Alabama-born singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield broke through to a bigger audience last year by releasing an aching, bare-bones solo album. Her follow-up album came out in March. (This story originally aired on Weekend Edition Sunday on June 23, 2013.)
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Katie Crutchfield made her name last year with an album of songs recorded at home and released under the name Waxahatchee. The spare, quiet music ended up generating a lot of buzz in the music industry. Earlier this year, she released a very different follow up album.
In this encore presentation, NPR's Daoud Tyler-Ameen tells us that the latest project draws on a way of making music that Katie Crutchfield learned long before her debut as a lonesome troubadour.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLLOW BEDROOM")
KATIE CRUTCHFIELD: (Singing) I've like I got my way. Truly I left with nothing at all...
DAOUD TYLER-AMEEN, BYLINE: This is the opening track of Waxahatchee's latest album, "Cerulean Salt." Katie Crutchfield says the title was a compromise, after her band mates voted down her first idea.
CRUTCHFIELD: L kind of came to everyone and was like, guys, what if we call it "Blue" - just Blue. And everyone was like, there's a Joni Mitchell album called "Blue," Katie. And I was like, oh yeah, I love that album and I completely forgot about that. She got there first. She got there way before I was born.
TYLER-AMEEN: Katie was born in 1989. And at 24 years old, she's already had multiple careers as a musician. We're sitting on the back porch of her house in West Philadelphia, which she shares with seven friends - all musicians - including her twin sister, Allison. She says the two of them have been inseparable since they were kids in Birmingham, Alabama, writing songs in their parents' basement.
ALLISON CRUTCHFIELD: We hit this point when we were 14, when we first started, where we kind of didn't hang out with anyone else. And we just, every day, got home from school, we would like eat a snack and go downstairs and practice until my mom was like, OK, no more.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
TYLER-AMEEN: In high school, the twins started their first rock band, The Ackleys.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TODAY/TONIGHT")
THE ACKLEYS: (Singing) And I said you cannot be here all by yourself...
TYLER-AMEEN: Katie sang lead and played guitar; Allison started on drums and switched to keyboard. The Ackleys booked their first show at a Birmingham venue called Cave 9, run by Aaron Hamilton. He says the band was a little shaky but Katie's songwriting showed a lot of potential.
AARON HAMILTON: It's simple for what it is. But it's so much more than what should have come from a 15-year-old.
TYLER-AMEEN: Hamilton took The Ackleys under his wing, helping them record and release their music on his own small label. He also taught them a crucial lesson: Being a musician gets way more exciting when you start playing out of town.
TRACY CRUTCHFIELD: I've been amazed that they've been basically doing shows and going on the road since they were 16, 17 years old.
TYLER-AMEEN: That's Tracy Crutchfield. She says her daughters did eventually go off to college but it only lasted a few semesters.
CRUTCHFIELD: We sat them both down basically, and said that, you know, if you want to pursue your music and work, that's fine. But you're going to work to support yourselves and make it work.
TYLER-AMEEN: In 2007, Katie and Allison Crutchfield started a new band together: P.S. Eliot.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BROKEN RECORD")
P.S. ELIOT: (Singing) I love true lovers all the time. I never (unintelligible) to ease my mind...
TYLER-AMEEN: P.S. Eliot chugged along smoothly for close to four years. Then, in January of 2011, on the eve of her 22nd birthday, Katie got in her car and headed south. She was alone.
CRUTCHFIELD: I was in this sort of perfect storm of emotion.
TYLER-AMEEN: She'd gone through a couple of bad breakups. She was between jobs. Her sister Allison had left home and their band was losing momentum. Katie felt lost.
CRUTCHFIELD: I was sort of like, OK, this is my chance to say all of these things that I'm feeling, 'cause I've been making all sort of these clumsy life decisions and, you know, not really getting anywhere good in my life.
TYLER-AMEEN: She drove to the family's lake house outside of town. Almost immediately, it started snowing - and snowing and snowing. The worst blizzard to hit the area in decades stranded Katie in an empty house. So she got to work.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
TYLER-AMEEN: With her acoustic guitar and an eight-track recorder, Katie Crutchfield wrote and recorded 11 songs in just seven days.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I THINK I LOVE YOU")
CRUTCHFIELD: (Singing) It's late. We are not awake. And I smashed my phone. I am learning how to be alone...
TYLER-AMEEN: She called her new project Waxahatchee, the name of a nearby creek. Early last year, she released those rough home recordings as an album which caught the attention of Lindsay Zoladz, a staff writer for the music Web site Pitchfork.
LINDSAY ZOLADZ: It was absolutely one of my favorite things I had heard, probably in years. There is this level of, like, intimacy with the listener that she's telling you things that she can't even tell the people in her life.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GRASS STAIN")
CRUTCHFIELD: (Singing) And I'll fish for compliments. And I'll drink until I'm happy. Wonder that you're doing but I won't call...
TYLER-AMEEN: The album, "American Weekend," wound up on a few best-of-the-year lists. But by the time Katie felt ready to make a second Waxahatchee album, she was thinking a little bit bigger.
(SOUNDBITE OF A CONVERSATION)
TYLER-AMEEN: It's mid-morning at Katie and Allison's new place in Philly, where they moved together last fall, and nearly every occupant of the house has crowded into the kitchen for breakfast. Waxahatchee's new album was recorded right here in the basement.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIXIE CUPS")
CRUTCHFIELD: (Singing) I'm not a whipper in the wind or solace laying at the bottom of a bottle, or your thick skin...
TYLER-AMEEN: Katie says, unlike "American Weekend," this album was a team effort.
CRUTCHFIELD: A lot of the songs were so loose when we first started working on them that I didn't even know what I wanted. And then Keith and I kind of worked on them together.
TYLER-AMEEN: Keith Spencer is one of the housemates and worked with Katie to arrange the new songs for a band. He's also Katie's boyfriend. And his perspective on the project is a little different.
KEITH SPENCER: She was pretty much running the show.
TYLER-AMEEN: Katie's sister Allison says she's listened to the new album a lot. And she can hear the focus of Katie's songs starting to shift. "Cerulean Salt," she says, isn't a breakup record.
CRUTCHFIELD: For me, it's a lot about family and about our childhood and us growing up. It feels like I instantly know what she's talking about. And I can connect with it in a way that I think a lot of people can't, because she's actually talking about things that I have experienced with her.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE DAMAGED")
CRUTCHFIELD: (Singing) My gal and father, vomit and water, we're not alone here. We invent our own fear. And separately we will see chaos condolence defeat...
One of the reasons that I write things that are so specific, I think, is just because it's real to me. And if it's real to me then maybe someone else will be able to relate to it.
TYLER-AMEEN: And whatever Katie Crutchfield is writing about, she'll probably find a way to keep living the way she and her sister grew up: with a community of musical friends and a basement where they can be as honest and as loud as they want.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISERY OVER DISPUTE")
TYLER-AMEEN: Daoud Tyler-Ameen, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISERY OVER DISPUTE")
CRUTCHFIELD: (Singing) We've heard this summer...
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