Waxahatchee Breaks Down Every Song on Her New Album, Saint Cloud - Pitchfork

Waxahatchee Breaks Down Every Song on Her New Album, Saint Cloud - Pitchfork
Since starting her first band alongside twin sister Allison as a teenager in Birmingham, Alabama, Katie Crutchfield has been touring nearly non-stop for well over a decade. While promoting 2017’s Out in the Storm , her fourth album of raw indie folk under the moniker Waxahatchee , she realized that she had run herself ragged and needed a drastic change. She quit drinking, holed up in Kansas City alongside her partner, musician Kevin Morby , and committed to relearning how to be a “person person” instead of just a “music person.”

Only after total upheaval was Crutchfield able to reapproach songwriting with new eyes. She emerged with Saint Cloud , the warm and twangy fifth Waxahatchee album, which she created with assistance from producer Brad Cook and Detroit band Bonny Doon . After years spent writing brutally intimate songs about turbulent romances and gnawing anxieties, Crutchfield sounds clear-eyed in sentiment and sound on Saint Cloud, as the uncertainty of her 20s gives way to the self-assured perspective of her early 30s. “In the past, I have been gunning for something at all times, and making compromises along the way. I didn’t do any of that on this record,” Crutchfield says. “If somebody wasn’t available, then I waited. And if something didn’t sound just right, then we made it sound just right.”

“I started to reject the idea that you have to live your life clumsily and be a big mess to write anything that’s exciting or interesting,” she continues. “I am approaching everything in life with a softness, which I think is important to keeping myself in a healthy place. I feel inspired by the idea of writing about exactly where I am.”

Pitchfork: Why open the record with this track?

Katie Crutchfield: I always knew that “Oxbow” was going to be the first song. I wanted it to be a big-sounding, genre-confusing song that makes you wonder what the rest of the record will be. I always saw it as the beginning of the story, which is the decision to start taking better care of myself. If we’re going to talk about the record, we have to talk about my sobriety.

I got sober in Barcelona. My bottom was very high, it’s not a dramatic story. It was during Primavera 2018. I had gone back and forth a lot about my substance issues, and I woke up one day and said, “I’m done with this forever.” I went and got my own hotel room in Barcelona and started to work on music. I remember thinking, “This is the beginning of a new chapter of my life.” “Oxbow” tells that story in a loose and abstract way. I wanted the lyrics to feel poetic and a little bit conversational. Intimate, like I’m talking to one person, while also sounding big. I was figuring out a lot of thematic things in this song, and I want it to feel that way—like we’re all getting comfortable.

The song ends with you repeating the phrase “I want it all.” What are you reaching for in that moment?

The two big things that come up on this album are addiction and codependency. A lot of the songs are about an internal fight with myself. I wanted to communicate a struggle but have it feel hopeful and big and beautiful. To me, that line captures all of that. I feel like I’ve been so wordy in the past. I’m trying to find ways to say a lot without using that many words.

I love that this is a very unsentimental love song.

Friction-y juxtaposition is my favorite thing in songwriting. That was at the heart of my approach to this song: “How do I write a love song that conveys the frustration that you can experience while still being totally smitten with somebody?”

This is the only song that features another vocalist harmonizing with you. How did that moment come to be?

Bill [Lennox, of Bonny Doon] sings on that song. Bonny Doon is my backing band on this record and for the next tour. We were jamming together and I was so excited by how they were interpreting my old songs that I threw “Can’t Do Much” at them. They tried it out and Bill started singing along with me organically. It was a nice color to add to the palette of the song, especially since his voice is so beautiful and low. That was one of the big moments where I was like, “Bonny Doon is my band.”

On this song, you seem to be examining your past self as a means of coming to terms with your current place in life.

I was driving from Birmingham to Kansas City, and the melody and lyrics came into my head right as I started driving through Memphis. If I had been alone, I would have sung the words into my phone, but Kevin [Morby] was with me, and I was a little afraid of introducing another person into what was happening in my mind. So I held onto the thoughts, and when we stopped, I wrote them all down. I love the idea of writing a song that feels like a traditional song to a romantic partner, but then having that other person be me. Like my higher self singing to my inner child, or my lower self. It feels like an anthem for self-acceptance and self-love.

You start the song seemingly in the middle of a thought: “That’s what I wanted.” What are you referring to?

It’s about getting to a more grounded, centered, self-assured place. Just recognizing the low points and the hard moments. Even though I’m having this moment of reckoning with myself, I do have to remind myself that I’ve made a lot of progress, and it is getting easier. That’s what I wanted, for it to get easier.

How did you begin to make such major changes in your life?

What was huge for me was taking time, which is hard for people who travel and tour as much as I do. When you’re on tour, all you want is to slow down a little bit. And then the moment that any of us slow down, we lose our fucking minds. I had to jump into that abyss, and let myself realign with the normal pace of life. As I did that, I was able to start doing all that people do to take care of themselves, from eating better and exercising to big things like therapy. Forcing myself to slow down was the first step. I think, deep down, I knew I wasn’t going to write anything great again until I took a minute to chill.

Can you tell me the story behind writing this song?

I was done making the record when I wrote “Lilacs.” Right away, people responded to that one in an exciting way. The demo was so stripped down. With “Fire” and a few of the other ones, I knew exactly what they would sound like, but with “Lilacs” we literally had no idea. It could go in a million different directions, which was exciting.

What’s the message of this song?

It’s a reminder that none of us are ever done doing work. You have to keep taking care of yourself forever. You’re never going to have an answer. I had a really shitty day, where a lot of my codependency stuff was bubbling up. I was frustrated, angry, and pointing the finger at everyone but myself, and was writing this angsty song about it. Somewhere in the midst of that I realized, “Oh okay here we go again, this is my trip that I’ve always been on.”

Then when I was writing the chorus, I was trying to find a way to make it hopeful, like, “It’s cool, this is part of life. Everybody has stuff that is always coming back around, and you have to find the tools to repair yourself.”

Are lilacs your favorite flower?

I do love lilacs. There’s a lilac bush in my front yard in Kansas. I like to trim them and put them all over the piano in Topo Chico bottles. I was writing this melody and singing to myself about what I was literally looking at, which was these flowers beginning to wilt and die. But I like the idea of it: flowers die, time moves slowly. Anytime I write about experiencing depression I always think of the stillness of the afternoon and the dust in the air, the way that time can feel like it is moving very slowly and every feeling seems so intense.

I was captivated by the line, “To possess something arcane, oh it’s a heavy weight.” Is this one about your relationship with music?

I wrote the first half of that song in a hotel room in Portugal, shortly after the story told in “Oxbow.” The zoomed-out idea was always loosely inspired by Leonard Cohen’s “ Tower of Song ,” which is about being a songwriter. I wanted to write a love song about being an artist and being with another artist, when you’re not collaborating, but you’re making stuff for each other and relying on each other’s feedback. It’s like these two brains meld for a while. It’s been nice for me. I’ve always had that relationship with Allison, and now I feel like I have it with Kevin. So “The Eye” was sort of my song for Kevin and that element of our relationship.

You sing “We are enthralled by the calling of the eye.” What does the eye represent?

The eye is your mind’s eye. You always have your eye on the creative, and that’s the most important thing to any artist. You’ll stop what you’re doing, or make huge life choices around what will grease the wheels of the eye.

I was taken aback by the intensity of your self-reckoning here.

That’s one of my Dolly Parton-inspired moments, where I wanted to write a song that’s a little bit psycho because I think that people relate to that. “Yeah, okay, I’m being a little bit insane right now but I’m so filled with emotion.”

Being in recovery is very revealing. You see the absolute worst of yourself. So I thought it would be fun to play with that a little bit, and to use very strong imagery like hell. The bit “I hover above like a deity/But you don’t worship me” is about having this frustrating righteousness that you have to deconstruct in order to have any kind of happiness. If you walk around like that forever you will be angry all the time.

On Out in the Storm, you leaned into a heavier rock sound. Here you return to the folk-country twang of your early records.

I grew up on country music. It’s in my DNA. When I first started identifying myself as a music person when I was a kid, I was reacting to that music. When I grew into an angsty teen and was starting my first band and discovering punk rock or the Velvet Underground, I rejected that music and my southern identity entirely. I wanted to lean into what was weird, or left-of-center, about myself. I was fighting with that over the course of several years and several records. In not fighting with my melodic tendencies or my more traditional-sounding voice, I feel like I’ve returned to form on this album.

Were there any musicians that you turned to for inspiration?

It’s hard to talk about this record without talking about Lucinda Williams. A lot of different songwriting and storytelling techniques on Saint Cloud are borrowed from Lucinda. Her ability to put you in a place that you’ve never been is pretty unparalleled. A lot of these songs jump around from place to place, they flash back to 10 years ago and then come to the present day.

This song name-drops several people. What do they represent and how do they relate to the title?

The people I name-check are Marlee, Lindsey, and Allison. The way I visualize this song is that the world is frozen and me and all of my closest friends are running around acting crazy. It’s about having this shared understanding and language in a world that is increasingly isolating. Feeling like I’m not of this time, or that I don’t belong in this world—being frustrated about social media, or the music business, or politics—but then having close friendships with people that relate to me in that, and leaning on them. The imagery of a coven of witches came to mind; there’s a darkness to it, because we’re bonded by shared frustrations.

Can you elaborate on the lines “The myth won’t love you like no other, babe/The myth will always be fair-weather, babe”?

That was a moment of criticizing the act of self mythologizing that artists have to do. I was feeling like, “I hate social media, I hate when people brand themselves, and how we all are hustling so hard because the music business is so competitive.” This myth that you’re creating will fade eventually.

“You take it just like a man, babe/Scathing at the first sign of pain.” I found this lyric interesting for its kind of declaration that weakness is a male quality when it is typically associated with women.

I can’t even remember what inspired that line. I probably just had a bad interaction with a man. Because I do every single day of my life.

It seems like you are having an internal struggle here, and you repeatedly acknowledge that “it’s got nothing to do with you.” Who is the “you”?

I wrote that one for my best friend, Marlee, and for myself. She’s almost nine years sober and talks about that a lot in  her work . “War” is about that constant struggle with the emotions and behaviors that come from being an addict or a codependent person. You have to remember, I’m not angry with this other person, the person that I need to negotiate all these feelings with is myself. Marlee and I are on the same side of the war, and we’re talking to all the yous out there in our lives. I almost look at it as an apology.

Is Arkadelphia Road a real place?

Yeah, it’s in Birmingham. The climax of this song took place there. This song is so fucked up. I knew when I wrote it that I will never be able to really tell the story, because it’s not my place. It’s about someone I have known for a very long time who struggled badly with addiction. It starts with this imagery of the South from my youth and conjures this innocence. Then the middle part takes you into the thick of the addiction: it’s truly dire, it’s life or death.

I have struggled, but not like this person did. So it’s just relating to them, trying to connect, and almost feeling like you’re getting ready to say goodbye. At the end it’s this whole thing of recovery and trying to do the next right thing in life. It ends in this sweet little place that says, “We’re doing our best.”

In the line “If I burn out like a lightbulb/They’ll say she wasn’t meant for that life/They’ll put it all in a capsule/And save it for a dark night,” are you referring to yourself?

I had the thought that, if I continue down the path I’m on, I don’t think I will—not necessarily that I won’t survive, but I didn’t think I would continue to live this same kind of life. The idea of the capsule was sort of, “I’m going to be one of the sad stories of music,” where people take these records out late at night when they’re sad and say, “Remember her? That was really a sad story.”

This song goes to many different places, literally and emotionally.

It’s about another friend of mine who passed away from a drug overdose. I’ve written a lot of songs about him over the years, like “Brother Bryan,” from  Cerulean Salt . I look at the song as three parts. The first part is the high, being up in the air and living dangerously, but being free and happy. The middle part is on the ground, and it’s this gritty, real-time friendship or love. That part of the song is inspired by Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids. The ending is beneath the surface, six feet underground. It’s the sad inevitability of that story.

Lyrics like “Real love doesn’t follow a straight line/It breaks your neck, it builds you a delicate shrine” feel grounded in your own life lessons.

I think that sentiment is true, and it’s something I have stepped into in the last couple years. I’ve entered this phase of trying to accept people and meet them where they are. I think that’s what love is about. It’s not a straight line. You’re never going to find people that are exactly the perfect fit to you in the way that you think you need. But if you can open up a little bit, and expand your expectations, you might find that you can learn a lot from everybody.

How did you know the title track belonged at the end?

Just like “Oxbow” was always first, “St. Cloud” was always last. It was a gut instinct. My songwriting jumps around on a spectrum from very literal to very abstract or poetic, and this one is more poetic. It takes more of a macro looking-down-at-the-world perspective, and is not hyper-focused on my own experience.

The first part flashes back to my time in New York. That was the longest time in my life that I’ve truly been single and solitary, and it was a formative time. It’s when I wrote Cerulean Salt, and when I was struggling with a lot of the stuff I’m working through now.

For the second part of the song, I wanted to find a place in America that wasn’t totally Small Town, USA, but also wasn’t super recognizable. “St. Cloud” comes from my dad’s hometown in Florida. It’s a suburb right outside of Orlando. I always liked the name, and I thought it would be a nice way to honor my dad. Then I got so attached to the name that I named the record after it.
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