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Through My Sister's Eyes: Allison And Katie Crutchfield On Each Other's Music

Twins Allison (left) and Katie Crutchfield started out playing music together as teens. Since then, their work has taken them in different directions; each has a new solo album out this year.
Courtesy of the artists
Twins Allison (left) and Katie Crutchfield started out playing music together as teens. Since then, their work has taken them in different directions; each has a new solo album out this year.

Katie and Allison Crutchfield are perhaps the hardest-working twins in indie rock today. Born in Birmingham, Ala., Allison and Katie started playing music together in their early teens. Since then, they've been in myriad bands, both with each other and apart. The sisters started The Ackleys when they were 15, then shifted their focus to the pop-punk band P.S. Eliot. After that group disbanded in 2011, the two women split musically. Katie began making music as Waxahatchee; her sound has evolved from DIY raggedness to impressive full-band force while always preserving her knack for bitingly direct, emotional lyrics. Meanwhile, Allison started the fuzz-pop band Swearin', which broke up in 2015; she now releases songs under her own name that set folk-inspired lyrical specificity against dark, dreamy synths.

As identical twins and creative collaborators, the Crutchfields' lives have always been intertwined. But with new albums out from both sisters, this year seems more about parallel motion. In January, Allison released her debut solo album, Tourist In This Town, while Katie's fourth album as Waxahatchee, Out In The Storm, came out Friday. The records are, as Allison puts it, "dueling breakup albums," both written about the emotionally turbulent separations that the sisters happened to go through at the same time in their lives.

To mark this serendipitous moment in the Crutchfields' careers, NPR did something that Allison and Katie say no one's ever tried before: We interviewed each sister, separately, about the other's music. Though the two women weren't in the studio together, their memories and observations interacted as if in conversation with one another: coinciding, diverging, realigning, echoing. Maybe it's no accident that their work — together and separately — seems to do the same.

An audio version of these interviews will air on NPR's Morning Edition.

Katie Crutchfield: So Allison and I started playing music together when we were really young, and our first band was called The Ackleys. She learned to play drums to do that band ... because I started showing interest in writing songs, and we wanted to do that together, so she became my percussionist. And we built that up together, that skill set. Eventually she moved to keyboard in that band, and we were joined by these two guys who were really super polished. Like, excellent musicians, very skilled. It went from being this lo-fi thing that fully relied on the energy that we put into it, to this sort of polished power-pop band. So we quit that band and started another band called P.S. Eliot together. That was sort of more about the energy and the spirit of the music rather than this skill set and making these super-polished recordings. And really what kind of made us stop playing music together in that way was Allison's desire to become a songwriter.

Allison Crutchfield: It's funny to think about us stopping playing music together as being any kind of monumental moment in our lives, because it just felt really natural at the time. It feels really natural to be playing music together again, as we are now, because I'm playing in the live Waxahatchee band, and play a little bit on the new record. But I think we were just at a place where — we were on a P.S. Eliot tour, [and] 2011 was when we broke up, so it was that summer. And there was just this shared moment. I think we were at a show in D.C. It was a great show, the tour had been going really well. There were no hard feelings. It was more so that we had this concurrent desire to write. I think we were both wanting to write ... different types of music.

Katie: I can be a little bit of a control freak; I'm sure she probably told you about that. But I feel like she kind of needed to take space from me to sort of develop her own voice as a songwriter.

Allison: That was a time in my life where I had only been writing songs for a handful of years. I was a new songwriter, but I was really itching to do that. ... I think I always had a vision of what a band could be that I fronted, or that I was the primary songwriter for. But I never really had the opportunity to do it. I always wanted to be with Katie and supporting her, because she was kind of the person who taught me how to write songs. So there was just a moment where I wanted to be doing that.

Katie: And I was really supportive of that. I wanted her to do that. Of course I was sad, because I love playing music with her more than anything. ... But that time was sort of an interesting transition, from her being my musical collaborator and my biggest champion in a lot of ways, to stepping out and writing songs on her own.

Allison: My solo record, I think — I was sort of finding my voice, so to speak, in two different ways. ... I put a certain amount of importance on just differentiating myself as a songwriter from Katie. But there is a whole other element to it where also, I had been in Swearin' for a few years, and that was the first moment where I was really trying to do my own thing, or do my own thing away from Katie. ... If anything, I feel like I was more so trying to break free from Swearin' and leaning more towards trying to realign myself with Katie. Obviously, the way I that write is very different from the way Katie writes. Instrumentally my record is very different from Katie's. Sonically, it's very different. But I do think that in some ways, while I wanted it to be something people listened to and knew it was not Waxahatchee, I was comfortable with people knowing, "Oh, this is Waxahatchee's sister!" ... I had a little bit of discomfort about people being, "Oh, this is the woman from Swearin'."

Katie: When I first heard the songs for Tourist In This Town ... I was pretty blown away by the lyrics and the emotional honesty, and also just the melody. She has such a knack for writing the catchiest melodies, and that never stops impressing me.

My sister's new album is about an interesting period in both of our lives. We have these sort of insane parallels. A lot of things that happened to us — break-ups, big life events — they tend to happen right at the same time as each other, and that's really just proven to be true in the last few years especially. I don't know if it's our Saturn return, or what it is. Something's going on in the universe.

We were both going through really serious breakups, but her breakup was the end of a band [and] it was the end of the romantic relationship. She had a very serious transition happening in her life — and not only that, but that was right when Waxahatchee was going on a very, very long year of touring. ... She was seeing the world, but also going through all of these big changes and having a hard time with it. She came home and she wrote this whole record about everything that she'd been through, and it's this triumphant sort of thing that happened at the end of a very eventful year.

One of my favorite lines on the record is from the song "Chopsticks On Pots And Pans" — "Treat my eyes like they're filming a movie for you to decipher." That's one of my favorite lines she's ever written. I think it's so relatable: feeling frustrated in a relationship and having that moment where you're just, "Oh, this other person who I'm with is kind of assigning worth to my experiences and my feelings." ... It's so real and it's heartbreaking. ... Sometimes she'll write things and, more than [with] anyone else, I'll have that feeling of "Oh, I wish I wrote that!" Because we're so close and our experiences are so close.

Allison: Katie's new album as Waxahatchee is called Out In The Storm, and it marks a lot of change for her as an artist, in my humble opinion. I think that it's the first time that she's worked with a real producer and worked in a real, live studio. Every other Waxahatchee record that she's made has been made in a basement or someone's house, produced by friends or a collaborator. So I think that sonically, it's extremely different from anything that she's done. ... It's also one of the first records she's done with her actual live band, and I think that also marks a big change.

The cover of Waxahatchee's <em>Out In The Storm</em>.
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
The cover of Waxahatchee's Out In The Storm.

But what really strikes me about it, and what I'm the most proud of on her behalf, I think, and proud of as her sibling, is lyrically that it's a remarkable achievement for her. I think that it's probably the most focused she's ever been on any record that she's made. And it's probably the hardest I've ever watched her work as a lyricist. Lyrics and songwriting is something that has always been very easy for Katie, and I think that the older she gets and the more recognition she gets, that becomes harder, as it becomes harder for everybody who is in that same position.

Katie: Allison wrote and recorded Tourist In This Town and it's like the day she finished, was when I started writing my record. We kind of have a hard time working on things at the same time. ... [But] the albums are written about the same time period. They were written [at] two different times, but they're about the same time period in our lives.

Allison: I can relate to every listener who hears Waxahatchee and is affected by what she says, in a sense that her lyrics are incredibly personal and very relatable. I think that if you are a Waxahatchee fan, you are a Waxahatchee fan because Katie is an incredible lyricist and an incredible singer. I think that those are her strongest suits. And again, she has influenced me more than any other lyricist or songwriter. But what people maybe don't realize is that when I listen to her sing and I listen to her songs — I was there when all of these things were happening. So in some ways it can be hard to listen to for that reason.

Katie: [In my song "Sparks Fly"] there's a line that says, "And I see myself through my sister's eyes / I'm a live wire, electrified." And that line — it's about a night that Allison and I spent together in Berlin a few years ago. ... I had just gone through a breakup and was sort of whisked off to Europe to do a press trip.

Allison: She was doing a couple of shows, and I was singing with her. We went out that night, and we had a good old-fashioned wild Berlin night on the town.

Katie: I was having so much fun, and we were laughing and telling stories and hanging out with a lot of friends. I remember just having this feeling of — I feel like in relationships, oftentimes when things are unhealthy or codependent ... you fall into these roles and you see yourself from the perspective of the other person, and often it's not a person that you wanna be. ... I had, for so long, been seeing myself through the eyes of my former partner, and sort of trying to get away from that person. And in that moment with Allison, I saw myself from her perspective.

Allison: This was just a moment where it was just the two of us. It was kind of a very — I don't wanna say primal, but this very elemental moment. And I think we have those, as siblings, every couple of years — where no matter what's going on for us, no matter what relationship we're in, what band we're in, what city we're living in, we'll have a moment where we really focus on the importance of our relationship and our dynamic and the ability that we have as sisters to build each other up. It reminds me of when we were in high school and we didn't have, really, any other friends. And every day we would just come home and play music together, and that's all we had and all we wanted to have. It was all we cared about. And every now and then, when everything else is falling apart, we just focus on that, and I think it makes us both feel incredibly powerful and happy. We hadn't had that in a very long time.

Katie: I felt so good, and so happy, and so happy with who I was. I kind of finally let go of that other person, and I was seeing myself alive and happy again.

Allison: "Sparks Fly" [is] my favorite song on the record ... The first time I heard it I cried. I remember listening to it on tour when I was supporting my record. ... I hadn't seen her in a month or two, and that's hard. We spend a lot of time together and we tour together a lot, and I remember listening to it and kind of secretly sobbing in the van. She talks about these moments where I was there and these moments where she was hurting so much. But that song is also a song about release — hitting bottom, but then not letting that ruin you.

The cover of Allison Crutchfield's <em>Tourist In This Town</em>.
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
The cover of Allison Crutchfield's Tourist In This Town.

I think something that we both struggle with, but I would argue that maybe Katie struggles with a little bit more, is admitting vulnerability or weakness. I think that we both have this very Capricorn instinct to appear strong and stable at all times. I have an easier time, especially as a songwriter, letting go of that. And I think that this is a record where she really leaned into that. She was really able to just sort of let herself appear like she was, even temporarily, crumbling.

Katie: It's funny, I think our voices, in a lot of ways — and a lot on these two new records — have swapped, almost. I remember we did an interview with Jon Caramanica [for the New York Times] years and years ago, and he pointed out to us that Allison tends to — in her songs, she tends to point outward at the world. Her frustrations and anger sort of go out into the world. And I do the opposite, where in my songs I tend to go inward and point all of that at myself. I feel like on my new album, I really took a lot of cues from Allison.

Allison: I was really excited for her that she was able to just, like, be a mess, even for a moment. Because I think I'm always the one.

Katie: Allison and I share our works-in-progress a lot. ... We haven't always collaborated in the room together, aside from "I wrote a song and I want her to play drums with me" or things like that. The main way in which we sort of collaborate with each other is just that: sending demos back and forth. I know personally, she's the first person I send every song to, and I don't really consider it finished until she's come back and told me what she thinks about it. I almost need that. I need that approval from her. I need that praise from her. And maybe it's the nature of my own music — it is really personal and it's something that I have to push myself to do, to put that kind of honest stuff out there. I need her to hold my hand through it sometimes. And I feel like she's the same way. ... Sending works in progress, getting feedback and things like that is the crux of our creative relationship.

Allison: The older that Katie and I get, I think the trickier it is for us to be a part of the songwriting process with each other, and be a part of the recording process with each other. I think both of us were there a little bit, and we both sang a little bit on each other's records and played a little something on each other's records. I think we were both omnipresent with each other, just in general, in our lives and in our respective decision-making processes. But I do think that the older we get, the more comfortable we feel detaching as songwriters and artists in a more immediate way, where we can kind of diverge.

We've always shared demos with each other, and I'm always the first person she sends every new song to and vice versa. But the older we get, the less we're actually looking for any kind of opinion about that. It's more just like we genuinely want to share that with each other, and we both genuinely love what the other one does. I think there's little room for critique because there is that shared experience, still, as adults, where anything that she writes, I'm gonna love it. And I think that it goes both ways. But it feels more comfortable at this point for both of us to work separately but parallel to each other.

Katie: I like to just let her be her, and just do her thing. ... I like to just enjoy her work for her work.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Phil Harrell is a producer with Morning Edition, NPR's award-winning newsmagazine. He has been at NPR since 1999.
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