The return of Waxahatchee
It’s early evening and Katie Crutchfield is performing Waxahatchee songs at St Pancras Old Church in North London. It’s her, a guitar, and around 100 people, seated in pews. But there’s something different about this crowd – they are older, wiser and more bespectacled than your average lot. And they are all in the throes of utter devotion.
Sure, it’s easy to make religious parallels when someone plays in a holy place. But the congregation are mouthing along to Crutchfield’s songs – eyes closed, heads bowed. These are functioning adults that know what their interest rates are, giving themselves wholly over to the simple, shadowy nature of her Philadelphian psalms.
Is Crutchfield surprised to see her music become an apotheosis at live shows? “I go back and forth with that,” she admits when we speak to her a week or so later. “When I started doing stuff with my first record, American Weekend, I felt really attached to the songs … like they were mine. So sometimes it was a little strange. But I’ve always operated under the assumption that the more specific you can be when you’re writing songs, the more relatable they will end up. So that doesn’t surprise me any more. But it’s always been just a little weird, I guess.”
For someone who writes songs that are so incessantly personal, it’s interesting to hear Crutchfield be so frank about the results of putting it all out there. She seems somehow at peace despite her new record, Ivy Tripp, being centred around themes of being lost, a lack of direction. “It applies to the wander of the 20-something, 30-something, 40-something.”
That’s a large chunk of humanity she considers to be displaced. “But who’s to say that directionlessness – that wandering – is a bad thing that makes people unhappy? A lot of the time those people who feel lost might be happier that way, even though they don’t have anything tangible to hold on to. But they have experiences.”
It’s a major theme, and one which translates into the most simultaneously accessible and arrestingly dark music she’s ever made. Ivy Tripp has the gnashing lyrics of 2013’s Cerulean Salt but with songs that have shaken off the shadow of formative years spent obsessed with riot grrrl and grunge. Those hallmarks are still present, obviously – Waxahatchee wouldn’t be Waxahatchee unless it sounded like it could be on the Empire Records soundtrack – but Katie’s love of Joni Mitchell and Cat Stevens provides a more classic foundation this time around.
Is the timelessness of something like Mitchell’s Blue what Crutchfield strives for? “That’s something that is really important to me,” she replies. “When you’re not trying to make something that sounds so sonically specific or current, then you open things up and it makes songwriting and making records easier. I definitely think about it a lot…” She pauses. “I mean, saying that my music is timeless sounds a little bit arrogant, but I just mean it’s important to me that I make music that’s going to age well.” But we can’t avoid the darkness forever. One of the album’s outstanding tracks, Less Than comes in just past the midpoint of Ivy Tripp, and its lyric stops the listener in their tracks. “You are less than me / I am nothing” is repeated, over and over. “That lyric is coloured in some dark humour, because I think if it wasn’t, it would be so melodramatic that it would be funny in a different way,” stressed Crutchfield.
Does she worry that listeners won’t identify that tongue-in-cheek-ness? “That is like, the only lyric where I thought of it immediately and thought ‘that’s what the song is’. But that was also one of the only lyrics I’ve ever written where I thought ‘if people take this the wrong way it’s gonna make me look really weird’. But you just have to, to a certain extent, be unapologetic about what you’re doing creatively. That’s the song I wanted to write and that’s the thing I wanted to say so if I changed it because it was worried people wouldn’t get it … well, I don’t wanna do that kind of art.”
Crutchfield has that quiet self-esteem that alludes British people; she knows after a decade of writing that she can create beauty. And she’s remarkably good at keeping herself cognitively distanced from anything that could damage that confidence in her art. When asked if the knowledge of an ever-widening audience affects her work, she says that making a record on Long Island, with just two friends/fellow producers for company, kept her from worrying. “It was easy for me to just forget about that and just make the record I wanted to make.”
Unlike her famed week-long during-a-snowstorm recording of American Weekend, however, there were changes to how the threads of this album came together. Whereas previously Crutchfield was most comfortable writing a song in one sitting, this time she drafted. “I was really meticulous about the rhythm of the vocals, and the number of syllables I used, and the rhyming. Really meticulous.
“That attention to detail is kinda nice because when it’s finished, it feels like more of an accomplishment.” So does she want listeners to come to this new achievement with fresh ears? To set aside their ideas about her previous work? “To me, the records have progressed one to the next because I made all of them and I like to draw a line from each one to the other, so if that’s something that’s nice for the listener to do as well, then I think that’s great. But also, if this is the first record that people are gonna hear, then I feel pretty good about that.”
And yet, Crutchfield might not read any of the acclaim that’s about to be published. “I try not to look at my own press,” she says. “I struggle with it because I feel like in other forms of art people don’t take things so seriously and take things away from it. I think in the long run it’s probably not a good thing to look at, especially for the kind of artist that I am, where I’m making the music I want to make and I’m trying not to worry about how people take it.”
Assuming she’s wary of interviews too, however, would be a mistake. “I feel like I’ve worked out a lot of things just thinking out loud. If an interview is really good, I feel like I walk away from it feeling better than I did when I started.” Hopefully she felt a little better after this one.
Ivy Tripp is released 7 April via Wichita. Waxahatchee appears at Green Man Festival, Glanusk Estate, Wales, 20-23 August