Waxahatchee: Sweet Home Alabama
For her first Waxahatchee album since bulldozing her world in order to get clean, Katie Crutchfield embraces her complicated Southern heritage like never before.
The emotional centerpiece of Katie Crutchfield’s fifth Waxahatchee album is “Ruby Falls,” a slow, devastating ballad about the whirlwind journey of drug addiction—from euphoric escape to, ultimately, death. “The first part of the song is about the high, the fun parts of addiction,” she says. “There are a lot of references to being up in the sky and looking down on everything else. The middle part is happening on Earth, and it’s like the cold, hard reality of being in the throes of addiction. It touches on all the colors of a romantic friendship—the romance of a platonic love. The last part is happening beneath the surface, underground.”
The song is about her late friend Tripp, who died from a drug overdose when she was in her early twenties (and whose name partly inspired the title of her third record, Ivy Tripp). And the vivid lyric unfolds as a maze of intimate reference points: One verse alludes to Patti Smith’s 2010 memoir, Just Kids; the title points to a roadside waterfall attraction located a couple hours from Crutchfield’s childhood home in Birmingham, Ala. (She used to see the “Ruby Falls” signs when driving to see her sister and former bandmate Allison in Chattanooga, Tenn.)
“Ruby Falls” is a microcosm of Crutchfield’s creative rebirth on Saint Cloud. It’s intimate, folky and sparse—placing most of the focus on her gently flowing melodies and words that alternate between poetic imagery and personal catharsis. The tune’s crucial moment arrives toward the end: “I’ll sing a song at your funeral/ Laid in the Mississippi gulf,” she offers with a soft, recently rejuvenated twang. “Or back home at Waxahatchee creek/ You know you got a friend in me.”
“I did actually sing at his funeral,” Crutchfield says. “My friend Tripp was a brilliant songwriter and poet, and when he passed away, his mom found this piece where he’d written about his own funeral. He wrote that he wanted me and my sister Allison to be dressed as bluebirds, hovering over his casket and singing ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ by Bob Dylan. Obviously, we couldn’t hover, but she asked us if we would sing that song at his funeral because he wanted that. And she gave us these necklaces that have bluebirds on them, and I still have mine.”
Crutchfield’s work often fits the “confessional” tag she’s widely earned—drawing on real-life turmoil, even at its most abstract. Fittingly, the wide-angle view of her backstory is compelling: She was a left-leaning teenager in the hard-right Bible Belt, playing in a feminist pop-punk band and voicing her distaste for organized religion. “I started having gay friends and people from all walks of life, especially as I got into punk,” she says. “I was one of those people who was vocally like, ‘Fuck religion’ as a teenager. I was one of those people who said, ‘This is an organization that, albeit well-intentioned, is evil.’ Especially in the Westboro Baptist Church days, it was so intense. I was very direct about that stuff growing up.”
Naturally, she felt conflicted about her Southern identity. When her earlier band P.S. Eliot—which also featured Allison—started to tour, they would “stick out like sore thumbs” because they were progressive punks from Alabama navigating an often-sexist scene.
“We were so obviously from Alabama,” she says. “People thought it was cool, but we were a little squeamish about it. We were like, ‘Being from Alabama is not cool,’ and that was purely for political reasons. We were not in a secure enough place to be proud of it. That was always in our heads. Then, I moved to New York and later Philly. I was associated so heavily with the Northeast for so long, and I embraced that. Only in the last few years have I really come back to the South emotionally and mentally. Now, I’ve gotten to a place where I can really see and feel and love the kind of magic that only comes from the South. It’s like, ‘Accept it for what it is,’ and, in that way, reconnect with all the things undeniable about yourself that are Southern.”
“It’s a unique existence, especially for Southerners who politically identify more on the left,” she adds. “Most of the Southerners I know have a lot of mental gymnastics to do in their everyday lives, like ‘I’m from this place and think it’s so special and see all the magic that lives there, but it’s also historically and currently politically dicey and terrible.’ Being Southern is complicated, but it’s also something I wouldn’t change. I’ve come to love that about myself.”
Her boyfriend, indie-rock songwriter Kevin Morby, has witnessed that evolution up-close. “You pick up on her Southern accent the most on her first album,” he says. “But then she moved on to live in New York and Philly, and I can understand—especially at that time, when New York and Philly were the cool places to be—why she wanted to take on a new identity. For a long time, before I even knew Katie, she seemed to be the queen of the scene in Philadelphia. I remember seeing her on the cover of a local newspaper in Philly. And, after she got popular, a lot of other Philadelphia bands started to sound like her. I associated her with that scene, but then after meeting her—especially knowing that she’s from the South and has roots in country music—it’s been cool watching her go back to that world. In the era of Trump, there’s something cool about people embracing those parts of the country and saying, ‘Look, not everyone who’s from these places is what you may think.’ And just being a light for a person who’s growing up there now is important—it’s her coming back to herself and coming into her own.”
Crutchfield’s Southern embrace happened to dovetail with several other reawakenings, including a renewed appreciation for the country music of her youth and the pivotal decision to get sober. “I had to bulldoze everything,” she says, “and start from scratch.
“Out in the Storm is really raw and emotional,” she notes of her 2017 record. “I made that record in the middle of a breakup. There’s a lot of atmosphere to it. It’s kind of claustrophobic. It’s like a raw nerve put to song. It was really cathartic to do that, but I was ready to move on emotionally as soon as I started touring it. I had already processed and gotten over what the record was about.
“I also realized that I was starting to have musical interests that weren’t going to be fulfilled playing that way,” she continues. “I was starting to grow vocally, but singing with all this noise over my voice—taking over the sound—was pretty exhausting. Every night, I would feel really frustrated because I wouldn’t be able to hear myself. The lyrics are so important in my music, and it was hard for those to cut through [onstage] because we were this big, loud rock band. I already knew I wanted to do something else. I wanted it to be calmer.”
Crutchfield had always idolized countryrock icon Lucinda Williams, and that search for a more centered sound led her back down that path. “It was interesting going out and touring Out in the Storm at the same time I was simultaneously discovering something that would be a huge influence on my music,” she says. “That whole time, I was really wrestling with something. Aesthetically over the course of the next few years—as I was starting to write—I just kept going to folky stuff and Americana and country music. Kevin and I did these Jason Molina covers, and that was a turning point: In trying to sing those songs and sing them like Molina, I realized this whole texture and tone of my voice that I’d never leaned into by just mimicking [him]. I was like, ‘Wow, this is powerful.’ Even the way people were reacting in the studio, it was like, ‘I think I’m onto something. I think this works for me.’”
As she was gradually reorienting herself sonically, Crutchfield was also enduring a personal struggle. “A lot of it was substance abuse,” she says. “A lot of it was me spiraling out with that stuff. And getting sober went hand in hand with all these rediscoveries. In the throes of touring, I found myself struggling to even be motivated to go out onstage. When I did go out there, I just felt like drinking a bunch and singing my songs. I didn’t put any effort into my performance, and I wanted to just leave and go hang out with my friends. It was more about my experience, like, ‘I have a lot of motives based on my drinking problem.’ Whereas now, when I’m on tour, my whole day is based around having a good show—what I eat, my spiritual practices, my exercise routine. It all equals me having a good show. That’s what’s most important.”
Crutchfield uses songwriting to “heal” from whatever she’s dealing with in her personal life, but the intense breakup narrative that informed Out in the Storm was the most extreme example of that process. She wanted this time to be different: “With this record, I knew I wanted to have some space between what was happening and the actual songs,” she says. “I needed to go through all this stuff and do some work on myself first. And once I’d gained some perspective, then I knew I could write from there. That was an intention I set early on.”
The final catalyst for the folksier, more open-sounding Saint Cloud was recruiting Detroit alt-country band Bonny Doon to play on the sessions, which were helmed by longtime Justin Vernon collaborator and Megafaun co-founder Brad Cook. “From the first rehearsal, hearing them play my old songs and reinterpret them really kicked down a door,” she says of the group, who served as her opening act and backing band on a previous tour. “It opened up this whole new world and made me fall in love with music again. I was so stressed, like, ‘How can I bulldoze what Waxahatchee was and build it back up again?’ And they gave me my answer.”
Saint Cloud sounds exactly like the album that a thoughtful, feminist Southerner would make after getting sober, rediscovering twang and finding Zen. Even as it explores themes of substance abuse, death and self-destruction, it does so from a place of wellearned wisdom—the peaceful coda to a turbulent tune.
“[What] I’ve always found interesting in Katie’s music is that it’s constantly changing shapes,” says Morby. “And that’s something I relate to as well because my music has done a similar thing. Ivy Tripp is wildly different than the records that came before it and after it. The thread through all of them is Katie’s unique and powerful voice, so it’s always recognizable as her. But I felt like this album was her coming into her own in a really profound way.”
“When I met Katie, all she would talk about is Lucinda Williams, her roots in Alabama and the country music she grew up on,” he continues. “Like a lot of us, her palette is so diverse. She knows just as much about Guided By Voices as she does Lucinda Williams. She’d gotten to a place in her career where she felt comfortable enough to really let it all be about her voice and the songs. Her first record’s really lo-fi, and the last record has a lot of distortion and a loud rock band behind her. The one before that sounded like a Guided By Voices record. It was done at a certain fidelity with a lot of different keyboards and drum machines going off to catch your ear. But this one’s all about Katie, which is really great. With it being a record that deals largely with sobriety, she’s taking on the world and taking on her creativity without any sort of filter. I feel like that’s what we’re all getting as listeners. It’s been incredible to watch the reception and see how much everyone loves it. This one, more than any of them, has stripped everything away to where Katie’s really front and center.”
And, while crafting Saint Cloud, the more Crutchfield chipped away, the more she revealed.
“When I listen to my older songs, they’re so wordy and have so much going on,” she says. “I was trying to fill the whole song up with language so that you could really see where I was coming from. I’ve gotten closer to cultivating a more natural, trimmed-down style now. Writing lyrics for this record was really challenging, partly from having gotten sober—my whole world got turned upside down in my own head. In saying less, I was thinking about everything quite a bit more.”