Waxahatchee’s modern sound comes from old-school inspirations

Waxahatchee is the music project of Katie Crutchfield. (Courtesy photo)
Waxahatchee is the music project of Katie Crutchfield. (Courtesy photo)

By Chrissie Dickinson
Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Waxahatchee is the music project of Katie Crutchfield. When it comes to her biggest inspirations, the Alabama-born singer-songwriter is quick to acknowledge an iconic female artist of an earlier generation.

“Joni Mitchell is one of my all-time favorites and biggest heroes,” Crutchfield says on the phone from her current home in Philadelphia. “I actually have a weird shrine to her on my bedroom wall that I’m staring at right now.”

It’s no surprise that she regards the soul-baring Mitchell as a touchstone. Crutchfield, 26, turned a lot of heads with Waxahatchee’s intimate 2012 debut album, American Weekend. The release featured a homemade batch of confessional songs she composed and recorded over the course of a week in her childhood home in Birmingham, Ala.

Those personal and poetic solo acoustic tracks struck a chord with listeners and music journalists alike. One of the numbers, “Be Good,” was covered by Emily Kinney, the singer, songwriter and actress who portrayed the character Beth on AMC’s hit zombie television series “The Walking Dead.” In the episode “Alone,” Kinney plunked out spare chords on a piano and sang a plaintive snippet of the song.

“I was going through a hard time when I made that record,” Crutchfield recalls about American Weekend. “At the time, it was a way for me to process my own emotions, an outlet to figure things out.”

After Waxahatchee’s debut ended up on many critics’ year-end lists, Crutchfield stayed busy. She has expanded her sound, releasing the well-received albums Cerulean Salt in 2013 and Ivy Tripp last April. Her music has earned her comparisons to ’90s alt-rock acts Liz Phair and Veruca Salt.

Although Waxahatchee is Crutchfield’s project, it involves fluctuating members. The current tour features guitarist and album co-producer Keith Spencer, bassist Katherine Simonetti and new addition Ashley Arnwine on drums. (The tour was to begin Oct. 29 in London, but Crutchfield announced Oct. 28 she was canceling that leg because of health issues that were affecting her voice. The American leg is expected to go on as planned starting Dec. 2 in New York City.)

The lineup is rounded out by Crutchfield’s identical twin sister, Allison, a singer, songwriter and musician who also fronts her own band, Swearin’. Both sisters have lovely voices that blend together in evocative harmony.

“We never really sang together before last year,” says Crutchfield about vocalizing with Allison onstage. “We both love harmonizing and are pretty good at it. I’m not sure why we never tried to before. I guess it was never the right project.”

The sisters have been making music since they were kids. Although their parents aren’t musicians, a love for music permeated the house. Their father is a classic country fan. Their mother loves pop and rock.

The sisters grew up dancing, taking tap and ballet lessons. They loved musicals. In middle school and high school, the twins expanded their artistic palette. The Internet opened up a wide world where the two were able to access limitless amounts of music.

“We had a couple of friends who got into punk rock and steered us in that direction,” Crutchfield says. “We discovered (riot grrrl band) Bikini Kill and a lot of music from the ’90s. There were a lot of women playing guitars and writing songs at that time. It wasn’t long before I picked up a guitar.”

Crutchfield began singing and writing songs. Her sister took up the drums.

“Playing together has always felt natural,” Crutchfield says. “We always had each other to depend on, to strengthen our own endeavors. That was always really cool. I love looking back on when we were 13, 14 and 15. After school every day, we’d go into the basement and work on the band all day. I definitely feel like we always connected in that way.”

Before long, the teenage sisters were playing Cave 9, an all-ages venue that was an integral part of Birmingham’s punk scene. They performed in the bands the Ackleys and P.S. Eliot, opening for nationally touring bands that came through the club.

“We did our first tour when we were 17,” says Crutchfield. “We were still pretty young. It took some convincing our parents. We booked the tour by getting in touch with bands from other cities that we’d played with and asked them to set up shows for us. That’s how we started.”

Their early tours took them to Nashville and Chattanooga, Tenn., and Atlanta. The sisters eventually expanded their circuit to New York and Philadelphia. In time, they left Alabama altogether and moved to Brooklyn. Now the two are based in Philadelphia, where they continue to make music, separately and together.

When it came time to make Waxahatchee’s current release, Ivy Tripp, Crutchfield rented a house on New York’s Long Island. She spent a year there, recording the new album with co-producers Spencer and Kyle Gilbride.

Since Ivy Tripp was released in the spring, Waxahatchee has been on the road nearly nonstop. Over time, the band has expanded its touring circuit to include major events like Coachella and the Pitchfork Music Festival.

“It isn’t overwhelming,” she says about performing on festival stages. “I’ve been playing music for so long. The whole thing has happened so slowly and gradually in my mind. We went from playing basement shows to packed basement shows to club shows to packed club shows to playing festivals. That happened over years. ”

This coming winter, Waxahatchee will open a number of dates for Sleater-Kinney. Sharing a stage with the respected trio is a coveted opportunity. Sleater-Kinney came to the fore of the alt-rock scene in the 1990s, went on hiatus in 2006 and reunited in 2014 to wide acclaim as a touring and recording outfit.

“It’s a dream come true,” Crutchfield says. “I’ve been really fortunate that I’ve gotten to play and interact with some of my heroes, especially in the last couple of years. When I heard Sleater-Kinney was reuniting, I was so excited. I’ve seen them a couple of times on this tour. I’ve gotten to meet them. I can’t think of a band that I would be more excited to play with. I’m so thrilled they asked us. My whole band is too. When you have a group of five people, it can be hard getting everyone on the same page in terms of enthusiasm. But everybody is so happy about this.”

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