Waxahatchee Traces the Sound of Recovery on 'Saint Cloud': 'I Had to Hit Pause'

Christopher Good


As the mastermind behind the indie project Waxahatchee, singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield has never been content with a single sound, or a single mode of playing. Over the course of four albums and a recent EP, her writing has shifted in and around a familiar universe of thematic constants with a voice, and an eye, toward specificity that’s entirely her own. Place names, dates, and particular words and phrases help anchor the music in memory -- from the lithe, acoustic aesthetics of 2012’s American Weekend to the patchwork of rural reminiscence and urban thrash that was 2017’s Out In The Storm.

On her new album Saint Cloud, out this Friday (Mar. 27), Crutchfield trades those gnashing guitars for something clearer and more spacious, an antidote to the personal turbulence that’d only been ramping up since her last tour. “I needed to just sit with myself, as a flawed person that’s in pain, before I could focus on making an album again,” Crutchfield tells Billboard

During that inter-album period, she found inspiration in new collaborators, like the Michigan-based folk-rock act Bonny Doon, who she absorbed into Waxahatchee, and veteran producer Brad Cook (Bon Iver, William Tyler, Hand Habits), who Crutchfield describes as both one of her closest collaborators and best friends. She also quit drinking, in an act of healing that became the record’s conceptual lodestar; addiction and codependency, she says, are the twin demons that necessitated this record.

That sense of spiritual refresh is hard-coded into Saint Cloud, which contains some of Crutchfield’s sharpest songs to date. “Oxbow,” the opening salvo, begins in splashy, percussive uncertainty before crystallizing into a kind of gentle chant. “I want it all,” she sings, the impossibility of the dream making it all the richer. Crutchfield cites country legend Lucinda Williams as a key influence on the record, and it’s not hard to hear her in its vocal affectations and assured guitar licks. (She also describes Williams’ music as being “printed on [her] soul”). 

But Williams persists in the writing, too, which feels both tight in structure and boundless in concept. Two weeks of recording at Sonic Ranch, a sprawling residential studio just north of the Mexican border in Texas, also contributed to the album’s feeling psychically distinct from past Waxahatchee projects, most of which were conceived between Philly and Brooklyn. Its windswept, country-adjacent sheen is entirely the point -- both the product of its Southern recording environment, and of the distinctly American memory it refracts. 

The result is a collection of warm, sunlit vignettes with a palpable darkness in the lyrics; pain is always lurking, threatening to overwhelm, but in the sonics, it’s clear it never quite does. Crutchfield ends “Witches” with insight to that effect: “The myth without struggle, babe/ It can’t fill your heart.” And if there was ever a time for hard-won resolutions, for car wheels on gravel roads, and for dreams of wide open spaces, it’s now.

Billboard spoke to Crutchfield about the making of Saint Cloud by way of Tierra Whack singles, articles in The Cut, and more.

The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Sonically, the album is bright and pristine; it’s a real step away from the grit of your last album. Was that always in the cards for this record, or was the sound something that evolved over the course of writing and production?

It was sort of the intention from very early on. I guess probably it stems from right in the middle of touring Out In The Storm. That album is very big and raw, and there’s so much atmosphere. There’s so much sound happening all over the place, and the vocals are very affected, and it’s like, big guitars -- it’s almost claustrophobic, sonically. I feel like that evokes the emotions I was trying to evoke on that album. because it is, lyrically, so intense and raw, and immediate. But then touring it, and kind of feeling people’s reaction to it, I was like, “Oh no, I’m afraid people think I’m a rock person now!” And I’m just not. That’s just not who I am. I made a rock record, and I love it, and I love rock music, but I’m not going further down that rabbit hole. So I need to do something to make people understand that that’s not who I am.

My influences were just shifting around, like, things I had always loved, like Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch, people like that -- they were just becoming my music of the moment. It was starting to just feel like it was being printed on my soul a little bit more than it ever had. And I think even in just singing like that, or starting to perform like that here and there, I realized that the reaction that it was getting, being reflected back to me, it was like, “Oh, this is a whole new world for you.”

And then I did a tour with Bonny Doon, who were one of my favorite bands, from Michigan, and they’re friends of mine. And immediately, when they started playing my old songs, I just recognized it as the sound I was looking for. The way that they play guitar… everything about it is just a little gentler than Out In The Storm. But they’re so talented, and we just felt so alive on stage. They were so present as players that it felt even improvisational. So I asked them to make a record with me.

What was the dynamic like between you and Brad Cook, working on this record? It feels like there’s an energy to Sonic Ranch, too -- so many of the great albums of the past few years were recorded there. What is it that’s so special about that place?

Brad is one of my best friends -- he’s like my big brother. We immediately clicked. And he’s such a talented producer. He’s got such a specifically perfect personality for that job, because he’s really good at focusing, and focusing in on a person and what they’re trying to say. He’s a good listener, which I think is really important.

He was someone I was sending things to all along, and especially when we got within the six months before we made the record, we were talking all the time, and I would go to Durham, to do, like -- I guess I’m using air quotes here -- ”pre-production” for the record. But what that really was was me and Brad sitting and listening to demos, and then listening to SZA and Tierra Whack, and listening to Lucinda, and listening to Fiona Apple, and listening to all this music. And just talking. And talking about what we love about that music, and just getting to know each other, and talking about what I’m trying to do with my record.

And Brad had basically from the beginning said Sonic Ranch is where we should do this record. He had worked there a few times, made the Bon Iver record there and stuff. I always energetically was like, yeah, this is like a Texas record, I wrote it sort of in between the deep South and the Midwest, and Texas is kind of that, you know? That’s the energy of Texas. So I was like, “This is the perfect place to do it” -- and yeah, it’s absolutely incredible. It’s like my favorite place I’ve ever been. The setting of Sonic Ranch was so important, and the house producer there is this guy Jerry Ordonez. He’s unbelievable, and his energy was so important to making the record.

The album feels like a roadmap, in that there’s this constellation of places you’re referencing throughout the tracklist -- but the different locations all feel tied to a similar sort of psychological space. What’s the relationship there?

The thing about this record is that it’s a lot of flashing dots, because the record is really kind of rooted in these two big themes, which are addiction and codependency. And those two things were things I was really sort of digging into when I started working on the record, and a lot of my energy was really being put into my sobriety and getting better. 

So when doing that, a lot of the really dark moments on the album, which is a lot -- I think the record keeps getting presented as this big, positive thing, and I do think it is a positive message, but I also think there’s a lot of darkness -- that’s just my reflecting back on a lot of different memories that occurred in a lot of different places.

Place has always been important in my music, but I was really leaning into that, because that’s something about [Lucinda Williams’] songs that I love so much, that she’s telling a story and she’s putting you in those places. And that just takes it to this other lever. By naming the place, and bringing in these specific, sort of visceral details, I feel like that really helps tell the story. So that was really in my head. 

It is kind of a roadmap, but it’s a little bit of a psychotic roadmap that jumps around a lot. And that’s because it’s jumping around a lot in the last fifteen years of my life. There’s moments where I’m reflecting back to being a teenager, there’s moments where I’m reflecting back to living in New York when I was in my early twenties.

The video for “Lilacs” sort of gets at what you’ve been saying -- obviously it pairs dance with the music, which brings this physicality to it, but I also feel like Hudson, and Basilica, where it was shot, just immediately means something to a certain subset of New Yorkers. It’s a visual signifier, for me, at least.

That’s great, I was kind of hoping for that. We had no clue where we were going to do that video. I knew that I wanted Ashley [Connor] to shoot it, and that I wanted Marlee [Grace] to dance in it, because Marlee, the dancer in the video, is my best friend, and she’s so important to a lot of my state of mind on the album. It’s a lot of me talking to her, a lot of me bouncing ideas off her, and she’s just a huge part of my support system. And then I thought, Basilica would be so good for this.

And I agree: I was like, I feel like either people will see [Basilica] and immediately recognize it, and it will evoke something for them, because it is a meaningful place for so many people. Or they will have never seen it, and they will be as enthralled by it as I was the first time I went there because it’s so beautiful, in such a dark way. And from the moment Marlee and I got to Basilica, the day before we shot the video, before anybody else, we put the song on and she was just warming up and dancing, and I just burst into tears. I had no idea how moving it was going to be to have her dance to that song in that room. I just felt like, “My God, we really have something cool here.”

It feels like, more than ever, there’s a particular cast of characters hovering around this album. Marlee is just one of the people you shout out on “Witches.” But I’m curious how these characters informed the shape of the record.

If we zoom in on “Witches,” something that was so important to me in the past six months to a year has been just really leaning into my friendships that are real and meaningful. A lot of my time in the past year has been spent thinking, like, who are my real people? Who are my real friendships? Where do I want to put my energy? 

“Witches” is a song about just that, that being frustrated by the superficial elements of the culture we live in, and just shouting out my friends that are there for me, that are my real people. And three of them are named in the song -- there’s more, but -- Lindsey is Lindsey Jordan from Snail Mail, who’s one of my best friends, and my sister Allison, Marlee, there’s a lot of people in that mix. 

My boyfriend Kevin Morby was very important in me making the record. There’s a lot of true love songs on the record, which has not always been my forte, or something I felt super comfortable doing. The song “The Eye” is one of my favorite songs on the album, and that song’s really influenced by Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song,” where it’s sort of meta, about being a songwriter. And that song I really wrote for Kevin. It’s about being a songwriter and being in this close, intimate relationship with another songwriter, and how we sort of speak the same language because of that, and have a lot of the same struggles -- and therefore have this really intimate understanding of what the other goes through in this nice, special way. 

When you’re talking about Lindsey on that song, you sing about her giving you “faith” in the future. You were talking about this album being mischaracterized as some breezy, flatly optimistic thing, but that’s such a hopeful turn of phrase. How did you access that, emotionally?

That’s maybe, digging in a little deeper, all I really mean about not mischaracterizing the album as something easy, breezy, happy, positive, self-love, self-care, blah blah blah. Because I think that that’s not exactly what’s happening. And it was sort of inevitable in terms of what I’ve been doing, what I’ve been going through. 

Obviously, I got sober, and usually I’ve used music as this vehicle for healing, and therefore when I make an album, like Out In The Storm, I’m raw, and I’m emotional, and I’m angry, and I’m putting that into the music, and I’m using the music as this journal to kind of work it all out, in a way that turns into a pop song. And I didn’t do that with this album. This album, I knew that I had to take a break, and I had to hit pause on my letting music and being a songwriter spill too far into my identity. I needed to just sit with myself, as a flawed person that’s in pain, and work through some of my stuff before I could focus on making an album again, and just get in the right mindset. 

I’m a really big advocate and believer in therapy, and I’ve done a lot of that. And, without blowing anonymity, 12 Steps stuff has been super super important, and I think has been huge on this album. I think there’s a lot of darkness, and there has to be a lot of darkness because that’s how we heal, and that’s how we move on, is by telling our stories. And so it’s a lot of my stories. My darkest stories, really, in a lot of moments on the album. But it is hopeful, because that is my attitude right now.

Is it easy for you to be sincere, in your writing?

It is if I do the things I need to do to get to that place. I had to work to get back there, on this one. I would never release music that felt insincere, I would hate it too much, and I would know immediately. And a lot of the time when I’m writing, when I’m first starting out getting ready to make a record, that’s what comes out, is stuff that’s insincere, that I read as not quite right, in that way. And that music never sees the light of day.

You were talking a little earlier about your relationship with your fans, and sensing their reaction to the music. With all other changes in your life over the past year, how has that particular relationship evolved?

I think it’s changed a lot. I’ll reference this article I read, by Tavi Gevinson, for The Cut, and it’s about social media, and how, when she first started her blogs and started being a public person, she was very principled, and just driven by art for art’s sake, and making stuff because she was a creative, energetic person, and how social media has really changed all of that, and how her motives have changed because of social media -- and that’s why she chose to get off of social media. 

And I had a similar thing where, when I was first starting writing songs, I had so much creative energy, and I was so excited to just make stuff that I loved, and I was very principled on that front. Over the course of having grown and grown, and having my fanbase grow with me, I got far away from that. Not in that I was pandering to my audience, but just in that I couldn’t quite access that same frame of mind that had been so crucial in the beginning. 

One of the things I wanted to do in this period between albums, where I really took a lot of time off from music, as I was getting sober, was really get myself back into a frame of mind that felt like, if I can be really focused on the music, and make something that I genuinely feel good about and excited about, and hone in on making it perfect, and hone in on the vision -- perfect to me -- then the fans will react to that. I made music for no audience for so long, so shifting to having a built-in audience, and people who are just going to hear and react to the album no matter what, it’s an adjustment. 

Somewhere in there, in those few years, I had lost myself. And, granted, my drinking and all of that stuff had escalated and cast a pretty dark shadow on all of that stuff anyway. And I feel like that worked for me. And now I have a more positive attitude… or just a more detached attitude, from what the fans’ reaction is going to be. I love all my fans -- it’s not like I need there to be a barrier between me and them, by any means. But I do feel like in order for me to do what I do in the purest way, in its purest form, I have to detach from the fact that anybody’s ever going to hear it, and I have to just focus on what I think about it. And when I’ve been able to do that, it’s never steered me wrong.