Crooks & Nannies
Video directed by Marisa Dabice of Mannequin Pussy
Crooks & Nannies make absorbing, dynamic indie rock that evokes the intimacy and vulnerability of the duo’s childhood friendship. Sam Huntington and Max Rafter, both of whom write and sing the band’s songs, became close as high schoolers in upstate New York before moving to Philadelphia together nearly a decade ago. Their music candidly tackles the themes of these past ten years – depression, grief, love, power dynamics, and gender identity. Real Life, out August 25th via Grand Jury, is their first album in seven years. It’s a testament to their growth as friends and as individuals: a document of loss, loneliness, self-doubt, resilience, and renewal. The duo’s lucid songwriting makes this LP a powerful portrayal of two voices rediscovering and contending with one another.
At the start of 2020, just days after Huntington made the decision to start hormone therapy, her father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. “After my dad got sick and I resolved to take more steps in my gender transition, I started spending a lot more time writing,” says Huntington. “I was not doing well mentally but at the same time, I felt like some pressure had been released and I could breathe again creatively.” Real Life’s opener, “N95,” grapples with these converging experiences as Huntington imagines sharing her newfound identity with her dying father: “I tell you I’m a woman while you sit with the dog / On the bed in the room / Where I put on the bras / Because you die in a week either way / So I won’t wait.” Huntington eventually told her father and completed the song a month after he passed.
That December, Huntington and Rafter decamped to a partially-finished, off-grid cabin that Huntington’s father had been building before his untimely death. The cabin offered a secluded space to record the songs they’d been writing together. Uprooted from Philadelphia and back in their childhood surroundings, an uncanny feeling suffused their makeshift studio. “Life felt surreal and dreamlike even though the songs were about very real things,” says Huntington. “The cabin had a wood-burning stove that was the only heat in the building, and the crackle bled into the recordings. The album was informed by the physical experience of where we were.” The ambient noise permeates tracks such as “Immaculate” – a stunning, atmospheric song in which Rafter voices their struggles with alcohol – and reflects how the room truly sounded and felt. The same goes for “Weather,” an ominous song dealing with similar themes, written by Huntington during a nighttime bike-ride through Philadelphia. While recording, the band ran portions of their arrangements through a variety of antiquated audio equipment and incorporated fragments of their own rough demo recordings. This heightens the spectral, haunting quality of the LP and evokes the discomfiture of returning to one’s hometown as a completely different person.
Throughout Real Life, Huntington and Rafter alternate vocal duties, creating a dialogue as they mutually process their feelings and experiences. Lead single “Temper” finds Rafter exploring anger and power dynamics – in a soaring chorus backed by heavy, driving guitars, they sing “I don’t even know what I’m angry for / Some bullshit about not feeling powerful.” Rafter explains the track, stating “it’s about recognizing your own power and realizing how you can hurt people even if that’s not your intention.” In “Big Mouth Bass,” Rafter similarly grapples with the ambiguity of interpersonal dynamics. The song describes the dissolution of a friendship with touching clarity: “Saw that you called so I’m just calling you back / You’re a little mean but I like ‘em like that.” As a lyricist and songwriter, Rafter is at their best when tackling the nuances of relationships.
The world that Real Life creates is rich and poignant, yet there’s a simmering eeriness that permeates its 10 songs. Tracks start with a whisper before suddenly exploding into a cacophony of grating guitars; lyrics alternate between playful and grotesque. “Our music sounded way lighter when we were younger,” says Huntington. “As we got older, there was so much serious stuff happening, both in the world and in our lives – everything felt weighty and intense. Real Life is about that intensity and the soberness of seeing the world as a place that’s fucking mean and harsh. There’s nothing wrong with being cute: I just want my sweet music to also be a little upsetting.” Written and sung by Rafter, “Country Bar” exemplifies the juxtapositions and dynamism that are so characteristic of the duo’s music. The track careens towards a bombastic peak before giving way to Rafter’s sparse, intimate refrain: “I think it all can fit.”
Indeed, Huntington and Rafter thrive on polarities and on reconciling seemingly incongruous elements. Their songs embody the love and trust they have for each other, as well as the turbulence and pain of the world. Real Life is about feeling everything – all at once and in real time. In “Growing Pains,” perhaps the most understated offering on the LP, Huntington sings, “Is this real life? / It feels really bad sometimes / covering my eyes / tell me when it’s safe outside.” It’s a thesis statement for the album and for the unfathomably difficult experience of being a person. Real Life sees the two songwriters and friends bracing themselves and coming out the other side.
Video directed by Marisa Dabice of Mannequin Pussy