Allison Crutchfield on Tourist In This Town
What do you do when your band and your relationship break up in one fell swoop? We ask Allison Crutchfield, as she prepares to release her debut solo album
Des’ree said it best: ‘Oh, life.’ It’s a funny old existence, sure enough – by some strange quirk of fate, our interview with Allison Crutchfield is scheduled at the same time as the Presidential inauguration ceremony of one Donald J Trump, and at both ends of the phone line, on both sides of the Atlantic, the palpable waves of shock and anger are mixed with a lingering disbelief. “It’s such a bizarre experience,” Crutchfield sighs. “I really didn’t believe that it was gonna happen; I was convinced that there’s no way this could be happening. And it is happening, literally as we speak. I don’t even know what to say about it other than I’m trying to be optimistic, but it’s really difficult.”
That makes two of us. But hey, we’re not here to discuss that right now, regardless of the date and of how heavily it’s currently weighing on a great many minds worldwide. Today we’re talking to a songwriter whose appeal begins in the underground and is now starting to spread to larger stages. The intensely personal yet universally relatable Tourist in This Town is the Philadelphia resident’s debut solo album, but to tell her story we’re going to have to go back a couple of years and look at how its beginnings were marked by the end of another story – that of her previous project Swearin’. You’ll notice beginnings and endings provide a recurring theme.
“It’s funny,” she begins. “At this point Swearin’s been broken up for a while now, so I feel like being a solo artist has been pretty natural for me to grow accustomed to. There are things about it that come really naturally to me, and things that really don’t come naturally to me at all. The nice thing is that I just get to focus on what makes me happy as a musician and writer; it’s less of a process of navigating something with other personalities.”
Still, it’s other personalities that provide the fuel for this new record. Formed around the songwriting partnership of Crutchfield and then-boyfriend Kyle Gilbride, following the split of her prior outfit P.S. Eliot, Swearin’ had begun to make a name for themselves thanks to a fizzing clatter of hooks, garage-pop and a subtly-developing weirdness, spread evenly across two excellent albums. When the relationship at its core came to an (as these things go) amicable end, so too did the band – not that they remembered to tell anyone, however, which is why the unveiling of solo artist Allison Crutchfield has occurred alongside (and in the context of) the announcement of Swearin’s untimely end.
“Swearin’ was such a weird band,” Allison reflects. “The band had such an intense group dynamic; it was super-democratic and everybody had a say in everything that we did, so it took us a really, really long time and a lot of talking to figure out anything.
“I’m a person who moves pretty quickly, at worst I’m definitely pretty impatient, so that was always a little stifling for me. Even with the break-up, we weren’t having an active conversation about it; it just kind of happened. And none of us really wanted to make an announcement ‘cause none of us really wanted to talk about it. I think people hear ‘band broke up’ and assume it was just like this explosive, dramatic, thing. It wasn’t! It was subsequent to a lot of other personal stuff that was going on between all of us.”
Crutchfield duly began to play with Waxahatchee, the project of her twin sister Katie (also her former bandmate in P.S. Eliot, Bad Banana, The Ackleys and other DIY delights) and Gilbride returned to studio and sound work. The two remained friends – however, it was only when they both embarked on a European tour with Waxahatchee that tensions between the pair became apparent, and it’s this period that provides the inspiration for Tourist in This Town.
The level of detail in the lyrics goes beyond your typical singer-songwriter confessional; it veers between wry, painful and even claustrophobic. ‘You are not as sad as you want me to think,’ goes the softly beautiful Sightseeing. ‘And I’m so narcissistic I want you to be obsessed with me.’ It’s an accurate depiction of what happens when two people struggle to cope with their own freedom from each other, particularly when thrust back into close quarters before scars have had chance to heal. You wonder how comfortable this level of honesty can be for anyone involved.
“I fear that this makes me sound like a really selfish person,” she says cautiously, “and I hope it doesn’t, but I’ve always been brutally honest. When I was writing the record, I was able to tap into this place where I just didn’t give a shit; nothing else mattered to me but these songs. I’m dealing with it now that I’m talking about the record – I’ve been really transparent with the people who I feel I need to be transparent with, and I’ve had pretty much everybody’s blessing, whose blessing I’ve sought out.
“Writing lyrics as brutal as some of these invites examination in on my life, which can be a little stressful, but now that I’m in the cycle I feel like I’m a little used to it. But I didn’t really know what was gonna happen with this record; I didn’t know [North Carolina tastemaker label] Merge was gonna put it out, I didn’t know I was gonna do as much press as I was doing, I didn’t know that anybody was really hearing it. I didn’t really think about any of that.”
Forgoing the lo-fi guitar sound of her previous project, Crutchfield sought to create a separate space for her solo material by working with keyboards and synthesisers – “probably pretty obvious, but I was listening to a lot of Cocteau Twins” – but the album is still resplendent with the one thing she’ll never be able to shake off: her natural affinity with melody. Essentially, it's a synthpop record with a garage rock looseness and a folk singer's knack for weaving tales together.
These songs rise and fall gently in tandem with the drama of the subject matter – judging by opening track Broad Daylight, and its gospel-infused declaration that ‘our love is here to die’, you’d expect that to be resolutely melancholy. Indeed, as we’re taken from Philadelphia to California to Paris and beyond, a feeling of dislocation casts a dark shadow across her ruminative confusion.
Luckily for anyone seeking closure (SPOILER ALERT!) it all ends happily: by the close of the album, a sense of optimism appears. From such sorrowful and intensively raked-over ashes comes an opportunity for new beginnings. ‘If I put it all together, it was really no time at all,’ she sings on Chopsticks on Pots and Pans, suggesting a wider sense of perspective. There’s a sense of regret at the way things turned out (‘More than anything, I wish I didn’t care’) but ultimately it brings the curtain down on this chapter with its head held high, perhaps suggesting the cheerier space she now inhabits in her current relationship with Radiator Hospital’s Sam Cook-Parrott. To sum it up: a good story, well told.
“I’m a huge musical theatre fan,” she explains, “which is maybe something not everybody would guess about me, but I think that’s a big part of it. I just really appreciate a narrative arc – my favourite records have a very clear story. I can almost safely say that every record I make will probably be something like that, that’s just the way that I write; a weird puzzle that I put together in my brain.”
With the album title’s suggestion of feeling out of place, both geographically and emotionally (Another key lyric: ‘We’re pretty far away from Philadelphia / And that’s fine ‘cause I’m really starting to hate you’), The Skinny wonders whether Philly has begun to seem like home again. Happily, it would appear so.
“When I wrote this record, I was fully convinced that I was gonna move,” she says. “And then I stayed, and now everything’s good. I definitely had a lot of weird resentment and stress and isolation that I associated with Philly, and I had a really hard year when I was making this record, but pretty much all the things I’m singing about on this record are resolved, and my relationships with those people have changed and strengthened... or weakened or dissolved, or whatever. Enough time has passed that I’ve turned over a new leaf with Philly and I’m definitely here to stay for at least the time being.”
In other words, that’s the end of this particular journey. Who’s to say where the tourist’s travels will take her next – as a writer who does most of her writing on the road, it’s lucky for us that she anticipates an upcoming year of touring will result in new material. She’s ready to take on new topics (“This is the time, and political and social climate” to do so, she says) and all we need do is look forward to it. So is this an ending or another new beginning? Knowing Allison Crutchfield, it’s probably both.