isn’t a rarity in indie rock right now – it’s reminiscent of peers like Great Grandpa and Slow Pulp – Stillhungry manage to transcend by way of their palpable joy to be creating together. There’s a rapturous freedom in their melodies, instrumentation, and how the songs drive themselves, that is immediately disarming and exciting.
The trio’s friendship goes back years to the New Jersey punk and DIY scene that they all came up through, one that DeBenedetti describes as “very, very vital”. “We are from New Jersey and we’re all millennials; [emo and punk] is part of our DNA,” Romero adds with a laugh. “The DIY ethos was just always part of anything I did in bands,” he continues. “I now meet other people that grew up and maybe had venues or more pay-to-play situations; but for me, it was like, we wanted to play a show, we’ll just throw it in someone’s house or rent a VFW out. I didn’t even realise there were other ways to do it. I was just like, ‘oh yeah, you just do it’. Be part of a community and contribute to it; that is still very much a part of how I view what it means to be an artist in a community.” Romero ended up producing for bands around the scene while playing in the indie punk band Dollys and as a session player in The Front Bottoms, while DeBenedetti fronted the punk band Toy Cars and Murphy performed as a solo project, Prim.
The three regularly collaborated across their own projects, so when Dollys and Toy Cars wound down at around the same time, DeBenedetti and Romero began a conversation about pursuing a new direction together. Romero was influenced by 70s Americana like Jackson Browne and Tom Petty, while DeBenedetti had been inspired by Big Thief’s at the time recently-released Capacity. When the pair brought Murphy on board (“We were both constantly finding ourselves in awe of what Jenna was doing musically, and we were like, alright, it’s a no-brainer that we should see if she wants to be a part of it as well,” says DeBenedetti), she brought along a love of The Highwomen and Jenny Lewis. By fusing their DIY and punk sensibilities with these folk and country touchpoints, the three found inspiration in Conor Oberst’s varied projects. Romero recounts, “I remember growing up, when Saddle Creek started, I was like, ‘wait, you can just do that? Like, you can just make songs and have them be roomy and sing out of tune, but it makes you feel something? That’s so exciting.’”
To begin with, the idea was that Stillhungry would be a songwriting project with which the trio could explore new ideas and exercise their abilities, but it quickly became clear to them that it had legs beyond that. “We all were like, ‘This is too fun and special to not take the next steps and move forward in recording an album’,” Murphy recounts. They worked communally, each editing and contributing to each other’s songs wherever it was needed. In their close bond and their deep admiration for each other as songwriters, they had discovered a unique chemistry that pushed them all to create their best work. Murphy explains, “In my other project I just played solo, [and] I think that working with both Erik and Matteo has made me a better songwriter overall. Because when you’re writing with two other people who have so much experience, it pushes me to think, ‘How can this be better? Am I just falling into these old tricks that I’ve done?’”
DeBenedetti adds, “There’s very little judgement from any of us, and I feel like that allows for us to just be completely vulnerable, and be like, ‘Oh, here’s this absolute piece of bullshit that I’m unsure of, what do these two think?’ There’s really no ego from any of us in the band, which is really cool for songwriting.” He goes on, “It’s very funny how the pieces were all there for so long, and they just sort of fell into place. We were all friends prior to becoming a band, so it was just a very easy process. It just kinda worked.”
“We complete each other,” Murphy sums up with a laugh.
In comparison to its 2019 predecessor, their sophomore record presents an even more confident version of the band, with a fully-fledged identity and personality. The world of possibilities opened on their first record was, this time, pursued and fully realised, and upon listening it’s clear each song was crafted with precision and conviction. It’s the band truly coming into their own.
“I believe that a record made the way we made this record, which was in a very short period of time, truly a moment and what we were like in that moment, will always have the way everyone was feeling imbued in it in some way,” says Romero. “And I think the writing and recording was a really positive time for us. I think it was one of our true arrival points of being a band, where we were finally feeling like, ‘I think we know what we wanna do’.” DeBenedetti adds, “The personality of every person that’s involved with a record should be a part of it, in some way or another. A big part of why we even wanted to play with each other in the first place was that we all know what we all bring to the table, and I feel like that’s a very big part of the sound.”
The record’s opening track, ‘Best Costume Wins’, is an intentional statement of the band’s new self-assurance; “It always felt like an overture,” Romero explains. An acoustic guitar lead-in suddenly blooms into full-band life, and Murphy, DeBenedetti and Romero each take turns introducing their lead vocal, culminating in a shared final verse and chorus. It’s also one of the record’s most indelible choruses, centred around the instantly memorable line, “A flash of light in my life for just a moment”. Though you wouldn’t know it, the song was a source of trepidation for the band, namely in how they traded off lead vocals; would it work, or would it just sound silly? “We were just like, ‘Is this gonna come off as like, Broadway-y?” Murphy laughs. “It’s something we [were] very, very, very thoughtful about, to the point where maybe we spent more time thinking about it than we even should have,” Romero expands. “Like, I think we tried every person’s voice on every part of every song.”
“But I think that if we didn’t do it this way, it wouldn’t be what it is, and it wouldn’t be a part of each of us, so it works out,” says Murphy.
“Thinking about it now, one of my absolute favourite bands is Fleetwood Mac, and they do the same thing,” DeBenedetti remarks. “I’m just like, why was I ever so worried about it?”
Their ego-free method of working relied on the trio’s close friendship, particularly when it came to sharing lyrics – in many cases, trusting another band member to sing what they had written. “I don’t know if I wasn’t as comfortable with y’all as I am if I would be able to talk about some of the stuff that we lyrically touch on,” Romero says to his bandmates. “Because a lot of it, for myself and I’m sure for both of you two, is tough to even work out, which is why we’re writing it – as therapy.” He’s met with resolute agreement. Lyrics across the album touch on death, addiction, breakups, and dissatisfaction; while they dissect and wrestle with these themes, there’s not a song that isn’t treated with meaningful introspection and conscientiousness.
“I think some of the larger themes worked their way through the songs unintentionally,” says Murphy. “It just came from processing anguish or sadness. But still, there’s that hopefulness. Despite there being these things that you do – that other people also do -that hurt you, you can still move through life in meaningful ways and figure it out.”
“For me, a very, very concrete theme that I can define was the idea of dealing with and processing pain, and wanting to blame it on the other person, or something other than yourself, but the step after that when you start to realise what it is about [yourself] that led to that situation,” says Romero.
Even though the subject matter gets heavy, the album always has a lightness to it; it’s hard not to attribute that to the – simply put – good vibes that it grew out of. Going through the process of digging through these emotions together brought the three closer than they had ever been, they say; and they hope that it will mean something to anyone who listens. DeBenedetti says, “My number one goal in music always has been, as far as I can remember back, and always will be, if one single person ever comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, I just wanted you to know that when you said this in this song, it touched me’ – that beats out any amount of fame or fortune or whatever the hell people want out of playing music.” The lack of live shows that would otherwise encourage that connection has been sore for the band, but on the plus side, it has more than ever allowed them to rediscover and appreciate the joy of playing music, says Romero. “When we got together to rehearse to do this livestream we did last week, just being in the room with other people and playing music was like, overwhelming for me. Just being able to make music physically with another human being is a huge privilege and should be treasured. And I think I will be doing that a lot more moving forward.”
DeBenedetti agrees. “The first time I get to step on stage and play a show, I’m gonna just cry shamelessly all over myself. I’m not even kidding. I am going to bawl like a small child,” he laughs. “And I have no shame in saying that.”
This speaks to what’s so special about Stillhungry: the emotional heart they have been able to cultivate together through their friendship and honest creative expression. It couldn’t have happened the same way with any other combination of people – that’s the magic of music borne from true connectionl.
‘I feel like one thing that we all have in common is that we’re very open about the fact that we feel feelings, and it’s not something that makes us look weak,” DeBenedetti concludes. “It’s just part of being human, and to touch on what Erik was saying about the lyrical content, I feel like that’s a very big theme of it as well. Just that we’re all people and we’re all fucked up and everyone is, and that’s kinda the way it is. And with this project, I feel like we wear that on our sleeve, very much so.”
In agreement, Murphy adds, “I saw a card the other day; it’s a pea pod, and it was two people, but I would say about us three: ‘We’re three fucked up peas in a pod’.”
As the three erupt in laughter, DeBenedetti grins: “And Stillhungry is our pod.”