Allison Crutchfield is swearin’, not Swearin’
Allison Crutchfield’s cellphone still sports the 205 area code befitting her Birmingham roots, even though she’s been gone from that city for most of the past decade, ever since her band P.S. Eliot began to raise a national ruckus. When she sings lines like “I think yer hasty” on her new tune “Expatriate,” however, the slightest hint of southern twang still shines through.
“I used to be the bad daughter who would only go home for a couple of days at a time,” Crutchfield tells me from her adopted West Philadelphia home. “It’s changing for me the older I get. As there’s more distance I get more nostalgic or sentimental about it. Plus we have a three year-old niece – ever since she was born I’ve been more inclined to go back. The touring we’ve been doing the last of couple years has been really intense and made me miss the stability of Birmingham, and being with my parents.”
The “we” in that picture includes Allison’s twin sister Katie, her onetime P.S. Eliot bandmate who now fronts Waxahatchee, the essentially one-woman show that released 2015’s excellent Ivy Tripp and recruited Allison for the ensuing tour regimen.
When Katie flew the coop she turned in a more pensive, solo direction. Allison, meanwhile, threw herself headlong into the scrappy two-guitar punk band Swearin’. Five years on, Allison has now taken her own solo turn with the surprising and quite impressive Tourist in This Town.
I’ve learned not to conflate an artist’s life story with their lyrics (you know, creative license and all that), but Allison doesn’t flinch in addressing the backdrop to her album. “This record is by far the most autobiographical thing I’ve written – it’s very much a breakup record. I dated Kyle for five years, and we broke up about when Swearin’ stopped being a band, which was a huge part of who I was. So I was trying to process this breakup while standing on shaky ground – moving out of our house, all of these major transitions – while I was also on the road with Waxahatchee playing these big shows and doing things we’ve always wanted to do.”
The romantic complications with Swearin’ co-frontperson Kyle Gilbride came as a surprise to some. “Looking back I realize Kyle and I never talked about it in interviews,” she now acknowledges. But Swearin’ was never really a ‘couple band’ – and we were great bandmates.”
Fans of Swearin’s crunchy punk sound may also be caught off guard by Tourist in this Town’s leisurely tempos and relative lack of guitars. Not only had two and a half years passed since Allison last wrote for Swearin’, but “we had such a democratic process, these are the first songs I’ve really had full creative control on. Every creative decision was mine, so that made me feel maybe less inhibited” in her songwriting, she says. “I was in such a low place when I wrote this record, so I was like ‘this is how I’m fuckin’ feeling, I don’t have to worry about what anyone else thinks about it.’”
“Katie and I broke up with our partners about a month apart, so we were a couple of sad twins for a minute,” Allison adds. Further tangling matters, Katie’s ex-partner was Keith Spencer, Swearin’s bassist and a prominent contributor to Waxahatchee’s recording process – so it’s easy to see how a joyous moment of career breakthrough can become fraught. “I can’t enjoy Paris cuz I can’t get away from you,” Allison sings in retrospect on “Sightseeing.”
The backstory also helps explain “I Don’t Ever Wanna Leave California,” the track that sets up much of Tourist’s ride. “I don’t really write on the road, but I keep pretty diligent – if disjointed – notes,“ she explains. We were on tour for Ivy Tripp playing for about a week in California and at that time I was almost fully convinced I was going to move to LA and it was going to solve all my problems,” she laughs in hindsight. “Then I got back to Philly and realized it probably wasn’t going to help me too much.” The song also includes the keeper line “I keep confusing love and nostalgia,” which is such a spot-on description of a breakup’s aftermath that I’m amazed no one’s claimed it before.
“I got the idea of moving for the winter there, and I got a friend totally on board with the idea. And then I bailed on him.” But it was for the right reasons, as in the winter of 2016 when Allison hunkered down and worked on what would become her solo debut. “It feels like it was all kind of there, I just had to find time to put the pieces together.”
Those pieces came together with the help of a new addition to her circle – Philadelphia scene veteran and studio wiz Jeff Ziegler. “I started texting friends, asking who’s ‘the person’ in town to work with, and kept getting Jeff as the answer.” Given Ziegler’s resume with Philly acts like Kurt Vile, The War on Drugs and A Sunny Day in Glasgow she soon found herself wondering “how have I never met this guy before? He’s a total expert and was able to help me dial in.”
“When I was writing the record I didn’t expect it to be as synthy until I got into Jeff’s studio and saw his arsenal of ’80s analog synths and started thinking ‘this is the secret weapon,’” she continues. The majestic, shimmering keyboard swirls can be reminiscent of early Magnetic Fields (who Crutchfield greatly admires) or on “Dean’s Room” period bands like the Icicle Works (who she’d never heard of). It’s a surprising but effective turn, “and maybe a little of it is subconsciously to differentiate myself from the stuff Katie is doing,” she allows.
The musical detour didn’t come entirely out of nowhere. “When we were in high school Katie and I were in a band (the Ackleys) that I played keyboard in. It’s not like I was great at keys, it was just so I could be in a band. Until a couple of weeks ago I had kinda forgotten about that.” Dyed-in-the-wool fans also got a bit of foreshadowing on her bedroom recorded, all-synth Lean Into It EP, a batch of songs written as Swearin’ was winding down that also marked Allison’s first foray into solo waters. Envisioned as a low-stakes Bandcamp post, it wound up getting a small label vinyl release and is now available online in the Merge store.
Speaking of Merge, lagging a few years behind her sister on the solo curve had its advantages. Although Allison recorded Tourist in this Town independently, “I knew Merge through Waxahatchee, and Mac (McCaughan, the label’s co-owner) got in touch with me and said, ‘listen, we’d love to hear the record once you’re done with it.’ I sent him files once we had some decent mixes – I never sent it to anyone else, although I’d had some chats. But Merge was my dream label – it couldn’t have gone easier; I realize I was really lucky.”
The album’s one outlier, “The Marriage,” is a 57-second rave up done Swearin’ style. “It’s just kinda what that song needed,” she explains. “I was driving along and got the lyrics stuck in my head. So I hit record on my phone and sang it – I’ve never written another song that way.” It also lends credence to my belief that Tourist’s songs are sturdy enough to shine in a variety of settings – Crutchfield recasts the track’s quasi-chorus as a brief, beautiful chorale to open the album.
“They’re more like rock than synth songs,” she agrees, “which was one of the reasons I really wanted live drums. I’d never want to play live with backing tracks. I need the rock band energy.” She’s also correct that her Swearin’ compositions always carried more melodic chops than usual DIY punk fare. “I just love pop music in every sense of the word. I have a hard time listening to music that isn’t at least a little hooky, lyrically engaging, pop-driven. And I hate that about myself – it’s kinda basic but hey, I’m 27, I doubt I’m changing.”
Playing as a three-piece this summer in Atlanta, Allison split her time between guitar and keys as she previewed these songs in an energetic but brief opening set before returning to the stage as a member of Waxahatchee. For the proper tour she’s added another guitarist to free herself up for keyboards and vocals. “These songs are so much bigger than we can make them on stage as a trio,” she explains, also noting the desire for another set of pipes to recreate the album’s harmonies. Although the album is credited to Allison Crutchfield solo, she’s christened her touring quartet the Fizz. “I liked the idea of ‘The Somethings’ with one syllable and the sound of it works – plus I’m sort of a fizz-head, always drinking seltzer.”
Allison also has every intention of continuing to play in Waxahatchee, which has reached a temporary respite in its own schedule while Katie readies the next LP. “I’m gonna be busy,” Allison acknowledges with a sigh that sounds more enthusiastic than harried. The twins’ seemingly total absence of sibling rivalry is refreshing. When I saw Swearin’ play Wonderroot for what turned out to be its final Atlanta show Katie was along for the ride, working the merch table.
And as if she’s not already putting in enough nights on the road, Allison spent a few recent weeks in the UK “just tagging along with my boyfriend’s band – I never do that, I’m always playing.” Sam Cook-Parrott leads Radiator Hospital, a similarly hooky and scrappy pop-punk outfit from a burgeoning Philadelphia scene that Crutchfield admits is “sometimes a little too close-knit.” He also contributed to Tourist in this Town in something of a utility player role, and will bring his bass buzz to the Fizz.
The Philly scene continues to draw more and more musicians from Brooklyn – recently Crutchfield accompanied the relocating Sadie (Speedy Ortiz) Dupuis on an apartment-hunting trip. Given her own itinerant schedule it may have been easier for Allison to simply sublet Sadie her place. By the end of this year Allison Crutchfield may wind up feeling like a tourist in Philadelphia, in Birmingham, and in every other town. Good for her – and good for us.
Photo by Jesse Riggins.