Katie Crutchfield recently read a diary entry from when she was 17 years old. “It was actually really sad,” she says. “I talked about how I wanted to quit drinking, and that was so long ago.”
It’s 11 a.m., but Crutchfield, who performs under the name Waxahatchee, is still in her pajamas, sitting in her twin sister Allison’s backyard in Los Angeles. Now 30 years old, she’s been sober for a year and a half. “I really feel like I came back to the person I was before I started drinking,” she says. “I returned to my roots, musically.”
Crutchfield began her career in her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, where she and her sister formed the feminist punk band P.S. Eliot in 2007. They won devoted fans and critical raves before disbanding in 2011, at which point she took the name Waxahatchee from a creek near her childhood home. She’s since released four albums to even greater acclaim, establishing herself as one of rock’s most sensitive songwriters and embracing the life of a touring musician.
“When I was a teenager, I wasn’t making any money [on tour],” she says. “The whole point of it was to travel around the country and play music and meet people, and a lot of that was drinking. It’s so prevalent in musicians’ day-to-day life. You’re in charge of creating people’s fun night out. I felt myself start to pull back from drinking slowly, and then anytime that I would have a crazy night out, I would feel extra, extra bad.”
By the time she finished touring 2017’s noisy Out in the Storm, she knew it was time for a change. “I didn’t go to rehab or anything like that,” she says, “but I have a lot of sober friends and I have a lot of people I can talk to. I did a lot of reading, a lot of spiritual soul-searching, a lot of self-help therapy. I had time to fully get back into whatever headspace the next record was going to be.”
The result of that reflective time is Crutchfield’s new album, Saint Cloud, due to arrive on March 27th. With acoustic guitar flourishes, billowing drums, and her trademark intimate approach to songwriting, the record leans into stripped-back Americana and country. “I’ve become so obsessive about people like Lucinda Williams, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris,” she says. “All these country powerhouse women. I wanted to step into that power a little bit.”
Saint Cloud signals a distinct shift in sound from her previous work. “I knew that I wanted my next record to be completely different than Out In The Storm,” she says. “I love all of it, but I knew [that sound] wasn’t going to be super-sustainable for me because it’s so loud and abrasive. I needed to have that experience, but I also knew that I was going to need to take a sharp turn on the next one.”
The new album opens with “Oxbow,” where Crutchfield’s voice floats in and out of orbit around a steady drum beat, repeating the words “I want it all.” She describes the next track, the brightly melodic “Can’t Do Much” (“Love you till the day I die/I guess it don’t matter why”), as unsentimental. “It’s very cut and dry, almost like I’m frustrated that I’m having gushy feelings,” she says.
Many of the songs reference place names and travel; the album title comes from St. Cloud, Florida, her father’s hometown. “It’s a nice little nod to my dad,” she says. “Because a lot of this music — the old country music — that’s my parents’ music.”
Crutchfield wrote “Fire,” a folky slow-burner, while she and her partner, musician Kevin Morby, were driving from Birmingham to their home in Kansas City, a route that goes directly through Memphis. “If I could love you unconditionally, I/Could iron out the edges of the darkest sky,” she sings.
“You have to drive straight over the Mississippi River and it’s so epic,” she says. “Memphis is a place I grew up going to a lot on family vacations. So it has this sweetness and heaviness to it for me.” After driving and singing with the melody in her head, she quickly wrote down everything on her phone when they reached their destination. “It’s the only time in my entire life I’ve written a large portion of a song not at an instrument or at a piece of paper,” she says. “I didn’t change anything.”
Crutchfield found it challenging at times to write lyrics in her new sober state. “It was a lot of just banging my head against the wall,” she says. “I had really good melodies, but lyrics were so hard for me. It was like pulling teeth. I had all this frustrating creative energy. I knew that I had so much to say and I knew that it was there, but I just couldn’t get it. I feel like it was on the tip of my tongue.”
The turbulent “Lilacs,” the final song she wrote for the record, came together at her piano in Kansas City (“I get so angry, baby, at something you might say/I dream about an awful stranger, work my way through the day”). “It was definitely one of those days,” she says. “I was just in a bad mood. Through all of my personal growth and the path that I’ve been on, you have these days where you slip back into bad behavior and patterns of thought. When I wrote that chorus, I was like, ‘All right, we’re going to make this a little bit of a light at the end of the tunnel.’”
The song’s closing lines mention the lilac flowers that she’d taken from her front yard and placed in glass bottles of Topo Chico water on top of the piano. “Lilacs have a longer lifespan if they drink soda water,” she laughs. “A little tip from me to you.”
Crutchfield fell into an easier working groove when she began jamming with Bobby Colombo and Bill Lennox of Detroit indie-rock band Bonny Doon. They cut Saint Cloud at Sonic Ranch studio last July, over 10 days in the sweltering West Texas heat. “It just completely clicked for me,” she says. “My astrologer had oddly told me, ‘This one week in July is going to be so important for you.’ And when I went back and looked, that’s the week that I picked. It was so kismet and cool.”
Today, clean since June 2018, she feels like she’s reverted in some ways to her teenage self. “When I was young, I was so type-A and so productive — almost annoyingly so,” she laughs. “Almost in a Leslie Knope kind of a way. I have come back to that, and it’s great. It’s a really personal thing, sobriety. I feel like myself again.”