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An interview with Allison Crutchfield
by Caroline Rayner

Allison Crutchfield writes songs that I want written all over my bedroom walls. I listened to the first Swearin’ record while bouncing between Richmond and Charlottesville and New York right after college, screaming along to “Kenosha” in the aftermath of a break up and blasting “Movie Star” while driving and reflecting and dreaming and counting down the days until I could move somewhere else. I remember listening to Allison’s solo EP, Lean In To It, while curled up on the floor of my bedroom in my parents’ house, avoiding the world and wondering what the fuck my life was and who I wanted to keep in it. It’s hard to say when I first heard music by Allison Crutchfield, because it’s filled with the kind of emotional honesty and feminist wisdom that I’ve always needed. I’ve been impatiently and excitedly awaiting Allison’s solo record ever since I heard that she signed to Merge last summer. When the first single, “Dean’s Room,” came out in October, I listened to it on repeat while driving around rural Massachusetts and trying to dig myself out of a weird sadness so I could stitch myself back together. It’s the kind of song I feel like I know so intimately that I could live inside of it. It’s the kind of song I put on while trying on vintage dresses and dancing around my bedroom. It sparkles and gets under my skin. Tourist in This Town will be released on January 27, and I chatted with Allison on the phone about it. I called from Western Mass while she worked on making clothes at home in Philly, and we talked about writing songs, feeling your feelings, dealing with boundaries, traveling, being a hermit, and loving fashion.

What is your songwriting process like?

All of my songs are kind of based in just writing lyrics for something. This record was a lot of me taking pretty intense notes while I was on tour and writing down different phrases, or things I wanted to include, or things I wanted to remember. I would get home with a melody in my head, and I would start working on something and reference all of these notes and form ideas. I definitely had an idea for pretty much every song on this record. I had an idea of what constituted a song or what a song generally needed to be about and then sort of picked different lyrics that worked in that song or in that subject. That was the process for this record, which maybe wasn’t how I always do it, but this record was just so specific, and so about a specific time for me.I felt inclined to make sure that it was really focusing on the exact feelings I was having, the exact things I was noticing, and things I was feeling. It’s very personal, very autobiographical. Pretty much everything that I’m thinking about on this record is true or real or something that’s happened.

What inspired you while working on this record? Musically or otherwise?

When you’re really in it, working on a record, it can be really, really hard to listen to other music, especially newer music, because you’re in this really tender place. It was an interesting time to work on a record, because I was on tour all year last year, so I was at shows, or we were playing festivals with all these other bands, so I was a little more focused on what was happening musically, because I was just in the middle of it with Waxahatchee.

I hate saying this, because I feel like it’s so obvious, but last year I was going through a big Joni Mitchell phase.There are a lot of Joni Mitchell references on the record. I was kind of obsessed with Blue, because I was also in Europe a lot last year and going through a breakup. It really resonated with me. I was listening to a lot of Cocteau Twins last year, and I think that was hugely influential. Those two were big for me, but also I think being on tour with my sister seeped in, playing and listening to her songs a lot. I think we always kind of seep into each other’s psyche creatively and influence each other, which is nice.

There’s an unapologetic vibe to so many of these songs. A degree of honesty about wanting to get away from a situation or be noticed or about loving yourself or calling someone out. And that feels like kind of a radical thing to me, because I think women are socialized in the opposite way and taught to make space for other people and not necessarily be real about things. I grew up in the South too, and sometimes I feel like it’s more intense there. I wonder if writing songs and making music is a way of unlearning or becoming more open, or a way to communicate differently?

Absolutely. At its core, I think this is a feminist break up record. That’s what I was going for with this record, and what I hope I accomplished, and what I feel like I did. This is a record about reckoning with my general relationships with men, but also just reckoning with the fact that I am still feeling constantly disappointed by my relationships with men, and men who think of themselves as being radical people or radical feminists, and how disappointing those people can continue to be, and how short-sighted some people can be. And also, just really letting myself feel what I was feeling, and feel low. And the idea of curing your own anger and sadness by just fucking feeling it, by just letting it happen. And it was really difficult for me, being in the environment I was in last year, which was in a van with five people all year, five people I’m really close with. I’m on the other side of it now, and I’ve had a lot of conversations with my bandmates, and I’ve had to have a lot of conversations with close friends, and a lot of processing, and a lot of apologizing. I feel like my relationship to everyone I was with last year, for the most part, is either stronger or, nonexistent.

As far as being socialized to be a certain way, that’s something I deal with constantly. And it’s so bizarre, how you can have these really strong feelings and convictions and beliefs, and then you’ll do something, you’ll be in a situation where you’re tested, or something will happen that you feel in your heart of hearts is fucked up, something you’ve imagined happening and you’ve gotten angry thinking about it, like, “well, if this ever happens to me, this is how I would handle it.” And then you handle it completely differently. And you remember, you realize, “Oh, I am a product of this region of the country or a product of my raising in this really bizarre way that I didn’t really think of.” I definitely had situations like that in the past year. It’s a bizarre feeling.

Yeah, and another thing I was thinking about was the idea of creating boundaries or being intense about maintaining boundaries. I feel like that’s another thing women are kind of discouraged against. Were you thinking about boundaries? Like between yourself and other people or between past and current versions of yourself?

That was definitely something going on in my brain, but sort of in the opposite way, where I had several people that I was really close with putting up boundaries for me, and I was having to really understand that and reckon with that in a way that felt perplexing for me. I always thought of myself as someone who would have a really easy time respecting the boundaries of people that I loved, but then I was in this very, very vulnerable position where it was more challenging for me. I feel like I’m on the other side of it now, and it just feels so amazing to be able to establish those boundaries and respect them. I don’t know if I would necessarily attribute that to being a woman socialized and brought up in the South so much, because I would just think of it as like, growing up. I’m just getting older. Women are socialized to put their needs second or third to the people around them, and specifically the men around them. That’s part of why I call this record a radical feminist break up record. I was just like, fuck that. My feelings were taking up all of the space, and I just needed them to in that moment, because I felt like I had pushed everything aside for a really long time. I just had like, an explosion for a while, and that’s when I wrote this record, when the feelings were exploding, and I was putting them first before anyone else’s.

I’m curious about your relationship to travel - you were talking about travel as a consistent theme on the album. Sometimes as the backdrop of a song and sometimes as a way to claim space for yourself or move onto the next chapter. It seems like a kind of rejection, like resisting the idea of putting down roots in one place with one person and settling in and living there forever.

For me it parallels the feelings I was having about going through all of these life changes. I was going through this really intense, major break up, and subsequently my band breaking up, and moving out of the house that I lived in, and going through having to sort through things and untangle myself while also being on the road all year. I love to perform, and I love to play music, but I don’t love being on tour most of the time.I’m kind of a homebody. I need my space, and I need to be able to recharge on my own. I mean, obviously you just can’t when you’re on tour. You’re constantly at a bar, you’re constantly hanging out with people you don’t know, or you’re just with the same people over and over again, but either way you’re never alone. Also, there’s just so much unknown. You don’t know who you’re gonna meet, you don’t know how the show is gonna be, you don’t know how the sound person is gonna be. You don’t know what’s gonna happen in this place that you’re staying or this hotel or this festival or this city that you’ve never been to. And that was a lot of last year, because a lot of it was European travel, so I think that those two things were really parallel in my mind, like this real uncertainty about what the fuck was gonna happen with my life now that all of these things had changed all of a sudden. And you know, what the fuck is tomorrow gonna look like, because I’m just gonna be in a new place with new people, and just those two things being really inconsistent. They really shaped how I was feeling at the time. Just real shaky ground in my life.

There are so many little conversations happening and spaces and bits of ephemera all over the album. It’s kind of like, going in and out, so there are moments with very big statements, and then super specific moments.

I like to write songs that have a pretty strong narrative. That’s something that has always been appealing to me as a listener. Those are always the songs that hit me the hardest. I had a friend once sort of giving me a hard time, about using proper nouns in songwriting or focusing on a real thing or a real place. My friend called that a cop out, but I disagree. I think that those are the moments that really resonate with people, and they resonate with me as a listener. Like, this is really happening to me, I’m really in this place, I’m really feeling this way, and I feel so shitty, and I need to remember it, and I need to remember exactly where I am and remember exactly what I’m drinking and how I’m feeling and what I’m thinking about in this moment. Those are the moments in songs that I love, that hit me. t was almost like a tour diary that I was keeping and writing from.

I’d love to talk a little bit about your interest in fashion, what that means to you. How do you describe your aesthetic? What’s the importance of fashion in your life?

Wow, it’s so funny because right now, as we speak, what I was doing before I started this interview, I’ve been really really into sewing lately, and I’ve been making my own clothes. It’s been really cool, like why wasn’t I doing this years ago. It’s just something I should have been doing a long time ago, and I really, really enjoy doing. I don’t know how to explain my aesthetic. I think that I just kinda like what I like, but it is a huge part of who I am, and a huge part of my life, and a huge part of my day to day. I guess no one’s ever really asked me about it, and so I appreciate that you’re asking me, because it’s one of those things that’s always been a part of my life, and I always wondered if anyone ever notices, so it’s nice that you’re asking me., I think of it as a really uplifting and empowering thing for me. I just wear the clothes that I like to wear.

Do you have a favorite outfit or like article clothing or does it kind of depend on the moment or the day?

It definitely depends on the moment and the day. I had all my clothes stolen on this last tour, and It was a really hard moment. A friend of mine said this, and it’s so true, but when I’m on tour, and I think maybe this is something about why I have such a strong connection with clothes, when you’re on tour, your clothes are your home, and they’re just kind of the thing that reminds you of where you live and the thing that stays the same. All of a sudden I was like, I have my pajamas and one outfit, and that’s it, everything else is gone, all my shoes are gone, all my underwear is gone, everything is gone. Traveling so much and being on tour can just make you feel so disgusting. You’re eating bad, and you’re drinking all the time, and you’re not moving as much as you should, or at least this is how my tours tend to go, as much as I try not to do that, it’s just what happens a lot of the time. I think that having clothes that make you feel good is one of the few things that make you feel like yourself. I feel like I learned a lesson, and maybe it was a good thing for me to sort of disconnect from a material thing for a while. That was really important,. Fashion has always been really important to me. I talk to my friends, and and we’ll talk about different outfits that we wore in high school, and they’ll all recount these funny things they wore in high school, and I definitely had some moments that were really wacky, but for the most part I look back on high school, around the time I got really, really into fashion, and I don’t feel embarrassed. I feel like some of the stuff I wore then I would wear now and vice versa. I can’t really explain my aesthetic. It’s always been there, as long as I’ve been a radically thinking person, it’s been part of who I am. Also, I have a really specific body type and shape, just like everybody does, and I think that it’s just a way to accentuate the things I want to accentuate and feel really good and really comfortable. And it’s a huge part of performing for me. It’s all about a feeling that I get and that I like. The only thing that has changed is, I feel like I’ve really started to have a newfound interest in subtlety that I didn’t really have as a younger person. When I was in college, I was just wearing some really, really wild stuff, because I went to a huge state school in Alabama, and I was one of the few freaks. I still like being one of the few freaks, but I’ve toned it down recently a little bit. I’m valuing being a little bit of a hermit and a homebody and living in a neighborhood where I know so many people. I can’t really leave my house without running into people that I know, so I like being a little more anonymous when I’m at home. When I’m on tour, it’s a different story.

Now as a person who’s sewing and designing clothes, I think that playing around with different shapes has been something that’s been way more fascinating to me. I was a little more limited to color and pattern and style, but now I think shape is something I’ve been thinking about a lot more and in a different way. I used to only wear pants that were super high-waisted and tight, and every dress had to look like this, and everything had to look like this, and that was what was flattering for me or what was comfortable. Now I think I’m getting into wearing stuff that’s a little bit more loose or that has a weirder shape.

Growing up in punk I felt very put off by the sort of punk uniform and almost rebelled against that. It’s something I still feel as an adult, going to punk shows and everyone has Vans on or Doc Martens, and it’s not that any of those things are bad, and I have those things too. I think punk for me has always been such a broad, all-encompassing term, and more about ideology that it is about one specific type of music. Fashion has always played into that for me. I’ve always felt this need to rebel against the sort of uniform and conformity within punk. I’ve always felt like it was more punk to show up to the punk show in a turtleneck or a floor length dress. That’s just always been something that’s appealed to me. I always wondered why it wasn’t a little bit more of a fashion show, because I feel like it could be.

Caroline Rayner is a writer and teacher currently based in Massachusetts. She studies poetry. Virgo sun, Leo moon, Capricorn rising. Follow her on Twitter @scaroline9.

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