Interview: Allison Crutchfield on her path from punk roots to pop musicianship


After spending the past decade making a name for herself in a particularly candid set of DIY and punk bands, Allison Crutchfield still can’t hear the phrase “breakup album” without cringing. But that’s still the term that she chooses to explain her full-length solo debut, Tourist in This Town, with one modification: it’s a feminist breakup album. As much as it dwells on the pain of a relationship ending, it’s just as focused on figuring out how to move forward alone.

Crutchfield has always thrived in creative partnerships, from her early days in P.S. Eliot (a duo formed with her twin sister, Katie, who’s since found solo success as Waxahatchee) to her recent work in Swearin’, the Philly rock band that she’d founded with her now ex-partner. As it became more apparent that the end of that relationship also meant the end of Swearin’, she channeled her emotions and energy into writing a new batch of songs, trading her usual guitar arrangements for ‘80s-inspired analog synth. Unlike her past work, it’s a pop album to the core. Complete with bright, bursting melodies and a capella flourishes, it marks the first time Crutchfield has been able to fully showcase her vocal power in addition to her songwriting chops.

“I will always love you, but I’ll throw my suitcase down/I’m a tourist in this town,” she sings on “Expatriate,” citing the line that gives the album its title. She’s directly referencing her time on the road—much of the album unfolds in the form of her thoughts on tour — but beneath it lies a determined acceptance of heartache as a passing state, just another stop en route to the next show, the next city, her next creative accomplishment.

Ahead of Friday’s release of Tourist in This Town (Merge Records) and her February 7 stop at Great Scott in Allston, Crutchfield caught up with Vanyaland to discuss her path from punk roots to pop musicianship, how writing solo has affected her process, and how she discovered a new kind of fearlessness in the moments that inspired the album.

Karen Muller: You’ve differentiated between being a DIY artist and being an artist who supports DIY endeavors, and over the course of your career, you’ve done a bit of both. Coming from such strong roots in punk and DIY music, what’s it been like to branch out into pop?

Allison Crutchfield: It’s funny, no one’s ever really asked me this before, about what that feels like. It’s interesting. It’s hard, because I don’t really feel — creatively or musically — any different. If anything, I’ve been making music for a long time considering my age, and I think that it’s always kind of felt the same for me. I’ve just gotten older and had more experience and evolved as an artist.

Coming from punk and DIY and being in “the music business” can be a little daunting, and can be a little stressful and soul-fucking at times. It’s hard to explain, because I also feel really fortunate because I’ve gotten to do this for a long time as my job, and I never for a thousand years would’ve expected to get to do this. I feel really lucky that I get to do the thing that I love to do as my job. But I think the inner punk in me still has a really hard time accepting that it’s my job, and accepting some of the aspects of the music business that feel really gross and make me feel really sad and insecure. It’s tricky. I’m doubly lucky because I get to work with Merge, who are a label who also kind of comes from punk and DIY, and kind of formed their label so they can put their own records out and put their friends’ records out. I have really wonderful people around me. I don’t really have to deal with a lot of bullshit on a regular basis. But it’s definitely been interesting, and I guess I never really expected to be in this world, so it’s interesting to have to navigate it as a person who did kind of come from punk.

Did you ever feel like you had to trade in any of those DIY values in the process?

Not necessarily doing this record. I think there have been some gradual things that I’ve had to make peace with or let go of as a person who’s doing… six interviews a day, a person who’s doing all this stuff that I didn’t really have to do as a punk person. But I think that’s kind of why I’ve said what I have about being a person who has roots in DIY but is no longer a DIY artist, because I do think it’s important for me to set myself apart. I have made certain compromises as a non-DIY artist, and I want people to be aware of that if someone’s looking at me as a DIY musician, because I’m not. I think it’s important, in order to highlight people and bands and promoters and everyone who works within the DIY community, it’s important to highlight those people and to not take any of their credit when it’s not mine to take anymore. I do have to make certain compromises. And I think that’s inevitable, if you’re making a transition in any way, if you’re going from doing something and not getting paid for it to doing something and getting paid for it, or — not that that’s even a deciding factor in being DIY. Tons of DIY artists are able to work within that community and get compensated for it, but making that transition and having a team of people around me, yeah, it’s inevitable that you have to make some tough decisions and compromises. But I’ve also been really lucky in that regard. Not much has changed for me. I’m pretty fortunate.

You used a lot of analog synth on Tourist in This Town. Where did that inspiration come from?

I’d been using synth on solo music since its inception, just as a way to set it apart from Swearin’, which I’d was doing at the same time as when I was making Lean Into It, the EP. Using analog synths and ‘80s analog synths I lucked into by choosing to work with Jeff Zeigler, who was the engineer and co-producer on the record. He just has this incredible collection and endless knowledge of synthesizers. It was one of those things where I was like “I want this to be a synth record!” and I show up with my dinky synth and Casiotone, and then I show up into this room, this, like, beautiful museum of ‘80s synthesizers. And I was like “Oh, we’re not going to be using any of this,” and then I just packed my keyboards back into my car.

Making this record really sparked an interest, for me, in analog synths. I always was interested in them, but it’s a really intimidating instrument to get into. It’s a really intimidating world. It’s a pretty difficult concept to wrap your head around, and it’s a pretty difficult instrument to play. That was a little bit stressful at first, but having Jeff walk me through it, I really learned a lot about synth while making this record. I was also pretty lucky to get to use all of these gorgeous keyboards that he has.

Close partnerships, like those in P.S. Eliot and Swearin’, had previously played a pretty big role in your creative process. How has working independently changed your approach to songwriting?

The way that I write songs hasn’t necessarily changed. I think what changed is that I feel a little more confident and a little bit more calm, and less in my head about the songs as I’m writing them, because I know that the only person I really have to please, the only person who’s going to be arranging these songs is me. The only thing I only did where I wrote songs with my sister Katie was Bad Banana, and that also, in a lot of ways, just felt a little bit like a parallel solo project. We were both writing songs that were our songs, just playing them together. The main contrast for me as a songwriter would be Swearin’ and the solo project. Writing for Swearin’, my songs were a little more picked over, and felt more like loose guidelines when I would bring them to the band. And then we would change a bunch of stuff, change a bunch of chord progressions, add a bunch of different guitar stuff, add lines from other songs. They were a little more picked apart and pulled around. So yeah, something about that process being eliminated and it just being “I wrote a song” and that’s just the song, feels really good for me. The process isn’t necessarily different, it’s just where my head’s at. Just being in charge of that gave me more confidence.

After your sister started Waxahatchee, you wound up touring as a part of the full band setup. Did seeing her process as a solo artist have any influence on getting your own solo project off the ground?

I’m sure that it did. In so many ways, I feel like Katie really taught me how to write songs. I was really able to have a front row seat in her process in writing songs. Even to this day, I’m one of [the first people], if not the first person, that she sends every demo to. And vice-versa. I think that we’ve always been really supportive of each other, and she certainly really, really encouraged me to do solo music. Especially when I was sort of struggling, when I sort of decided I wanted to do it and I felt frustrated with the songwriting in Swearin’, she was like, “You should just make your own songs. You should just do your own solo project,” and I was like “Yeah, I should!”

Also, she’s kind of an incredible businessperson and an incredible bandleader. She’s just very organized, and I think that part of being involved in DIY has influenced us to be people who have to know exactly how everything works that we’re doing. We have a great team of people around us, but we definitely are people that need to be involved, and need to know what’s going on, and need to know what works in order to be satisfied and know that everything is functioning properly. I feel like watching her go from doing this project that was just in a basement, playing songs to people and making people cry every night, to what she has now… She just literally is the boss, and always has been, and has always been completely in charge of everything that she does. It’s really inspired me as a person who now is in a position where I’m having to figure out some of this stuff. And while I think we’re super-different people and we definitely have different goals as artists, I think that that’s been pretty incredible to watch and is super-inspiring. She just works really, really hard. She barely sleeps. That’s just how she is. That’s very, very cool. And it’s rare. I don’t think people realize that.

Some outlets have described Tourist in This Town as a breakup album. Would you say that’s a fair description, or would you describe it differently?

I keep telling people that I think it’s a feminist breakup record, because I find the term “breakup record” cringe-y and a little cheesy. But it is. It’s a breakup record. I think it’s a feminist breakup record because I think I embraced this real low point and found self-love and tapped into this creative place in myself in this extreme low point. And also just tapped into this certain level of fearlessness that was pretty wild and pretty intense.

I think that while it is about a breakup, and subsequent relationships post-breakup, and being on tour and all of these things, I think at the root of it, it’s really about this attitude of not giving a shit about what anybody else thinks about your life or your choices and really just feeling how you feel and processing that, and really just experiencing the moment of loss and the kind of darkness around breakups. So it definitely is a breakup record, but it’s more nuanced than just a breakup record.

You mentioned finding a new sense of fearlessness at a low point. Any thoughts on where that came from?

I don’t know how I found it. I think that I’ve always been a person who, when down, always found a sense of rage or a sense or inspiration in the dark moments and the low moments of my life. Those have always been the moments where I’ve been able to write the most. I think that’s probably pretty common for songwriters. I’m not totally sure how I tapped into that, but I think that it was really natural. This was definitely the biggest breakup that I’ve ever gone through, and I think this was one of the biggest transitions of my whole life thus far, so I think that it was something I’m able to tap into pretty regularly, but it was very heightened as I was writing this record.

On an entirely different note, it looks like you’re using a guitar strap from Boston’s own Mr. Music in the video for “I Don’t Ever Want To Leave California”. Have you spent much time around Boston?

Well, the guitar that I used is not my guitar. It’s my friend Ali Donohue’s guitar, who lived in Boston for a long time. She plays in a band called Fleabite and is one of my very dear friends. The director of the video is also my drummer, Catherine Elicson, and she lives with Ali, and we had this really specific palette for the video, so she was like, “Oh, you should use Ali’s pink guitar!” But I have been to Mr. Music many times. I love it there.

ALLISON CRUTCHFIELD AND THE FIZZ + RADIATOR HOSPITAL + PINKWASH :: Tuesday, February 7 at Great Scott, 1222 Commonwealth Ave. in Allston, MA :: 9 p.m., 18-plus, $10 advance and $12 day-of-show :: Advance tickets :: Bowery Boston event page :: Featured photo by Jesse Riggins