Waxahatchee Makes Lightning Strike Twice: "I'm in a Moment of Complete Vision and Clarity"

After reaching a career pinnacle, Katie Crutchfield discusses hitting another one with 'Tigers Blood'

Photo: Molly Matalon

BY Kaelen BellPublished Mar 14, 2024

"We're gonna build the narrative today," Katie Crutchfield tells me, laughing. She's calling from her home in Kansas to chat about Tigers Blood, her astonishing sixth album as Waxahatchee.

This is Crutchfield's first time speaking with someone about Tigers Blood, and we've got a mission ahead of us: to lay down the story that'll be repeated ad infinitum as the album's promotional cycle draws on into spring.

"You do a lot of interviews throughout the campaign, and once you get about a month into it, you set it down. But it's kind of fun in the early ones, because these are the interviews that tend to shape the whole thing," she says.

Our problem, or blessing, is that Tigers Blood is difficult to cage. The record doesn't reject narratives so much as swallow them by the dozen, so rich with zig-zagging tales and molecular pockets of life that focusing on one story feels like viewing the Grand Canyon through a pinhole.

This is where Lucinda Williams comes in, as she often does, as an example to follow.

"I think we're in this era of trying to find a really great narrative — each record has to have this amazing story. And obviously, with [2020's Saint Cloud], the thing that everyone wanted to talk about was me getting sober," Crutchfield says. "But I really feel like, when [producer Brad Cook] and I were trying to figure out what [Tigers Blood] was, we kept thinking about my favourite songwriters, people like Lucinda or Tom Petty."

She continues, "There aren't really a ton of records where Lucinda or Tom are fully reinventing themselves. Obviously they have records that have these great stories, but I do think the confident choice sometimes is to just lean into what you do best, and what is the truest to yourself."

Tigers Blood finds Crutchfield resurfacing after the watershed that was Saint Cloud, a record hailed as an instant classic, topping year-end lists and landing her a spot on Obama's oft-goofed year-end playlist. Saint Cloud represented a major shift in both Crutchfield's artistry and her cultural standing — it was an echelon-climb that she's refreshingly aware of, acutely conscious of what that jump will mean in the (here's that word again) narrative of her life in retrospect.

"Maybe in 10 or 20 years — depending on what my career looks like — I think there's gonna be a before Saint Cloud and an after Saint Cloud," she says. "And so with that comes a certain amount of, 'Oh shit, now we have to make another one, and we don't want people to think that this was a fluke,' you know?"

Saint Cloud was the breakthrough, but Crutchfield was no slouch prior to her 2020 lightning strike. She was a member of P.S. Eliot (alongside sister Allison) when her bedroom-recorded solo debut, American Weekend, found its people in 2012, and she has gradually grown in reputation as one of American indie rock's most respected songwriters. A series of beloved follow-ups — 2013's Cerulean Salt, 2015's Ivy Tripp, 2017's Out in the Storm — expanded Crutchfield's music in ways that stretched her limits and tested her instincts. Listening back to those records now, Crutchfield says she can hear herself posturing.

"I think, prior to Saint Cloud, I kind of had this 'me against the world' outlook," she says. "And I think I had some kind of fear or insecurity about leaning into the simple, melodic nature of what I wrote."

She continues, "Right before I made Saint Cloud, I went through a series of big life changes. I moved away from the Northeast — I really built my career with Waxahatchee there, that was where I made all my records and where I lived for those first handful of albums — I moved to the Midwest; I started dating the person who's now really my life partner; I went through my Saturn Return; I got sober. I had all these big shifts."

The resulting record felt — and still feels — like an arrival, some 10 years since she first committed her music to tape.

The expectations that come with following a record like that can be creatively debilitating, but Crutchfield describes the years post-Saint Cloud as dreamlike — a confluence of age, stage and creative confidence that changed how she views her craft.

"I'm literally going to knock on some wood right now," she says. "But I've studied songwriting and the craft of it so diligently for so long, and I think I'm finally getting to this point where I feel like my process is in this flow. When nothing's coming, I'm okay. And I'm not freaking out that it's never gonna happen again."

She says, "I feel like I'm in a moment of complete vision and clarity," adding that she'd like to re-record some of her earlier material in the vein of her recent work, imbuing older songs with this newfound confidence.

"My sister said this about me — I'm gonna just go ahead and say that I didn't say this about myself, and if you print that I did, I'm gonna tweet about it," she says, laughing again. "But my sister said that I approach things a little bit like an athlete."

That firm coaching hand — "I love sports, and I try to be really disciplined," Crutchfield notes —  helped her "take very special care of [her] songwriting brain" while writing the songs that would eventually become Tigers Blood. It also helped her rein in the endless possibilities that presented themselves when it was time to record.

The plan was to keep it simple: no creative overhauls, no big shakeups, no potential for disaster. Tigers Blood was once again recorded with Cook — someone Crutchfield describes as a "soulmate and creative partner" — at Texas's Sonic Ranch, the same place that birthed Saint Cloud. Whatever magic synergy had fuelled that record was ostensibly there for the taking, but as Crutchfield tells it, written songs aside, Tigers Blood was all talk for a good minute.

"We were throwing ideas out, and we kept [saying things like], 'This is gonna be big! This is gonna be epic! We were dancing around something, gassing each other up," she says. "But I think quietly, to ourselves, we were like, 'What is this gonna be?'"

The answer came in the form of a young guitar player and songwriter from North Carolina.

"One thing that I threw out really early was, 'You know, someone I would love to get in the room down the line at some point is Jake [MJ] Lenderman,'" Crutchfield says, having become a fan after meeting the Wednesday guitarist at SXSW before the release of his 2022 solo breakthrough Boat Songs. "My vision when I suggested that was, when we're demoing but about to go in the studio, let's bring Jake in."

Instead, Cook invited MJ Lenderman to the first demo session.

Crutchfield says having Lenderman in the mix so early in the process made her nervous, calling the decision "crazy." She adds, "But I trusted Brad. And then right away, [Lenderman] was like this glue that brought this first mirage of a vision to both of us."

It happened during the sessions for ambling first single "Right Back to It," during which Crutchfield coached Lenderman on some backing harmonies. "He goes in to do the harmony and completely doesn't do what I told him to do," Crutchfield says, feigning annoyance. "And it's what you hear on the record. It's so special."

The resulting song, like so many on Tigers Blood, feels like something you've been hearing all your life, a classic country ballad spun through a time warp. It's one of several songs on the record — alongside the harmonica-smeared "Burns Out at Midnight" or the shiver-inducing title track, with its swelling group singalong — that features prominent vocals from Lenderman, his harmonies bending like rebar through the sun-warmed glass of Crutchfield's voice, interrupting the line of sight just so.

It's a shift in weight that immediately sets Tigers Blood apart from its predecessor; where Saint Cloud found Crutchfield suspended in air, on Tigers Blood she sinks into the dirt, steady and immovable. Rather than tap into the thrumming pop of a song like Saint Cloud's "Fire," or capitalize on her burbling momentum with a turn toward something broader, Crutchfield dug deeper. She credits that decision, at least partially, to Lenderman.

"The door to making something a little bit poppier, or to making something a little bit more commercial, sat ajar. And I think that me and Brad were both kind of confused about whether or not we should walk through it," she says. "And I think Jake's energetic influence really did help me realign with myself and be like, 'That's not really me.'"

She continues, "I think that I've had the success that I've had so far by listening to my own instincts as far as what feels authentic to me. So being around that kind of youthful energy reminded me of myself 10 years ago, and it helped me realign with some of that stuff."

A piece of Tigers Blood's vast Southern patchwork is about that realignment, a grappling with what it means to be an artist and feel the ground shifting rapidly beneath you. "There ain't nothing to it babe / We can roll around in the disarray / In the final act of the good ole days," Crutchfield sings on the tumbling rocker "Evil Spawn," a fiery portrait of an artist in transition.

"I was always the up-and-coming young songwriter, and now I'm in my mid-30s," Crutchfield says. "From now on, I'm going to be at least one generation, or a couple generations, older than the youngest generation doing this. I've got one foot on one side and another foot on the other."

That might sound like some existential fear of aging, but Crutchfield couldn't be happier about planting that other foot.

"When I see people like Jake or [Wednesday's Karly Hartzman], I just get really excited for them. Like, that's so fun, that's so exciting. I'm watching their lives change in real time, and it's really sweet," she says. "But I don't miss that time at all. It was great, and I'm glad I survived it. And I'm glad that I'm not in that phase of life anymore."

She reflects, "My 30s have been a complete dream, and I actually think my 40s are gonna be even better."

Tigers Blood certainly feels like the work of someone with a firm grasp on their ambition. Partnership and failure and art, loops of personal history and a desire to always become better, more patient — Crutchfield's latest is a companion for that long road ahead, one that looks on youth with tender pity, the future full of endless promise. As she sings on slow-burn opener "3 Sisters," "It plays on my mind / How the time passing / Covers you like a friend."

"I have a feeling I'm one of those people that's an old soul or something," she says, seemingly laying the groundwork for album narratives still to come.

"My soul and my actual age are going to meet at some point, and it's going to be perfection."

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