Allison Crutchfield has been playing music for half of her 28 years, but it’s taken all of that time to make an album she can completely call her own.
It’s a bold, confident solo debut called Tourist in This Town (Merge *** 1/2). It came out Friday and will bring the West Philadelphia songwriter (and her excellently named band, the Fizz) to the First Unitarian Church on Feb. 10.
Crutchfield has been in bands since her mid-teens, usually with identical twin sister Katie, who's two minutes younger.
Initially, the sisters played together in the Ackleys, a quartet influenced by Guided by Voices and the Velvet Underground that grew up among the all-ages scene in the sisters' hometown of Birmingham, Ala. That band gave way to P.S. Eliot, in which Katie wrote songs and sang them, and Allison played drums.
While P.S. Eliot were together, Allison started writing songs of her own in a project called Bad Banana, in which Katie joined her. After those bands split, Katie went solo and won deserved widespread acclaim as Waxahatchee. Allison, meanwhile, moved on and formed the punkier collaborative project Swearin’ with her (now ex-) boyfriend, Kyle Gilbride.
Tourist in This Town refers to Philadelphia, in the sense of a traveling musician who lives so much of her life on tour that she feels like a stranger in the place she calls home. The album title also speaks to the sense of being on unfamiliar emotional terrain after a long-term relationship comes to an end.
Co-produced by the singer and Jeff Zeigler, who’s worked with local luminaries Kurt Vile and The War on Drugs, the album features songs written and arranged by Crutchfield, who mostly plays keyboards rather than the guitar she typically toted in Swearin'.
“It’s a breakup album,” says Crutchfield, who calls herself both “an open book” and “a neurotic Capricorn who wants to make sure everything I say is just right.”
“But it’s not just about Kyle, specifically. It’s about this whole close-knit family of people that fell apart really quickly. And it was difficult for everybody.”
It’s also about self-empowerment. In “Expatriate,” which Crutchfield describes as “a pure catharsis moment,” she sings, “Yeah I still worry all the time / The things you used to hate about me are all heightened now / But I love myself, or I’m figuring out how to not always apologize.”
Tourist’s self-assured songs and peppy production make Crutchfield’s talent abundantly clear. So what took so long to step out entirely on her own?
“I don’t know if I didn’t crave it, or I was anxious about it, or a little scared,” she says, sitting in a sunlit window seat at Local 44, the University City bar which, she realizes after she arrives, her sister Katie also chose for an Inquirer interview in 2015. (“That’s some weird twin s-," she comments.)
“I came to songwriting a little later than Katie did,” she says. “I started Swearin’, which I wrote songs for” on a 2012 self-titled album and 2013’s Surfing Strange. “But it was an extremely collaborative, very democratic band.”
“I just think I’m naturally collaborative. Being a twin, I’ve always felt it’s natural to have another person lead the way. I’ve never really been comfortable as a leader. But then I went though that crazy year in 2015, and it changed for me.”
To explain what was so crazy, let’s back up a bit.
Growing up in Alabama, Crutchfield says, “made me feel fearless. It gave me a lot of courage, because from the time I was a teenager, I felt like an outsider, a little bit of a freak. And I think growing up in a small, conservative city, it gives you this empowerment to be like, ‘Yeah, this is just the way I am.' "
After not finishing college in the South, the sisters made the time-honored indie-rock migration to Brooklyn. But real estate reality taught them that they couldn’t afford to tour if they stayed there. Swearin' drummer Jeff Bolt was a Philadelphian who sensibly refused to move to New York, so the siblings and their bandmates (including Katie’s then-boyfriend, Keith Spencer, who also played in Swearin’) moved into a big house in West Philly in 2012.
Surfing Strange, as well as Waxahatchee’s 2013 breakthrough, Cerulean Salt, and Torch Song by Radiator Hospital (whose front man Sam Cook-Parrott is now Allison’s bass player and boyfriend) all were recorded in the basement of that house. By early 2015, both sisters had broken up with their then-partner bandmates, but all gamely went on tour to support Waxahatchee’s Ivy Tripp.
That, Crutchfield says, “was so stupid. It was a nightmare.” With Allison as a supporting band member, the sisters were playing bigger rooms than ever, in the United States and Europe. But everyone soon realized that working with your exes wasn’t working. “We learned a lot of valuable lessons,” she says.
Many of the song ideas for Tourist were scribbled or recorded as voice memos while on the road, including the enticingly sunny “I Don’t Ever Want to Leave California,” chronicling a thankfully fleeting impulse to move west. And when Crutchfield got home to Philadelphia, she sat down and wrote her first solo record.
She considered recording in a remote locale but realized that “everybody I want to play on this record lives in Philly.” A friend suggested Zeigler, whose savvy with analog synthesizers was a draw. “I had a very clear road map of what I wanted it to be,” she says. “He really got that, and added his own touch. He left a nice mark on it.”
Crutchfield is “on the up” about living in Philadelphia. “Philly feels really good. I’m realizing how important it is to me to be near friends and to be near Katie,” who lives close by. “It’s just nice here, being around people I care about.”
Part of the attraction is the welcoming aspect of the DIY music scene. “Before any of us moved here, and still, there is a really inclusive radical punk scene here that I have not seen in other places I’ve lived. It’s really special. It’s not perfect, but it feels safe, and also challenging.”
When she finished recording Tourist in March, she felt proud. “I think it was because it was something that I did on my own. It was exactly what I wanted it to be, in a way I hadn’t really experienced before.”
That comes across from the gorgeously sung a cappella opening “Prologue,” which sets the table for the emotional turmoil to come, to the dig in “Mile Away” at a self-pitying mansplainer “blaring Nebraska,” an album she loves but calls “the ultimate sad-bastard record.”
Nearly a year after she finished the album and signed to well-respected indie label Merge (where her sister is also on the roster), “my connection to the songs is different,” she says.
“It was really visceral at first. I feel like I’m a different person now, which makes it easier to sing and talk about. I had a drink with Kyle a few nights ago, and he’s like a friend now. But there is a level of satisfaction where I went through this time in my life, and I made something that I think is really beautiful out of it. And that’s what any artist of any kind wants to do.”