Waxahatchee: ‘Getting sober, you’re facing this stuff shoved deep down’

Katie Crutchfield pulls up in her dad’s rugged Jeep outside my hotel in a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama. She grins when I voice my surprise at her ride. “I should have told you it was a ragtop with crazy tyres,” she says. It’s early March, and we head to a nearby coffee shop then she steers us into the city. As soon as I take out a notebook, the bumpy ride upends my pen. “Sorry,” she says. “I love driving it so much, but it’s a little wild.”

With a licence plate repping the college football powerhouse Alabama Crimson Tide, the vehicle blends into Crutchfield’s home town. Her relationship to the place is more complex. One of the US’s sharpest and most acclaimed songwriters, she’s about to give me a tour of Birmingham as she viewed it as a teenager: through the lens of the underground punk scene. Now 31, Crutchfield about to release Saint Cloud, her fifth album as Waxahatchee, which finds her reexamining her southern roots with increased self-awareness. It’s one of the year’s most bewitching albums, the bristly indie rock for which she’s best known enhanced by country and folk, and the clarifying effect of new sobriety. “If you’re getting sober, you’re facing all of this stuff that has been shoved deep down and covered in booze for years,” she says. “And I’m like, oh my god, my brain is a scary place right now.”

Crutchfield is the product of a fairly conventional white, southern, middle-class upbringing. When we pass the Alabama theatre, she notes that the historic movie palace once hosted a production of the Nutcracker in which she, her twin Allison and their younger sister tap-danced. The classic rock and country in the Crutchfield household fitted the atmosphere of an industrial city in the American deep south that had absorbed generations of formerly rural people and spilled into tree-lined suburbs. Crutchfield has fond recollections of the family going to see Shania Twain dazzle an arena.

Turning next to 16th Street Baptist Church, she brings up an elementary school field trip to this site of an infamous white supremacist bombing during the civil rights struggle. She points out the memorial to the four slain African American girls. The public school curriculum made this seem as if it was an ugly but distant past. “We were taught, ‘Things used to be bad, and now it’s good,’” she says. But she eventually recognised that she was “from a place with a complicated history” and that that legacy was still very much present, defining how outsiders saw Birmingham.

As teenagers, Katie and Allison shared the urge to rebel. They quit tap-dancing, swore off country music and used file-sharing to enable their developing tastes for grunge, the British invasion, indie, punk and riot grrrl. They made music in the basement, Katie as singer-guitarist and Allison on drums. Katie wryly admits she was “struggling with my country music past. I was like, ‘That’s my parents’ music. I don’t care. I like Bikini Kill.’”

In a scene teeming with boys who preferred hardcore, she stood out singing Velvet Underground covers at all-ages club Cave 9, in the twins’ first band, the Ackleys. “How did I end up like that?” she marvels as she drives. “It wasn’t really set up for me to do that. A lot of this stuff is even more meaningful to me now, because there were a lot of things that feel a little happenstance.”

Cave 9’s long-shuttered original location is on today’s sightseeing list. Crutchfield parks next to a decaying brick building. The glass front doors are papered over, but a small tear lets us see the balcony that faced the old stage. We go on past the railroad tracks where she drank with friends and darted out of the way of approaching trains; the house dubbed the Dandy Dill where she and her roommates hosted shows, one of them wild enough to collapse the floor. “I did a lot of urban exploration in my youth, trying to break into weird, creepy warehouses,” she says.

Eventually, she and Allison left Birmingham in search of a new scene, trying New York before settling in a house full of musicians, including other members of Allison’s band Swearin’, in Philadelphia. Katie’s solo project took shape when she went to write at the family’s rustic retreat in Alabama. She borrowed the name of nearby Waxahatchee Creek and collected her songs on 2012’s American Weekend, an album spiky and revealing in spirit but lo-fi in execution. It landed her at the vanguard of an acclaimed new wave of singer-songwriters bringing hushed intensity and emotional specificity to indie rock: Julien Baker, Mitski, Torres, Soccer Mommy and more.

On subsequent Waxahatchee releases, she added sinew to her sound, always with musical contributions from Allison. She continued writing with a nerviness that felt uncomfortably unfiltered. (“And I will visualise a tragedy / And blame you for it.”) She noticed how it was sometimes interpreted like a literal transcription of a diary as opposed to consciously chiseled expression. “For so long, my music was always described as confessional,” she says. “That felt really gendered to me. I always felt that implies that there is no thought or art. Everything I ever write is thought through and laboured over.”

Her work found its loudest form to date on her 2017 album Out in the Storm, her singing half-submerged in a brutal guitar attack, a musical approach that felt right to her in the aftermath of a breakup. “I was just so on edge, and you can hear that on the record,” she says over a Caribbean-style lunch. “It’s claustrophobic, there’s so much happening.”


Waxahatchee performs at Huichica Walla Walla Music Festival, September 2019, in Waitsburg, Washington.

Bewitching … Waxahatchee performs in Washington state in 2019. Photograph: Suzi Pratt/Getty Images

Ultimately, she decided that neither the punishing physicality of performing that music night after night (which contributed to her hearing loss), nor the boozy night-owl lifestyle she’d grown accustomed to were sustainable. “I’m a really productive person,” she says. “I’m at my best when I’m waking up early and getting a bunch of shit done and I’m dependable. I was watching alcohol make me not that. I would stay out really late, I would sleep in, I would feel like shit. I would be argumentative with everybody, I would procrastinate, I would forget to do things. It sounds so cheesy to say, but I was really not the best version of myself.” She clarified that it was “never anything crazy. I wasn’t like getting into car wrecks or anything like that.”

After contemplating quitting alcohol for a few years, Crutchfield pulled the plug for good on tour in Barcelona: “I had a few crazy nights and decided: I don’t think I’m gonna do this any more.” As she entered a new phase of her life, she found value in looking back. That included a brief return to Birmingham, cut short by her decision to join her boyfriend, musician Kevin Morby, in Kansas City, and to immerse herself in the music she’d so emphatically rejected in her teens – not so much mainstream country, but the artful Americana of Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch and post-80s Emmylou Harris.

Covering Williams’s songs, Crutchfield noticed “my voice sounds really good when I go in that direction”. She readily came up with new, lilting melodies of her own, but struggled with other aspects of sober songwriting. “I feel like I keep chipping away at this authentic thing that’s down there somewhere,” she says. “Slowly but surely, I’m getting closer to it, and as I do that, lyrics become hard for me – the rhyme scheme becomes more important, the amount of syllables I use.”

The songs on Saint Cloud describe knotty interior states and examine intense interactions from a reflective remove. Fire sets conflicted feelings against the scenery of a southern road trip. Halfway through the gently loping Ruby Falls, inspired by a friend who passed, her delivery is stoic yet sentimental: “Back home at Waxahatchee Creek / You know you got a friend in me.” Crutchfield finds it amusing that she’s been asked in a couple of recent interviews whether her life has become boring – as if exploring rootedness and committing to sobriety had shrunk her horizons, rather than opening new ones.

Towards the end of our trip, she shows off some of Birmingham’s current highlights, including a strip of businesses run by kindred spirits from the indie scene. An acquaintance behind the counter at Seasick Records informs Crutchfield that he’s getting vinyl copies of Saint Cloud in any day. “Having spent so much time away from Birmingham, it definitely makes me love it in a new way,” she says. “I appreciate that I’m from here, [even the] stuff that I maybe struggled with, southern identity and stuff like that.”

Before the coronavirus outbreak forced the cancellation of shows, she was scheduled to headline Saturn, the city’s leading rock club, in April. It’s closed during the daytime, but she suggests we visit the attached cafe where she can get another coffee and show me the Real Alabama Music Hall of Fame. It’s in no way a formal institution. A collection of square, folk art portraits by Paul Cordes Wilm are slowly taking over wall space inside: foundational figures of jazz, country and R&B; the studio rats who created the Muscle Shoals sound; scene lifers whose legends are strictly local. Crutchfield notes with casual pride that around the same time that folk revival icon Odetta’s likeness went up, she and Allison each received squares of their own.

Saint Cloud is out now on Merge Records.

The Guardian

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