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Waxahatchee: She’s an Artist, She Don’t Look Back

Katie Crutchfield discusses her new album, ‘Tigers Blood’, avoiding nostalgia traps, what jocks and punks have in common, and learning from MJ Lenderman and Snail Mail


Molly Matalon*

When Katie Crutchfield finished making Tigers Blood, her sixth album as Waxahatchee, she was struck by a strange, new sensation: It was done, and it was good.

“In the past, I’ve anxiously listened to my records before they come out a lot, searching for mistakes — and then of course finding them because I’m searching for them,” she says with a laugh. This time, she adds, “Every word is in the correct place. Every melody is just right. There’s no question marks. There’s no need to obsess over every little detail.”

That serenity and confidence is well-earned, especially in the face of the always daunting task of following up a Big Record. Waxahatchee’s last album, 2020’s Saint Cloud, was a monumental work — a career capstone and overhaul that saw Crutchfield embrace long-simmering country influences after a decade steeped in DIY punk and indie rock. It was also an album of self re-discovery, made after Crutchfield quit drinking, and as she learned to live as a sober person and artist.

Saint Cloud was a tough album to make, especially to write. “Like pulling teeth,” Crutchfield told RS in 2020. Other past records had their hurdles, too. But Tigers Blood was “unique,” she says. “I felt really calm and at peace writing it. It all came out really smoothly.”

Tigers Blood maintains and builds upon the sound of Saint Cloud. It’s anchored again by producer Brad Cook, whom Crutchfield, 35, showers with credit and affection: “He’s coached me into the person that I am in a lot of ways.” (Cook also helmed Crutchfield’s great 2022 album with Jess Williamson as Plains, I Walked With You a Ways.) It features an ad hoc backing band of Cook, his brother Phil, drummer Spencer Tweedy, and MJ Lenderman, the celebrated young singer-songwriter whose guitar playing and backing vocals evoke the casual magnificence of a good hang.

There is something settled about these 12 songs, a kind of survey of mid-thirties-dom — elder millennial representation of the best kind. Crutchfield wanted to embrace the challenge of being in “this peaceful moment” while still making music that was “compelling, relatable, and interesting.” If one doubt ever did creep into her head, it was this: “Holy shit, is this boring?”

But nothing on Tigers Blood is ever so mundane. Stable romances rock and sway (“Right Back to It”); old friendships grow frustrating (“Bored”); a career in the arts, even at a high point, remains fraught with frustration and uncertainty (“Evil Spawn,” “The Wolves”); and new contours and challenges arise while navigating long-standing codependent relationships (“365”).

“When I was young, everything was so turned up to 10, there was so much chaos and drama,” she says. “Where I fell on the emotional spectrum was so black and white. In my thirties, I exist in this gray area all the time. You get sturdier. Maybe that’s the thing. And that doesn’t mean that you don’t have tons of problems.” She lets out a laugh, before continuing: “But the way that you approach them is just different.”

On “Lone Star Lake,” Crutchfield sings, “My life’s been mapped out to a T, but I’m always a little lost” — a perfect koan for an artist who’s been garnering praise for nearly 20 years now, going back to the punk bands she and her twin sister Allison formed as teenagers. Going from basement shows to 3,000-capacity theaters is a remarkable feat, especially when that growth is steady instead of instantaneous, and shows no signs of slowing. That’s where Crutchfield is looking now — the map may be undefined, but it only points one way.

I wanted to start by asking you about sports. You’ve become a Chiefs fan since moving to Kansas City, but you also grew up in Alabama, so was football as much a part of your life as punk music? 
It’s funny, because actually the sport I’m the biggest fan of is basketball. That’s what I follow the most. But it was impossible to live [in Kansas City] and not get swept up in all the excitement around the Chiefs and specifically [quarterback Patrick] Mahomes. His first season was the first year that me and [boyfriend/musician] Kevin [Morby] lived here.

I love all sports and can get sucked into anything as long as somebody is there to explain to me exactly what’s going on, feed me the storylines — this person came to this team for this reason, but he used to be on that team — and give me a quick rundown of the rules. I will get sucked in, 100 percent.

Why is basketball your favorite?
I think that it was a time and place. Right when I got sober, I got really into basketball because the playoffs were happening. It just gave me something to care about, tune into and focus on at night that wasn’t bars, drinking, and nightlife culture. It was the year that the [Toronto] Raptors won the finals. I really connected with that team and Kawhi Leonard. I just loved his whole approach and the energy that he brought to being the MVP of that finals.

There’s that classic dichotomy of punks and jocks, but growing up in Alabama is football so big that it’s just part of everyone’s life?
Yeah, I think so. Football is just beloved by everybody, even the punks. Now, I’m so uninvolved with punk specifically, but just within music and indie rock, I find so many musicians love sports. It sounds corny, but we’re all storytellers. We all love stories. And to me, there’s no better framework for a great story than sports.

MJ Lenderman is a big basketball guy, too.

The first song I heard by MJ was “Hangover Game,” and I was like, “Oh my God, is this about Michael Jordan?” I remember DMing him and being like, “This song is about drinking and basketball — I love it!”

You’ve even sung harmonies for an NFL lineman. [Ed. note: Crutchfield provided backing vocals for a cover of Willie Nelson’s “Pretty Paper” sung by Philadelphia Eagles offensive tackle Lane Johnson for a 2023 charity Christmas album organized by former player, and noted indie rock fan, Connor Barwin.]

Sure did! I was so honored to be asked. I love Connor Barwin. He’s been a big supporter of mine over the years and he’s just such a nice guy and a really cool role model in the community there.

I did one of [Barwin’s charity concerts] years ago and remember a bunch of his teammates, a bunch of Philly Eagles helped me load my gear and stuff [laughs]. I was like, “This is awesome!”

I’m always curious how musicians handle the long gaps between finishing an album and releasing it. Where are you right now with Tigers Blood?
It’s definitely exciting. I made the record a year ago, so I’ve been in this anxious headspace for a long time, and it’s been getting more and more ramped up. And now we’re finally here. The band I’ve put together for this tour is really cool. I think that the shows are going to be really cool.

So you’re not itching to get to the next thing?
This record, I feel at peace with it. I haven’t listened to it a ton since I made it, and have just tried to compartmentalize and set it aside, partially because I know what’s coming. I’m about to live in it for the next few years. I don’t feel ready to make another record, I don’t feel ready to write new songs for myself. I’m ready to go have the purest experience as an artist to live inside your songs, which is to play them for an audience that’s excited to hear them. I’m sure if you asked me this question in a year, I’m going to be like, “God, yes, I’m ready to move on.” But right now I just feel good.

You’ve made these last two records with fairly traditional backing bands — Bonny Doon on Saint Cloud, and this group for Tigers Blood. Has this opened up new things for you as a recording artist, or does it just fit the music you’re making?
It’s kind of both/and. It is a little atypical because I think people tend to either stick with their band and they’re all doing something together consistently; or, it’s hired guns, a fresh group of people, and maybe it’s a little less intimate, but it’s very slick. The way I’ve approached the last couple records is finding personalities that I love, or that I’m gravitating towards, bringing them into the fold, and trying to form this intimate bond as we make the record. There’s this temporary kinship of, like, “We’re in the studio together for three weeks, and we’re gonna all be together and vibe with each other and just see what happens.”

I really loved making Saint Cloud with Bonny Doon. When it started, I was already really close with them. And so bringing them into the fold felt really organic. When I decided to work with MJ on this record, I didn’t really know him at all. My vision was that we were going to bring him in really late and see what he brought to the table. But Brad brought him in early and immediately we were both like, “Oh, he’s gotta be in the mix the whole time if he wants to.” He was bringing so much to the table that we couldn’t unhear it. I wonder sometimes: Am I gonna keep going about this the same way? Am I gonna change it up? Now that I’ve taken a similar approach twice, then you really have to think, “Where do we go from here?”

How are you thinking about setlists at this point? Obviously you want to prioritize the new material, but you have so much to choose from.
It’s so hard to think about! I’ve been avoiding it like the plague. I’ve not been thinking about it, and I know I have to. It really does feel like there’s the Brad Era of my discography and the Pre-Brad Era. I think I’m gonna focus more on the recent stuff: I’m gonna play a lot of songs from Saint Cloud, I’m gonna play a handful of songs from the Plains record, and then I’m gonna play the whole new record, pretty much. We’ll see how much time we have left. I may find ways to incorporate the older songs, too. But it’s tricky. I mean, I got six records full of songs, and a whole bunch of EPs and random stuff.

I really want to revisit some of those [older] songs and rework them. Whatever my band is for any particular album cycle, and the sound of that album, I do like to try and make the older songs work in that context. I’m gonna have dobro, banjo, pedal steel — all these characters that weren’t there for those records.

Along with the Plains album, after Saint Cloud you made some incidental and theme music for a miniseries called El Deafo. What was that like?
It was so fun. That was right when the pandemic started. My album had come out, I couldn’t go on tour, that opportunity landed on my desk, and I was just grateful to have some work. I honestly wasn’t sure how I was going to do in that setting, but it was kind of fun to be given prompts. They would be like, “We want this to be a ’60s love song; we want this to be a super pop-y song you might hear on the radio; and we want the theme song to be like a ’70s TV show.”

You started writing “365” for Wynona Judd, but decided to keep it for yourself because it started to feel too personal. Is that just an inherent risk of writing for others?
Yeah, I think so. I was in that phase where it was early to start working on another record for myself, and I was writing all kinds of stray melodies that became my Plains songs and the El Deafo songs. And “365,” I sat down at the piano and started playing it, and I was hearing Wy’s voice. But then really more than the words being personal, the melody started to take on a different shape than I was expecting. There are all these parts where it gets really high, and it’s kind of all over the place. And that moment, very quickly, I was like — I think this is for me. I should explore this as a Waxahatchee song.

You’ve talked about never having any formal music instruction, and I’m curious how you think that’s influenced or shaped the way you approach songwriting? 
Different people have different skill sets in music. I surround myself with people who are so highly trained that they can come to my rescue at any moment, which is really great. But I do think that there are people, like me, who it’s more about a top line melody and less about trying to write something that feels instrumentally exciting.

I’ve been writing songs for 20 years, and I’ve really settled into what I bring to the table, which is a vocal melody. I’ve been able to get by on only knowing a handful of chords on the piano and guitar. I do wonder, maybe in 10 years I’ll hit an absolute dead end and I’ll need to take a guitar lesson to spice things up. But until then, I’m just gonna keep skating by, because I’ve never really had an interest in getting better at guitar.

Still, you’ve been playing for 20 years, so where do you think you can track your improvement as a musician?
Yeah, I don’t mean to be overly self-deprecating. Like, I can play guitar. I also have been told by Brad that I’m an amazing rhythm player. I do think that’s what I do. I only play acoustic now; it’s been a really long time since I’ve played electric guitar on stage. Brad was the first person, from the moment we made Saint Cloud, we would lay down a drum track, but then he would have me track rhythm guitar and a scratch vocal first, before putting anything on it. Because he’s like, “I really think we have to respond to what you’re doing. Your strum pattern is going to inform the energy of this song, and how we all approach it.”

On “365” and “3 Sisters” you’re writing about your relationships with people in your life who are addicts. Are there particular challenges that come with writing those songs? 
I’ve been writing about this, and my journey with this, since the very beginning of Waxahatchee. I like to check back in with it, because it’s ever-present. And I find that it’s something that, the longer I personally deal with, the more that I’m like, “Oh, everyone I know has some kind of situation like this in their life.” I’m really writing about codependency, and people that don’t even have that many addicts in their life deal with codependent relationships for different reasons. It’s almost like a marker of time passed and growth to check back in with the same things, and just see how I’m approaching them now.

As far as the interpersonal aspect of it, I give very little away. And I do that intentionally to protect the people in my life. I try to be really generous in the songs, with the stories, and what I’m saying so people will just be satisfied with that. I’ve always tried to approach everything respectfully, but honestly.

There are a couple of songs on this album about being an artist and navigating the music world. What’s it been like trying to build a sustainable career in an industry that’s rapidly changing and also chewing people up all the time?
It’s certainly weird and anxiety-producing [laughs]. I think it kind of speaks to what we were talking about earlier, being in my mid-thirties and just having a bit of a steady hand. I’m so used to it changing, because it’s the only thing that the music business has done. I tried to have this tone in those songs that’s sort of like, there’s whispers of emotion, but it’s also kind of dry and just naming some things. I think you have to try to find some sort of comfort in the discomfort.

When you talk to younger artists like Jake [a.k.a. MJ Lenderman] or [Snail Mail’s] Lindsey Jordan, do you ever feel a kind of generation gap with them?
Well, Lindsey and Jake are so different. Lindsey signed to Matador when she was 17, like, went straight from high school to the NBA [laughs]. She has a different worldview than Jake does. I don’t know if he would describe himself this way, but the way I see him is just so steady. He’s really able to tune out the noise. He’s got this community, his band, and Wednesday, and they all love each other, take care of each other, and make art together. And Lindsey is really, in a lot of ways, as experienced as I am in the world that we’re in. So we have more of a shared perspective on things. I just like to ask their advice and hear what they have to say about the world, because they’re 10 years younger than me and see things differently. I’m always learning from both of them in different ways.

Jake helped me realign with some values that I hadn’t lost, but that had been on the back burner in my life. Just kind of helped me remember why I’m here, why I’m doing this. Because he reminds me so much of myself when I was his age. That has been really, really helpful.

Cerulean Salt had a pretty quiet 10-year anniversary last year. What do you remember about putting that album out, and is an anniversary like that something you took time to reflect on or celebrate personally? 
When Cerulean Salt came out, I was just DIY. When that record got Best New Music on Pitchfork, I didn’t know what Best New Music was. People were texting me, “You got Best New Music,” and I was like, “Thank you for saying my record’s the best new music.” I was so naive, I was green, I was just taking it all as it came.

I hate to sound so unsentimental, but I didn’t really [celebrate the anniversary]. American Weekend turned 10 the year before, and I was kind of like, “OK.” My team was like, “Let’s celebrate!” And I’m just not a person who looks backwards like that. The most meaningful two records that I’ve made have been Saint Cloud and Tigers Blood. When those records turn 10, maybe I’ll want to celebrate them, but I don’t know. I love all my records in different ways, but I think I’m just like, move on, move on to the next one.

It can definitely be hard to look back at things you made in your twenties. Like, you try to give yourself as much generosity of spirit, but it still feels embarrassing.
Of course. American Weekend I made when I was 20, Cerulean Salt I made when I was 21, 22. I was young, and I had a totally different set of priorities and problems. There was a totally different tone to the writing than there is now. That just doesn’t feel very present for me right now. And maybe 10 years from now it will. But again, I’m just not really looking backward.

You did do these online shows during Covid where you played those albums in full. Did that experience reconfigure your relationship with those records? 
Honestly, during Covid, I was just kind of like, “What’s a way for me to connect with my audience and feel like I’m doing my job when I can’t really do it?” So that was just a creative, like, “What if we did this?” And then when I did revisit the songs, I was both delighted and also cringing. Like, “Oh my God, I was so upset about this one thing that I don’t care about anymore.”

I saw you play a show in Central Park a couple years ago, where you and Allison did a mini P.S. Eliot reunion at the end. Is there any desire to make music with your sister again, whether under that umbrella or something different? 
Yeah, we talk about starting a new band. The other night, we were like, maybe when we’re in our forties we’re gonna start a new band [laughs]. I don’t think we would do P.S. Eliot again, or any of our old bands. But I could see us starting a band together for fun.

From Rolling Stone US