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The Heart of Waxahatchee

Katie Crutchfield is one of the most incisive, emotionally open songwriters in the world. But she had to leave home and her twin sister, sign with a historic label, and end a romantic relationship with her closest musical collaborator to finally break through. Now the fun begins.

Four years ago, down with a case of the blues, the lapsed punk rocker Katie Crutchfield decamped to a house on the bank of an obscure body of water in her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. The fragments of a crumbled relationship fluttering behind her, she spent seven lonely winter days hanging out on the dock of Waxahatchee Creek, playing her guitar and writing her way through the lumps in her throat. “Those things were totally happening at that moment, at that time, and I just put it in songs,” Crutchfield said recently, in the kitchen of her West Philadelphia row house. “I held on to those songs really tightly. I didn’t wanna talk to people about them, and I didn’t wanna know what they meant to people.”

But she did release them, eventually. The album was American Weekend — the official debut, in 2012, of her searing, lovely band Waxahatchee. In 2013, Crutchfield returned with Cerulean Salt, which fleshed out the sound — a pattering of drums, a murmuring of bass lines — but otherwise knew to leave well enough alone. At the heart of Waxahatchee remained Crutchfield’s clarion call voice, anguished but always slicing through.

Next week, Crutchfield comes back again. The album is Ivy Tripp, and it carries with it all the optics of expansion. Waxahatchee has jumped to Merge, one of just a handful of truly indelible American indie-rock labels. At the end of the month, she’ll be heading off with her band — which now features an Iron Maiden–esque three-guitar lineup — on an international tour, where she’ll play some of the biggest venues and festivals of her life. And for the first time, Crutchfield has put her own face — an arresting deadpan in an autumnal setting — on her album cover.1


1. For the record, that is her on the Cerulean Salt cover. But neck and hair only!

When I visited her in March, Crutchfield opened the front door in socks, a gray crewneck, and acid-washed jeans; her fingernails were splotched with yellow polish. Her forearm tattoo poking out from the sweater read “I guess I just wasn’t made for these times.” As she talked, Crutchfield absentmindedly played with her hair, throwing it into all manner of oblique ponytails. Upstairs, a friend with a septum piercing and a band-pin-covered hoodie was tending to a shaky spider plant. In a few hours, there’d be band practice; she had a few hours to kill.

Just 26 years old, Crutchfield has been playing music professionally for more than 10 years. She started at 15 with her twin sister, Allison, and a couple of older local boys in a band called the Ackleys. Their Cavern Club was Cave9, a beloved, now-shuttered Birmingham all-ages space. For three years, they played there nearly once a week. And they could always bring the kids out. “We were 17,” Crutchfield said, “with the room packed out for us. It was like, ‘It can’t get better than this!’”

After the Ackleys dissolved, the sisters re-formed into a band called P.S. Eliot, with Katie again the frontwoman and Allison on drums. They DIY’ed tours across the United States, building up a national network of freshly tatted fans. “The whole time I was in college, I was writing records and booking tours for summer break and skipping class,” Katie said. “It’s funny because in hindsight, I wasn’t a total fuck-up. I was pretty productive! I just wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing. Which is going to college. I totally failed at that.”

Her parents fretted that their daughters would never make a living like that. They hoped the kids would take school more seriously, that all that music they loved so much would end up a hobby. But still, they lent a hand. Their father, Robert, the owner of an insurance agency, was the unofficial S-Corp consultant. “He’s super-smart and pragmatic,” Katie said. “Having him as a small-business owner was always helpful to me.” Their mother, Tracy, was more right-brained, blasting her music for her kids — everything from Loretta Lynn to Johnny Rivers to the Spice Girls to Carole King — and leading car sing-alongs. Cautiously, Robert and Tracy said yes to their twin daughters’ dream. 

“We allowed Katie and Allison to go on a short chaperoned tour when they were 16, I think?” Tracy recalls. “I always trusted them.” Well, sort of. “We have a pact for them to tell me about some of those early tours when I’m really old. I’m not sure I’m ready to hear it now!”

Eventually, Allison revealed her own latent songwriting desires, and the sisters got to work on a one-off project called Bad Banana. “I basically forced her to do that band with me,” Katie said, laughing. “I showed up on her doorstep with all my recording stuff, like, ‘We’re gonna make this right now.’” Allison has moved on to her own project, Swearin’, an excellent, nervy four-piece.2


2. Swearin’s 2012 banger “Kenosha” is an all-time great shoulder-shrug f–k-you anthem.

bad-banana-crutchfield-allison-katiePuzzle Pieces Records

I asked Katie if she ever feels competitive with her sister.

“I would be lying if I said a hard no. There were periods of time when Swearin’ got a lot of [buzz] and I didn’t,” she said. “And I [felt] a little like, ‘I worked so hard for so long, and they’re getting attention?’”

The naturally more responsible of the two, Allison was the de facto older sister growing up — she was born two minutes earlier. “When we were born, birth order was the new astrology,” Katie said in a raised-eyebrow tone. “My mom was super into it.”

But in their bands, Katie was always the alpha dog. She made sure there were shows to play, merch to sell, songs to sing. Now, “our dynamic is complicated. Sometimes she’s the older sister and sometimes I am. It’s situational, I guess … You move past [sibling rivalry] pretty fast. It doesn’t make sense for me to not be happy for her. I’m so happy for her.”

Allison lives within walking distance of Katie; she comes over to walk the dog or drop off cans of flavored seltzer. (“My one true vice,” Katie said.) On the upcoming tour, she’ll be one of the band’s trio of shredders. In the past, their acts have toured together, making long, hot van runs through Nowhere, America — destroying 30-packs together, listening to true-crime radio stories about the Waco siege. In Missoula, they found themselves taking an impromptu summer swim in a crystal-blue river streaming through the heart of the city. In Helena, altitudinally drunk, they played what may or may not have been a Juggalo bar.

“All siblings are competitive, but they’ve always been each other’s best friends,” Tracy said. “They just want to make good music that they can be proud of, and that makes me really proud.” 

Running around our feet, and occasionally hopping up to lick our faces, is a handsome one-year-old named Franny. She’s a terrier-shepherd mix. Crutchfield adopted Franny when she was still with her ex-boyfriend. “We have joint custody at the moment,” she said. Complicating things further: The ex, Keith Spencer, is not only in Crutchfield’s band — he is her primary collaborator. A real Fleetwood Mac situation! I cheerily blurt. “Let’s hope not?” Crutchfield patiently replies.

Most of Ivy Tripp was written while Crutchfield and Spencer quarantined themselves for the better part of a year in a house in Holbrook, Long Island. “I used to sit down and write a whole song in an hour,” Crutchfield said. “Start to finish.” Between her precocity, her guilelessness, and some standard-issue stubbornness, Crutchfield has always felt comfortable belting out her tunes. “I started showing my songs to people when I was 14. I had no idea they were terrible! I was like, ‘Whatever, I wrote this. I wanna show it to people.’ And once you get used to doing that, it’s a little bit easier [to continue].”

Those reps were crucial, but at some point a meticulousness set in. Now, Crutchfield likes to draft, over and over: tweaking the words, nailing the syllables and rhyme scheme, getting the vocal rhythm just right. One song can take months. 

waxahatchee_ivy_tripMerge

Ivy Tripp doesn’t feel labored over, but it does feel considered. There are moments of brashness, woo-woos, and tossed off tinny little drum machine beats, but more so, there’s a somberness delivered with care. The small choices — like, say, when to let that feedback fuzz roll on a beat longer — just feel right. It’s like Crutchfield has something important to tell us, so she’s made sure to get the words just right.

On Long Island she’d wake up, walk the dog, and work on music. At night she’d read or watch TV and let her brain shut off. She had split amicably with her last label, Don Giovanni.3 She didn’t yet know who she would sign with.


3. Label co-owner Joe Steinhardt is a close friend of Crutchfield’s.

And so there was no deadline, no check-ins. “I just got to hide out and make a record. At my own pace. That was important to me.”

Eventually, she opened the songs — at that point, just acoustic guitar, piano, and vocals — to Spencer, and they fleshed them out together. “A lot of times I have ideas and Keith helps me execute,” she said. “He’s a wealth of wonderful ideas. He plays every instrument wonderfully. He’s always thinking about crazy nuance. And I love that.”

“I like to deal in colors more than musical templates,” Spencer explained. “I like to re-create feelings from records that I love, more so than individual parts. “For ‘Under a Rock,’ Katie played me a demo and I immediately wanted it to be ‘American Girl.’ Good music to drive to. There’s a bridge in ‘Less Than’4 that I wrote with the idea of having everything fall apart cohesively.”


4. Stylized on the Ivy Tripp tracklist as “<.”

I asked Keith about the breakup. What’s it like making music with your ex-girlfriend?

“The fact that we had dated never had much of an effect on working on the records,” he said. “We may have sat a little closer when we listened back at the end of the day. But that was at the end of the day.”

In person, Crutchfield has an understated swagger. This could feel at odds with her music, which is potent in large part because it’s so vulnerable. But it makes sense: The kind of candor she traffics in requires a particular grit. She doesn’t necessarily take her rising profile lightly. But it’s a tenable situation. 

“I ran my own band, booked my own tours,” she said. “I did everything myself for a long time. I trust myself now. If Merge had signed my first band, I might be a little shaky. But I feel very fortunate that I had the experiences that I did. It happened really slowly. It took, like, 10 years. All those shitty tours, playing to 10 people that don’t care about us — I don’t know. When I look back … that was amazing.”

Crutchfield doesn’t flash much in the way of raw ambition — aspiring to success for the sake of success. She said signing to Merge “was the best day of my life. We all just hung out and got excited and got drunk. It was very celebratory.” But she’s diplomatic about leaving Don Giovanni, making sure to heap (deserved) praise on the tiny label from New Brunswick, New Jersey. For now, she doesn’t have a manager. “I don’t want someone pitching me for commercials. I don’t wanna do dumb shit.” She’s verklempt at the size and legacy of some of these venues she’s headlining — San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall, Amsterdam’s Paradiso. Crutchfield is tickled by the extracurriculars that come with the gig: the booking agent meetings and the photo shoots and the makeup. But she’s insistent that if all of that ended, she’d never stop making music. 

“It’s cool now that we go on tour and play to hundreds of people. That’s great. That’s a dream come true. But also, if everything goes away — if I put out another record and nobody likes it and nobody comes to my shows anymore — I know I can go back to doing what I was doing. Shows where there’s no stage and the PA sucks and your friends are right there in your face.” She is — proudly, humbly — a lifer.

waxahatchee_jesseriggins_2015Jesse Riggins

But there is still that quiet confidence — a nice bit of ballast. She laughs off promoters who want to book female-only shows, pointing out that there’s so much great guitar rock being made by women these days5 that the gesture is unintentionally condescending. “It’s usually dude promoters who wanna do that.”


5. Including her own roommates, the young guns in Girlpool, toward whom she feels big-sis protectiveness.

She willfully owns a responsibility to create a space for the women and girls at her shows; she stops shows to chastise the buffoonishly unruly. “Your adrenaline is crazy after that,” she said. “If I have to call somebody out, I’m, like, shaking. But I’m the person with the microphone. I’m the person with everyone’s attention.”

She’s aware of what she’s doing: “It’s important to me as a performer, and especially as a woman, to be confident.” And she doesn’t flinch much. “I don’t really get nervous anymore,” she said. “I know I’m gonna be able to pull it off.” 

Back in March, Crutchfield’s Philadelphia house was endearingly cluttered. She’d just moved in, back from Long Island, and so keyboards and guitars — including her first one ever, a dinged and stickered acoustic number — were laid haphazardly under the watchful eye of some classic JFK and Jackie O. portraiture. The kitchen table was covered with flowers in vases, jelly beans in ceramic bowls, and a 32-card set of vintage NFL QB valentines prominently featuring Randall Cunningham. Nearby, there was a bar where old men drank $2 MGDs and smoked cigarettes indoors quasi-legally, and where at least one ex-Navy man happily proved the toughening of his hands by slamming a fist into the bar top with a victorious grin.

This doesn’t feel like the setting for a breakthrough, necessarily. There is no glitz. But that makes sense. Because this is something subtly bolder: a declaration of permanence. On Ivy Tripp’s “Grey Hair,” Crutchfield sings what sounds like a kind of sneaky manifesto.

Maybe you’ll learn to live on stage
Rambling in a staggering haze
And maybe American kids will start a craze
Devoid death, bleeding heads
But lusting for hollowness releases a cold sweat
I get short of breath ’cause I can’t slow down