Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield Turns Inward on “Saint Cloud”
The Alabama songwriter talks her new record and the challenges of being sober in the music biz.
“My story of getting sober is not particularly salacious,” says Katie Crutchfield. “[Drinking] was a thing I had just been doing for so long I had normalized it in my head.”
Visiting family and friends in Los Angeles pre-COVID-19 times—and being mindful of noisy, low-flying helicopters during our conversation—Crutchfield, who performs as Waxahatchee, addresses her years-long struggle with alcohol with a calm, matter-of-fact attitude. This is perhaps in part because she knows scores of career-tested musicians have dealt with the same things she does.
“When I first started being involved in a music scene and touring, I wasn’t really making any money,” she recalls. “The whole point of going on tour was to kind of go and meet people and play music—and drinking just went hand-in-hand with that. I think the formation of my touring lifestyle was built around that. If you’ve talked to other musicians who are sober now or have struggled with that, it’s so common. Alcohol is just free and it’s there and you’re conjuring up this night out for everybody, you know what I mean? You’re in a bar, it’s dark, it’s late at night, everybody’s partying, everyone’s happy and having fun, and you’re sort of the ringleader of that. It’s hard to do without participating.”
For a very long time, Crutchfield maintained a kind of when-in-Rome ethos, abiding by the lifestyle inherent in her occupation. At the same time, the Alabama-born songwriter admits she never fully committed to the person she was presenting herself to be, and struggled in the process. “I had always identified as somebody who had a problem with drinking and who needed to stop. I think deep in the back of my mind, when I really thought about my best self—the person I wanted to be—I saw myself as a sober person,” she explains. “That was something I knew eventually I was gonna have to face. And I had tried. I tried to quit drinking, but I always set boundaries for myself that were not that strong and eventually would end up right back where I started.”
For all her false starts, Crutchfield has now not only been sober for a year and half, but her brand new album, Saint Cloud, serves as a capsuled reminder of her early sobriety. Expressions of gratitude and remorse, clarity and doubt, fault and self-acceptance, all mix under the open-air spaciousness of her pickup truck Americana and country melodies.
“I knew right from the get-go, I wanted to do the opposite of Out in the Storm,” says Crutchfield, referring to her critically acclaimed 2017 album. “Out of the Storm is so loud, raw, and visceral and has all this atmosphere and these big guitars. The lyrics are also so earnest and just heart-on-my-sleeve. [With Saint Cloud]I really wanted to make a record that was sonically the opposite, and then also I wanted to write with perspective. I wanted to have sat with my feelings for a minute. Out of the Storm is so external. It’s sort of like me pointing the finger outward. I needed to make that record at the time, but I really wanted to go inward on this one.”
“I think deep in the back of my mind, when I really thought about my best self—the person I wanted to be—I saw myself as a sober person. That was something I knew eventually I was gonna have to face.”
Whether she’s comparing herself to a “bird in the trees” who “can learn to see with a partial view” on the record’s lead single “Fire”; confessing to how “we do stupid things in the right way” on “Witches”; or accepting that “you might mourn all that you wasted, that’s just part of the haul” on “Ruby Falls,” Crutchfield says, “My sweet spot of writing is always sort of self-criticism. I can write in a way that feels more powerful to me if I’m looking at myself and my own behavior.”
Despite the comfort Crutchfield has found with self-evaluation, and the process of putting those feelings into music, she realizes that it’s always been the part that comes next—the prospect of something she’s made being consumed and judged by an audience—that has given her pause.
With Saint Cloud, however, she’s trying something different, beyond just opening up about her battle toward sobriety. As difficult as it’s been putting it all into practice, she finally feels like her happiness shouldn’t be tethered to something she cannot control. “I always knew that if praise or acceptance, if that is what my happiness is hinged on—that’s a messy life,” she admits. “That’s a messy road to go down. I’ve really learned the ability to let go. And even if I forget that lesson sometimes, at this point I can get back to that state of mind.” FL