In 2017, Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfeld quite literally blew the music world away. Her record Out in the Storm, which we named one of the best albums of that year, displayed a whole new side of the singer. Gone were the fortified bedroom pop of 2015’s Ivy Tripp, the rock-tinged freak-folk musings of her 2013 stunner Cerulean Salt and the brainy lo-fi recordings of her 2012 debut American Weekend. Out in the Storm sounds like its title suggests: loud, windy, chaotic and emotionally intense—a tried-and-true breakup album and a throwback to Crutchfield’s punk roots. While she was already beloved among indie circles, that release took her to the next level—new fans, considerable press buzz, a massive tour and a New York Times profile starring her and her twin sister Allison.
If Out in the Storm was a tornado of sound and emotion, Saint Cloud, Crutchfield’s fifth album under the Waxahatchee alias (out Friday, March 27 on Merge Records) is the calm that comes afterwards. In some ways, it possesses little pieces of all the musical lives Crutchfield has lived before: punk-y vocals à la her once-upon-a-time rock band with Allison, P.S. Eliot, searing, Dylan-esque vocal delivery, chiming guitars straight off Out in the Storm, pastoral folk not unlike that of her 2018 EP Great Thunder. The songwriting remains impeccable. Within 10 seconds, you know—without a doubt—it’s a Waxahatchee album.
Yet, it’s different from anything she’s ever released before. Saint Cloud is Crutchfield’s country/Americana record. It runs on twang, jangle, truth and wide open spaces; on the album cover, Crutchfield, dressed in a billowy baby-blue frock, sprawls across an old Ford truck bearing a license plate from her native Alabama. “Can’t Do Much,” a single released ahead of the record, possesses that old-time lilt and a head-over-heels chorus that sounds like something Lucinda Williams may have spat out on Essence. Saint Cloud is a whole new world.
Oftentimes, in an interview setting, when one asks an artist about a sonic shift such as this one, they’re quick to point out that the change in sound was a natural progression—not a conscious maneuver. For Crutchfield, however, this very obviously new palette was painted entirely on purpose, as she explained very forthrightly over the phone last week.
“It was intentional,” she says of Saint Cloud’s new mood. “It was more of a cause and effect thing. Out in the Storm was obviously written in a very raw state. I was very emotional and needed to make that record as a cathartic experience to heal from something that was painful, and a lot of the choices we made sonically were claustrophobic and intense and there’s so much atmosphere—and there’s no space on the record. And that was all very intentional. But then going on tour, as I was starting to sort of feel further and further away from what that record’s about, that was just not a super sustainable way to play music for me because it was loud and intense and raw. As important as it was for me to make the record, I just knew like, ‘This is cool, but whatever I do next is going to be a very sharp turn in another direction.’”
From that headspace eventually came the much roomier Saint Cloud, a rootsy Americana record that occasionally slides into folk or rock, but never into one of the booming whirls that defined Out in the Storm’s tangles and climaxes. Saint Cloud just feels gentle. “I didn’t know then and there when I made that choice that I wanted to make a record that was more country-leaning,” Crutchfield adds. “But I knew that I did not want to make another big, loud rock album.”
When Crutchfield, calling from home in Kansas, and I speak on the phone, our country is approximately one week into a national crisis. Musicians have begun canceling their tours en masse due to the coronavirus outbreak, summer festivals have been postponed, venues have shut their doors and Americans have begun social distancing in an attempt to flatten that curve. Later that night, Crutchfield went live on Instagram with her partner and fellow musician Kevin Morby, to answer questions, play requests and greet fans, who are all similarly stuck inside. “We’re all at home, we’re all missing seeing people and hanging out, and it just feels like now more than ever, that’s a great thing to do,” Crutchfield says of the Instagram event, which the pair will repeat this Thursday night, as well.
No one in the music industry (or any industry, for that matter) is immune to the coronavirus domino effect. Waxahatchee’s planned spring/summer tour is one of hundreds that got canceled or postponed.
“When my tour got affected by it, that was hard, and I definitely had a millisecond of feeling really upset about that,” she says.
But when it comes to her album’s release, nothing has really changed. The tour dates have been rescheduled, and Crutchfield is feeling “optimistic” and eager to share new music during this difficult time.
“It’s a pretty hopeful album,” Crutchfield says of Saint Cloud. “Now is such a good time to put out a record because people need music right now.”
Indeed, Saint Cloud is truly a light at the end of the tunnel, even if we’re all collectively still driving down a dark, mysterious passage. For Crutchfield, this record marks the end of a special personal journey, as well: her decision to get sober. She says she “had a problem” and finally took action to rid alcohol from her routine.
“Like many musicians, it’s a hard lifestyle,” she says. “There’s alcohol everywhere; it’s free. And for years saw it as something that was holding me back in a lot of different ways. I was watching it sort of negatively affect my performance as a singer and a musician. I was watching it negatively affect my relationships. I was watching it make me less productive than I naturally would be. And so I had known for a long time that it wasn’t working, but, obviously, I struggled to totally quit. And then I was on tour and finally just saw, ‘Oh, I need to maybe make this change.’ And in doing so, it’s pretty much changed my whole life for the better.”
For this album, Crutchfield brought on producer Brad Cook, who also worked on her Great Thunder EP. They make for a fruitful pair. “He feels like my family now,” Crutchfield says. “Producers, a lot of the time, really want to put their creative stamp on things. That is an important part of that job—being able to do that and knowing when to do that. But Brad really isn’t that way. He paid very close attention to what I was doing, what was organically happening with the songs, and then was making the band do the same. Like ‘Let’s watch Katie, let’s see what’s happening with this song organically, and let’s build around that rather than chopping things up,’ which is something that’s happened to me in the past.”
However, Crutchfield’s actual familial music connection—Allison, who has contributed to Waxahatchee albums in the past and also records as a solo artist and with her band Swearin’—wasn’t really involved in the process this time around.
“This is my first record that I don’t have my training wheels,” Crutchfield says. “I’m kind of out there riding alone, and it was positive for me to be able to do that. And obviously she’s my best friend and always will be. But we grow and evolve constantly, and our involvement with each other’s music goes through waves.”
Some Saint Cloud songs, like the vivid “Fire,” took shape on the road (during a sunset ride over the Mississippi River bridge between Memphis and Arkansas’ West Memphis, “on fire in the light of day,” to be exact), while others came together with a little inspiration from rootsy Michigan group Bonny Doon, who played as Waxahatchee’s backing band on her last tour. She says some lyrics were more laborious to come by, but her “process is more or less the same even though it’s evolved ever so slightly.” Half the time, these songs sound like very personal prayers, while the other half, they’re more like perky poems meant to be heard by the masses. “Lilacs” likens human processes to the growth and death of budding flowers. “Arkadelphia,” in a rhythm that recalls the peak ’90s radio country that Crutchfield’s parents played for her growing up in Alabama, traces a backroads journey, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road-style, that ends with her watching a toddler run around the yard. “Ruby Falls” points out that “real love doesn’t follow a straight line.” The heart of it all is so undeniably country—while still a Katie Crutchfield original.
Crutchfield’s love for the aforementioned Lucinda Williams (who, coincidentally, has a new album out next month) has been frequently documented (by Crutchfield herself, included), but hearing her describe her devotion to the country/rock troubadour in her own voice takes it to another level. Crutchfield had also just met Williams for the first time not too long before this conversation, so there was added meaning to her gushing description:
“Wow, I mean, where do I even start?” she says of Williams. “She was this cool black sheep of country music. She was influenced by all of this cool stuff and was so hard to market because she refused to commit to a genre or pander to what was popular. She is such a role model to me in that way, someone who just always was committed to the integrity of the music above everything else. And that’s all I’ve ever really wanted to do, too. And then obviously, she’s one of the greatest songwriters of all time.”
With each album release, Crutchfield seems more prepared to assume a Williams-like role in the music industry: an outlaw with a big heart, an artist with no shortage of stories to share, towering potential to continually evolve, a rare versatility and the songwriting chops to back it all up. She’s five incredible—and incredibly different—albums in, yet this still feels like just the beginning.
Ellen Johnson is an assistant music editor, writer, playlist maker, coffee drinker and pop culture enthusiast at Paste. She often moonlights as a film fan on Letterboxd. You can find her yapping about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson.