“This is a little weird for me,” Allison Crutchfield says, taking a seat at the nearly empty Roebling Tea Room in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on a chilly weekday afternoon. The weird part she’s referring to is that she’s here to talk about her new album, Tourist in This Town: As a former member of the now-folded Philadelphia-based rock band Swearin’, Crutchfield is still getting used to talking about her music in the first-person singular.
“We very decidedly were like, ‘This is a collective,’” the 28-year-old singer-guitarist tells me as she sips lavender tea. “And I was into that, because we all brought something totally different to the table.” Even so, Crutchfield often ended up as the face of the band. “I think it had something to do with the fact that I was the only woman, and I did write most of the songs,” she says, then pauses to correct herself. “Or 60 percent of the songs.”
It’s not hard to see why Crutchfield became the de facto leader of Swearin’, just as it’s not hard to see why she’s now graduating to a solo career on Merge Records, which has been home to top indie artists like Arcade Fire, Spoon, and Conor Oberst. She’s effusively polite, apologizing more than once for being two minutes late to our meeting — “I’m a very punctual person,” she says seriously. And once she starts talking, it’s with the same warmth and earnestness you can hear in her songwriting.
Raised in Birmingham, Alabama, Allison and her identical twin sister, Katie (who leads Waxahatchee), have had a prolific run as DIY rock musicians, both in collaborative bands and in separate projects. “This is going to make me sound nerdy, but my sister is my best friend,” she says. “I’m so used to being in bands with Katie, who is such a leader. She literally does it all. Waxahatchee doesn’t even tour with a tour manager.” After the Crutchfields’ high school band The Ackleys started and ended in the mid-’00s, they made music together in the pop-punk-influenced P.S. Eliot and the one-off punk project Bad Banana. Last year, the sisters’ cult legacy was celebrated with an extensive new P.S. Eliot compilation and a set of intense reunion shows at small punk venues like New York’s Market Hotel and L.A.’s The Echo across the country.
“That was so emotional, that people felt that way, because when P.S. Eliot was a band it wasn’t like that at all,” Crutchfield says, laughing. “This is different, obviously, but it reminded me of seeing sold-out That Dog reunion shows and Anna Waronker saying, ‘Where were you all when we were a band?!’”
Swearin’, which began circa 2011 in Brooklyn and later relocated to Philadelphia, concluded in 2015 after two albums. After Crutchfield and Swearin’ guitarist Kyle Gilbride ended a relationship, the band slowly fell apart, as the collective spirit of a group with no leader started to feel like an idealistic dream. “I think people hear that a band is breaking up and they want to know what the breakup story is, like, ‘Did you have a blaze of glory moment?’" Crutchfield says. “But no! I would just text someone and say, ‘Hey, are we doing this?’ And nobody would respond. I’d run into someone and say, ‘Are we going to break up?’”
So they did. In between gigs as a touring member of Waxahatchee, Crutchfield began to write what would become Tourist in This Town, her first full-length record under her own name and the follow-up to her 2014 solo EP, Lean in to It. Across the new album, she paints herself as a traveling narrator, singing from Paris and the West Coast and the roads that lead away from Philly as her thoughts return to scenes from a relationship she wishes she could let go of. “I keep confusing love and nostalgia,” she sings on “I Don’t Ever Wanna Leave California,” which sounds like a college-rock twist on a Beach Boys song, Crutchfield’s intertwined “oohs” and “aahs” putting a reluctantly cheery sheen on the song’s sadness.
Crutchfield already had a strong, sometimes even cheeky voice in Swearin’. “I don’t know about art, but I think your music’s shit,” she memorably deadpanned on their song “Fat Chance.” But Tourist in This Town gave Crutchfield a chance to be frank in a different way — one that she believes is inherently easier to do as a woman alone. “This is a feminist breakup record for a lot of different reasons,” she tells me. “Writing for just me and my name, as opposed to writing for me and three men, was different. When you’re singing songs about feminism when you’re in a band with three men, you maybe make things a little more broad or vague.”
There is nothing vague about Tourist in This Town, which is peppered with the kind of pointed breakup lyrics that are worth cross-stitching and framing in your home. “I think of you like a roach at my feet / I am just as scared of you as you are of me,” Crutchfield sings on “Dean’s Room” over ’80s synth washes that echo The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.” On the anthemic opening track, “Broad Daylight,” Crutchfield sings with a chest-pounding resilience, “I should take care of me, go out and kill some memories!”
She tells me that those words were partly inspired by conversations she had during the breakup of both her band and her relationship. “I just got to this place as a writer where I was in such a dark place, at a very low point in my life,” Crutchfield says. “There was a level of fearlessness, just sort of going for it and not thinking about the repercussions.”
That included opening up her recording process to instruments she’d never considered before. While Lean in to It was recorded at her parents’ house in Alabama and in her bedroom in Philadelphia, for the new album Crutchfield reached out to Philadelphia producer Jeff Zeigler, who has worked with Kurt Vile and The War on Drugs. She discovered he was a “synth genius” with a treasure trove of rare keys. “Every time I worked on one I’d be like, ‘Where the fuck did you get this? This is older than me!’” Crutchfield says. Because of the fuzzy synths that populate much of the record, Crutchfield’s solo debut sounds, deliberately, like a very distant cousin to the hardened rock she made with Swearin’. “I wanted to differentiate [my solo work] in the most obvious way,” she says. “So I didn’t want to play guitars as much on this album, because Swearin’ was such a guitar band.”
She also dug in deeper to her ability to write pop songs, some of which play like odes to classic, older sounds — like the wall-of-sound girl-group kiss of “Expatriate,” or the lo-fi drum machine and breezy surf-rock aura of “I Don’t Ever Wanna Leave California.” “I think with Swearin’, we often worked against my pop instincts as a band,” Crutchfield says. “With this record I was embracing them a lot more.”
Over a year after writing the record, Crutchfield says she’s in a good place. In Philadelphia, she lives among close friends and fellow musicians, including Sadie Dupuis and Crutchfield’s sister, who lives just down the street. Her new partner is Radiator Hospital’s Sam Cook-Parrott. “I’ve lost a lot of negativity and toxicity in my life,” she says. “I’ve really found my people in a lot of ways.” And Tourist in This Town seems to predict her current state — it’s a poignant record about moving on from your past, wrapped up in cross-country road-trip romanticism like shiny wrapping paper. None of it is quite bitter or angry; rather, each statement Crutchfield lobs at her memories eventually comes around to hope and optimism for her own future.
Now that she’s redefined herself as a solo artist, she’s looking forward to finding out what that future holds for her as a musician. “As a writer, I’m trying to think, Can I write something that isn’t about heartbreak? And I think that I can!” she says. “But I’m going to have to be really fucking angry at something, because as a person now I’m really happy. Can I write about that without being cheesy? I’m thinking about it as a challenge.”