For someone from Birmingham, Alabama, Katie Crutchfield has an accent that's startlingly subtle. "It sort of snuck away," the lead singer and creator of the band Waxahatchee says, taking a break from her international tour to talk via phone. "It'll sneak out when I have a drink," she adds. "It's sad. I kind of wish I still had it."
Now 28, Katie's music career began alongside that of her twin sister, Allison, in the mid-2000s with a high-school rock band they called the Ackleys. It's a moment she recently revisited with some friends through an old student-made video of the two from 2006 that's still online. "We both have the thickest Southern accents," she says, half-chuckling. "It's crazy."
A few years later, they'd experiment with creating a pop-punk band (called P.S. Eliot) before heading to New York to helm their own projects in 2011. There, surrounded by "cool East Coast people," Crutchfield remembers being self-conscious about her Southern drawl ("I felt like such a bumpkin"). A likely impetus, it seems, for its disappearance.
As Crutchfield worried about fitting in, her newly formed group Waxahatchee was taking off. An indie music project named for a creek near her parent's home, it's part solo venture, part band. Crutchfield, who writes and sings all the songs, is in full creative control of the music. On some, she's supported by as many as four backup players — including, on percussion and keyboard, her twin. On others, it's just her and the guitar.
But no matter the makeup of Waxahatchee, it's a force to be reckoned with. Upon the 2012 release of the band's first album, American Weekend — which Crutchfield wrote in seven days — Pitchfork awarded it an honorable mention for album of the year. By the next two albums, she'd be fielding interviews with the New York Times, The New Yorker, and NPR.
Through evocative lyrics and a transformative sound, Waxahatchee has become a staple in the indie-music scene and this summer will be releasing its fourth album. Out in the Storm, like the three records before it, is both sonically and lyrically arresting. A blend of alt rock, pop, and folk that paints a picture of heartbreak so vivid it stings. But unlike the others, this one ends with a triumphant Crutchfield. An idealist who lost herself in a volatile relationship for a while and — with the help of her sister — clawed her way back out.
In the lead-up to the album's release, we talked embarrassment, Berlin, and "shutting out the noise."
Abby Haglage: You started Waxahatchee in 2010 and within two years were being profiled by the New York Times. Since then you've been in the Guardian and The New Yorker, and in September, you performed on NPR's "Tiny Desk" series. Does all this fame get overwhelming?
Katie Crutchfield: I was talking to a friend about that. The thing is, I've been playing music for a long time. It's coming up on fifteen years that I've been making music and ten that I've been touring. I know a lot of people struggle with [fame] — and I have my moments for sure — but it happened at such a comfortable pace that I feel fine about it. At times it's really exciting; at times it's a little overwhelming. I have good days and bad days, but mostly I'm fine with it.
AH: Your music is such a blend of genres — alternative rock, pop, folk, and more. Is there one that you prefer to be known for?
KC: Sometimes when people put it in a box, I get frustrated because it's always the wrong box — or it's a box that I don't feel like I belong in. I like [my songs] to move around a lot, for one to sound super-folky and then the next one to sound like a '90s indie-rock song. That's where I feel the most comfortable, keeping it open. I want to be making records for a really long time, so I just want to explore and see where my ideas take me.
AH: Your new album is autobiographical and centers on you realizing you're in an unhealthy relationship where you said you weren't being honest with yourself. What do you mean by that?
KC: That's something that's been a pattern for me in my life, where I find myself in these situations that are comfortable and look around and don't recognize anything. I feel like I've just sort of gotten myself into this corner, [like] I let myself fall into a situation rather than have that agency and select certain things for my life. I don't want to call it a break-up record, but it was a romantic and professional relationship that fell apart. I had to end it, and it rippled throughout every little corner of my life. Getting on the other side of that and reflecting on the whole spectrum of sadness and anger and resentment, I came out of it and I was a lot closer to myself, which I think is common too. People lose themselves into relationships sometimes.
AH: I think the lyrics are likely relatable for a lot of people, but they're rooted in such a personal experience. Is it difficult to be that vulnerable?
KC: It's really easy for me. I have a lot of practice shutting out all of the noise in the world when I'm writing. It's a sacred process for me. I feel like there's something empowering about just being really honest. I end up connecting with people so much more. People hear my music and say, "That's exactly what I'm dealing with." So if I can make music like that, that makes people feel that way, that's great. That's what I want to do.
I don't want to call it a break-up record, but it was a romantic and professional relationship that fell apart. I had to end it, and it rippled throughout every little corner of my life.
AH: You touch on the concept of embarrassment and shame a lot in the album. It's an interesting theme because you seem so self-assured. Is it something you struggle with behind the scenes?
KC: The feeling that I was trying to describe is generally a feeling that a lot of women feel. It reminds me of how sometimes when you're younger and a confident or outspoken woman and men — or boys — would make you the butt of a joke. That is how they reacted to it. Then there's nothing you can say to that. It's embarrassing, but you know that you're right, that's kind of what that's about, just experiencing that shame and being able to identify it. I'm describing interactions with a specific person [who] had a tendency to make me feel this way. It's almost hopeful. "Okay, I'm feeling this way, I'm feeling ashamed that I feel this way; maybe this relationship with this person is super-flawed, and maybe I should analyze that."
AH: That makes sense. You do seem to have this super strong side. You talked about boys not listening to you in an interview and how that makes you want to yell into the mike. But I loved how you pivoted and said, "I don't care if people call me an evil bitch." Do people call you that, and who, because I will find them.
KC: [Laughs.] No, no. It's like every six months, things feel a little bit better. When my sister and I started playing music together, stuff like that happened all the time, and it was impossible to feel like you could ever get your head above water. Playing music as a woman, the things that people would do and say and get away with? It was really disheartening.
AH: Like that time that a teenage boy tried to kiss you onstage?
KC: Yeah, that was a crazy story. But that doesn't happen often. I mean, it's one of the reasons that [my sister and I] left the South, because the scene there … [was a lot]. One of us would get groped at a show, or somebody would say something fucked up, or yell something in between our songs, but I feel like that conversation has gotten louder and people are ready to stand up to that kind of behavior. At least that's how it seems to me. That's how I've been experiencing the world in the last couple of years.
AH: It seems like your twin sister, Allison, has been such a big part of your musical journey. You started together as teenagers with a rock band called The Ackleys, but you separated six years ago to do your own thing. Does she still have an influence over your music?
KC: It's funny, it's like we have this great story of creating together. It's the relationship of my life, my creative relationship with my sister. We do still collaborate a lot and we're talking about starting a new band. She plays in the Waxahatchee band, so she tours with me all year and it definitely still feels like we're connected. I feel like my whole process at its core, the skeleton of it is, I write a song, and I send it to Allison, and I need to hear Allison's thoughts. Then I move on. That's how we create together, and she does the same for me. It's this great thing. Sometimes it feels like we're just making music for each other.
AH: It sort of takes the pressure off.
KC: Yeah, and then we share it with the world. That's really how it feels. Like her opinions about it and the feeling that she gets from it, that's the most important thing.
AH: You can tell in your lyrics that she's really important to you. In "Sparks Fly," you have a line that says "I think I see myself through my sister's eyes … I see myself clearly for the first time." Was she important in this process of self-discovery you went through?
KC: Yeah. That song, it's one of my favorites that I've written ever, I think, lyrically — because it's just really about me. Most of my songs are about relationships or about another person or how this other person is making me feel. And that song is just about how I feel about myself in a specific moment. That line is about this great wild fun night that we spent together in Berlin. We were both going through these big life changes and we just had so much fun. I had been seeing myself through another person's eyes, you know, like when you're in a really serious or toxic, shitty relationship, you start to kind of become this person that you don't recognize. I was in that place for such a long time, and I just remember that night sort of feeling like I was seeing myself through Allison's eyes, and she was seeing me as a person who is happy and fun and can laugh and enjoy myself. You know what I mean? I was seeing myself as this good, happy person, and I hadn't seen myself like that in a long time. This big weight of insecurity had been lifted, and I was very free.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Abby Haglage is a writer in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Newsweek, Glamour, Marie Claire, and Elle UK.