November 8, 2016

Interview: Allison Crutchfield

Allison Crutchfield on changing musical directions ahead of her upcoming solo LP.

Allison Crutchfield has already staked her claim as one of the most compelling voices and prolific songwriters of our generation. Since her early teens, Crutchfield has dedicated her life to writing and performing music. While growing up in Birmingham, Crutchfield and twin sister Katie would jam in their parents garage after school and play shows at Cave 9, an all-ages DIY venue, on weekends. She has captured hearts from twinkle-lit basements to punk houses to massive venue stages while playing in bands like P.S Eliot, Bad Banana, The Ackleys, and Swearin'. Crutchfield’s maturity as a songwriter has only grown in the passing years as she translates punk melodies into emotionally-driven confessions.

Her initially self-released 2014 EP, Lean In to It, crafts a meandering collection of realizations and reflections on love that explode like fireworks in slow motion. She makes emptiness feel fast, giving her songs a gut-punching impact that last far beyond their lingering melodies and drum machine loops. Her lovesick snippets glow low and contrast on “Rose Knows,” alongside a driving duet with Radiator Hospital’s Sam Cook-Parrott. Crutchfield's words are incredibly honest, sad and heart-swelling as she sings, “I just want love / This is exhausting / I want what everyone wants...I have nothing left to give." Back and forth snippets reveal Crutchfield's raw sentiments, as she captures the pangs of being stuck inside a emotionally wearing relationship. You could imagine these songs being played both on a midnight dance floor for dreamers or echoed from a teenage girl’s bedroom late at night. Crutchfield recently signed with Merge Records for her first solo LP, titled Tourist in This Town, and is drawing back the curtains from bedroom pop and into the studio. Before playing a show at Bard College, Allison and I met up to munch on some grilled cheese sandwiches, discuss new musical directions, DIY spaces, and Nicki Minaj fandom.

The Le Sigh: One of my first DIY shows was seeing Swearin’ play Indie Pop Prom at 285 Kent in Brooklyn. It was a very transformative experience and completely changed my little sixteen-year-old world. Do you think DIY spaces are important and what was one of your first life-changing shows growing up?

Allison Crutchfield: There was a DIY venue that my sister Katie and I volunteered at a lot called Cave 9. It was the spot where all DIY bands came through in Birmingham and was huge for us. A show that was really important was seeing The Soviettes play from Minneapolis. It was a big moment, as it was our first time seeing women play punk music. We then started to tour and meet people who lived in other cities. The early 2000s feminist scene in Brooklyn was also really inspiring to me as a younger person.

TLS: You’ve been a part of so many groundbreaking music scenes and it seems like Philadelphia has recently become the capital for DIY bands and musicians. What has it been like living in Philly and how has it influenced you creatively as a musician? 

AC: My songwriting is mostly influenced by the people that I know and my relationships to them. And all of that has changed so much in the last few years. It’s been a roller coaster of emotions that I’ve had about the Philly scene. I feel like it’s changed a lot since we’ve all lived there, and I can’t even imagine how different it must be for people who grew up there. For me personally as a songwriter, the saturation is stressful. It becomes more difficult to build that sense of community that felt more present when I first moved there. I think it’s also just important to recognize the differences between “Philadelphia” and “the Philadelphia indie rock scene,” and for us musician transplants to remain conscious of that when we think and speak about this city. Philadelphia has always been here, and is always going to be here, and in five years we’ll all probably live somewhere else.

TLS: Love songs tend to fall into distinct categories of for love or against it, yet you seem to exist between both of these in songs like “Rose Knows.” I’m wondering how catharsis works for you in the songwriting process? 

AC: That tape came out a couple years ago and I wrote all these songs from a very specific time and subject matter. I was in a very weird place in a relationship and writing was like a wake up call to myself. It was like, “Oh you're not happy anymore, so why don’t you write exactly what you’re thinking.” It was a cathartic experience for me in fearlessness and saying all these things that I was subconsciously feeling. I love talking to other people about their songwriting process, like when they decide to write and when it feels good.

TLS: A lot of your songs are super personal and relatable to love and sadness. What mood inspires you to write? 

AC: Unfortunately sadness and I think, anger depending on the project. For Swearin' I was almost always inspired by being upset and angry. When I write a new record I want to get away from that, and write about happiness and optimism and excitement. I want to do it in a way that doesn't feel cheesy. It seems like a challenge. I don’t want to just have to wait till I’m feeling really sad to write, but I think the intense low points is when I’ve written the most for this solo project.

TLS: I’ve always felt my bedroom to be a sacred space for creativity. Your record Lean In to It was recorded at your parents; house in Birmingham and bedroom in Philadelphia. Do you feel like you work best in private spaces? 

AC: Sometimes I will write melodies on tour and make notes of them, but that's the extent of the songwriting I do while traveling. I have to be home or at my parents' house to write. I did a little writing in Birmingham for this record I'm about to put out, but mostly it was all written in my bedroom in Philly.

TLS: It seems you have been working creatively and playing in bands with your sister Katie your entire life. What is it like writing together in bands vs. working individually? 

AC: It's been a really long time since we’ve done a band. The only project we both wrote songs for was Bad Banana. That EP we did was just the two of us and it was such a fun band. We got a thirty rack of beer, locked ourselves in my house, and then recorded the whole thing. It was the first time I was really writing songs. The bands we’ve done since, like Waxahatchee and P.S Eliot, have a really specific dynamic. It’s not very collaborative and I mostly come in and do harmonies for Katie’s songs. We will always send demos to each other first and really be apart of each other's songwriting. I think having the two separate solo projects is really healthy for us and feels really good. We are always supportive of each other, Katie has been writing a new Waxahatchee record and sending me demos. I’m always here for her as a creative support system. I do love collaborating with her and think it would be interesting to do it again, where we can both write songs together. There is nothing I love more than singing and harmonizing with my sister. We are like each other's biggest fans in a lot of ways.

TLS: If you could have a dream band or collaboration, who would be in it? 

AC: Elizabeth Fraser from the Cocteau Twins would be really cool. People have actually told me that we look alike. I would love to do something with Nicki Minaj, she is like my favorite person. It would be an awesome trio.

TLS: You recently signed to Merge Records and will be releasing an album next year, can you tell me about your upcoming release? 

AC: I feel that in a lot of ways it’s an extension of the first EP. In writing my first EP, it was a process of me releasing a load of feelings but also was also a work of fiction in many ways. It was the first time I recorded something without Kyle Gilbride in years and I worked with Jeff Zeigler in Philly. Sonically, the new album is way more expansive with live drums instead of a drum machine. I’m really proud of it.

TLS: I read your essay “Not All Women: A Reflection On Being a Musician and Female” and felt really inspired and empowered by the piece. If you could give advice to a younger version of yourself or girls facing misogyny in punk for the first time, what advice would you give? 

AC: I feel like I'm a very strong and outspoken person in my day-to-day life. But then I'll have a moment when something will happen and this belief system that I set for myself will be tested. And I’ll find myself having a really hard time being combative. I just now feel like i’m getting to a place where I can be confrontational. I hope that it gets easier for people to get over that phase, and de-socialize themselves to feel this way. It's less of advice and more of hope for humanity that it is easier for people. I feel that I'm a conscious radical feminist and I still have moments when someone is shitty to me and feel weird about confronting them directly. I'm finally at a point where it’s easier for me to engage and be unapologetic about it. It's taken a long time and a lot of work to get to that place, but I still have moments where it’s difficult.

TLS: I’ve been on a karaoke kick lately and was curious if you have any favorite go to karaoke jams?
AC: I love to go to karaoke but I actually get really nervous doing karaoke, which is kind of funny. My sister rented out a private room for us to do karaoke a couple months ago with twenty of our friends. We did “Wrecking Ball” by Miley Cyrus and that felt really good. I feel like I need to do that again but with another person. I also love to do Sheryl Crow songs, because her songs are always so fun to sing.

Listen to Allison Crutchfield and pre-order the LP on bandcamp.

Abbie Jones, who will sing along to every Liz Phair song at karaoke by heart and is always down to get milkshakes past midnight. When she isn't writing about music, she is playing drums in her band or hosting shows in her backyard.