Shadows And Light: Allison Crutchfield Forges Ahead

After sharing the stage for more than a decade, the former Swearin' frontwoman is going it alone

Allison Crutchfield’s career began between the hours of after-school snack time and dinner, when she and her identical twin sister Katie started their first band in their parents’ basement in Birmingham, AL. The Crutchfields were 15-year-old freshmen, and they called themselves the Ackleys.

In spite of (or maybe because of) their humble origins, the Ackleys became legends of the Birmingham music scene. You can still find a documentary about them on YouTube called Own It In An Instant. It’s a brief exploration of a teen band coming up in 2006 in a city not known far and wide for its burgeoning DIY punk scene. The four members of the Ackleys talk about playing all-ages venues, their parents’ expectations, their dreams of one day becoming career musicians. It’s also a hopeful time capsule of the Crutchfields, two individuals who went on to accomplish all of the things they aspired to and more.

“I see it goin’ on forever, of course,” Allison Crutchfield says in her Alabama accent during the documentary’s final scene. “Something could happen, it could fall through, and you know, that’s just what happens.” Crutchfield tilts her gaze skyward, away from the camera. “But I really hope that it doesn’t.”

The Ackleys broke up a year later, and Crutchfield has seen a lot of projects end in the decade since: She and her sister started P.S. Eliot in 2007, and they called it quits in 2011; then they played together as Bad Banana for about a year, and released their last material in 2012. Crutchfield’s most recent band, Swearin’, broke up in 2015. That year was an especially emotional time for Crutchfield. On top of Swearin’ breaking up, her long-term relationship with her boyfriend Kyle Gilbride, who also happened to be Swearin’s co-founder, ended, and she spent a majority of the year in a state of limbo while she was on tour with her sister’s band, Waxahatchee.

All of the trials of 2015 coalesced to inform a new phase of Crutchfield’s career. She’s a self-described “old-ass 28” now, and in a few weeks, Crutchfield will release her debut solo album, Tourist In This Town. It’s taken a lot of hard work and heartbreak to get to this point.

“This is really the first time I’ve been the sole person in charge, ever,” Crutchfield tells me when we meet in Philadelphia, her Alabama accent softened after years of living in the Northeast. “This is how I want to present. I’ve had a lot of time to think about it.”

The cover of Tourist In This Town features a grainy color photograph of Crutchfield dressed in white, standing stark against a skyline at sunset. Her head is surrounded by a halo of rays, creating an effect that’s oddly reminiscent of devotional portraiture. The calculated image suggests a kind of rebirth; it’s the depiction of a veteran musician stepping out of the shadows of her peers and into her own.

Tourist In This Town

The sky is a bleak, bright gray on the first truly cold day of December 2016, and Crutchfield is leading me through South Philly’s Italian Market. We pass a famous old restaurant, a butcher shop, and a real live trash fire before stopping in front of a record store in the interest of taking a few photos.

At first, Crutchfield focuses on posing for the photographer as she digs through the stacks, but loses her performative posture pretty quickly. She enthusiastically yanks out a cheap LP and shows it to me; the cover is a diptych of a morose ‘70s housewife on the phone with a slicked-back businessman, presumably her husband. The woman is distraught. There’s mascara running down her cheeks, and she’s holding an empty tumbler glass and a cigarette in the same hand while her husband on the other line looks pissed. Behold: another American love story gone awry.

Crutchfield walks fast and talks even faster, filling gaps in our conversation with anecdotes about Philly and comments on how people here are merciless drivers. As we cross the street, Crutchfield explains that she doesn’t love having her photo taken, but she learned how to deal when her most recent band, Swearin’, was subjected to shoots in their heyday. Crutchfield says this while the shutter snaps, alternating between staring into the camera lens and turning to look at me. Crutchfield is just starting to figure out how to pose for the public without wingmen. Finishing a thought, she tilts her head back so her face catches the light, suggesting that she still knows her angles despite the fact that Swearin’ has been broken up for for more than a year.

Allison Crutchfield
CREDIT: Andrew Piccone

“Me talking about [Tourist In This Town] is me talking about Swearin’ being done,” Crutchfield tells me a little hesitantly when we sit down for lunch at the Royal Tavern, an unassuming pub with a famous burger located on a residential part of East Passyunk Avenue. “The last show we played was in July [of 2015]… I don’t think we’ll play another, unfortunately.”

Crutchfield is a self-described “crier” with a candid, almost bubbly personality. She’s forthcoming and gives into laughter easily; even when we breach painful topics, she has a matter-of-fact attitude that suggests she’s spent a lot of energy making peace with the things that plagued her for a long time. Still, it’s taken us an hour of scattered small talk to get to this point.

“So Swearin’ is no more? Done?” I ask.

“Yeah. Officially done,” Crutchfield responds, gesturing to the tape recorder between us. “It’s on the record.”

Swearin’ started when Allison Crutchfield moved to Brooklyn in 2011 with her sister in tow. She was 20 years old, tired of living in Alabama, and eager to move out of the South for the first time. The twins already had friends in New York and were participants in the DIY music scene that blossomed there in the mid-aughts. Crutchfield had been dating Gilbride — then a member of Big Soda and a producer — long distance, and it made sense to close the thousand-mile gap between them.

“We had been dating for six months or so, and I [thought], ‘I really like this person and I think I want to be closer to them, and so that’s what I’m gonna do,’” Crutchfield tells me. “It was half-music, half-relationship.”

At first, the Crutchfield twins thought they’d continue playing as P.S. Eliot, but soon realized that P.S. Eliot wasn’t the same and shouldn’t continue without their other core members, Will Granger and Katherine Simonetti, who stayed behind in the South. The duo started the short-lived Bad Banana before Katie began focusing her attention on Waxahatchee. Allison and Gilbride decided to begin a new project with their friends Keith Spencer (of Great Thunder) and Jeff Bolt. It would be Allison’s first time starting a band without her sister.

“When we first did Waxahatchee and Swearin’ I think we were a little stressed, wondering if we were ever going to be looked at as different people who don’t collaborate,” Crutchfield admits. “It’s funny that now all of this time has passed and people don’t even know we were ever in bands together.”

Over the five years they recorded and performed together, Swearin’ caught a lot of buzz. The four-piece traded in New York City for Philadelphia, chasing cheaper rent and a less-saturated music scene. The band released its debut self-titled album that year, and nabbed the music media’s attention in ways that Crutchfield wasn’t accustomed to at the time. None of the members of the band were.

“We were just a DIY band booking our own shows and doing everything ourselves. When people started to write about [the album], it came as a huge surprise for all of us,” Crutchfield explains. “That sort of launched me into this whole music biz world, which was very new for me as a young songwriter — and when Swearin’ started, I really felt like I was a young songwriter — and that [attention] really seeped into my process in a way that was not healthy and felt really shitty.”

Heightened attention made Swearin’ want to pursue a  “weirder” sound on their sophomore album, Surfing Strange, something that would keep people guessing. It wasn’t a direction that felt natural to Crutchfield, but Swearin’ operated as a team in the truest sense of the word.

“When I was in Swearin’ it was all about the group. I felt like I really needed to make these other three people happy, which is really hard as a songwriter and as a bandleader,” Crutchfield asserts. “Swearin’ didn’t even really have a bandleader. It was very democratic, which can be really dysfunctional.”

To offset that dynamic, Crutchfield started writing and recording songs divorced of her band. In 2014, she released her first solo EP, Lean In To It, under her own name. The seven-track collection was recorded in her bedroom alongside her good friend (and now boyfriend) Sam Cook-Parrott of Radiator Hospital, with whom Crutchfield has collaborated on multiple occasions. Lean In To It didn’t resemble any of Crutchfield’s other projects — it’s a collection of melancholic synth-pop tracks that lack any of the biting sarcasm and brutal wit that Swearin’ played up. Crutchfield describes the EP as being a kind of prelude to Tourist In This Town; it hints at some of the turmoil that would go on to fuel the LP.

Allison Crutchfield
CREDIT: Andrew Piccone

“I needed space from the people I was working with. That’s kind of what launched my solo music,” Crutchfield says. “I had the mindset of: ‘I want to do this and I don’t want to hear it from these other three people.’ That was a really cathartic moment. I was definitely in a really bad emotional place when I was working on those songs.”

In August 2014, the week Crutchfield released Lean In To It, Swearin’ played a small festival at Philadelphia’s now-shuttered DIY venue the Golden Tea House with Speedy Ortiz and Pile. It was a high-energy show, and Crutchfield remembers it as one of the shittier experiences she’s had onstage.

“Thirty seconds into Swearin’s first song, which was a brand new song, [some people started moshing] and they knocked all of these other people over, and knocked Kyle’s mic stand off the stage and hit him in the face,” Crutchfield tells me after lunch, as we trek down East Passyunk toward an antique shop that she promises is always worth the walk. “I blacked out and just lost it and screamed at everyone for like two minutes about how ridiculous that was and how angry I was and how this wasn’t the space for that.”

The rest of the band wasn’t on the same page; one of Swearin’s members started to walk offstage.

“We had to have this weird band argument in front of everybody after I made a whole spiel,” she remembers. “I was crying onstage.”

As small disagreements and ordinary hairline fractures started to shatter Swearin’s dynamic, Crutchfield’s relationship with Gilbride was coming to an end. The two shared songwriting duties in Swearin’ and they both played guitar and sang in the band. Though Crutchfield and Gilbride didn’t keep their relationship a secret from the media, their coupledom was never really a part of the band’s narrative. Swearin’ came together as a bunch of friends who were talented in their own rights, wanting to embark on a collaborative project. Being a team was always an integral part of their dynamic, to the point that even when Crutchfield and Gilbride ended things, they kept playing shows together.

“Kyle and I dated for five years, lived together, and played in bands together. Everything was tangled up,” Crutchfield explains. “I think we played a couple shows after we broke up. We were going to try and make it work.”

The last show Swearin’ played was in Brooklyn, on July 26, 2015, at the Wick & The Well. After that, Crutchfield and Gilbride mutually agreed that the band needed to end in order for them to stay friends. It wasn’t contentious.

“I think we were both like: ‘Hey, we care about each other and we can’t do this band anymore,’” she says. “‘We need to not do this band anymore.’”

Tourist In This Town opens with a mournful a capella prologue, a requiem for a relationship that’s been extinguished. “When the light we once saw in each other flickers and fades/ When the two of us become one in completely different ways,” Crutchfield sings slowly, surrounded by a fleet of harmonies and the melancholic swell of an organ. “Our love is unquestionable/ Our love is here to die.”

It sounds a lot like an old Southern gospel hymnal, which is to say: It sounds absolutely nothing like Swearin’.

“Bands end,” Crutchfield tells me matter-of-factly. “It’s sad. I love those records. I’m proud of them. I’m proud of all the stuff Swearin’ did together but I feel way better about writing and making music now, and I don’t think it’s because I need to be a solo artist. I love collaborating, and I need that,” she pauses. “It was just very specific to these four people. We were just so different and wanted different things.”

Crutchfield is going her own direction now, one that feels boundless. There are a few obvious points of reference on Tourist In This Town, but aside from her lyricism, this album doesn’t harken back to the scrappy rock bands of Crutchfield’s youth. It sounds like the work of someone who has spent a lot of time honoring other people’s music, a carefully collaged mingling of influences. The synth lead on “Dean’s Room” recalls the Cure, and Crutchfield wanted the slow, heartbeating drum and accompanying keys on “Expatriate” to sound like a ‘60s girl group. The result could double as the intro to a Crystals song. Crutchfield tells me she gleaned the idea for the album’s aforementioned prologue after listening to “Shadows And Light,” the closer on Joni Mitchell’s 1971 LP The Hissing Of Summer Lawns. Jeff Zeigler, who engineered and occasionally produced alongside Crutchfield when she made the album, found the same analog synth Mitchell used on that song to record with on “Broad Daylight.”

“Most people who go into a studio at least have one or two moments of making a record where someone pulls out the phone and you listen to a song and you’re like: ‘I want to do this,’” Crutchfield says. “We had a couple of those moments.”

Cross-pollinating influences, coupled with Crutchfield’s singular narrative, relegates Tourist In This Town to a lineage of breakup albums that feel universal despite their specificity. When she and Gilbride ended things, Crutchfield was consumed by the indescribable grief that’s symptomatic of the loss of a partner.

“It really felt like he was a ghost,” she says. “Like I was mourning the loss of this person that didn’t exist anymore.”

Allison Crutchfield
CREDIT: Andrew Piccone

Crutchfield says that she and Gilbride are on good terms now, but after moving out of their shared home and slowly untangling the various aspects of their lives that once seemed so inseparable, she felt amorphous and directionless. Knowing Crutchfield’s ability to craft personal narratives into explosive, hook-heavy punk songs, friends would try to offer up some helpful advice.

Think about the words you’ll write,” they would say.

At first, Crutchfield could care less about all of those unwritten songs. She just wanted to let the sorrow well up in her until it had nowhere else to go but out. When the time finally came to mourn on paper, Crutchfield gave in.

“‘Think about the words you’ll write’ is in quotes on the lyrics sheet. So many people said that to me because I was so sad and low,” she tells me. “I was just like: ‘Fuck off. Can I just be sad?’ But I mean, they were right to an extent. I’m proud of myself. I was able to really channel it.”

The experience of listening to Tourist In This Town is a lot like hearing a major musical soundtrack without having seen it. The album has a plotline, recurring characters, and a narrative arc. Crutchfield knew how she wanted to structure the album before she wrote it, sure that she’d have exactly 10 songs, no more, no less. That a capella prologue was in her mind the entire time she wrote lyrics for the rest.

I’m proud of all the stuff Swearin’ did together but I feel way better about writing and making music now.

Each song on Tourist In This Town tells a new installment of Crutchfield’s story; in its opener, “Broad Daylight,” Crutchfield overhears two girls talking shit in a tour van. Later, a waiter repeatedly interrupts an anxiety-inducing conversation.

“I look at my reflection in the glossy table,” Crutchfield puts herself in the scene. “I’m selfish and I’m shallow and unstable/ The waiter keeps interrupting you/ To keep the water glasses full.”

Crutchfield’s narration dramatizes quotidian situations familiar to anyone who’s found themselves in the midst of a major breakup or alteration in the fabric of their day-to-day lives. Once you know some of the specifics of what Tourist In This Town is about, every last line carries its own burden.

Many of the instances described on the album took place while Crutchfield was on tour with Waxahatchee’s live band. Gilbride, who co-produced Waxahatchee’s 2015 album, Ivy Tripp, was also on a stretch of that tour, doing front of house. They’d been broken up for a while, but hadn’t really given one another space to heal. Crutchfield thought spending an extended amount of time on the road together would be fine.

“We were so, so, so stupid. It was so not fine,” Crutchfield says, half-laughing and emphasizing every “so” when she starts telling me about it. “We were on good terms and then it was just hell. It couldn’t have been worse.”

Crutchfield admits that she kept an open note on her phone for all of the tour and wrote down any encounter or anecdote that could be incorporated into a song. By that point, she knew that she’d be writing a full-length album when she returned to Philadelphia.

I have to talk about this place,” she’d think to herself along another endless stretch of highway in who-knows-where, USA. “I have to remember this feeling.”

Allison Crutchfield
CREDIT: Jonah Rosenberg

“Every person that is talked about, everything that is talked about, exists,” Crutchfield says, explaining that there are a variety of figures that surface throughout the album, and not all roads lead back to her former band or partner. “[Tourist In This Town] is way more autobiographical than than anything I have ever done.”

Up until now, Crutchfield has never played the protagonist in her own band, and to a certain extent, her own story. All of the Crutchfield twins’ projects were collaborative, but they were always fronted by Katie. And with Swearin’, Crutchfield co-fronted the band alongside Gilbride. Crutchfield has always been capable of going solo, but she didn’t feel the need to for a long time, because she loves being in bands.

“I think that [being in other people’s bands] comes really naturally to me, and with Katie specifically,” Crutchfield tells me when she explains what led her to join Waxahatchee’s live band. “There was a long period when I would be watching her do all of these things that we talked about doing as teenagers, and I was like: ‘I wanna be there.’”

The Crutchfields’ respective careers were launched by P.S. Eliot. The twins aimed to start a project that gave voice to the disaffection they felt as young women growing up in a city dominated by an ultra-masculine music scene.  P.S. Eliot released their debut Living In Squalor EP in 2010, and two full-length albums: Introverted Romance In Our Troubled Minds (2009) and Sadie (2011).  Katie fronted the band, played guitar, and sang, and Allison drummed. Some of their songs were blatantly written to contradict and subvert structures that felt oppressive, or at least unwelcoming, to young women. Others were simply about feeling in-between, thirsting for something bigger and bolder than what they’d been given as scene outsiders, as women, and as burgeoning songwriters.

P.S. Eliot are one of the most important rock bands to come of age in the DIY indie underground of the 2000s, as evidenced by their recent reunion tour supporting Don Giovanni’s reissue of the band’s entire catalog. The duo went on a national tour last year, and when they played a sold-out show at the Brooklyn venue Market Hotel, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone in the audience who wasn’t singing along to their most well-known song, “Tennessee.” It’s about feeling the pull to start over, pushing your resources to the limits to get to the next phase. It is, to directly quote Katie Crutchfield, a song about being “aimlessly alive.”

“I got a racing mind and enough gas to get to Tennessee,” Katie sang, while Allison sat back at the drum kit and looked on. “Baby let’s push our limits/ I got a West Coast heart and an East Coast mentality.”

There’s a big difference between supporting DIY culture and being a DIY artist.

P.S. Eliot was a 100% Do It Yourself project. The band booked its own national tours, made its own merch, played in basements, and recorded in living rooms. They developed relationships with bands and venues in cities across the States before turning 21, joining an ever-growing network of artists and musicians who would go on to define rock music’s trajectory in the mid-to-late 2000s. Crutchfield recounts one of P.S. Eliot’s most epic, exhausting self-booked, six-week tours with Hop Along that she says felt like an entire year of her life.

“DIY was such a big part of music for us growing up, so it’s important for us to figure out how to be supportive of a scene that we care about while making it clear that that’s not what we’re doing anymore,” Crutchfield says. “That’s been the main thesis for me: Navigating how to do what I love for a living while also supporting the ethos that meant so much to me growing up.”

Up until recently, Crutchfield’s projects were all DIY endeavors. But Tourist In This Town will be released on Merge Records, and Crutchfield has been making a living as a touring musician for a few years now. She left her last day job at a coffee shop in Philly back in 2014, and when we get into the politics of what is and is not “DIY,” Crutchfield makes it clear that she no longer considers herself a participant in the underground culture that raised her.

“There’s a big difference between supporting DIY culture and being a DIY artist,” Crutchfield says. “It can feel almost appropriative when people don’t [differentiate]. You’re taking attention away from bands who actually do everything themselves if you don’t.”

Allison Crutchfield Philadelphia
CREDIT: Andrew Piccone

Crutchfield still has a steadfast community in Philadelphia, and though Tourist In This Town is riddled with references to getting the hell out, Crutchfield tells me that, realistically, she’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Lyrics like, “We’re pretty far away from Philadelphia and/ That’s fine ‘cuz I’m really starting to hate you and anyway I am looking to move,” were more of a byproduct of Crutchfield’s mindset at the time she was writing the album. But being a part of a community and having people share in her accomplishments has and will always be an important part of Crutchfield’s creative process.

“[This past year] has been a lot of me learning how to focus on making myself happy, which I think is just part of growing up,” Crutchfield says slowly. “There’s a lot of weird psychology with me being a twin. There are definitely some co-dependent tendencies. This has been a year where I really let a lot of that go.”

When Crutchfield performs her solo material live, she bills herself as “Allison Crutchfield & The Fizz.” She wrote Tourist In This Town on her own, but welcomed Cook-Parrott, Joey Doubek (of Pinkwash), and Jeff Zeigler into the studio to workshop some elements that she wanted another hand in. Her sister provided an occasional harmony, always a part of one another’s processes regardless of how disparate their projects become.

“I’m so appreciative of people who come to my shows and like my music,” Crutchfield says. “But at the end of the day, I write songs to help myself feel better about things.”

Tourist In This Town is bigger than a breakup. It’s an album about feeling like an outsider in a place that used to be familiar, about knowing that your world has been upended and you’re way too unsure of yourself to do anything more than stand still and play witness. In a lot of ways, it’s also about figuring out exactly who you want to be.

Over 10 tracks, Crutchfield soul searches around the world — from Montmartre to the scenic Avenue Of The Giants to a beach in Porto — but the destinations on this album with the most depth, that teach us the most about her character, are the intimate ones: a lonely hotel room somewhere in Europe, a mattress on the floor of a West Philly apartment, an old bedroom with an autumnal color palette that evokes nothing but sore feelings. Tourist In This Town travels the world and a spectrum of emotions while taking note of the things that remain, regardless of what continent you’re on or whose bed you’re sleeping in. It’s in the search for consistency — the things that are the same and the people who see you through no matter where you are — that Crutchfield’s narrator finds solace.

Allison Crutchfield Live
CREDIT: Jonah Rosenberg

“The other side of the end of last year is, I fell in love with one of my best friends,” Crutchfield tells me. She and Cook-Parrott, who has been one of her closest allies and collaborators for years now, started dating at the end of 2015. You can hear him sing alongside Crutchfield on a song toward the end of Tourist In This Town called “The Marriage.” It’s the highest moment on the album, a rapid-fire spitball of pure joy that resuscitates the tragic opening lines and gives them new life.

There are a lot of momentary triumphs to be found on Tourist In This Town, and most of them come in streams of sunlight. On the penultimate song, “Secret Lives And Deaths,” Crutchfield delivers the album’s most open-hearted, optimistic lines.

“I like you ‘cuz you always side with the sun,” she harmonizes with herself over a bed of twinkling synths that could soundtrack the climactic scene in an ‘80s coming-of-age film.

It’s a tribute to those among us who look on the bright side, who will watch the darkness creep in but never let it consume them. It’s also kind of a mission statement; a reminder that there will always be another day, that those old clichés about endings leading to new beginnings are not totally unfounded. The songs on Tourist In This Town are a means through which Allison Crutchfield defies the darkness. As sure as the sun.

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