Claire Nelson-Lifson is a stalwart of the Madison underground community. As we talked about her creative career, I quickly became overwhelmed at the number of projects she’s participated in. She’s in multiple bands, and still finds time to edit the new zine Toothtaker, and co-manage her tape label, Rare Plant, out of her living room.
Claire was “born and raised in Madison, Wisconsin”, and seems to have no intention of leaving. That’s rare for a musician in a college town. Many musicians who get their start in Madison move on to bigger cities. She radiates pride in her community, which she is no doubt essential too.
Claire seems to me to embody Madison’s twenty-something creative vibe. There’s the lackadaisical speech filled with sarcastic emphasization, an open and calm demeanor, and a confidence that her lifestyle will bring happiness even if it means working a day job. This music infused lifestyle choice sees the career as “on the side” of the music, (or any chosen mode of expression), which is the true focus for emotional fulfillment. Claire seems perfectly content as we sit and talk about the life she obviously loves, which is being a part of a growing creative community. Unsurprisingly, we never got around to talking about her day-job.
Claire’s bands, from Giant People, to Disembodied Monks, to Proud Parents, vary wildly, but always seem to whirl in some way around the main theme of D.I.Y. punk. Now in Proud Parents, Claire finds herself as a main songwriter, and she seems to be at home in the vulnerability of that collaboration with Tyler Fassnacht. Toothtaker, and Rare Plant and are also decidedly D.I.Y. and Madison-based, all featuring local writers and musicians. Each project draws its’ breath from the surrounding community.
I met Claire downtown at an undisclosed coffee shop, where she detailed her path, as well as her opinion on moshing, and her need to create.
Reid Kurkerewicz: How did you start playing music?
Claire Nelson-Lifson: I’ve played guitar since I was 12, and I started playing seriously in bands when I was 17. I’ve always been a creative type, and not really one for academia. My first band was in middle school and our only song was a cover of the theme from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Then, my first real band was with Tyler, and we were called “The Study of Lumbology” which was a spongebob reference, but we quickly changed it to “Giant People.” That was the first time I was playing in front of people in basements and venues. I remember one time we did a talent show where the band before us went too long so we kind of got shafted. We were like, well, we’re pretty punk rock, let’s, like, stick it to the man. So, we played Rock and Roll Highschool, and I Wanna Be Your Dog by Iggy Pop. That was in front of like, 2000 people. What fuels me and my existence, was this kid from my kindergarten who was at that show said to his girlfriend, “Who told Claire she could sing?” That’s not very nice, but hey, look at me now.
How did you feel about your public education in Madison?
Both my parents were teachers so I think that’s part of how I became disenchanted with school. I liked skipping class and going into the Arts Metal room to hang out. It was easy to slip through the cracks in such a big school. I can speak for my high-school, Madison West, and I suppose that was a good place for a bunch of different people. There were lots of kids like me, but the kids who wanted to be on the honor roll had their outlet, and I had mine. I did have a lot of influential teachers at West, but I remember I was super tall, so that made me shy. I was 6 ft in middle school.
Was that awkward?
Lots of people like to make comments about people’s appearances, especially girls, like “Hey you’re really tall.” and I’m like, I know that. Lots of comments like that made me feel alienated.
What’s the story behind Giant People?
We had lots of lineup changes, from a two piece to a four piece, to a three piece, and back to a four piece, and then people had to go off to school. Tyler was always the main songwriter, and he and I have been friends for almost 10 years now. There’s some people who you just make music well with, and you can just play off each other, and Tyler’s just one of those guys. So I started off playing guitar for Giant People, but then our bass player left so I went to bass. People went to college and when we finally got to a place that I thought was really interesting, the drummer, who was in the UW music program on a full ride for timpani, decided to focus on that. Then, after Giant People broke up Tyler got into Fire Retarded. I had already joined New Years Gang, which was a lot more punk. I saw them as a two piece in a basement show and I might’ve been a little drunk and offered to play bass for them, and they were like, sure.
And what bands were you in between then and now?
Well one of my co-workers was like, ‘Claire we should be in a band’, and I was like, ‘Yeah!’, and he was already in the Non Travellin’ Band.Their drummer wanted to take the old college try at bass, and I was like, I want to play drums. So I learned to play standup kit, which is nice because you can practice by yourself, and there’s only the kick drum and the snare.
How did Proud Parents come about?
Tyler and I are roommates and always sort of played together and wanted to start a collaboration. Tyler came up with the name when all the parents were in town for graduation. It was just me and Tyler for a while, and then we got a band together. We were always waiting for people to have free time, and then Fire Retarded and The Hussy went on tour, so we were in purgatory. We’ve only been getting better, I think, and being one of the main songwriters makes it like, my creative child. It’s my main thing and my thing that I’m most stoked and proud about. [Laughs] Pun intended. Tyler writes a lot of personal stuff and so do I, so it’s a good vehicle for my emotion. It’s important to my survival as a human being.
So Proud Parents is primarily an introverted project?
Music is extremely important to my mental well-being, so it kind of has to be that way for me. I just do it, and it’s a lot of fun.
How do you feel about D.I.Y. in Madison?
Well, it’s there, and it’s growing. When I was a kid I showed up at the punk houses and never really found my place. Now there’s a ton of bands just going for it and there’s a broader sense of community. There’s definitely a garage thing going on, but there’s also a ton of different musicians. There’s definitely some venues where the bathrooms are gross and they’re in weird locations, and then some of the young men don’t really understand their privilege, get all excited, and start shoving. Maybe these people don’t want to have their personal space disrespected. There’s no reason someone shouldn’t feel welcome because they fear that they will be unsafe.
So would you say you’re against moshing?
No, not moshing itself. Even at the best D.I.Y. spots there is sometimes this really toxic masculinity. There’s weird people who show up who end up being violent, but then there’s people who just want to chill and watch music. I’m okay with moshing when it’s in a circle pit, and that’s contained and that’s okay, and then there’s the people over here who just want to watch. Most of the time you see men moshing, sometimes its females, but it’s very aggressive, and I think it’s selfish to force people to be near that. Sometimes you see people go all the way back and start pushing people and that’s the worst. People express themselves in different ways, and there’s safe and respectful ways to do that.
What about when the bands are known for their mosh pits?
With bigger bands I’d say you can kind of know what you’re getting into. If you’re at a D.I.Y. show the audience never really knows what they’re getting into. So there’s a distinction. Moshing all the time seems very close-minded and gross.
How did Toothtaker come about?
That came about this year. I need a lot of creative outlets, and I need to stay busy at all times. I always say I’m like a creative shark because if I If I stop moving I’ll die. Maybe a little morbid, but really, if I have too much free time I get bored, and if I get bored I get sad. I’m also incredibly affected by seasonal depression, and so we thought it’d be a good idea to get a zine together to get some of these emotions out and help others with that too. I do that with Aiki Coxhead, and I hadn’t met Mary Begley yet, but she called and said she heard I was doing a zine, and she’s done zines before. She wanted to help, and asked what the thesis of the zine was.We didn’t have like a thesis for the zine or anything, and then we decided on the theme of, ‘it’s okay to feel lonely, it’s okay to feel wanted’. Because I feel that a lot of people aren’t okay with themselves, and I think people need to find a way to balance liking themselves and liking other people. Way back when I planned this I also thought that a tape would go really well with this. So people could read these really intense poems, and then have supplemental music for crying. And then I realized I know a ton of musicians who could contribute, and when I asked for submissions I realised I knew too many, so I get to chop it down.
What’s going on with Rare Plant?
It can be stressful. I just make them in my living room, and I record them in real time so there’s no music quality loss. So each one takes an hour. But besides the Toothtaker tapes We did Automatically Yours, We did The Minotaurs, and we’ll be putting out Trophy Dads soon, probably early September. That’s exciting. We’ll also be doing Wood Chickens, The Pollinators, and Proud Parents eventually.
You can listen to Claire’s music here