Best of What’s Next: Crooks & Nannies

Reconciliation, loss, transitions and friendship are scattered all across Real Life, the band's first album together since 2016

Music Features Crooks & Nannies
Best of What’s Next: Crooks & Nannies

“You’re smaller each day in an N95, and I can’t hug you now ‘cause I know you could die,” Sam Huntington sings at the beginning of Real Life, the first Crooks & Nannies album in seven years. “But you die in a week either way, so I’ll wait. I tell you I’m a woman while you sit with the dog, on the bed in the room where I put on bras, ‘cause you die in a week either way—so I won’t wait.” Huntington and Max Rafter have gone through a metamorphosis in the last two or three years, whether it be from losing loved ones, undergoing gender transitions or having to—like many of us—make sense of survival in the wake of a global pandemic. Real Life marks the return of Crooks & Nannies in full, a long-awaited and rewarding re-assembly that merges two of the most ambitious modern-day storytellers and constructionists. It’s been almost 10 years since they first made a record together but, in many ways, it feels like Sam Huntington and Max Rafter have only just given Crooks & Nannies its true beginning.

Huntington and Rafter grew up in the same town and went to the same elementary school and peripherally knew each other—but it wasn’t until they were both in the pit orchestra for their high school’s rendition of Guys and Dolls that they became close, as Huntington played drums and Rafter was on the saxophone. After they each took turns in bands of their own, they converged and started Crooks & Nannies—eventually moving to Philadelphia together after graduation. Together, they made pop records like Soup for My Girlfriend in 2015 and Ugly Laugh in 2016, only to then put the project on the shelf and make music on their own and in different bands. For small-time bands, six years dormant can equate to a lifetime—at least in the eyes of an industry programmed to demand its players to become a constant factory of new work. But, once the pandemic came around, Huntington and Rafter began to gravitate back to the name they’d made together.

“There was something between me and Max and the music we made that had a potency in what that experience was like, to be making things with them,” Huntington explains. “There’s great things about playing in all sorts of different bands—and you learn different things from each one—but there was something that felt special about [Crooks & Nannies]. I was feeling like I wanted to do that again. And the songs I was writing, I felt like they were coalescing into a universe and I thought Max belonged in that universe. I wanted them to be in it if they wanted to be—and they did.”

The return of Crooks & Nannies is not some out-of-nowhere reunion. Last fall, Lucy Dacus had the duo open for her on a string of gigs, introducing her dedicated fanbase to Huntington and Rafter’s jump-started world. “It was so cool playing to these bigger rooms,” Rafter explains. People were cool and listened well, which you don’t always get as an opening band. But people were really engaged and seemed to connect with it a lot. Her crowd has a lot of late-teens, early-20s people, and we got a lot of good connections with fans who were also trans and excited to see trans people on stage.”

Riding the momentum of their shows with Dacus, Crooks & Nannies released an EP called No Fun early this year—and it was an immediate and intimate proclamation of the band’s own evolution after nearly a full decade apart. No longer were they caught up in making bubbly pop-rock glossed over with a mainstream top-coat. Instead, No Fun was a foray into a truly alternative space for Huntington and Rafter, who were experimenting with distortion and subdued vocal affectations in ways that juxtaposed so deftly with their pre-hiatus work. A song like “Sorry” is anthemic like a Y2K emo track would be, positioning itself in a similar ethos as the work that became the lifeblood of flailing tweens 20 years ago; “Control,” too, flaunted a familiar confidence and was Rafter’s reclamation of their own power—performed through country-inspired, pseudo-industrial acoustic balladry.

But, in the hubbub of the band’s new dawn, it was the No Fun cassette exclusive “3AM,” one of the best songs released this year across the board, that became a cauldron of everything that makes Crooks & Nannies a sonic powerhouse. In four minutes time, the track takes striking shape as a musical polymath, embracing jazz, mosh pit-inciting pop-punk, synth-pop and arena rock ‘n’ roll—all coming to a head through the pairing of a mystifying trumpet performance from Rafter’s dad and Huntington’s own chaotic, unflinching and confessional stream of lyricism. “Seems like everyone I know is scared of losing one another,” she and Rafter harmonize. “I’m scared to death of scaring everyone away. I wanna take how mad I get and make it into something good.”

You could sense that something bigger was in the pipeline for Huntington and Rafter—and, now, that inclination is fully realized, as today marks the release of Real Life. Even though it’s the third Crooks & Nannies album, everything surrounding its existence and rollout conjure debut aesthetics and attitudes. If anything, Real Life is the debut album of this iteration of Crooks & Nannies—a deftly astute rendering of Huntington and Rafter’s lives in 2023. Such is how it goes, though, when a band returns from a hiatus. But, what Crooks & Nannies have done—what they’ve given life to—on Real Life is something of a beautiful, heartbreaking and complex triumph.

In 2020, only a few days after Huntington began hormone therapy, her father was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died pretty soon afterwards. If you’ve ever experienced the ways in which a transitional part of your life intertwines with heavy, heavy loss, then a song like “N95”—Real Life’s opening entry—will likely speak volumes. It’s a shattering first chapter in this era of Crooks & Nannies, one that establishes, immediately, how the worlds of two friends have been upended and reconfigured. It’s a more universal, shared perspective on trauma and change—one that was surely made much more accessible during the pandemic and our forced acceptances of insurmountable, violent and unnecessary tolls of loss.

I remember watching my own grandfather die from terminal lung cancer, and it was around my fourth year on hormone therapy. There is something inexplicably stirring and implausible and gutting about watching another person—a loved one, even—get injected with morphine two or three times a day while you’re also using a needle to move your body toward its true destiny. I listen to “N95” and tap into that world I sometimes go months without thinking about. I live it again and again now, and I consider how a needle can give you life but a needle can also make death easier. I think that’s what will make Real Life such an important record to a lot of folks: Beyond the masterful sonics and really breathtaking constructions, the album speaks to the complicated, dense ways in which we must interact with loss—be it when pieces of ourselves are shed, or when we must witness our own lineage (or someone else’s) recede.

In December of 2020, Huntington and Rafter decamped to a middle-of-nowhere, unfinished cabin that Huntington’s dad had been building in Upstate New York before his diagnosis. Her parents had planned on retiring and moving there, just outside the town that she and Rafter grew up in. “I was coming back to our hometown to spend time with my family and to see him in the last little bit of his life,” Huntington says. “But it was also COVID and he was on chemo, so his immune system was really messed up. I had to be careful about not bringing COVID from Philly back to him, so I was staying [in the cabin]—which was the first time anyone had lived lived there. As soon as my dad got sick, Max was really there for me in a really significant way—and we spent a lot of time up there in that space, leading up to recording and then making the album.”

And being in that cabin—being in the center of decades of memories—became a constant across every part of Huntington’s life during that time. She points to being really young and watching her father put the roof on the cabin, and how, being in a space he was physically devoting portions of his life to creating, really changed the alchemy of her perspective and rerouted her relationship with fear and survival. “I’d spent so much of my life running away from things, from feelings—the fact that I was trans and trying to get away from a painful reality in however ways I could do that,” Huntington says. “I had gotten to the point where it felt like so many things were stacking up that I couldn’t avoid them. [My dad getting sick] felt like both a really low point and a turning point for me—because it felt like I had to turn around and go towards the things I was running from. I felt like I was practicing that, it was around when I started my transition and it felt like the thing to do—if there was a frightening thing, I’m not running from it anymore. I’m going towards them.”

A song like “Temper” was written by Rafter as far back as 2018, and vocals for “Country Bar” were tracked in 2019. But much of Real Life came together, from the notebook to plugging into antiquated equipment and demoing, throughout 2020 and 2021. Guided by the warmth of a wood-burning stove that would crackle all day, the white noise of Huntington and Rafter’s off-the-grid surroundings greatly informed what liminal spaces would look like in their newest batch of songs. There’s a real sense of remoteness on tracks like “Weather” and “Immaculate,” which plug in the noise—or lack thereof—of an open, almost cosmic, deep, haunted and grieving place. I can’t quite describe why or how, but tapping into Real Life evokes this sense of two strangers arriving at a familiar place for the first time. It’s a contradicting, juxtaposing idea to try and make sense of, but believe me when I say that there is something otherworldly and beautiful about how Huntington and Rafter are able to employ such a talismanic sparseness on a record that is brimming with maximalism.

Huntington and Rafter share lead vocal duties, though they can often be found chasing each other around in the harmonies across some tracks. Rafter—who has a balmy, unmissable twang—distills a really incredible approach to deconstructing human connections, while Huntington—whose vocal register fuses the affectations of Elliott Smith and Cat Power into something of a sonant marvel—has a real knack for melding bizarre imagery with sunken-hearted translations of promise intertwined sorrow. And much of Real Life is a chameleonic, unpredictable tapestry of sonic bliss. There’s country, emo, electronica and indie rock in bountiful, near-copious and dizzying quantities across the album. Those tangential directions are channeled through Huntington and Rafter’s inherent appreciation for a wide spectrum of music, while also being interesting in twisting and subverting fate—and when you’re a band who is now performing an exorcism onto your former pop selves, the sky is truly the limit.

“I think that we both like playfully fucking with people’s expectations,” Huntington says. “It can feel really creatively inspiring. I’m really fascinated by the conventions of different genres and the things that are constant across one genre but don’t exist in others. It’s fun to take those conventions and apply them to a different lifestyle or different set of instruments. That mixing and matching of different puzzles, you’re trying to make the pieces fit together into something they were never really supposed to.” Rafter echoes their bandmate’s sentiment, too, saying, “It’s zooming in on each song and being like, ‘What’s this one need?’ and not trying to have this predetermined idea of what it will be—being like, ‘Oh, we could pull in a banjo here’ or ‘What if we had this break-beat?’ It’s experimenting with different things and seeing what sticks and not being too precious about it.”

Tracks like “Temper” or “3 AM” immediately come to mind, given how they each traverse a good bit of land within themselves. Crooks & Nannies are nothing if not practitioners of a really good, exciting mixture of volume waves. “Growing Pains” does it, too, where Huntington and Rafter are shooting through different environments without adhering to any set of rules. Their palettes are not tethered to any subset of anticipation; their intentionality is rooted in digging into the time that had passed since Ugly Laugh and fashioning scraps from different places into an intricate, webbed collage that breathes like a living archive.

Though Real Life was made by two friends both undergoing their own gender transitions and interpersonal grief, the album is not an explicit, intentional document of those truths. “Weather,” an early single from the record, is a stirring illustration of that, as Huntington holds a conversation around dead loved ones, dead cities, dead body images and displacement—trying to make sense of the various shapes that grief and hopelessness can take. It’s a complicated, intricate world to live inside of, let alone navigate, and being two trans people making music together is a component in that—and it would be even if Crooks & Nannies didn’t exist.

Huntington considers the project a “snapshot of the things that were in her life” at the time the record was made. “Maybe it sounds like a cop-out, but it feels like [transitioning or gender] is so baked into life that it just becomes a part of the songs I’m writing, because it’s a big part of my life,” Rafter replies. Huntington’s interests, instead, align with finding relevance in music that communicates resilience in a full-bodied way. “If the darkness isn’t present in the music, then I don’t think the light of hope being there means very much,” she says. “I take a lot of inspiration from various forms of queer music from throughout history and Black American music and music made by marginalized people about overcoming adversity. There’s often a balance of optimism with a very real pain that’s being acknowledged.”

One thing about Crooks & Nannies that sticks out rather immensely is Huntington and Rafter’s collective approach to vulnerability. On “Temper,” Rafter explores power dynamics and internal belittlement in the wake of imbalance; “Big Mouth Bass” sees them put a light onto the disintegration of a close friendship; “A Gift” examines “careful cruelness”; “Weather” finds Huntington grappling with her father’s death and her own transitioning through two stark questions: “Does my design make me dangerous? Why do I hate my insides?” Where this openness stems from, at least for Huntington, is a simple desire to not want to write songs for other people.

“I don’t like imagining what an audience is going to think of [a song] when I’m writing the actual words and everything,” she says. “It’s uncomfortable and it doesn’t feel good. It’s not cathartic in the ways I want it to be, and I don’t get anything out of it for myself. I always tell myself it feels important to keep the world out and just write something imagining that no one’s ever going to hear it. And then, afterwards, I will have a moment of ‘Okay, but do I want people to hear this?’ Usually, I’m just like, ‘Fuck it, whatever.’ It was easy to do, because this is the most people who have ever listened to anything I’ve ever worked on. It’s easy to feel like you’re writing songs in a vacuum when not that many people actually have been hearing them.”

“I feel very personal in my songwriting. It doesn’t make me feel vulnerable in a way that I’m embarrassed or I don’t want people to hear it,” Rafter adds. “I try to pour a lot into it and then, once I finish it, I’m just excited. I’m like, ‘You, this shit is so awesome! People need to hear this.’ I feel more vulnerable in the songwriting process than I do in sharing it. After [a song] is finished, I can look at it more objectively. A song or a record is all just a moment, a piece of time.”

Perhaps the most rewarding part about Crooks & Nannies, alongside all of the other things I’ve mentioned before this moment, is that the power of two best friends who love each other dearly and have made the decision to create music out of thin air together cannot be understated. Across our call, they never talk over one another, as they share a telepathy or a wavelength with one another. Whoever sings lead on a Crooks & Nannies track is, nine times out of 10, the person who wrote it—and, even then, you can hear just how fluidly their individualism fits in with their combined chemistry. The DNA of the band is built off of two sets of atoms, a divine and entrancing relationship to watch unfold across a tracklist—a foundation built, literally, from the ground up.

“I’m struggling to think of a song I’ve written where, if I’m imagining an audience, it’s someone other than Max,” Huntington says. “My songs, whatever they’re about, I feel like they’re all directed at them. I feel like a lot of what I’m doing in Crooks & Nannies is almost like a puzzle piece that I’m forming around whatever Max has had going on around that time—where it feels like I’m trying to call attention to things that I think are really cool about Max’s songwriting, whether it’s going in a similar direction or creating contrast. I’ve leaned into fewer notes and shorter words and being direct, because I feel like Max’s songs can be so vivid.”

It’s been eight years since Crooks & Nannies made Soup for My Girlfriend. You can go on the band’s YouTube channel and see videos from the early days, where they were just two kids angling their way through the bare-bones existence of a project—not yet fully knowing what potential their work together could really capture. “I feel like we were so incredibly confident then,” Huntington says. “We were like, ‘Fuck, I think we put out the best album ever. It’s so sick.’” “There’s been times since then, where I listen to [Soup for My Girlfriend] and I’m like, ‘Oh, this is so embarrassing,’” Rafter adds. “And, there’s been times since then where I’m like, ‘This is amazing.’ We were 19 and we just made this really goofy, awesome record.”

You can see how Huntington and Rafter have both gotten older, and just how, exactly, their songwriting has become more personal and mature in sequence with the inevitable, human development of growing into the bones your body is built upon. It bleeds into their production habits, as well: While playing with solo projects and in other bands, the two musicians learned about gear and how to mix, techniques that were implemented on Real Life and helped establish the album as a well-rounded, symbiotic creation equally touched and sculpted by two people who’ve long been on the same page with one another. “Our musical identities are much more fully-formed now. In the early stuff, you can see that we were still figuring out who we are,” Huntington says. “That was a snapshot of us at that age, this is us at this age. It’s different. There’s more nuance, because we’ve had a lot more time to exist.”

There’s a moment on “Country Bar” that I return to often, when considering how Real Life—a record full of surprises and turns and curiosities—can possibly exist with so much wonder and patience and grace and magic in a musical world full of redundancies and pre-determined destinations. It’s when Rafter’s final chorus tumbles into the outro, and they’re singing “I think we’ll decide where the pieces go. If it sputters and spits, I’ll take it apart again. I think it all can fit.” Huntington and Rafter, two friends—two soulmates—who’ve found each other again in music and in healing, have made one of the most splendid, nourishing and synergetic albums in recent memory. Their reconciliation with each other is a testament to what power having an uncompromising love for another person can hold—and how lucky we are to be even the smallest part of it.

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

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