Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield Helps Herself to a Fresh Voice
“This is the first time we’ve played this version of the song live, so bear with us!” laughed Waxahatchee life force Katie Crutchfield from the stage at Brooklyn's Bell House last spring. Having now listened to her newest record under that moniker, Out in the Storm (due July 14 on Merge), it’s obvious that something different was afoot as she soared through some electrified reinterpretations of tracks from third album Ivy Tripp. And yet the show was still very quiet, a low-radar set squeezed in between album cycles. Crutchfield stood on stage with her guitar, accompanied only by a bass player, and the room, sold out, was totally silent. It was the type of gig where most left their phones in their pockets because the mere act of taking it out and snapping a photo would be both disruptive and conspicuous. The first and only time I had seen Waxahatchee, I recalled how Crutchfield’s wounded anthems had always played in tandem with my own dramas and disappointments over the years.
My friend and I hadn’t anticipated the show being so quiet, when taken in contrast to our car ride to Gowanus for the show. Both of us had never seen Waxahatchee, despite mutual admiration. Understandably stoked, we blasted track after track that we had committed to memory, screaming the lyrics as we cruised on the BQE, unaware that we were on our way to such a chill set. When we arrived, it was like years of pent-up excitement and energy were trying to emerge, but we desperately had to quash them, lest we totally ruin the whole vibe with our off-key Waxahatchee karaoke.
But in retrospect, it seems Crutchfield reserved the same emotional electricity as us that night at the Bell House. Out in the Storm is an explosively guitar-driven effort that signifies her reclamation of self after the dissolution of a noxious relationship. For so many people, her records have served as ways to mark the time in their own lives, to remember who they were when they listened to each, and how they related to them through their own experiences. Although my friend and I share a strong affinity for Crutchfield’s music, surely the reasons vary. Different memories and feelings surface when we go back and revisit American Weekend, Cerulean Salt or Ivy Tripp — their relatability lies not in Crutchfield’s specific stories, but rather the unadulterated feelings she gleans from them and articulates with painfully real precision.
Her devout fan base gleans as much from her empathy and open-heartedness as it does the caliber of the music itself. For her, writing and recording music is a deeply personal practice. “The process of making a record for me is so quiet and intimate, and I’m able to turn off the noise and forget that this is a thing that people will hear,” she explains. When I note the courage it must take to do that, she brushes it off: “That’s kind of the magic of all of it, isn’t it? I feel like if I lost the ability to do that, I wouldn’t be able to make the music that I make, you know?”
With that in mind, Out in the Storm will serve as tough love to those of us still wallowing in our own self-doubt. It’s as much an indictment of her ex-partner’s toxicity as it is a confrontation with herself, as opposed to the self-flagellation on her previous records. It’s brutally honest, but sympathetic at the same time. Before, she would note her flaws with a tone of self-loathing and hopelessness, blaming herself and lacking faith that things will improve. On this record, the tone shifts dramatically to one of self-acceptance and love. It’s a growth in understanding that, while she has flaws, we all have flaws, so they aren’t an indication of our worth as humans, or whether we deserve to be loved or not.
She says the record is about self-preservation, self-care and realizing your own autonomy. So far away from the Crutchfield we met soaking in her bathtub five years ago, the album reveals tremendous personal growth when lined up against the others. She describes it as a natural progression: “I think it’s all felt so organic, you know, like I wrote American Weekend when I was 21, and I had only ever lived in Alabama, and all these things were happening in my life, and I had these moments of self-sabotage and things like that — things that felt so huge and, in retrospect, they seem so small.” But the confidence she espouses on Out in the Storm reflects a woman who has been pushed down and made to feel small too many times; she realizes the power she’s gained from picking herself up over and over again, and appreciates her worth as a result of that. All part of growing up, she says. “I think you just grow and things become ... I think it’s just me becoming a 28-year-old with different priorities and different responsibilities and different goals.”
The first track she’s offered us is “Silver,” with an accompanying video (see above). From it, perhaps the track on the record most steeped in symbolism, we get the album’s title. It also acts as a microcosm for the shift in both Crutchfield’s songwriting and self-perception throughout the record. On it, she sings, “If I turn to stone / The whole world keeps turnin’ / I went out in the storm / And I’m never returnin’.” Here she realizes, looking back, that her problems are not the end of the world; with time, things will get better. But at the same time, she had to go through it to gain that perspective and know never to go backwards. It’s also one of the most straightforward rock songs on the album, lacking the ethereal vocals and drawn-out riffs that often reappear on Waxahatchee tracks. Crutchfield’s soaring voice is loud above the gritty guitar and hard drumline, though it does retain some of her now trademark “ooohs.” The video introduces us to this new version of the songwriter, seamlessly flipping between clips of Crutchfield walking city streets alone and leading her band in a room full of sparkly tinsel, interspersed with shots of her black and white face being gradually filled in with pink and blue light. It’s the artist, happily alone and unapologetically herself.
The album skews past tense as Crutchfield reexamines the ruins of a broken relationship, looking back with a new wisdom that brings about that particular kind of disbelief: I can’t believe I did that. She began writing upon its dissolution. “I did not really have a voice in that relationship,” she says. “I didn’t have the opportunity to voice these feelings, because it was a person who wouldn’t hear them, so I feel like making the record was my chance to say a lot of things I didn’t really get to say. And that was sort of a personal practice, you know what I mean? Like I needed to say it just to process my own emotions, so it comes across as me sort of coming out with guns blazing because I really need to do that and I didn’t get the chance to do that.”
She needed to write the album to wade through the mess of emotions and memories she was left with, such that it’s ripe with these types of a-ha moments where she directly confronts her own issues with self-worth and acceptance. It touches on the journey between looking desperately for a sense of worth through someone else’s perception of you, whether they love and accept you, and finding it independently within yourself. The track “Recite Remorse” is Waxahatchee that feels more familiar, one of the dreamier songs on the record. But the lyrics are painfully honest: “See, I always gravitate towards / Those who are unimpressed / I saw you as a big fish / I saw you as a conquest.” It’s being drawn to the emotionally unavailable as some sort of personal challenge: If I can make this person love me, then I am lovable.
When I tell her how much this resonated with me, she empathizes. “[It’s] what you said about self-worth and trying to find it autonomously, as opposed to finding it through seeking love, and specifically on this record and in this situation seeking love from a person who seems like they’ll never give it to you ... like you want the approval from this person who is so, like, apprehensive to give it, you feel like if you ever do get it, or just like little moments of it, that that will make you feel full and loved. I feel like getting too wrapped up in this idea of seeking love and approval — and not getting it for an extended period of time — drags you down, and then eventually you step away and you take a breath and you remember that you are good and worthy of love, autonomously.”
Touching back on her declaration that the album was about self-preservation, self-care and finding your own autonomy, I ask what self-care looks like for her. The expression has taken on buzzword status, article after wellness article instructing us how to achieve “self-care” through yoga or clean-eating or oil-pulling or whatever else we’re supposed to do to preserve our sanity when life turns upside down. For Crutchfield, though, it was the act of writing and recording Out in the Storm. It was a deeply therapeutic process that helped her to find not only the self she had lost in the depths of that toxic relationship, but the self that had disappeared in Waxahatchee’s journey from bedroom project to major label powerhouse.
“I think really the writing process was super important,” she explains. “I feel like I had worked with the same people on the last two records, on Cerulean Salt and Ivy Tripp, so I knew I wasn’t going to do that. And I was sort of back to just me, in a room with a guitar and recording demos, and when I was finished, just going for a walk and listening to them by myself, and sending them to my sister. It was just like the whole process of that — I came back on the other side of it just exactly the same as I was, the process just as it was. It was all the magic of writing songs. It’s so sacred for me, sitting there writing, and working, and putting everything together, and then there’s a finished product, and it’s just the best feeling in the world.
“The last record had diluted that feeling for me, so coming out the other side of it and having that feeling again — just like, oh my god, I articulated my feelings and I put a melody to it, and I feel so proud of it, and so excited about it, and I’ll listen to it 100 times on a walk. It’s this whole sacred process for me. So, coming back on the other side of that and having that again and feeling like that, and it’s just for me, it’s just — I don’t know! Just a really, really good feeling to know I’m still the same person that I was, and yet I have all these experiences now.”
This back-to-basics process lends the album a purity of sentiment, starkly Crutchfield’s interpretation of her experience uncolored by outside influence. For many of us, we have certain records that we turn to or revisit when life gets rough that act as “self-care.” The records that, when you listen to them, you’re instantly transported to the time when you first realized their importance — sophomore year in college when your girlfriend left you behind to study in France, or when your father passed away — and you remember why they mattered so much, and maybe even reflect on how their relevance to you has shifted or changed since you last heard them. For Crutchfield, though, at least during the recording process, she eschewed these types of outside influences and focused her mental energy and reflection entirely on Out in the Storm.
“I would just walk around to, like, voice memos of me humming into a phone, and try to figure out what to do with that. My work ethic on this record was much ... I don’t know, I always kind of obsess and don’t do or think about anything else except for the record when I’m working on it, but it was cranked up on this one. I was just really focused on making it, around the clock.” Perhaps that’s what gives her music such a profound sense of relatability — it’s entirely her own artistic rendering of entirely her own experience, leaving such an honest articulation of her emotional state that it becomes explicitly real to those of us that lack the artistic ability to translate our own experiences in such a way.
The fact that she recorded the album with close friends and family only adds to this; the way you or I might call our sister to talk through a nasty break-up, Crutchfield recorded Out in the Storm. Producer John Agnello (Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr) initially suggested she record with her live bandmates — Allison Crutchfield on keyboards and percussion, Katherine Simonetti on bass, Ashley Arnwine on drums and touring Sleater-Kinney guitarist Katie Harkin occasionally stepping in on lead guitar — and it ultimately made Storm sound unlike any of Crutchfield’s previous records.
“It was its own thing,” she says. “I never record with my bandmates; like, in the past, I’ve recorded with other people playing instruments, and then I have a live band, but my live band and I went through a lot together in the last year. We had a lot of shared experiences, a lot of those are on the record, and it was really important to me to have them in the room. I had them playing, so they kind of each brought their own style, which is a totally new sound for Waxahatchee records. It’s almost like the people who were playing were the influences, in my opinion. I really have to give them credit — their style and their ideas brought a lot of the stuff to life.” The same way we glean strength, power and wisdom from the people closest to us, Crutchfield turned to those closest to her to wade through her own pain and push this album to completion, resulting in the loud, explosive force of nature that it is.
And yet, because the explosiveness of it resulted directly from what was happening in Crutchfield’s own life, there’s no guarantee that the next record will sound any particular way. She says that the sound on this record wasn’t intentional, but incidental: “It wasn’t really at the front of my goals when I was thinking about what I wanted the record to be. And it’s funny, because when I go back and look at the records, it does seem that each one gets bigger-sounding, and kind of more driven, but I really don’t think that’s going to be the trajectory of Waxahatchee. I’d really like to scale back and make a record that’s more solo, more intimate, and I really want to make all different kind of records.” Which is to say we’ll just have to wait and see what's next, as Crutchfield continues to grow and lives and sorts through the next two or three years of her life.
While “Silver” showcases Waxahatchee’s new sound and Crutchfield’s reclaimed voice, the song that epitomizes her newfound self-love and autonomy is “Sparks Fly.” On it, she sings, “Tonight I’ll laugh, I say whatever I want / Stay in the bar ’til the sun comes up / Then I see myself through my sister’s eyes / I’m a live wire, electrified.” We are our own harshest critics, often saying things about ourselves that we would never even think to say about our loved ones. To be able to shut those voices down and see yourself the way they do is the height of self-acceptance. While she articulates these themes lyrically, she does so audibly as well. This, alongside “Recite Remorse,” is one of the songs that sounds the most “like Waxahatchee.” It’s atmospheric, focused on Crutchfield’s clear vocals as they build slowly over the acoustic guitar. By making this track the one that sounds the most like the Crutchfield we’ve always known — also the one that most explicitly illustrates her redemption — she shows tremendous love for the person she is now and the person she was two or three records ago.
At the moment, Crutchfield is touring with the New Pornographers — “It’s been such a dream,” she enthuses — and then she’ll begin a headlining tour for the new album. When she left us with American Weekend back in 2012, she signed off on final track “Noccalula”: “I’m going to New York / And I’ll be much better there / Or that’s what I’m hoping for.” In a way, she has come full circle. She has learned to always try to be the fullest version of herself, to live the fullest version of her life. She has chosen to take ownership of her flaws and grow from them, rather than allowing them to define her. To be electrified, to be a live wire, is just that — to be better.
For the foreseeable future, it seems as though Crutchfield will only continue to be better. It’s on us, now, to take what she’s learned and grow from it ourselves.