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Waxahatchee Walks Into a Hurricane Without a Raincoat

On ‘Out in the Storm,’ the searingly honest new album from one of rock’s best and most vital songwriters

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Shortly after New Year’s Day 2011, it snowed in Alabama. Katie Crutchfield — then just 22 but already a veteran of several local indie-pop bands — was between tours and relationships when she found herself stuck inside her family’s home about an hour southeast of Birmingham. The house sits near a small body of water called Waxahatchee Creek. On her hands, she had too much time, too many feelings, and a guitar. So Crutchfield did what her DIY training had taught her to do with such materials: She made a record. “These songs were written and recorded the week of January 4, 2011,” she’d later write in the liner notes of American Weekend, her first album under the name Waxahatchee, “as a result of a snowstorm, a visceral stupor, and a personal breakthrough.”

American Weekend is arresting. Released the following year on the New Jersey punk imprint Don Giovanni Records, its 11 songs are sparse, echoing, and purposefully lo-fi, highlighting the force of a voice that cuts so cleanly through the home-recorded, 8-track muck. “I’ll fish for compliments, and I’ll drink until I’m happy,” Crutchfield sang in a burst of candor, “And wonder what you’re doing, but I won’t call.” These were songs of a solitude that seemed both cruelly fateful and self-imposed — analog declarations of disconnect from an era of misleading digital connections.

“I smash my phone,” she drawls on one of the quieter numbers, “I’m learning how to be alone.” The lyrics felt like observations that you’d only say aloud in an empty house in the middle of the night. “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” the philosopher Blaise Pascal once said. But it’s also true that some of the most powerful music comes from those people who are able to sit with themselves, loudly.

Crutchfield’s previous bands hadn’t had much success outside of the clued-in corners of the DIY scene, but American Weekend beamed out far and wide, like a Bat Signal for lonely people. I found it — it found me? — shortly after I’d moved to a new city and hadn’t yet made a lot of close friends. Though my bedroom was the size of a walk-in closet, I barely left it those first weeks, and during that time a copy of American Weekend barely left my headphones. Several months later, when I got a job at a music publication, it seemed to me both a thrill and an almost obscene shock that other people were talking — in broad daylight, nonetheless — about an album that had felt so private. Such is the intimate power of Waxahatchee.

It was wise of Katie Crutchfield not to try to recapture the precise, hermetic magic of American Weekend right away. And anyway, by the time that record had become a cult hit, she’d already begun work on Cerulean Salt, her next album as Waxahatchee. It sounded markedly different from its predecessor, and more populated: She’d found a proper recording studio outside of the home and a full band, including members of her sister Allison’s group Swearin’. Although still anchored by Crutchfield’s distinct voice, which is as charred-sweet as a burnt marshmallow, the album grappled with larger, more external themes like family, generation gaps, and the odd connections of lineage. That did not necessarily mean it was any less melancholy. The last song, one of her best, finds her howling into a void, “This place is vile, and I’m vile too.” The song is called “You’re Damaged.”

Two years later, Waxahatchee put out Ivy Tripp, which featured some longer, more diffuse songs like the gauzy “Breathless” and “Air.” It was a solid record, but despite a few genuine tearjerkers (“Half Moon” still kills me), it was not quite as emotionally forthright as Crutchfield’s earlier work. Recently, in an interview with The Creative Independent, she acknowledged this. “I love it,” she says of Ivy Tripp, “but I was also masking a lot. I think because of personal stuff and things I couldn’t quite say.”

She did not have this problem on her excellent new album, Out in the Storm. “Luckily, this most recent time I made a record, it was just boiling over,” she said. “I needed to make it.” It shows from its barbed first line: “I spend all my time learning how to defeat you at your own game, it’s embarrassing.”

There’s a song on American Weekend called “Rose, 1956,” in which Crutchfield reflects on the life of an ailing family member and the ways that, several generations later, her life’s trajectory is almost unrecognizable to her own. “You got married when you were 15,” she sings, almost in disbelief. When the Crutchfield twins were 15, they too did something monumental and life-defining: They booked their first show. The band was the spunky pop-punk outfit they’d started with some friends in ninth grade, the Ackleys, and the location was the famed Birmingham all-ages venue Cave9. Finding their local DIY scene was, for the sisters, like stumbling into a second family. “We made friends with a lot of cool, older people who were setting up shows in Birmingham and making music,” Katie recalled last year. “I would help them mark hands, and take money, and do whatever I could to help out. That’s how I learned about the whole process of DIY shows, and discovered how this larger community operates.”

The Ackleys broke up for the teenage version of “creative differences”: Some of its members went away to college. The Crutchfields stayed behind and, in 2007, they started a new band called P.S. Eliot. Allison played drums, Katie played guitar and sang, and several new friends filled out the lineup. A departure from the buoyant Ackleys, their sound became more intimately their own: fuzzy guitars, chaotic percussion, and emotionally precise lyrics that tumbled out of Katie’s mouth in a fury of five-dollar words. Her songwriting heroes were the superhumanly prolific Guided By Voices frontman Robert Pollard and the morbidly witty Jenny Lewis, an influence Katie still, literally, wears on her sleeve — she has a tattoo of a Rilo Kiley album cover on her left arm. With some of their friends gone to college, and the punk scene gradually revealing itself to be more stiflingly macho (“It was a hypermasculine scene,” Katie has said, “where we were sort of being alienated without even realizing it at first”), the Crutchfields were itching to get out of town. Eventually, they did. Navigating an underground network of all-ages venues and friends of friends’ couches, they toured exhaustively and expanded the horizons of their experiences in the process. Through P.S. Eliot, the sisters saw America.

Katie Crutchfield’s lyrics, then and now, have the rhythm of a life spent half on the road. Dotted with place names lovingly pronounced, her lines sometimes sound like melodic passport stamps: “See, I have met people from Maine, and Athens, Georgia, and Montreal,” she sings on American Weekend, drawing a tender musicality out of those familiar syllables. Cerulean Salt’s “Coast to Coast,” too, was an impressionistic ode to the touring life. Like her sister, Katie has had several home bases in her 20s, including New York and Philadelphia, and yet all the while in her songs there was that Alabama drawl — receding ever so slightly, but still there — marking her as from somewhere.

Like any worthwhile student of Bob Pollard, Katie has always had several side projects: solo material under the name King Everything, a quartet with Allison called Bad Banana. But when P.S. Eliot finally split up in 2011, the sisters decided — for the first time in their lives — to spend some time making music apart. American Weekend was as much a purposeful retreat from her twin sister as it was whatever else Katie was running from. Allison would appear sometimes in Waxahatchee lyrics, and to astute listeners this felt like a particularly intimate crossover episode. There is a sad, jarringly candid line in the middle of American Weekend’s “Noccalula”:

The fifth song on Waxahatchee’s new album, Out in the Storm, is called “Sparks Fly.” It was inspired by a recent night the twins spent together in Berlin, another far-flung stop on the touring life’s endless itinerary. “Sparks Fly” captures that feeling that occurs when you let go of the last remnants of a stale, self-diminishing relationship and find that, after a long absence, you have once again become yourself. There’s a weathered grace to Katie’s voice when she sings it. In an interview this spring, she said it was one of her favorite songs she’s ever written. “I just remember that night sort of feeling like I was seeing myself through Allison’s eyes,” she said, “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.”

Out in the Storm is, for one thing, the product of Crutchfield’s chemistry with another new backing band, all-female this time and with none other than Allison Crutchfield on keyboards and drums. These additional musicians give the Waxahatchee sound some extra muscle: “Never Been Wrong” soars on the wings of distorted power chords; the catchy “Hear You” derives power from a low, buzzing synth. More than any other Waxahatchee record, Storm harkens back to a particular strain of ’90s alternative and indie rock — which doesn’t feel like hollow nostalgia so much as a genuine kinship with the sounds and textures of bands like the Breeders, Belly, and That Dog. (The Crutchfields sometimes feel like the millennial version of the Deal sisters.) The stomping single “Silver” in particular feels like it was picked up from the ghost transmissions of vintage college radio waves, though with an emotional immediacy that still makes it feel fresh.

Crutchfield’s Achilles’ heel as a songwriter is the occasional predilection for overstuffing her lyrics with big, abstract words. (I love the Cerulean Salt song “Tangled Envisioning,” but couldn’t tell you for the life of me what that means.) But as she’s matured as a writer she’s become more succinct. Her voice is so evocative that more complicated lines can get in the way; on the wrenching ballad “A Little More,” she gets plenty of emotional mileage out of a line as simple as, “And I live a little more, live a little more/And I die a little more, I die a little more.” Not to mention the spaces between them.

The album title comes from a striking lyric in “Silver:” “I went out in the storm/I felt the house burning.” There’s a restlessness to these songs that harkens back to the 18-year-old girl just trying to get the hell out of Birmingham. And though before writing this album, she found herself in a different sort of confinement — to a person, rather than a place — she has not lost the knowledge of how to escape and the power to do so. When she sings it again in the next verse, it’s a little more defiant, and darkly hopeful: “I went out in the storm/And I’m never returning.”

Zoom out far enough and Out in the Storm completes the circle that American Weekend began. The first Waxahatchee record was about being stuck and stagnant and yearning for a connection with someone, anyone, to pull you out of your own head. This one is about feeling so smothered by a bad relationship that you’d do anything — even walk into a hurricane without a raincoat — to get some time alone and hear those voices in your head once again. As ever, though, it’s a joy to be privy to Crutchfield’s conversations with herself. She’s still pulling on the same thread she was on American Weekend, but she’s gained a sense of perspective over the years. “I take it back,” she sings with warm grit on that song about her sister, “I was never alone.”