Artist Spotlight: Crooks & Nannies

    Crooks & Nannies is the duo of Sam Huntington and Max Rafter, who became friends as high schoolers in upstate New York and decided to move to Philadelphia together after graduation. They released two records, Soup for My Girlfriend in 2015 and Ugly Laugh in 2016, putting the project on hold for five years as they continued to make music independently and in different bands. After opening for Lucy Dacus in the fall of 2022, they returned with a new EP, No Fun, in January of this year, and have now come through with their latest full-length and Grand Jury debut, Real Life. Visceral and dynamic, the album was recorded at the partially finished cabin Huntington’s father was building before his terminal cancer diagnosis, which led to the pair spending a significant amount of time back in their hometown beginning in December 2020. Though writing separately has suffused their songs with a different kind of nuance and vulnerability, being together in this space lends the record a strange, haunting intimacy, as if carrying around vestiges of childhood while seeking a place for the grief, pain, and love unraveling in the present – complicated, real, and inexplicably shared.

    We caught up with Crooks & Nannies for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about their friendship, the evolution of Crooks & Nannies, making Real Life, and more.

    What are some of your favorite memories from the early days of your friendship?

    Max Rafter: When we first started hanging out, we were both in the pit band for a school musical. We’d pass a notebook back and forth with lyric ideas and little weird drawings and stuff like that. There was always an exchange of ideas and being creative. Now, looking back at some of those, it’s like, that’s a little cringe, a little goofy [laughs].

    Sam Huntington: A lot of this stuff we did I feel like was weirding people out on purpose, or being strange intentionally, like when we made those “Cool and Friendly” shirts. They’re small things designed to confuse people, like being weird for the sake of being weird [laughs].  But maybe there’s some substance in weirdness. I feel like we were always in one of our parents’ basements – we were always in someone’s basement or garage or in the woods.

    MR: I think part of that is growing up in a small town and having to make your own fun. There’s not so much going on or not a huge group of people you can connect with. It was like, “Yo, what do you think people would do if we did this?”

    SH: Me and one of my friends in high school dressed up in these frog and raven outfits that we found in my mom’s attic and went downtown, just to see how people would react. And then I remember going on either Myspace or Facebook not long after that and seeing photos of you, Max, wearing a horse mask playing banjo walking around main street. I think this is before I knew you, but we were doing the same genre of activity [laughs]. I do think it’s the small town thing. It’s also more fun to fuck with people in a small town because things are more predictable and it’s more out of nowhere.

    Do you remember your first impressions of each other?

    MR: Sam was in one of the only bands in our high school, Shasta Flock. I thought, “They play in the band’s only cool band, so that person is cool.”

    SH: In that band, we all saw Max play at one of the cafes, and we are always talking about how you were the best musician. There was a show where you were opening for us doing your solo thing, and we were like, “Why is it this way? We’re never gonna be able to follow that.” [laughs] Which is so funny because it was totally a different thing; you were covering Sufjan Stevens and we were playing 20-minute meandering jam songs.

    MR: The only thing in common is that we were in the same town.

    SH: That’s a cool thing, honestly, about a small little scene or town, is you end up playing these weird bills that are just like “everybody who makes music around here.”

    When did you realize you had enough in common to start making music together?

    SH: My band was playing a lot of shows, and I feel like we’d done some shows together, and then we were in pit band. We were just talking more. I was about to graduate, and I was like, “I’m gonna try to move to New York and make music.” And you were like, “I’m doing that, too.” I was trying to play it cool, but I was like terribly afraid of doing that alone. But also, I thought you were a great musician. I feel like we were both planning on doing the same thing, we’re like, “Well, maybe we should do it together.” I think we hung out to make music, we wrote a song or two really quickly and it was really fun. I do remember you, Max, being like, “If this continues to go well, maybe we should move to New York together.” And I think that was the first time we got together to write songs.

    MR: I feel like we wrote stuff pretty fast once we started doing that. Our album has 13 songs on it, and we had to cut a bunch.

    SH: Yeah, that’s true, we did cut so many [laughs]. And a lot of them were like fives minutes long, or there’s one that’s seven minutes that has no right being seven minutes.

    MR: My official stance on our old music is everything goes for 30 seconds to two minutes too long.

    SH: I just remember Max telling me somewhat early on, “Your music? Really good. Your lyrics? Bad.” [Max laughs] No, that’s not what you said. You said, “Your music’s really good, but I feel like with a lot of your songs, I don’t even know what they’re about.” I was like, “Oh, fuck! They aren’t about anything.” But that was cool, because I feel like when I ask people for feedback, I want them to say what they really think, and a lot of the time, people are just like, “Yeah, it’s good.” So I really appreciated it, that you were like, “It could be better, I think, and here’s what you could do to make it better, I think.”

    Max, what did you appreciate about Sam’s approach when you started collaborating that was different from what you already knew?

    MR: I think Sam brought a lot to the table playing with other people so much that I just hadn’t had experience doing, and thought about whole pictures of a song. I had always focused on just the guitar part and melody and lyrics, and there’s so much more that goes into it. Sam would have visions for what that could look like in a way that was really exciting and make it happen.

    SH: I feel like we both seeped into each other’s territory in that way. But I also feel like there’s a way in which sometimes still, I feel like I can get too big picture, and simultaneously get lost in the weeds and lose track of why the weeds matter. Sometimes I’ll overlook things and you’re like, “Hey, this lyric isn’t working,” or “This song structure is weird,” because I was focusing on adding the right amount of cricket noises in the background of the second verse or something. I feel like we do have similar approaches in a certain way, but also kind of opposite approaches, still, which I really value about working with you.

    Do you tend to write separately before bringing things together or talking about a song? How did that collaborative process develop through Real Life?

    SH: For this record, it was writing separately. When we started talking about making it, we already had the well of songs that we were pulling from that we had both written separately over the years.  And then within that, there was collaboration and giving feedback over specific parts of things. There would be a line in one of either of our songs that we would break down and talk about, figure out if that was effective. So there was still some collaboration within it, but the the bulk of everything songwriting-wise was already built separately for this one.

    SH: We couldn’t be in the same place also for a lot of it because of COVID. It’s been pretty different for the different albums for us in terms of songwriting.

    MR: Some of the older stuff, especially the first album, we sat down and wrote it all together.

    SH: In the second album, there’s a lot of lines that I’m singing that you wrote and vice versa, which is not the case on the new one.

    Do you feel like that bit of separation was necessary for you to really dig into what you’re each exploring in these songs?

    SH: It definitely would have been a very different album. It feels like if we had continued making music together through from the last album all the way until this one, and hadn’t stopped making music together in this band, that would just be some alternate reality that I have no idea what it would have been like.

    MR: I feel like we both matured as songwriters over that long break from the band, and I think that writing the bulk of the songs on our own made them a little more vulnerable and more focused and deeper, maybe. Writing from the beginning together, we would write interesting and emotional stuff, but there’s a also an element of goofiness to a lot of them. It’s not gone, but that goofiness is not at the front anymore for this.

    SH: It does feel like we both withdrew into ourselves, and there was a lot of figuring out of what we wanted to say, or self-interrogation that maybe wouldn’t have been there if we wrote it together.

    One line from ‘Temper’ – “I don’t even know what I’m angry for/ Some bullshit about not feeling powerful” – made me wonder, going into a song, how defined your feelings are, and how much of the songwriting process is about unpacking that emotion.

    MR: I think for me, I usually have a good idea of what I’m trying to say after I have like three or four lines written. I’ll start writing something that just sounds interesting to me, and then I’m like, okay, what could this be saying? And then I’m like, let me draw from my experiences and build on it. But when I first get started, I don’t have a great sense of what I’m trying to say.

    SH: Yeah, I think similar. I sing to myself a lot and it’ll just be a thing that I’m like singing to myself, and then that’ll be like a line or something, and it’ll find its identity as it is written. But somewhere along the line I’ll be like, “Oh, this is what it is.” And from that point, it feels more like solving a little puzzle than it does spilling emotions out.

    Is it important for you that that puzzle gets at least halfway solved by the time the song is done?

    SH: I feel like we might have very different answers to this.

    MR: I don’t think that it solves a puzzle for me. I don’t know. There’s some songs that I’ve written on this album that I listen back to and it’s about a lesson that I learned at the time, and I’m like, “Oh, shit! That happened again.”

    SH: Oh my god, yes.

    MR: It’s about patterns. And then I’m like, “Oh, I still have that neurosis.” Nothing is solved. I figured out a way to talk about it in the song.

    SH: That’s so funny. I also have been listening to stuff and that’s happened to me as well. It’s weird, like, “Wow, I didn’t really learn anything from that! [laughs] But I really clearly articulated it.” Or not didn’t learn anything, that’s maybe an oversimplification.

    Going back to upstate New York to record the album must have been a strange experience. Did you have conversations about what it meant to be there?

    SH: It felt like, not a coming full circle, but regrouping in the place that it started, maybe. There’s a lot about that time, because we were we’re spending more time together around that time and leading up to making the album, which I feel like is part of why we ended up making the album, too. We had more time together than we really had at any point since first starting the band, and being back in the place where we first started the band, there was a weird – not deja vu, but it’s like hearing a song you haven’t heard for a long time, or a familiar smell. But because so much was similar, it called a lot of attention to the differences for me. I was just very aware of how much time had passed and how different we were as people and how many things had changed – in the literal place we were in, and in ourselves, and in just the world. I remember crying when that bowling alley burnt down in our town – it didn’t really have that much to do with the bowling alley, but it just felt representative of something.

    MR: I feel like part of recording at the cabin was: here’s a space that we can be in safely for a month. It’s peak COVID times, it’s a place where we can both go and we can gather all this gear and we don’t have to pay to be there. I was thinking of it a little as convenience, but it is a really specific and significant place that we ended up doing it in, our hometown. It’s a space Sam’s family, that you went growing up and has a lot of meaning to you and to me.

    SH: As it was being built, too. I was also thinking of it as a convenient place to do the thing, but once we were here, it felt like a lot more than that.

    I’m sure it was a mix of things, but do you have a strong memory of how it felt?

    MR: I feel like it’s a mix of, “This is home, and this feels warm and inviting and comfortable.” And then also, because it was our hometown and we’re going back years later, it was a little bit uncanny valley of like, “Why are we here? What’s going on? Are we supposed to be here?” I remember one night we were just wandering around the Walmart in the middle of the night, and that felt very teenager-y again. I think being aimless in the place you grew up, that makes you feel like a teenager, and that’s the part that feels kind of uncanny valley – or feels wrong, but not bad, I guess.

    SH: Neither of us were working because of COVID, and I feel like that also contributed to feeling like a restless teenager with a whole lot of time and nothing to do, just shooting cans out in the field. It did feel kind of like home in a certain way, but then also, really isolated in a weird way because so many people we grew up with had moved away and stuff. Also, we got snowed in for like three days and couldn’t leave the house at all, because the driveway is a winding dirt road through the woods. It felt like a little tiny safe location in the middle of a large and frightening world, and then all this weird nostalgia stuff tied into it. It was a very strange time.

    Did being there bring the ideas behind the songs into light in a way that wasn’t so clear before?

    SH: The threads that tied them together, I think, became clear to me. Because they had been written not in the same place and over time, but the fact that we recorded them in the same space, and in the same space where we were mostly just spending all of our time together, did do a lot to unify them. I started noticing a lot of parallels in the experiences that we’d been singing about, and also the differences in how we are approaching those things.

    Max, do you remember talking about that, or did the parallels feel more unspoken?

    MR: I feel like it was more unspoken. There’s always gonna be parallels with it being recorded by the two of us in the same space, so our the songs get tied together through just the environment and the style.

    SH: I mean, we both quit drinking at the same exact time. I hope that’s okay for me to say, Max, but I feel like it’s in the songs. I think we talked about that, and then talked about a lot of gender stuff around that time. I think everything else was not stuff that we talked about directly, but those things I think we did talk about a lot and are in both of our songs.

    MR: Yeah, that’s true.

    SH: I feel like we have talked about things that do come up in the songs, but I don’t know that talk much about anything in the context of the song. Most of the time, I don’t want to ask Max to explain the lyrics to me, because I want to take them the way that you present them, and it feels like it would ruin something to make you say it in a more direct way. Both because I feel like I know, and because the things that I don’t totally know feel kind of precious.

    Max, do you feel the same way?

    MR: Yeah, I agree with that. You want some of this mystery still, or to have your own relationship with someone else’s song.

    SH: And if I’m going to respond, I feel like I want to do it in a song, almost. If you say something in a song that I feel like I have something to say about, it feels like I want to respond with the same mode of communication as the thing that I’m responding to.

    Are the loudest moments on the album, on songs like ‘Country Bar’, ‘A Gift’, and ‘Weather’, the ones that were also the most cathartic to make?

    SH: ‘Country Bar’ definitely, the middle of it to me feels like that kind of catharsis. And then also the middle of ‘A Gift’. This is something that I feel like, even from the very beginning of our music, we’ve always had these little parts where it’s just: what if after this verse we just make a shit ton of noise or a really unpleasant sound for a few seconds and then go back to the song? It’s almost like burning off the extra energy so that you can settle back down and collect yourself.

    MR: I do feel like I love to play the loud stuff live, and it does feel like a release in some ways. But playing some of the quieter songs – I think about playing ‘Nice Night’ and singing that short verse with the saxophone part in it – almost feels like a bigger release to me, where it’s so sparse and zoomed in on this one little thing, it’s all about this little performance and getting into it and giving it all. There’s so little going on that you can really focus in on what’s happening.

    Could you share one thing that inspires you about each other?

    MR: One thing I really appreciate about Sam is that she doesn’t ever call something before it’s done, or let an idea stay a half-idea. I think I have a tendency to call things too early before they reach their full potential, and I think that Sam sees things through in a way that is admirable.

    SH: Max really has their priorities in line when it comes to a song. You have a really incredible ability to focus on what matters in a song and not get caught up in a detail that isn’t as consequential as something else. Sometimes I won’t know what parts of something are the most important, and you have a really amazing ability to tell if something’s working. If we’re creating a universe with the album, I’ll be painting little patterns on a rock or something, and you’re like, “Yeah, but Sam, there’s no water in this universe. Everyone’s going to get so dehydrated.” You know what matters, and they’re all subjective things, but I really trust your judgment on those things.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Crooks & Nannies’ Real Life is out now via Grand Jury.

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