How Self-Empowerment Inspired Allison Crutchfield’s Bold Solo Album

Allison Crutchfield

Allison Crutchfield. Jonathan Purvis

Travel changes the way you see the world, but it can change the way you see home, too. That was Allison Crutchfield’s epiphany two years ago after returning to Philly from almost a year of straight touring.

Crutchfield’s band Swearin’ had dissolved following her breakup with guitarist Kyle Gillbride, and she was busy devoting her time and energy to filling out her twin sister Katie’s backing band in Waxahatchee as they found themselves selling out some of the biggest rooms they’d ever played. Coming back to Philly then, and having to move, the scrapbooked sketches of words and ideas she’d been collecting to process her feelings on the road needed to be set to song.

“This record was so visceral, and a huge part of me processing these changes that I was going through.”—Allison Crutchfield

The heartbreak and transience birthed a profound collection of synth-infused rock and roll on Tourist in This Town, Crutchfield’s second solo effort and first album for the venerable Merge Records. Philly’s own Jeff Zeigler, known for his work with local heavy hitters like Kurt Vile, Steve Gunn and The War on Drugs, produced the collection, but the words, music, and arrangements all belong to Crutchfield.

Learning to channel the emotional urgency that had always defined her work while incorporating new sounds was difficult, she told me, but it proved worthwhile—Tourist keeps Crutchfield’s youthful wit and wisdom intact while making space for widescreen arrangements and heightened stakes, resulting in her most accomplished collection to date.

We met up over some ramen on Sixth Avenue and spoke about Crutchfield’s twin intuition with Katie, the blessings and the curses of community, and why she no longer wants to be a glutton for punishment. Two years is a long time to process heartbreak, but embedded in Crutchfield’s astute self-awareness about confusing love with nostalgia are lessons for us all about how to forge our own paths, even when our whole lives feel defined in relation to someone else.

This whole record’s about moving around and feeling comfortable with it, right?

Yeah, it’s about touring, I think, more than anything. Less about moving and more about living on tour for nine to 10 months a year, which is what I did when I was writing the record. I was also going through a really crazy, transitional time. I was going through a big breakup—Swearin’ broke up, I had to move and I was on tour with Waxahatchee. So yeah, all of these things were happening and I was processing them while I was on tour. Then I would come home to Philly and feel weird, like I didn’t wanna go out. Everything felt really different because of all these changes that were happening.

You’ve  said that in the past you have to be at home to write. That’s not an uncommon thing for the writer’s brain. You need your feng shui, but being able to do that at all seems so counter-intuitive to touring. A lot of people completely separate it and write when the touring cycle is finished. Is that something that you struggle with, or are you finding peace in the separation?

I don’t really think of them as being separate, necessarily. I write at home in the sense that I pull out a keyboard and record myself; I don’t bring recording stuff on tour. I think I could see myself doing that in the future.

Some super-portable, janky bastard version.

Yes. But I do write, I take notes, I come up with ideas, I listen to demos. There’s a part of writing that is happening while touring, but the actual doin’ it happens at home. But depending on my situation I think I could see myself doing that in the future, and I’ve always looked up to people who could be that disciplined. I’m still in the place where I can’t get over that they’re giving us free alcohol, you know what I mean? I’m like, “This is great, we’re hangin’ out!” So I think it’s difficult for me to focus.

“There are gonna be moments where people hear things and are maybe bummed about it. But we have such a weird, tight-knit group of friends who are all songwriters, I think we’re all used to it a little bit. I definitely am.”

You let me propose the ramen today, which seems to be a good example of going with the flow. And that’s something a lot of artists have trouble with when they get in a position to make moves. They want to be in control. Did you learn to adapt playing more communal college shows and stuff?

More punk than college, more basements. In so many other aspects of my life I have to be the person to pick the restaurant, so I’m always down to let someone else. I do like to go with the flow a bit more, because I think it’s maybe not the most natural thing for me to be the leader, or to be in charge. I think that it’s nice to not be in charge some of the time.

That’s a funny transition to this record, too, because you gave a lot of leeway, production-wise, to Jeff Zeigler.

To an extent.

You’ve remarked on the space in these songs, which is new for you, I guess.

Yeah. Everything on this record was written and arranged by me, and that felt really good, to be in control of that. But on a day-to-day collaborative basis I think it’s nice for me to not be the one in charge. I think I’m used to it—I collaborate with my sister so much. Katie takes charge of everything, and I love to let her. It’s nice for me. I think I’m a person who collaborates really well with people, and I have a lot of input, but I’m also fully O.K. to not be in charge.

Allison Crutchfield

Allison Crutchfield. Jesse Riggins

When do you know? When is it time to be in control of the project and when is it time to be in the ether a bit more?

Doing this record I can turn it on, and be the person in charge. And it feels good, but I think that it’s always nice for me if I’m collaborating with someone, for instance, Waxahatchee, it feels good for me when there’s these clear constructs—this is this person’s band I play in. Having an outline makes it easier for me to fit in somehow.

Also because you’re twins. Doctors haven’t figured out twin telekinesis yet, they say it’s complete and total fucking magic. How does that work between you and Katie, creatively and stuff? Do you have that power with her?

Telekinesis? To an extent. We’re in the same place. There’s intuition that we share—we could be in the room with something going on and she’ll just look at me and I’ll know exactly—you know, you have the look. And with music it’s always been that way, too. It’s less so in Waxahatchee because the dynamic is very clear cut and it’s her band that I play in, but when we were in P.S. Elliot and it was a more collaborative thing, we would always look at each other while we’re playing and kind of hold eyes in a way where if one of us was gonna change something up, the other would follow very easily.

 

Do you think Swearin’ could’ve happened if not for P.S. Elliot or Bad Banana?

[Bad Bananna] was just me and Katie, but we both wrote songs. Swearin’ is a funny band because it was so about those four people, and we functioned in this very democratic way, for better or for worse.

A socialist way?

Kind of, yeah. [Laughs] I think it got in our way some of the time, but it was also an important experience for me to be in a band like that. It was important for me to come at it in that way, where it was four people who all wanted different things, again, for better or worse.

“I have to be in this really low place to write songs that I really love, and I don’t want things to be that way forever.”

That sets a good precedent for discovering that sense of self-solidarity. You move a lot on this record, but it’s ultimately about you still staying true and holding it down. Still, I’m sure that exact memory of being bitten and making tea for someone, those memories stay with them, too. Do you seek blessings on sharing those? Is it a kiss-off, a commiseration?

It depends. This record was so visceral, and a huge part of me processing these changes that I was going through. In the moment it was a bit of a kiss-off, just me being a glutton for punishment, almost. Just me being sad and writing sad shit, knowing this person will hear this someday. Now it’s two years later and my life is different, I’m on a different track and I have different relationships with people. So I’m kind of in a place now where I’m having to go back and decide how to navigate that.

And I’m down with that. I was taking these really diligent notes while I was on tour and I really wanted to remember this. It’s almost scrapbook-y, the way that I kept up with what was happening to me while I was writing the record.

Obviously a big part of what’s going on while I was writing the record was a breakup, I dated Kyle from Swearin’ for five years, then we broke up, and ultimately the band broke up. But we’re friends, we’re on good terms, and he has the record. I think he’s listened to it a little bit—he know’s me and he knows my style well enough to know that it’s probably going to be emotional for him.

But he’s not the only person referenced in there. There are gonna be moments where people hear things and are maybe bummed about it. But we have such a weird, tight-knit group of friends who are all songwriters, I think we’re all used to it a little bit. I definitely am.

It takes care of a lot of the awkwardness. You’ll be at each other’s shows, ride or die style.

Right. I’m used to it because of my sister. I’m constantly referenced in Waxahatchee songs, and I always pick up on it.

A communal vulnerability. If you all agree to put yourself out there, there’s an accountability piece to it, too.

Yeah. I think that I’m impervious to it, to a certain extent. It doesn’t bother me, so I write freely. Just trying to be faithful to the feelings.

Do you still feel that you confuse love and nostalgia, or is that a Kyle comment, too?

I think it was specific to that whole transition.

But a lot of people do that.

It’s true!

When did that epiphany come to you?

That song was written, at least the lyrics, while I was on tour in California. Waxahatchee was on a six-week tour, and Kyle was on the tour doing front of house. So we had just broken up and we were on tour together. I was kind of being forced to process the breakup in a parallel way, with him.

Professionally and personally.

Yeah, exactly. And it was hell. So much of the touring I had done up to that point was with Swearin’, and we were in all these same places, we had all the same friends, we’re having to be these awkward, heartbroken single people on tour and Waxahatchee was playing some of the biggest shows we’d played at that point. That was a really big tour.

Neither of you seem like vindictive people, though. Where that gets dangerous is when one person publicly rebounds as a grand gesture, or lights a wall on fire.

Right. None of that was happening, necessarily, but it was definitely really, really hard. And it was something I was experiencing in multiple relationships, not necessarily all about Kyle. It was about that feeling in general, just feeling like you are so clouded with feelings and your environment that you can’t identify what you are going through and literally can’t tell if you’re still in love with this person or not.

“Despite what it may look like to someone who’s just gotten into our music, what’s happened to us has happened very slowly, with a lot of work and effort.”

How has that transferred over to the process now. You were playing these songs for months before this record came out, touring them around and putting them into a physical space. That just seems like a surreal sensation.

It’s bizarre, and I think it’s really easy now for me to compartmentalize, for me to be able to perform these songs without tapping into those feelings. Because now I can honestly say I’m over a lot of what I was feeling then, and so I think that probably has more to do with it than anything else. Two years have passed and things have changed. A lot of those bad feelings have been resolved, a lot of those relationships have been repaired, have changed and are healthier, I guess.

Health is an important word to talk about here, taken in part with the old “don’t shit where you eat” mantra of “don’t date anyone in your band.” But it happens, and most band members who split up after a relationship crumbles will say they don’t regret it. They don’t regret it because they made great work together, and the intimacies of their personal lives informed the intimacies of their art. So how do you feel? Would you have done anything different? Are you grateful for those Swearin’ records?

Yeah. So grateful, 100 percent, I would have done nothing different. It is what it is, and at the end of the day, you know, it was just my life. I continue to date people that I collaborate with. I collaborate with people that I’m close with. You know, I think it just comes really naturally to me. A lot of it has to do with working with Katie from day one.

And the scene you grew up in, too?

Yeah, exactly. That’ll just always be how it is for me.

What’s in the pipeline next, work-wise, after the tour and promotion for this?

Well, I’m definitely going to be on tour with Waxahatchee a lot this year, too. She just finished a record, it’s great. It’s inevitable that I’m gonna be really busy this year. But I see myself continuing to do this. I think I just really love writing. I wanna write songs for other people, that’s something I’d like to tap into a little bit.

You proved to yourself that you can arrange songs with more things going on at once on this record too. The stakes are higher, Merge aside. Sometimes letting your guitar take a backseat in the mix to a synth that’s swaying the songs. I guess when the music is so personal, that must take some work, right?

Yeah, and I think it invites people in in a way that I wasn’t totally prepared for. I’m O.K. with it, and I’m such an open book in so many ways that it doesn’t really bother me. But I’m interested in trying to write from different points of view and change that up a little bit. Writing strictly non-fiction can obviously be emotionally taxing. I think I’m just ready to try to something different.

Allison Crutchfield with Swearin' at one of their final shows in February 2015

Allison Crutchfield with Swearin’ at one of their final shows in February 2015. Justin Joffe

And again, I try to be overly optimistic. I have to be in this really low place to write songs that I really love, and I don’t want things to be that way forever.

You could move to Hollywood and write Jennifer Hudson songs.

That’s the dream. Go to London and write with Adele someday. That’ll never happen.

Being an open book of a person is safe in DIY culture and smaller, inclusive communities with progressive politics. When you grow up with people who are different from you in a close proximity and nobody is wearing deodorant then you learn how to be nice to each other. It’s a very basic human thing! But maybe it gets harder when you get bigger and play bigger venues, when you start working with promoters and strangers who you don’t have pre-existing relationships with. Maybe DIY culture becomes a microcosmic example of how larger communities should treat each other. An incubator that’s setting a good example. Then I wonder, how do we do it? I don’t know how yet.

I don’t know how yet either, but I hope you’re right! DIY is a big part of my life, a big part of the person that I became and the person that I’m continuing to become. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. I’ve been playing in bands and touring for a really long time.

And the way that it’s happened for my sister and me, the trajectory of our careers and creative paths is just one that doesn’t happen very often, but one that’s been so humbling and also rewarding. Despite what it may look like to someone who’s just gotten into our music, what’s happened to us has happened very slowly, with a lot of work and effort.

And you guys are also tremendous communicators. You wrote that essay in response to the Noisey article, “How to Survive Being the Only Girl in a Band,” and communicated very diplomatically. A lot of really great ideas from vulnerable groups seem to get caught in the echo chamber of the internet. And I think that you have a tremendous ability as a writer, both in your creative work and in the longer stuff that you’ve written, to break down those stigmas. To communicate in away that gets your point across without polarizing anyone.

Thank you. I just think it’s important to be inclusive. That’s what was so frustrating about that Noisey article. And to be honest, I have a lot of regrets about the way that article came about and some of the things that were said [about it]. I’m glad that so many people read it, and I never expected that, but—

It can brand you I guess, too.

Yeah! What bothered me about the initial article is that it was so exclusive and so bizarre that I wish I had been a bit more inclusive.

You didn’t set the example that you wanted to.

Exactly. But it’s fine, I learned a lot of lessons even from doing that.

Allison Crutchfield plays Sunnyvale in Brooklyn on Thursday, February 9.

How Self-Empowerment Inspired Allison Crutchfield’s Bold Solo Album