Waxahatchee, the musical project of 26-year-old Alabama native Katie Crutchfield, has always been the sound of one person digging deep into the bedrock of her own psyche. It was in 2011 that Crutchfield dismantled P S Eliot, the noisy, melodic rock’n’roll band that she formed with her twin sister Allison in their hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. The same year, she holed up in an isolated lake house on nearby Waxahatchee Creek during a snowstorm to write and record what became her debut album as Waxahatchee, over the course of just a week, recording on an eight-track with a single microphone.
What was captured on that record, American Weekend, was nothing more than a sparsely strummed guitar and Crutchfield’s wavering vocals, singing songs that sounded just as unformed and uncertain as she said she was feeling. Two years later, she put out a follow-up, Cerulean Salt, which sounded a little fuller and more polished, and there’s been another musical evolution between then and now. Crutchfield’s voice remains at the heart of this third album, singing lines that rarely resolve into hummable melodies, but it’s now supported by stronger scaffolding, with grungy guitar and splashy drumming turning a couple of tracks into proper rock songs, and Crutchfield providing her own layers of off-kilter vocal harmonies.
The first two Waxahatchee albums were put out by New Jersey punk label Don Gionvanni; Ivy Tripp is Crutchfield’s first release for the iconic indie label Merge, which counts Arcade Fire among the bands on its roster. It was recorded mostly in a house in suburban Long Island (where Crutchfield was living with her then-boyfriend, Keith Spencer), except for the drum parts, for which the gym of a nearby elementary school stood in for a studio. Spencer co-produced and played various instruments on the album, as did Allison Crutchfield’s boyfriend, Kyle Gilbride, which makes the rawness of some of the record’s lyrics even more startling.
Stale by Noon is one of several songs about trying to escape a relationship that feels confining and inauthentic. “I can imitate some kind of love/Or I could see it for what it is and stop kidding myself,” Crutchfield sings. The song whose title is merely the symbol < is even starker: “You are less than me,” she sings in a wail that turns into a sigh. “I am nothing.” The steady beat that’s been marking time on the track is interrupted by a different, clashing drum pattern that overlaps in a way that’s disorienting and dissonant.
In a long interview with the website Pitchfork, Crutchfield said that she and Spencer have split since they finished recording, but that she will continue to collaborate musically with him. She also says that her next album is most likely going to be a return to the more solitary sound of American Weekend, an aesthetic that she never quite abandoned. Among the heavier tracks onIvy Tripp, which feature synthesisers, piano and distorted guitar, there are plenty, like Summer of Love, that are still sparse and fragile. Recorded outside, it features the sound of a dog barking and crickets buzzing, behind Crutchfield’s unadorned voice and acoustic guitar.
Katie and Allison Crutchfield have been in bands together since their early teens, playing in playing in an exuberant rock quartet called The Ackleys before jettisoning their bandmates and releasing two albums as PS Eliot, a duo. A short documentary on the first group shows Crutchfield as a 17-year-old with a clear sense of ambition and of her musical heritage, citing The Velvet Underground and Guided by Voices as influences. Subsequent profiles have depicted her as a charismatic linchpin of the DIY music scenes she’s been a part of, first in Birmingham and now in West Philadelphia, where she’s currently based. Whatever she’s up to, Crutchfield always comes across as resolute about her artistic vision.
It can be jarring, then, to hear her talk repeatedly in her songs about feeling worthless and adrift. Most reviewers of her first solo album picked out the line “I don’t care if I’m too young to be unhappy” as a representative snippet of the record’s general mood. While her musical compositions have started to sound more confident in the past four years, the lyrics have remained just as mournful. In Crutchfield’s world, reality is murky, grubby and incoherent. The idea of a happy relationship and a place to belong is a tempting fantasy, and she’s determined to keep her feet on the ground, resist easy answers and tell it like it is.
“You’ll deliver a fable I could live,” she sings on The Dirt, “and I’ll throw it off the nearest cliff.” Sugar recurs throughout Ivy Tripp as an image symbolising these kinds of tempting, unhealthy fantasies, from “my hedonistic sugar-white beach” to love that “tastes like sugar” but “pulls all the life out of me”. The track Grey Hair features “sugar soda pop songs” that play on the radio, drowning out what Crutchfield tells the listener what they might see her become: “A candle, precarious psychically among/ The ill at ease, the summer breeze.” It’s the perfect metaphor for Crutchfield’s chosen mode of scrupulously honest self-expression: her energy may waver rather than blaze, but she’s pouring out all she has.
It’s clear to see why Crutchfield’s mixture of competence and uncertainty makes her such an appealing figure for a certain demographic in their late teens and early 20s who are having a hard time figuring out their place in the world. It’s probably why she’s been compared to Lena Dunham, the writer-director-actress who created Girls, a TV series that documents, as Crutchfield does, the confusion and disappointment of early adulthood.
“I think a running theme [of Ivy Tripp]” Crutchfield said, “is steadying yourself on shaky ground and reminding yourself that you have control in situations that seem overwhelming.” The title, she said, is “just a term I made up for directionlessness, specifically of the 20-something, 30-something, 40-something of today, lacking regard for the complaisant life path of our parents and grandparents”. The only mention of “ivy tripping” on the album happens on the song Poison, where she also cries “What do I want? What do I think? Nobody hears. I take all the space I need.”
While independent-feeling, gritty-looking TV is having a moment, the kind of folksy, indie-rock tradition that Waxahatchee fits into is no longer a major cultural force. Crutchfield is often described as a musician who belongs in the 1990s, when the idea of preserving an air of authenticity by refusing to sell out and by self-producing scratchy-sounding records seemed like a way of resisting money’s corrupting influence. Now, hip-hop and pop are ascendant – genres that make a virtue of aspiration, fantasy and success – and there aren’t many bands around like Arcade Fire, who fit into the indie-rock canon but have managed to fill stadiums without compromising their sound or giving up their air of integrity.
Crutchfield has clearly been watching, although she’d never directly admit to such lofty ambitions. She said that she’d buy a house in Alabama if she ever got as big as her Canadian label mates, and then quickly added that neither of those things is ever going to happen. Some might see her bare-bones songs and DIY recording methods as evidence of a lack of ambition, but in fact the opposite is the case. She has figured out that the way to stay in the business for the long haul is to take it slow and retain complete control over every aspect of what she does, as she works on the ongoing project of documenting her inner world. Ivy Tripp won’t appeal to everyone, but it is sure to add to the growing ranks of fans who find solace in Crutchfield’s defiantly personal, painfully human voice.