A conversation with Claire Duncan aka i.e. crazy
To speak with Claire of music, or experience, or life at surface-value alone would be to ignore the rich and endlessly layered way in which she gets lost in the world around her. There is a sense of marvel in the most mundane: the sound of a lawnmower you hear in your neighbourhood; the persistent drip of a leaky apartment tap; the brown paper bag that’s clogging up the gutter. This week Claire and I chatted via email about her project i.e. crazy and those projects of her musical comrades—ruminating on suffering and happiness, plastic-bag-American-Beauty-moments, and madness.
We live in a society that actively undervalues music. It’s a pretty normative notion that if you’re a musician desiring to “make it,” the odds are stacked against you. Claire directed a stunning documentary last year called The Land of the Long White Stain: A Love Letter to Music on the Margins, which followed some of Aotearoa, New Zealand’s best musicians—Seth Frightening, Girls Pissing on Girls Pissing (GPOGP), Shab Orkestra, and i.e. crazy (herself)—as they toured the country. I spoke with Claire about music, about her own, and about the marginalisation of these musicians:
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As a disclaimer—I didn’t write the documentary’s byline; it was added by the series producer. I think it’s accurate, though there is obviously much, much more marginalised music than was featured in the film. There’s a lot at play in the systemic side of the music industry; what gets popular and why and whether it’s better or worse than less popular music. I don’t really care to think about it too much, I don’t think it’s good for making art, unless you want to make that very system the subject of the artwork itself. The latter is too post-modern for me to really pursue; I’m too romantic.
So what, then, is the relationship between the musician and the industry? The musician and their consumerist backdrop? In The Land of the Long White Stain the narrator suggests in a low, drawling voice that, “the moment when a musician might begin to make good music is the same moment at which they accept that no one will buy their records.” I wondered if by being “mainstream” the quality or sacredness of one’s music would somehow be eroded:
I don’t think the relationship between the production and consumption of art is that simple or mutual. Some people have a lot of energy and power that can spread across wide groups and through many channels without corruption of their message. Mutation inevitably occurs; humans mutate constantly and necessarily and so should art.
Labels themselves can be elastic creative entities, as can publishers and promoters. This isn’t the case in NZ as the market is too small and there is no room for risk. So we see a very safe boring pool of mainstream music and an interesting underground who make better art for knowing they’ll probably never make money from it. That said, the underground is full of as much contemptible behaviour as the commercial world—there is no such thing as pure art or intent.
I think that the commercial ideal is for art and artists to mutate in a very controlled way. I think when someone accepts too many corporate bribes or becomes overtly capitalistic in their approach it can become hard, but again it depends on what you make and for what reasons. Some people make intentionally commercial music with the hope of commercial appeal and consumption, and I don’t have a problem with it. It’s just not for me, I’m not competitive enough. In Franny & Zooey (the novel from which the moniker i.e. crazy is adopted) Franny’s lover tells her that she is afraid of competing, and her response is that yes, she is afraid—she’s afraid of what kind of person she would become.
Seth Frightening says in The Land of the Long White Stain, that “every human being wants to be happy, but often in life it doesn’t work out that way.” Then he shrugs it off with a laugh. He suggests that music is the one place where things can go to plan; a beautiful scenario where you’re free to “compose.” In the next scene, GPOGP convey that they “suffer and struggle a lot to keep doing this thing.” They unearth a magnetic and almost sublime relationship between suffering and happiness. I asked Claire if she believed suffering to be integral to the process of writing music:
No, I think suffering is integral to life, everyone struggles; through every age and era, it’s part of the human condition. Some people choose to make art to enhance the light and some to enhance the dark. What I love about both Seth Frightening and GPOGP is that they take incredibly dark aspects of human experience and turn them into something confronting but beautiful. They acknowledge, explore, and transform territories that most people don’t know how to deal with and suppress. They usher people into a space they probably can’t get to on their own. It’s ultimately a gift to those brave enough to accept it.
In the Land of the Long White Stain GPOGP talk about how there’s something more “absurd” going on in making music, as it is not the road to “success.” They suggest that in the end their music is essentially about love. I asked Claire about what drove her to make music:
I make music primarily as a mode of survival; it is a cathartic function. Maybe if I was a happier person and the world were less fucked up, or if I could just stomach the putrid bullet of being a good capitalist and expressed myself through home renovations and new curtains, I wouldn’t feel the need to write music at all. I guess there’s an absurdity in that art and music—something fundamental and personal to many artists—is something most people consume or accumulate without much feeling, or for a simple “pleasure.” I don’t want to make music that is too easy or desirable as an accessory or as a product to be hyped. I’d rather it annoy people or surprise them. But I understand this is dangerous territory for many people psychologically, to really be honest about how they feel about their lives would shift a lot of long unturned stones.
That’s part of the magic of Claire, a raw honesty to the point where I wonder if I’ve pried too much. She’s a storyteller, and her songs and performances function in exactly this way: a fine balance between personal catharsis and revelations on the human condition, spanning from the sacred to profane. She strips the world of all glamour and glory, and yet what remains is strange and startlingly beautiful—you cannot tear yourself apart. I asked what inspired her:
I’m pretty short-sighted (I was for years incredibly myopic before I had laser surgery on the advice of my optometrist before I became legally blind) and spend more time looking at the ground than at the sky. I guess that’s where the idea of the gothic comes into play for me; it’s a lens through which to see the immediate physical world that makes it a whole lot more compelling—a kind of game. Stuff that is rejected or ignored is suddenly pregnant with possibility. I’m constantly having stupid plastic bag American Beauty moments. But it’s also a tradition of storytelling—everything on stage has significance, and in relation to the NZ landscape and national psyche, it’s the neurotic horror of the banal as well as our repressed emotions and postcolonial amnesia erupting symbolically and violently.
There is a sensation of madness that runs through Claire’s work: the name itself—i.e. crazy; the hand-made tee-shirts adorned with the print, non compos mentis; lyrics like “it doesn’t take a full moon to act insane….” I wondered what this focus on madness meant to Claire:
I’m not exploring and embracing madness and images of madness as something comfortable, productive, or positive. I don’t believe madness should be released or unrestrained, as Foucault might advocate. There are countless personal and systemic complexities to mental health issues and I can’t speak on those beyond my own experience. I guess what I’m interested in are the social symptoms of “madness” or “insanity” that I’ve seen/see manifest in my own life and mind. I try to answer my own questions: Why am I so anxious? Why am I a depressive? What factors are at play that make life so seemingly shit and near unliveable? Why do I hate every job I’ve ever had? Why do I get bored so easily? Most forces at play in our society do not serve middle and working class people, even those who bust their balls to get by.
“Non compos mentis” literally means “not of sound mind.” It’s a term employed in courts of law when a person is not capable to give testimony / their testimony cannot be trusted according to the court’s standards. A dictum given by the powerful to silence the marginalised. I’m trying to reclaim that label as a self-descriptor rather than something cast down from above, choosing my own silence and opting out of the game of words which is the court, the law, civilised life.
i.e. crazy functions in a similar way. To me, it’s about living in a state of crisis at the blurry intersection between the crude and the sacred; sanity and madness; foolishness and profundity. The world is full of fraudulence, greed, and false-selfish ambition. It’s a kind of reminder to keep my ego in check. Destruction is only so important to music as it is in life more largely—which is to say, very. Capitalism is death-denying and relentlessly hungry. We try hard to counter the natural rhythms of the world, which are light/dark—life/death. We stay up all night in grey boxes drowning in white light. Everything has to die.
Speaking with Claire feels like you’ve been brought down from a daydream to be rooted back on the ground. You see every blade of decaying grass, feel the chill of this approaching winter. Yeah, it feels pretty bleak, but you don’t run away: you surrender to it. That’s what I love most about i.e. crazy. It’s not escapism. It’s not trying to be anything other than what it is. It’s unapologetic, unfazed by its own marginalisation. Gaze cast on the cement, Claire speaks the unspoken. It’s a little like opening your eyes for the first time in long time.
You can fill your earholes here: https://iecrazy.bandcamp.com/
And your eye-sockets here: http://video.lumiere.net.nz/land-of-the-long-white-stain/