Sister Act. Twin Shadow. (insert pun-free title here):
Waxahatchee Still Prefers Tripping with Friends and Family
Katie Crutchfield has recently moved back to West Philadelphia, the closest thing she’s had to a home since leaving her childhood base in Birmingham roughly six years ago. “Our whole little social stratosphere is back in West Philly,” a sorta gentrifying neighborhood that remains affordable for working musicians. She now has her own apartment rather than the raucous boarding house/rehearsal space she shared with her twin sister Alison and assorted bandmates during her last stretch in town, but that hardly means Crutchfield’s become a hermit. “I feel like I never want to be alone lately. After living a sort of isolated life for awhile, now all my closest friends are within a mile of me and I’m about to go on tour again, which can be kind of lonely.”
The Crutchfields spend a healthy (?) portion of their lives on tour, often together even when not populating the same band. Katie was along for the ride last summer when Allison’s band Swearin’ played a magical set in a sweltering WonderRoot basement. They’ve joined forces in numerous groups – as Birmingham teens in the Ackleys, later in the much-loved P.S. Eliot, and finally the short-lived Bad Banana. But the twins have been flying separate flags for the past couple of years.
Neither sister is likely to see much of West Philly for the rest of 2015. Katie’s band Waxahatchee has just released Ivy Tripp, one of those albums that sounds like a Leap Forward, a disc poised to build on the well-deserved accolades of 2013’s Cerulean Salt. Until now I’ve been partial to the punk energy of Allison’s quartet Swearin’, but Ivy Tripp immediately ups the ante. The disc’s opener “Breathless” showcases Katie singing over a sparse, haunting bed of organ and feedback that reminds me of PJ Harvey. Next her band breaks into a pair of full-throated rock songs reminiscent of Alejandro Escovedo, easily the most extroverted tracks she’s done under the Waxahatchee moniker. “’Under a Rock’ turned out countrier than I meant for it to,” Katie tells me, “but I love country music.” She’s particularly flattered by my PJ Harvey comparison, calling Ms. Harvey one of her favorites. Harvey’s probably also more of a kindred spirit than the ’90s Juliana Hatfield/Liz Phair comparisons Waxahatchee’s early work sometimes generated.
Then comes another hairpin turn – a Casio and drumbox ditty called “La Loose” that brings to mind early Magnetic Fields. “I absolutely adore the Magnetic Fields, but what was in my head when I was writing these songs was Chris Knox and Tall Dwarfs,” she explains. “I realize now you can’t hear that unless you’re looking for it.”
Another angle you’re unlikely to pick up without a little coaching is the album title’s meaning. Ivy Tripp is Crutchfield’s own term for wandering through life, looking for direction. It’s an introspective theme she pursues in many of her lyrics, past and present. “To me (the meaning) is sort of in there, coded in metaphors,” she says.
Although Crutchfield revs it up again for “The Dirt,” the balance of this excellent album returns to the relatively Spartan vibe of Cerulean Salt – in other words, existing fans will not be disappointed. Given that Waxahatchee is often mistakenly characterized as a solo project, it’s surprising to learn they’ll be touring as a five-piece to support Ivy Tripp.
Crutchfield attributes the deceptively stripped-down vibe to her production choices. “A lot of stuff is mixed down, but you need five sets of hands to make all the sounds happen, and it’s important to me that we capture all those sounds onstage. There’s a lot of nuance, and I’ve never had the backing vocals live before, which are really important for this record.” Enter sister Allison, who will be a member of the touring band for this cycle, even as she readies the next Swearin’ record.
“Keith has always been pulling double duty. That was our logic – if Keith can do both, she can do both.” Keith Spencer is the most visible example of the cross-pollination of these bands; he plays bass in Swearin’ and guitar in Waxahatchee. Kyle Gilbride – who co-fronts Swearin’ with Allison – also completes the core Waxahatchee triad. “Kyle is there to record Waxahatchee – the three of us kind of produce the records together.” Rounding out Waxahatchee’s touring band is Katherine Simonetti, who has “played bass with me forever” dating back to Birmingham’s P.S. Eliot days, and who has also relocated to West Philly.
Katie spent most of 2014 in a rented house in Holbrook, Long Island, holed up along with Spencer – when he wasn’t busy Swearin’. “I had come off a lot of touring and just wanted to go off and make a record, in a place a little more away from a city,” she explains. Holbrook is half exurban outpost/half bedroom community, just accessible enough to New York City where Katie had earlier put in her 18 months of young rocker living.
Katie had already decided she would be changing labels, and approached Ivy Tripp in her usual DIY fashion. “I basically went rogue,” she shrugs. “I don’t need a lot of money to make a record – I record at my house with my friends, who I can basically give an IOU to. So I started writing, demoed some stuff with Keith, then Kyle came in and we made a record in about a month.” Despite the humble approach, each Waxahatchee record has shown an increasing level of sonic sophistication.
While she makes clear there’s no animosity with former label Don Giovanni (with whom her crew is tentatively planning a P.S. Eliot retrospective), Crutchfield isn’t afraid to acknowledge that “from day one, Merge was my dream label – they’re from the south, their whole history, they have the best reputation for working with people.” She was already in casual contact with Merge owners Mac McCoughan and Laura Ballance, though they were well short of a commitment to work together. “I personally emailed the record to Mac once we mixed and mastered it and asked ‘what do you think?’” A period of uncomfortable silence followed. “When he got back to me and said they wanted to do the record, that was the best day of my life,” she laughs.
On Long Island Spencer was also busy with Great Thunder – his rawer, more lo-fi and scattershot project with plenty of moments of glory, best evidenced on late 2013’s 30-track opus Groovy Kinda Love. “He’s one of those people who’s always immersed in something.” Great Thunder is in some ways Waxahatchee’s mirror image, although Crutchfield’s role in the former (including occasional vocals) is more immediately apparent. The biggest difference is while Crutchfield occasionally writes songs for Great Thunder, she’s the sole writer for Waxahatchee- which isn’t surprising, given that her stated intent after P.S. Eliot’s demise was to exert more control over songwriting. (And just to further blur any dividing lines, Allison has been known to play drums in the live rendition of Great Thunder.)
As for her Long Island year Crutchfield summarizes, “Honestly a year was probably too long – we probably should have just gone somewhere for a couple of months. But it was a cool experience, I’m glad I did it. I wanted a little retreat. But I started to miss my friends.”
You’d think a couple of precocious go-getters would have been chafing for the first opportunity to escape their hometown, but that wasn’t the case. “When we were younger we loved Birmingham,” Crutchfield counters. “We came up playing the DIY places,” which according to Katie anchored a better-developed scene than I had realized. “When we were about 20, though, P.S. started waning. Allison had moved to Chattanooga and we began talking about going somewhere else. She started dating someone in New York and decided to move up there. I said, ‘OK, I’m going with you’ – that was all the momentum I needed.”
Birmingham still has its pull, however – after all, she named her band after a creek that runs about 45 minutes outside of town. Crutchfield recorded Waxahatchee’s debut American Weekend (a lo-fi voice and guitar affair) in the same room of her parents’ house where she wrote her first song, and demoed the other two there as well. “For a while I was going back there every month, when we were on Long Island and I was bored. It’s always been a comfortable, safe place for me.” She still occasionally pares Waxahatchee back to its bare essentials, as she will for a solo tour of Australia this summer – with her mother riding shotgun. “Otherwise I’d be going totally alone.” Passing through Atlanta early this year opening for Jenny Lewis, a stripped down Waxahatchee consisted of the Crutchfield sisters and Spencer.
Although they’re adamant it’ll have no impact on band dynamics, Crutchfield and Spencer recently ended the romantic aspect of their relationship. Such compartmentalization is hardly unprecedented, but it must take a ton of maturity and focus to occupy such close quarters immediately following a breakup. “It’s actually been pretty easy, something we’ve been able to navigate,” reports Crutchfield, who hardly sounds anxious to discuss the topic but doesn’t shy away from it either. “The creative stuff was what was most important to us, and that’s the part that’s working. So it’s a best case scenario.” Spencer’s even relocated to West Philadelphia with the rest of both bands.
Given its lyrical themes some will be tempted to label Ivy Tripp a breakup album, a notion Crutchfield quickly waves off. “The record was written well before the breakup – just look at the timeline.” Besides, she’s mined similar emotions on all three albums. “People expect me to be withdrawn and morose or something,” Crutchfield admits. She seems able to compartmentalize those emotions into her music as well.
Photo by Michael Rubinstein.