How Katie Crutchfield Got Sober And Made Waxahatchee’s Best Album

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Katie Crutchfield had hit a wall.

The singer-songwriter, who performs as Waxahatchee, was in the midst of a tour in support of her acclaimed 2017 album, Out In The Storm. After emerging first in the late aughts as a wise-beyond-her-years teenager at the head of the punk band P.S. Eliot, Crutchfield made her name as Waxahatchee by writing literary and affectingly insightful songs that charted her life from adolescence to young adulthood. By the time of Storm, she was making her poppiest, and heaviest riffing, music to date. But the long corresponding tour, coupled with the creeping realization that she was drinking too much, caused her to question her current life direction.

“I wanted to take a sharp turn and not make another rock album,” the 30-year-old recalled recently. “I had really no idea what I did want to make.”

In fact, she wasn’t sure if wanted to continue making records at all, at least not for the foreseeable future. Instead, she unplugged from her life as a touring musician, relocated to Kansas City, and for the first time in years worked to build an identity outside of music. It was like opening a window and letting fresh air blow through a cluttered and dusty room. The industry-related cynicism and exhaustion that had accumulated in recent years eventually faded. In time, Crutchfield refocused and began plotting “a big shift album” with her friend, the musician and record producer Brad Cook.

“I turned to Brad, and we decided to do it really minimal,” she said during a recent afternoon walk through a Los Angeles neighborhood. “He gave me the confidence to just strip it all the way back and just rely on my voice and rely on really minimal accompaniment. I just liked his energy with that.”

The resulting album, Saint Cloud, is a full-180 from the alt-rock revivalism of Out In The Storm, instead evoking the lived-in, earthy Americana of Crutchfield’s hero, Lucinda Williams, whose 1998 classic LP Car Wheels On A Gravel Road is an obvious thematic and sonic touchstone. It is also the finest work of Crutchfield’s career, both warmly inviting and bracingly cathartic, and one of the very best albums of early 2020.

Sparking acoustic guitars and soulful keyboard tones echo through every track, with Crutchfield’s high, lonesome vocals positioned squarely at the heart of an understated country-rock mix. The songs themselves — which Crutchfield wrote while jamming with her band, which includes members of the Michigan indie act Bonny Doon as well as Josh Kaufman of the excellent folk “supergroup” Bonny Light Horseman — unfold as gripping travelogues and evocative vignettes taken from a life in the throes of tremendous change wrought by love, aging, and circumstance.

Crutchfield spoke about the album’s genesis, as well as the pivotal changes in her own life that led to its creation.

You’ve described Saint Cloud as a “sharp turn” record after the more rock-oriented Out In The Storm. Did you start out with a concept in your head about wanting to make a more country-sounding record, or did the songs dictate that change?

I would say it was definitely the former. I was touring with Out In The Storm and just struggling. Putting out an album like that, so raw and so intense and so much happening musically with it, there’s a lot of atmosphere with big, loud, angry rock music. Touring that way for a year and a half was great, but physically it’s a lot to take on. My ears, my brain, it’s almost claustrophobic. Towards the end of that, I also got sober. I was really struggling with substance stuff before I made that choice through all of that Out In The Storm time. I knew from the moment that the next record was going to be a literal 180 turn. I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew that was my energy about it.

I got sober and really focused on that for a year. I think in the past I’ve leaned into making music as a way to help myself heal from things. I tried to not do that with this record. I tried to do the work outside of music and have an identity outside of music. As time went on, what the album was going to be came more and more into view. I got Brad in the room, and I got the other players in the room, and I started to write some melodies. Then I started to demo with the band before I even wrote a lot of lyrics. It all took shape that way. I would definitely say that the mood of the album came first, and then the songs swiftly followed. Then it just snowballed from there.

It’s interesting that, in a way, you wrote the songs to suit the band.

Yeah, which is the first time I’ve ever done that. In the past, I’ve written and demoed everything totally alone, and then took it to the players for a quick rehearsal session before the recording session. With my earlier records, everything would just happen all at once. With this record, we just did a lot of demoing together. Just hearing the different options for how the songs could sound helped me decide where it was going to go.

I’ve spoken with other musicians who have recently gotten sober, and there’s a recurring point about re-learning how to write or perform without substances. Was that something you experienced?

Yeah, definitely. I just was getting so tired and jaded about music in general. Not only the creative aspect of it, but the career of it and the scene and all of it. Every aspect of it was feeling tiring and dumb to me for a minute there. So I had to totally hang up the identity as a musician. There were things that I was thinking about and considering, like why do I do this? Why have I always been playing music? Why have I always been writing songs? Should I write a book? I was really back at the drawing board and needed to do a long, hard reflection on why I make music.

After I did that for a while and really let myself forget what it felt like to even be a musician, I started writing this record. It’s given me faith in it again. I’m being reborn as this whole new thing.

I think a big part of it too, as I started to write the album, being some kind of tortured musician, the wildness and the substance abuse and all of that stuff, that was romantic and a part of it for me, as it is for so many people. I think making this record was also partially me proving to myself, and being really scared that I would fail, that I can be mentally, physically healthy and make my best album. That was something I was really trying in the back of my head to not look at it too closely, but to prove to myself that like, “Oh, I don’t have to be a complete fucking mess to make great music.”

When you eventually go back on the road, are you concerned about slipping into old habits?

I’ve done a decent amount of touring at this point sober. I actually think that it’s so much easier and so much better. I think that the drinking, it’s this weird means to an end on the road, where you get so caught in this cycle of being like, “Oh, I’ll have a drink before soundcheck, and then I’ll have a drink after soundcheck. Then I’ll have two drinks during the set, and then I’ll have a bunch of drinks after the set. I’ll be hungover the next day. I’ll feel like shit and I’ll be super hungover and spiral out. Then I’ll just start the whole thing over again because that’s just where we’re at.” By the end of my drinking chapter, I was just really ready to not do that anymore and to not feel that way anymore.

Now touring means something’s different to me. I’ve noticed myself taking a lot more pride in the actual performance and in the actual work of it. I have this amazing crew of people that are going to be up there with me. It’s a positive vibe. It’s going to be so beautiful. We’re going to have so much fun not partying. It’s going to be great.

The sound of this record is so rich. Did you have specific reference points in your mind in terms of artists or albums where you were like, “I want it to have that vibe”?

It’s interesting, because I did, but I almost feel like I can’t really take the credit for making it sound that way. That’s just not how my ear works. I feel like I kind of spoke it all into existence, and then the players and the engineer and Brad, they helped me build out this thing. I feel like without them I couldn’t have quite done it. The big reference points were sort of classic Americana powerhouse women like Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch and people like that. That was the vibe in the room.

The big Lucinda Williams album is Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, and your album has a similar sonic palette. You’ve written about how much you love the album.

That album was the biggest Lucinda album for me, but I’m such a huge fan of her whole catalog. Car Wheels, for the last five or six years, it’s been in heavy rotation for me and really something I’ve been studying. It’s a very big, important album for me. Every single song on that album is a masterpiece.

What in particular do you like about Lucinda Williams?

It’s hard to put my finger on. I think she’s so singular. It’s so hard to go into the Rolodex of influence and be like, “Well she has this and she has that.” It’s funny because people had really pushed Lucinda on me as a young person. I feel like it’s because maybe they saw some similar tendencies or something. I really rejected it because, as a young teenager and an early-twenties person, I was constantly wrestling with my Southern identity and my affinity for country music. In the last few years, I’ve really embraced it. In doing so, I finally realized like, “Oh, Lucinda is one of the greatest songwriters ever.” I feel like there’s literally nobody else like her. She does so much with so little. She creates these worlds out of so few words, like a true poet. I just feel like she’s one of the greats.

This album really puts your vocals front and center. Do you feel more confident as a singer now?

I think I’m a better singer. Just like any singer, you really do only get better. A lot of my favorite women singers sounded their best in their thirties and forties. I’m kind of looking forward to that.

That was something that Brad and I both agreed on: Let’s really put my voice front and center. Let’s make it really clean and not drench it in effects. Let’s make it one single performance, front and center. Brad’s really good, I think, at understanding the song based on the way that I play it by myself. That was something he said a lot as we were working on the record, even to the guys that were playing on the record. Like, “Let’s watch how she sings, and let’s build around that.”

Part of what made it special was that my musical identity is so rooted in country music, and my voice is sort of more traditional sounding. I do kind of lean into more saccharine melodies. As I started to really dig into writing songs, I would fight with that a lot. I loved punk rock and The Velvet Underground and indie music and stuff. I would really try, basically, to put that through the rinse cycle, and try to water it down or fight with it. That actually created some really cool stuff and some really great music, but I feel like this album… it just feels like the first time I really am not fighting. I’m just trying to like lean into what happens organically with my songwriting and with my voice.

Is that just part of getting older? Because I feel like that’s a natural progression for a lot of people where, when you’re younger, you’re more into a punk thing. Then you get into your thirties, and you start to listen to a wider range of music. You don’t have those adolescent hangups anymore.

Definitely. This is a big shift album. There’s a lot of stuff like that happening where I’m like, “Okay, I’m in my thirties. I want it to sound like a young punk turns 30 and a lot of stuff starts to change.”

Saint Cloud is out on March 27 via Merge Records. Get it here.