Photo by Molly Matalon
Waxahatchee Talks 'Saint Cloud' & Approaching Music From A Healthier Place
In the past, Katie Crutchfield has used music as a "vehicle to heal." From singing musical theater songs alongside her twin sister Allison in their childhood Alabama home to mixing with Philadelphia’s punk and D.I.Y. scene, and emerging as the lo-fi leaning Waxahatchee in 2012, she’s looked to music to resound her truth. With Saint Cloud, her fifth album (out on March 27 via Merge), she’s turned that method on its head.
Written near her childhood home in Kansas City, immediately after her decision to get sober, Saint Cloud isn’t quite the sound of someone healed, but of someone who’s learned to behave more thoroughly and intentionally—independently of music. While Saint Cloud is the most at ease Waxahatchee has ever sounded; it continues her approach of making darkness sound light as it charts the difficult, erring, painful process of learning "to let stillness be."
Waxahatchee has never spouted platitudes and called it truth; finding one’s core self takes scrupulous and determined hard work. In her case, it’s been worth it. Saint Cloud is not only Waxahatchee’s best work yet, but it also comes to the resolutions her music has seemingly been driving towards for years. Ahead of its release, Crutchfield spoke with the Recording Academy about the importance of community, self-care, and her hero, Lucinda Williams.
A lot of people have already been calling this your best album. Do you share that view of Saint Cloud?
Yeah, definitely. I like to look at all of my albums as a direct representation of exactly where I was at at the time, and I think it makes sense as I age that my music will follow the path that I’m on. It feels a lot like I’ve been chipping away at getting as close as I can to my own truth, which is something I feel I’m getting closer to as I get older. When I hear it, there’s an ease to it, and I think a lot of that is because I’m not fighting with anything, I’m just letting it feel as natural as possible.
Would it be fair to say that this was your first time using self-care as creative fuel rather than self-destruction?
I would say that it’s not really a binary—I haven’t gone from one extreme to the other by any stretch of the imagination. I started taking initiative as far as self-care goes in my life, I feel like I really put that first. I took a lot of steps to take care of myself—physically, mentally, emotionally, all that stuff. I put that before making music, so when I finally sat down to make the record, I was approaching it from a healthier place. I think that’s what really translates.
In the past, I’ve used music as a vehicle to heal, and through doing that, I’ve ended up showing a lot of the cracks. With this album, I think there’s a lot of darkness too, that’s the thing people are having a hard time putting their finger on, because it isn’t this overwhelmingly positive album. There’s a lot of struggle that’s flashed-back to, but it’s being expressed through a calmer, more comfortable, more self-assured person.
"Fire," which is about pulling your car over to watch the sunset over Memphis, has got to be one of Waxahatchee’s hardest songs to sing along to. What made sense for you to sing it, and a lot of the songs on Saint Cloud in such a high register?
I don’t know, I didn’t realize just how high it all is until I began rehearsing with my band. In the past, I've kind of stuck to my comfort zone, but now I really have the danger of losing my voice with these songs. I have this backing singer in my band, Jacki Warren, who reflected back to me, like "this is high." I went back and listened the other day to the first voice memo I made of "Fire," when I first came up with the melody, and that’s just where it hit. I always try things in other keys, just to confirm that they're in the best sounding key, and I think I just liked how my voice sounded up there. It felt right. Slowly, over the past 15 years, I’ve been singing higher and higher. When I first started writing songs as a teenager, they were all way down. I think as I get better, and my range gets bigger, I keep wanting to push it.
I’m curious to know what your twin sister Allison thought when she first listened to this album?
She loved it. This is the most removed Allison’s ever been from a project, and that’s been a slow thing. With each Waxahatchee record, I feel like Allison’s had less and less to do with it, and this is the first time in years where she will not even be in my band. She used to really be around when I was writing my demos, and she’d often be the first person to hear new songs, but with this one, we lived in separate cities. We talk every day and we’re still close, but she just wasn’t as behind the scenes as she had been previously. So, I was kind of nervous and felt like she maybe wouldn’t connect with it, especially because I’m in the middle of the country, getting sober. I was worried she wouldn’t like it or wouldn’t relate. She came into the studio when I was making it by chance, she just happened to be in Texas where I was making it. She immediately reflected back to me that she thought it was my best record and has continued to say that, so it’s cool. I know as much as she’s rooting for me, she’s sort of unbiased because she hasn’t touched the album at all, so for her to say that, it’s pretty meaningful for me.
Was the writing process quite private, or did you have anyone to offer feedback along the way?
My writing process is always quite private, I don’t usually involve anybody. I wrote a lot of the songs in Kansas City, where I live now with my partner Kevin [Morby], who’s also a songwriter. He would hear things first, and he’s so supportive and so positive. He was also there when I wrote "Fire" because we were driving over the Memphis-Arkansas bridge which goes from Memphis to West Memphis, over the Mississippi River. I was coming up with that song’s melody and lyrics in my head, and while I wasn’t dictating it to him or really involving him, he was present.
Has that been valuable to you, having a songwriter as a partner who you can potentially share ideas with?
Definitely. I mean, I’ve always been surrounded by songwriters as I’ve jumped around from scene to scene. We had a really tight-knit scene in Philadelphia for a long time, with Allison and her band Swearin’, and Sam and his band Radiator Hospital, but in the last three years, I have new songwriters around me, Kevin being one of them, and Lindsey Jordan [of Snail Mail] being another. I think that’s really important, for songwriters to find community with one another, and to have each other to reflect things back and provide a first audience before anyone else hears it.
I want to talk about Lucinda Williams. How has she affected your songwriting and your life more generally?
I mean, she’s just my favorite songwriter. I had always struggled with my Southern identity, but with Lucinda, and the way she portrays the South, it’s like everything I’ve ever wanted to do. Something about country music—traditional country music, like Loretta Lynn—when I hear that, it feels like family. I feel connected to those types of songwriters because it’s just how I grew up. The stuff they sing about is so culturally significant to me. I discovered punk rock and all this underground music that didn’t really gel with country music at all, it was like a totally different world. I struggled with that because it wasn’t cool to be Southern. But when Lucinda’s records started to come into my life, it changed all of that. It made me feel that I could start being myself wholly and completely, and draw from my experiences because they’re romantic and interesting and fodder for songs I’ve previously shut down. Lucinda’s ticked every single box that I didn’t even know I had.
Has it been strange taking a year off tour? It must be a long time since you’ve done that.
I’ve never done that. Even then, since 2018, I’ve done eight weeks of touring in two years, which is really not much. It’s crazy but I needed to do it. It once would have been a nightmare to me; the idea of slowing down was really scary, but it really became the only option. I just needed to stop performing because I had never really taken any significant time off from touring between Ivy Tripp (2015) and Out In The Storm (2017). By the time Out In The Storm came out, I was really tired because I hadn’t stopped. When that cycle was starting to wind down after a year, I felt really spent and addicted to the restlessness. And also, from not taking any breaks, I hadn’t really been able to put any work into what my live band was going to be, or what the performance was going to look like. Not that I slapped it all together or anything, my band was amazing, but there was a lot of compromise. There was a lot of imperfection, in my mind, just because we had to go, go, go. I had started to get a clear vision but had no time to see it through.
Did your relationship with music grow stale because of that relentlessness?
Yeah, I think that’s what I’m trying to say. It got stale because of the repetition and because I didn’t have time to make it exciting for myself, so that’s something I’ve really learned. If you put yourself on stage with the same people for long enough, your favorite songs will become your least favorite songs, that’s just what happens. Even going forward with the Saint Cloud touring, I’ll know when to stop and when to change it up. We learn from mistakes.
Are you worried that COVID-19 will affect the tour? [Editor's Note: Crutchfield announced on March 16 that a few spring tour dates had been postponed.]
I mean, I have no idea what’s gonna happen, no one does. Anyone who tells you that they do is lying. It is truly crazy, and it’s just a wait-and-see kind of thing. I just have to go with what people tell me to do. I don’t wanna put anyone at risk, and also, more than that, I don’t wanna panic and do something prematurely. I’m just praying every day and hoping for the best, that it won’t affect anything. I’ll be one of the people that if it’s possible and safe to play, I will play. I’m not a panicker, I’m not a hypochondriac. I’m gonna do my best to pull it off if we can.
Do you have material for another album?
Yes! I have material and ideas I’m working on. It’s funny, I’m so excited about Saint Cloud, I love the record so much and I love the songs so much, that I’m weirdly not quite ready to move forward yet, but I’m collecting ideas like little pieces of treasure that I’m just tucking away, and when I’m ready to look forward, I’ll have them there.