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Honesty, Not Confession: An Interview with Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield

How the press gets her music wrong, the artist's political responsibility, and her new tape reissue

/ May 31, 2016

Photo by Michael Rubenstein

Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield writes songs largely based in the particularities of her experience, but she resists easy definition, much like the complex stories and emotions her writing provokes. She’s floated between lo-fi ballads on her first official release American Weekend, to the fleshed-out punk on Cerulean Salt (reminiscent of her former work in P.S. Eliot with her sister Alison, who now leads the band Swearin’), to more grunge and pop-influenced tracks off 2015’s Ivy Tripp.

Her eye for detail blurs the line emotional and concrete. “With this drink, I’ll swallow the intangible I can’t get straight,” she sings on “Limbs and Lips” off Cerulean Salt. Her specificity often stands in stark contrast with the uncertainty her songs confront: being young and already exhausted, and sharing that suffering with another human while finding what can’t be shared.

It’s from the startling clarity amidst confusion that her lines derive their strength. What has been made incommunicable, Katie intends to communicate; anything left unsaid will be said at last, and with force. “I’ve whispered and walked on eggshells to / choose misery over dispute,” she sings on “Misery over Dispute,” another track off Cerulean Salt. The declaration is much louder than a whisper. Katie’s language reads like she’s putting her feet on firm ground and standing up on her own terms.

I talked with Katie about the potentials her music presents in its perception and politics. She was often quick to ground her craft in her own thinking, while recognizing that this had its own power in the multiplying impact of collectively sharing the personal.

WILL WEATHERLY: Growing up queer in rural New Hampshire, I always suspected that I only had very limited, masculine-coded ways of thinking available to me to understand my gender and sexuality. Listening to you always felt like you were presenting something different from that, something that offered a richer emotional vocabulary. What kind of emotional avenues do you feel like your music presents, and what kinds of thinking do you think it can oppose?

KATIE CRUTCHFIELD: I kind of have to go way far back to get to the root of my perspective and how the way that I’m presenting things might translate differently than what maybe you were used to hearing. You know, it’s funny because I didn’t grow up in a super rural area; I grew up in the suburbs of the biggest city in a southern state, so you can kind of do the math of what was available to me and also the kind of scene in terms of when I first started making music, what that was like. I was one of the only women making music at all. My sister and I kind of created our own little bubble, because we were also making music that wasn’t really common in the early 2000s; it was super 90s-pop influenced. The enthusiasm that we had for just having this project gave us some sort of confidence, and we’ve always had this ability to bounce that off of each other, and I think that could kind of combat that sort of hyper-masculine way of thinking.

I mean it’s not something I’ve really thought of, it’s kind of a hard thing to get to the root of, because obviously I have a sort of distorted view of the way that people hear my music. It’s kind of a hard thing to understand as an artist, I think. I know what my music means to me. I’m always sort of afraid that I’m projecting certain things, that I don’t have a totally clear understanding of the ways that people connect with my perspective and what I’m putting out into the world. It’s interesting that that’s what you hear, because I don’t know that I would have gotten there on my own.

In all the profiles and interviews that I’ve read that people have done of you, they always use the word “confessional” to describe you, which always makes me really uncomfortable. It’s mostly used for female artists, and it seems so loaded, like emotional music written by female artists has to bear the work of overcoming shame before it even gets performed. It gets called “confessional” or “oversharing” and male artists…

…get called “honest.” Yeah, I know! It’s so 50s and gross, and it cheapens what I feel like I’m doing. When people have said that to me, especially in the last year, I’ve kind of shut it down immediately, because I agree, it’s really fucking weird. I also think it’s a little bit lazy, and probably a gendered thing. They sort of hop to that as a term for women making open music. I also think another thing about having a skewed perspective on how people hear my “dirty confessional music,” is that it is really honest and it is really personal, so it’s kind of weird to put yourself in that sort of a vulnerable position, where you’re really putting your truth out there for the whole world to hear, and also being totally aware of how they’re hearing it. It’s almost a little too much. Sometimes I don’t even want to know.

I also think another thing about having a skewed perspective on how people hear my “dirty confessional music,” is that it is really honest and it is really personal, so it’s kind of weird to put yourself in that sort of a vulnerable position, where you’re really putting your truth out there for the whole world to hear, and also being totally aware of how they’re hearing it. It’s almost a little too much.

I feel like I hear things and experience things in your music that I have an urge to call political. Conversations about finding responsibilities to another person when you’re living with mental illness, or you’re holding somebody accountable for their past or for your future, or about shared trauma, or an exchange of gazes, those for me are all political experiences, to a certain degree. What do you think your music’s ability to reach those political ends?

It’s so funny, because it’s little things that happen in your life that, when you can take a couple steps back, you realize the political implications of things like those. It’s interesting, because these are things that I’ve written about, specifically living with mental illness and sharing space with people who don’t have a great understanding of that. That’s a thing that’s happening right in front of my face a lot of the time, or not anymore, but has in my life.

Someone recently wrote to me about that, something like “I really related to this” or something, and it’s just funny, because I wrote this thing because it was true for me, and the fact that people relate to it and in some way it helped them process what they were going through. It’s good to not feel totally alone in that, because that feeling of isolation can be so brutal. Just that alone is really cool.

I think it’s interesting to identify moments in music that wouldn’t be described as political and assigning that to those songs and those artists. I feel like when people do that to my music, I always feel that it’s interesting for me to re-examine my music and say “oh yeah, that makes total sense and that’s cool.” It’s not really my process, I don’t really set out to make music that could be described as political, but just by nature, because I write so much about my experience, and of course because my own politics play such a huge role in just my everyday conversation and in every decision I make, of course it’s going to find its way in.

You are very much engaged in discourse about visibility and inclusivity in your online presence, too.

It came up in punk, too, radical politics were a huge part of that. My sister and I both moved from the South to New York and now Philadelphia, and the biggest reason was just because we didn’t identify with people in our community there [in Alabama], and we wanted to find our people, find our community, and we did that. It plays a big role in my life still, every day.

Along the lines of political self-definition: we have people in the independent punk scene espousing the values of providing safe spaces, but then you see a steady stream of outliers who say/sing/tweet racist, homophobic, transphobic shit, and perpetuate that kind of violent behavior because they’ve twisted the sense of being oppositional to opposing movements towards progress. For somebody who does vocalize the need for progressivity within your scene, what kind of dialogues do you think need to happen or change that can shift towards actually inclusive and equitable spaces?

It can be disheartening because a lot of that oppositional energy is so misdirected, like a kind of knee-jerk defensiveness, and it’s frustrating because it’s a lot of people who really don’t identify as transphobic or homophobic or racist. It’s really important to me, and I haven’t shied away from being vocal about that to show promoters or people who run venues or specifically (and most often) people at our shows. It’s important to me that everybody feels safe. The more that people do that, and preemptively include that include that in conversations about their shows, at least if something does happen there’s more of an understanding in the room that it’s not OK, and the oppressor in that situation is made to leave. I hope that eventually everything can happen without people having to be made to feel unsafe. I think it’s unfortunately something that’s happened at my own shows a few times, but I’ve definitely been the one (many times) to be like “you have to get out of here, that’s not OK.”

I’ve been playing shows and touring for a really long time, and I see people talking about it, and I see things, at a glacial pace, getting a little bit better. I mean my sister and I, we’ve been kicking people out of shows for 10 years now. We have to do that a little bit less now than we did when we were 21 and screaming at men all the time.

You told Pitchfork recently that “fame is like a soapbox, and people should use it for good.” You’ve been doing stuff like that with the Planned Parenthood benefit at the Silent Barn in Brooklyn on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. With your move onto a more far-reaching label like Merge, how do you see the chances to use that soapbox of fame developing?

I’ve gotten a lot of opportunities to be able to use any sort of notoriety I’ve had for good, so I hope that opportunities continue to happen, and I’m happy to do that. I think that specifically, if we’re talking about the dynamics of shows, I think it makes sense because of being the front person in a band, the one with a microphone, you’re the person with everyone’s attention, and you’re the person that can speak louder than everybody in that moment on a very basic level. You are the person who has the responsibility, in my opinion, to take care of things and to make sure that the people who have come to see you feel safe. It feels like a responsibility. You can look at that as a metaphor for the internet, or whatever; if you can speak a little bit louder than everybody else for whatever reason, it’s important for you to use that voice to do some good.

Part of it was being young and being disappointed by people who I really looked up to. Seeing them have the opportunity to speak up and feeling really disappointed when they didn’t. I know that no one person and no one band can do everything right, or can be everything for everybody, and that’s just an exhausting thought. But I think it’s important, and having been disappointed by people I looked up to, I feel like it’s important for me to try and speak up.

 I know that no one person and no one band can do everything right, or can be everything for everybody, and that’s just an exhausting thought. But I think it’s important, and having been disappointed by people I looked up to, I feel like it’s important for me to try and speak up.