February 3, 2015

Interview: Waxahatchee

Digging deep with Waxahatchee's Katie Crutchfield.

I remember hearing Waxahatchee for the first time during my last year of college, right before spring break. I put on Cerulean Salt and immediately found solace. My friends and I listened to the album on the way to Austin, perhaps the perfect album for driving twenty hours straight through ghost towns and meadows of the South and getting over a breakup. That summer, I listened to American Weekend while drinking coffee alone in my kitchen and worrying about moving away and leaving behind so many friends and so much love.

Waxahatchee's newest song, "Air", breaks my heart and lifts me up at the same time. Her next album, Ivy Tripp, comes out in April on Merge Records and I already can't wait to hear it. I always listen to Waxahatchee when I need inspiration. When I don't know what to say. When I'm overwhelmed by feelings. Maybe I'm making this too personal, but talking to Katie Crutchfield was a little surreal. "Did Allison tell you about the day?" Katie explained that they showed up in Richmond nearly two hours late after driving through Baltimore and visiting all the places mentioned in Serial and getting pulled over. We met up in a backstage room and talked over a couple beers and a little whiskey until we heard Jenny Lewis start playing.

THE LE SIGH: I've thought a lot about how place plays into the songs you write, whether its being from the South and living in the South or living in Philly or living in New York, or wherever. 

KATIE CRUTCHFIELD: With the South, it was the setting to a lot of the songs. It's like being from anywhere. I'm sure that from an outside perspective, it seasons it for people. But it's just my experience. It's the setting, and you're brought into that specific experience. It would be like somebody talking about living in New York City as a kid. I'm like, "Oh, that must have so much to do with the person that they are." But those people probably don't think that way, because that's just been their whole life.

TLS: I'm from Virginia and the setting immediately resonated with me. 

KC: Yeah, I get that too. A lot of my favorite artists are from the South too, and it just really resonates with you. I get that. Totally.

TLS: Have you found that your songs about the South are different now that you're not spending as much time there? 

KC: When I wrote Cerulean Salt, I lived in New York and in Philly. I was still writing about experiences that I'd had in the South. Maybe because I'd put some distance between myself and living in the South, it made me want to write about living in the South? I don't really find myself writing about my experiences outside of the South so much. But with my new record, I drew from a lot of different experiences, like past experiences. I think it was maybe the first record I wrote where I was fully there, like in New York and Philly and the Northeast and on my own and away from my childhood and away from my adolescence. It was the first record that I made as an adult, on my own. And I'm not sure if that translates when another person listens to it, but that's kind of how I feel about it.

TLS: Whats your writing process like, lyrically?

KC: It's kind of evolved, and it's progressed. When I was younger, I would sit down and write a song in like 20 minutes. The lyrics were always really important to me and sort of where I saw my own talent. Not to be like, "I'm great at writing lyrics," but that was sort of where I felt the strongest. It was the most fulfilling for me. So I would sit down, and I would write, and when I first started, I was like, "This is cool." I really took pride in that. And then as I got older, my expectations of myself just got higher. Now when I write lyrics, it takes me a long time. I sit down, and I write in front of my computer or with a notebook, and it'll take me hours to write like one verse. I'll just scrutinize every single word, and then I'll go back and I'll edit it, and a song will take me like weeks or months to finish, because I'll want every single word to be perfect. There's no real way to describe to another person how it's perfect, like it's totally me. It's just like, "That word is wrong, or it doesn't rhyme quite right, or it's not the exact meaning that I want, or it's too ostentatious or it's too simple or it's too overused or whatever." It's hard to explain that process to somebody else, because it's super obsessive. But when I'm finished, it feels great.

TLS: Yeah sometimes if I'm working on a poem or whatever, I'll go back and read what I've written and I'll just say like, "this line is wrong and I'm not sure why it's wrong but it is wrong". 

KC: The beautiful thing about that though is I always feel like there's a piece to the puzzle. There's always a way to fix it. There's always a way to make it just right. You just have to sit there and figure it out. I feel like I've never written a song and not found the right word or the right way to say something. It just takes time and focus. It's a cool process. My relationship to it has changed a lot over the years. It's good. I feel confident. I know that I can do this if I just sit. And it's frustrating, because you also know that you can't half-ass it. You have to sit there and put the time in, and eventually it'll be perfect.

TLS: Can you remember a particular point when your songwriting shifted to a more specific and image-driven style? Or was it a more gradual process that developed because you started writing about different feelings and experiences? 

KC: I think it was a little of both. It developed organically once I made a conscious choice to shift the subject matter. This was specific to writing Cerulean Salt. I feel like I decided that I didn't want to write about relationships and heartache and things like that. It felt really natural to look elsewhere. 

TLS: How does the new record relate to American Weekend and Cerulean Salt?

KC: The funny thing is, I just don't know if it does. I don't know. It goes back to feeling like this is my first record as this person that I am now. I wrote all those records when I was a little younger or just starting to figure stuff out. I feel like this is just a new thing. It feels like a totally different thing. Maybe other people will be able to draw comparisons. I feel like my perspective is always very warped. It's gonna take me a while to connect the dots.

TLS: Do you have a favorite song you've written? 

KC: Not really. I have ones that I'm like, "this one's definitely the catchiest or the most fun to play," or, "this song lyrically is the song I'm proudest of," but I don't know that I necessarily have a favorite. It's funny, when you tour all the time, and you play the same songs all the time, there's just a space between you and the song after a while. Sometimes it's hard to get back to it in that raw sort of sense, like, "I wrote this song and this is my song." Also, when more people hear it, I feel like it kind of belongs to everybody. So, a lot of my older songs are just things that I play every night. It means the world to me that the songs mean anything to anybody, but in the same breath, sometimes they don't really lose their meaning, the meaning just shifts. I really like the song "Dixie Cups and Jars." Just lyrically, it was a specific feeling I was trying to articulate, and when I finished I was like, "Yeah, that's exactly what I wanted to say." So that felt good, like I know that I said what I was trying to say.

TLS: How do you strike that balance between talking about very specific personal experiences and conveying more universal feelings? 

KC: Well it's funny––I find that attention to detail tends to work for me. Just scrutinizing every single word and every single line. Just having that laser focus on that one tiny aspect of the song. I feel like that has really worked for me. Sometimes the song is finished, and I find meaning in things that I didn't mean to convey, like "Yeah that works on multiple levels." It's because I had that razor sharp focus on those things. Also, I find that the songs that resonate the most with people are the songs that you're just really honest about, just sharing your own experience. Even if I don't know what I'm trying to say, or if I don't know how I feel about a situation, it becomes pretty clear by the end of the song, like, "Oh I see how other people could relate to that."

TLS: Are there any songs that are about experiences that you don't want to go back to so you don't play them as much?

KC: Yes and no. There are some songs, a lot of the older songs, especially from American Weekend. I wrote and recorded that whole record in a week, so it was all stuff that was happening to me at the time, and it was such a particularly hard moment in my life. When I first wrote that and would play those songs, it was hard. Now, because I have so much space between me and that time and the people that were in my life at that time, it's easier. Cerulean Salt too, there are some bittersweet moments and some moments that are a little hard to revisit. But once again, when I'm playing every single night I'm trying to focus on my singing or focusing on playing piano, so I don't think so much about what I'm saying.

TLS: I've been thinking about how American Weekend emerged from a period of retreat from the world, also about how many moments on that record deal with avoiding conversations and cutting off contact and hiding out, and I've been thinking about how important it is to take time to process emotions like that and spend time getting to know yourself a little bit better. 

KC: Yeah, I tend to feel some shame about self-care. I don't know if its just the way I was socialized or the way all women are socialized. I'm working on that. But that feeling of shame when it comes to those songs is very specific and only wore off in recent years. I think I hid out because I felt like I was constantly disappointing people in my life. It was all very melodramatic, but I think it accurately portrays where I was psychically when I wrote American Weekend. I was a little bit lost, but those times end up holding some meaning and often provoke a turn for the better

TLS: "Rose, 1956" is one of my favorites on American Weekend, and it seems to come from a different emotional narrative that the other songs on that record, can you talk a bit about your relationship to that song?

KC: I think that song was sort of a sign post for what Cerulean Salt ended up being. That song is very emotional and is sort of coated in some pretty coarse imagery. I don't like to play it any more.

TLS: You mentioned the way unexpected meanings emerge after you work on songs for a long time, which songs were most surprising for you? Or maybe which songs have sparked the most surprising reactions from other people?

KC: The reactions to "Lively" and "Brother Bryan" surprised me at first. Now I think people connect with those songs because they're so clearly about really cumbersome topics that people find relatable. "Swan Dive" too.

TLS: I've been thinking a lot about repeated images in your songs, especially bedrooms and bodies of water, so I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about that. 

KC: Well the setting of Cerulean Salt in my mind is Waxahatchee Creek. The lake, the water. A lot of those songs drift back into my childhood and some of my experiences growing up. I spent a lot of time there, so a lot of that is just the setting. And bedrooms, I mean, we all spend a lot of time in bedrooms, so that's kind of where that comes from too. A lot of the songs are about relationships, about people that you're with or you're dating or you're seeing or whatever, and bedrooms are where you spend a lot of the time.

TLS: And I kind of feel like a bedroom can be the best possible place to be but also the worst place to be, because you're just caught up in yourself.

KC: Totally, and when you're feeling bad or you're feeling manic or whatever, and it sometimes feels terrible.

TLS: Something I've also noticed on Cerulean Salt is the tension between being in that personal space and then being on the road and moving around all the time. 

KC: Between American Weekend and Cerulean Salt, I did a tour that was like two months long, and it was really hard. It was just a really long tour, and there were a lot of weird shows, and it was just me and one other person on the tour. Not that I wrote about that experience specifically, but I feel like it really affected my mental state, my emotional state, when I wrote Cerulean Salt. So I feel like that could've been part of what you were hearing.

TLS: I often find myself listening to "Peace and Quiet" in particularly weird and sad moments, like I find a sort of catharsis in that song, and I find myself connecting with details in a way that transforms weird feelings into creative energy. I feel similarly about "Swan Dive," like it's sad and empowering at the same time. 

KC: Yeah I think that may be a goal of mine subconsciously. In my old band PS Eliot I always felt like the lyrics and the music were inappropriately mismatched. Hopefully I was just being overly critical. I feel like I've grown into that concept a little better with Waxahatchee. Trying to evoke a cocktail of emotions by juxtaposing the lyrics and music in an unorthodox way is a cool idea to me.  

TLS: I've always thought that your lyrics feel like poems and work well as poems––what poets do you like? 

KC: For this new record I actually read a lot of Stevie Smith. She was a huge influence. I know that Morrissey really likes Stevie Smith, and there's part of me that just wanted to simplify what I was trying to say. When I listen to my old records, like PS Eliot or my older bands, I hear myself trying to convey a sentiment with so many words, and I wanted to just simplify it. I feel like I've gotten better about that, and I've gotten a little more self aware. But Morrissey, to me, just writes really great simple lyrics, and I know that he loves Stevie Smith, so that's why I started reading her poems. I love Anne Sexton and I love Adrienne Rich. There're a lot of poets that I feel have been pretty influential, but those are the main ones.

TLS: Is there any other writing you do outside of writing songs? I read your review of The Voyager on The Talkhouse, have you been doing any other writing recently? Do you keep a journal?

KC: Not really, not in a public way. I enjoy writing, but I also like the idea of keeping some mystery about myself. Thats not to say I'll never write for The Talkhouse or something like that again, I just don't pursue it. I do write in my free time and sometimes on Tumblr. I keep a journal on and off. My memory is terrible, and I really want to get better about writing down everything notable so I don't forget. Mostly I just write songs.

Listen to Waxahatchee on Soundcloud.

THIS STAFF POST WAS CONTRIBUTED BY: 
Caroline Rayner, who likes getting tattoos and cutting up old magazines and driving long distances and baking cookies. She also writes things for Tiny Mix Tapes and, when she remembers, her blog.