Half-Stack Sessions founders push for more inclusive Madison music communities

The project will have its first public event on May 13 at the Wil-Mar Center.

Half-Stack Sessions is led by, from left to right: Tessa Echeverria, Claire Nelson-Lifson, Mary Dahlman Begley, and Maggie Denman. Photo by Huan-Hua Chye.

Half-Stack Sessions is led by, from left to right: Tessa Echeverria, Claire Nelson-Lifson, Mary Dahlman Begley, and Maggie Denman. Photo by Huan-Hua Chye.

It’s hardly news that Madison needs to do a lot of work to improve the inclusivity of events in its music scene and creative communities — and that’s probably true for most scenes throughout the country. While plenty of individuals and groups are making efforts to book diverse bills and put on inclusive events around town, the recently formed group Half-Stack Sessions has developed a multi-faceted approach to that mission.

The group’s mission statement reads as follows: “Half-Stack Sessions is a group of women, LGBT, and non-binary folk who play music in the Madison area. Its purpose is to create space for musicians to grow and work towards higher visibility in the larger music scene. Meetings will be planned collectively to meet the needs and wants of the group. The main goals of the sessions will be to share skills, exchange ideas, and build a culture that empowers these musicians to create freely.”

This space for musicians includes monthly meetings, a Facebook group for sharing ideas and events, and several other resources, including a list of local musical projects containing marginalized and underrepresented people (inspired by the national FCK YR BOYS CLUB list) in an effort to signal boost said artists. So far Half-Stack’s events have been semi-private, invite-only affairs, but the group’s May 13 spring show at the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center, benefitting Half-Stack and Domestic Abuse Intervention Services, will be open to everyone, in an intentional step to normalize inclusivity among the Madison music scene. It will feature Milwaukee band Fox Face, Minneapolis band 4th Curtis, performances by local outfits Miyha and Jonesies, a solo set from Claire Nelson-Lifson, and a fashion show lead by local artist Mollie Martin.

I sat down with the four administrators of Half-Stack — Nelson-Lifson, Tessa Echeverria, Mary Dahlman Begley, and Maggie Denman — all of whom are not only involved in various musical projects (Jonesies, Proud Parents, Once A Month, and Miyha, to name a few), but are key forces in fostering the music community in Madison through booking, promoting, recording, and exposing artists on the DIY level. Echeverria is the co-owner and engineer at analog recording studio Williamson Magnetic Recording Company. Nelson-Lifson is the co-founder of the Rare Plant cassette label. Denman is handling local-artist booking for the High Noon Saloon for concert promoter Frank Productions, which took ownership of the venue earlier this month. Begley has played an active role in booking DIY shows in Madison.

When asked about why Madison needs a project like Half-Stack, Echeverria expresses her frustration with sexism in the music scene, and elaborates that while it is one thing to address sexism, “there must be a push to start organizing, and that push needs to be made by women.” Begley notes that the group is a good way to meet more people. “Whenever I meet female and nonbinary musicians in Madison, I’m really stoked,” she said.

One reason Half-Stack places so much emphasis on inclusive booking is that it’s not only advantageous to the music scene, but mandatory for a healthy community. A diverse bill yields a generally more interesting and worthwhile experience for everyone involved, and goes hand in hand with pushing the scene forward through sharing varied perspectives through creative expression. Most importantly, a diverse bill is essential to making everyone attending and listening feel welcome. Echeverria says we also need to get beyond the notion of just booking artists inclusively: “There should be women and people of color booking shows and doing sound,” she says. “If the scene is white-male-dominated in any respect, then the scene will remain white-male-dominated”. Begley adds that “there is nothing punk about staying the same.”

At the first Half-Stack meeting in February — which included a general meet-and-greet, group idea sharing, and live-band karaoke — the organizers discovered that they weren’t alone in their mission. Denman noted that “clearly there is a market for (Half-Stack), as women come out to shows,” and added that “a lot of people who were at the first meeting are not in bands but are musicians.” Echeverria recalled that at that first meeting, she “didn’t even know half the people in the room.”

This ties in with one of the central efforts of Half-Stack: to have a group in which artists, show-goers, and musicians from different sub-scenes can get to know each other and connect within their own space. Not only does this space empower women and nonbinary folk, but it also directly pertains to the notion of pushing the scene forward through the collaboration among women within the various means of musical expression, artistic media, and diverse perspectives. “So often, things get marketed to women because women are playing. But gender is not a genre,” Begley says. She adds that Half-Stack is “trying to build up the network to make these (collaborations) more normalized.”

Ahead of the most recent Half-Stack meeting, which took place in late April and featured a conversation with artist Jennifer Bastian, members of the group were sent a survey that focuses on the non-male experience within the music community. Bastian is collecting these surveys to accumulate a spread of individual reflections that she will later work into a zine.

The surveys will ultimately include the voices of men in the music scene as well: Nelson-Lifson explains that Half-Stack “can only do so much without telling the men what’s going on.” Denman adds that the anonymous survey “provides an opportunity to give guys an avenue to say ‘I don’t know how to speak to other guys about this sort of issue.’” Nelson-Lifson explains that “it is not the marginalized group’s job to educate the group that holds the privilege. So, having a group of perspectives and experiences in one place (the zine) to share with the public would be helpful.”

It is important to recognize that inclusivity extends far beyond gender-inclusiveness and that these surveys are a way to express that, as Begley puts it, “maybe[Half-Stack] is being non-inclusive and we don’t know.”

“This is our club; this is your club,” Begley adds.

Ultimately, the goal of Half-Stack is to not have to exist. “We are working to eliminate ourselves as a group,” Echeverria says. “We don’t want to remove ourselves and start our own scene. We want to work with the scenes we are already involved with to push forward. So it has to be an open dialogue within the whole community. This is also why we want to do a whole event [the May 13 show]: To get together and listen to good music.”

Women, LGBTQ people, and non-binary folk interested in getting involved in Half-Stack Sessions can find the group on Facebook and meet the organizers at the May 13 event.