Allison Crutchfield’s ‘Tourist’ Traps Her Bleeding Heart for Display
Allison Crutchfield has been making music all her life, but sometimes she can’t help but feel like a newbie, rather than the rock savant people have made her out to be. Video shoots, wardrobe choices, album photos, press days — the spotlight’s glare has taken a lot of getting used to, especially in the lead-up to her solo debut Tourist in This Town. "By the end of the week, I was like, 'I can't look at my face,'" she chuckles over beers in a Manhattan bar. “I have to remind myself that it’s okay to be self-conscious.”
You can’t blame her. Until recently, the the multi-instrumentalist’s art existed in a group setting — or rather, a family affair. Crutchfield initially entered the public consciousness as the drummer of P.S. Eliot, the beloved indie outfit fronted by her twin sister Katie, and later, as the bandleader of her own group, Swearin’. Both outfits amassed a cult following, not to mention laurels from the likes of Pitchfork and The New York Times, solidifying their reputation as two of the most important bands in the Aughts underground.
In time, both projects receded from the landscape. After P.S. Eliot broke up in 2011, Katie went solo as Waxahatchee (with Allison in her touring ensemble), attaining similar degrees of critical and commercial success; Swearin’, meanwhile, parted ways in 2015, following Allison’s breakup with Swearin’ guitarist Kyle Gilbride, her partner of five years.
Following a coming-of-age period spent creatively and romantically tethered to others (2014’s low-budget Lean in to It EP — which she characterized as “her on a really shitty Casiotone” — notwithstanding), Crutchfield was finally free to go it alone in a big way. She moved to Philly, signed with Merge, and, with the help of producer Jeff Zeigler (a synth wizard best known for his work with the War on Drugs and Steve Gunn), set out to craft her first full-fledged musical statement.
If Lean in to It was a page from Crutchfield’s sketchbook, Tourist in This Town represents an autobiography, as well as a sonic evolution. “Aside from the sheer technical transition — which is pretty obvious, because it was me recording on my laptop versus making a record in the studio — I think of the EP as being fiction, and then the album is completely nonfiction,” she says. Crutchfield was still mourning when she began work on the record while on the road, one year after her tumultuous breakup with Gilbride. At the same time, she found herself falling in love with longtime friend and collaborator, Radiator Hospital’s Sam Cook-Parrott, a member of her touring band who contributed keyboards to both this album and the preceding EP. (He also accompanied her to our interview, before excusing himself to hit up a nearby record store.)
Like her hero Joni Mitchell (whose classic album Blue provided a huge source of inspiration for Tourist in This Town), Crutchfield isn’t one to speak obliquely about past traumas or present concerns — if anything, she swings the closet door wide open, introducing us to her skeletons unprompted. "I'm really incapable of compartmentalizing a lot of that stuff, which I think has been good and bad,” she notes. “[Since] I'm doing a record with Merge, I feel like more people are hearing it; I'm doing way more press and stuff like that. And I'm already a person who's like an open book, but this record is so personal that it's been kind of ... an interesting experience.”
Now that both Crutchfields have gone solo, one would think there’d be a sibling rivalry; but amazingly, there’s no tension in sight — partly because the twins are each other’s biggest cheerleaders. “Our dynamic is funny, because I'm a little newer to writing songs than she is,” Crutchfield explains. “I've been writing for a long time, of course, but I've learned a lot from her. We're mutually each other's biggest fans, and I think it's inevitable that we've rubbed off on each other.”
Not shying away from her duties in Waxahatchee, Crutchfield plans to play with her sister whenever she can. “My sister taught me how to write songs,” she gushes. “I feel like her music hits people in a really specific way, but it's interesting to be a person where I experience everything with her, and also get to hear her records and experience it in that way.” She’s not ruling out a future P.S. Eliot reunion, either, although she remains adamant that Swearin’ is six feet under, permanently buried as a result of her and Gilbride’s breakup. (She adds, however, that the two have more or less repaired their friendship.)
As expected for a confessional creative, Crutchfield’s a little anxious about how others will receive her bleeding-heart balladry. "I don't think I need validation,” she asserts, “but I put so much of myself in this. I want to see what other people think about it." Considering the ubiquity of heartbreak and self-doubt — and the lush, achingly beautiful frameworks by which Tourist in This Town examines these themes — Crutchfield should anticipate plenty of praise from the critics, not to mention sobs from the audience. She may be new to the solo game, but she’s a pro when it comes to punching hearts.
Tourist in This Town is out January 27 via Merge. Pre-order it here, and stream it in full below via NPR.