In “Lilacs,” the fourth song on the fifth album from Kansas City’s Waxahatchee, singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield delivers the signature line of the signature record of our current quarantine.
“And the lilacs drank the water, and the lilacs died.”
“Lilacs” is a song about self-care—about forgiving yourself for having a bad day. It’s a song about the way things that lift you up can eventually drown you. It’s a song for having a little cry while washing the dishes, not because times are so terrible—they could be worse!—but because Crutchfield’s singing is as delicate and hard as old porcelain and because change is always hard. It’s also a song about actual lilacs, the ones Crutchfield gathered from the tree in front of her Overland Park home, placed in half-filled Topo Chico bottles and used to decorate the top of her piano.
It’s been two years since Crutchfield, age thirty-one, got sober and moved to Kansas City. Her latest record, Saint Cloud, came out in March to universally positive reviews from the music press. It was named the second best album of the first six months of the year by both Paste and Stereogum and got the coveted “Best New Music” stamp from Pitchfork.
“So, my lilac did not produce blossoms this spring,” Crutchfield says, looking at her now famous tree from her front porch. “When I wrote ‘Lilacs,’ you should have seen it. It was gorgeous, and there were so many blossoms. You couldn’t walk past our house and not notice it. There was just this big pop of color, and that’s kind of what led me to put the flowers everywhere in my house and obviously write the song. If it had only been one year later it might not have happened.”
Saint Cloud, which “Lilacs” appears on, has been hailed as a leap forward for Waxahatchee, an evolution from the lo-fi production and cutting introspection of Crutchfield’s earlier records toward something slower and more deliberate, a slowly unfurling landscape of spring blossoms and open roads. The New Yorker calls Saint Cloud a “talisman for the self-isolation era” and “a potent reminder of the world we will eventually return to.” Meanwhile, Crutchfield has spent the pandemic shutdown embracing her homebody nature, caring for houseplants, adding trellises to help guide her cucumber vines skyward and reading up on the importance of pruning.
“Saint Cloud is an interesting moment for me,” Crutchfield says. “It’s my favorite record I’ve ever made, and I feel like it’s the best record I’ve ever made—like, objectively. It’s a good mix of ease and peace and happiness and true love in a new kind of way and also a lot of reflection on harder stuff, on healing, on the really big hard stuff.”
Much of the newfound peace is tied up in the major life changes Crutchfield went through in 2018, including her move to Kansas City. The singer, who grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, has been making music since she was fourteen, first drawing notice as the frontwoman of P.S. Eliot, a feminist pop-punk band formed with twin sister Allison. After that band’s breakup in 2011, Crutchfield started Waxahatchee and moved first to Brooklyn and then Philadelphia. She quit drinking after a festival show in Barcelona in support of her previous album, Out in the Storm, considered buying a home in Alabama, then moved to Kansas City instead, where she lives with her boyfriend, musician Kevin Morby, in his native Overland Park.
“I had been living in Philadelphia for six or seven years and was energetically feeling like my time there was coming to a close,” Crutchfield says. “I really missed the South and wanted to go back, but I had also just started a new relationship, and we were kind of dating long distance. Honestly I just woke up one day and was like, ‘Oh, I live here now.’”
Crutchfield knows Overland Park has a “connotation for being a suburb,” but she loves it for its quaint downtown, the “amazing” Ethiopian restaurant Elsa’s, a “great” coffee shop called Homer’s and an outpost of Family Tree Nursery, which boasts a plant selection lush enough to make her musician friends in Los Angeles and New York jealous. And after spending nearly half her life touring and “getting excited about new cities,” she was happy to find a quiet place to put down roots.
“I’ve seen every nook and cranny of America,” Crutchfield says, “and what I love about Overland Park is when you’re walking down the street and looking at houses, you could kind of be in any great small city in America. I could be in Portland, I could be in Austin, or I could be in Athens, Georgia. All of the salt-of-the-Earth charm is really concentrated and I really feel it when I’m here.
“I love that Kansas is right in the middle of the country and it takes on the identity of several different regions—it’s sort the Plains, and it feels like Texas a little bit and the Midwest, and the weather’s so extreme that you kind of get the best of all worlds,” she says. “And I’m so close to beautiful rolling farmlands and just the country, which is where I thrive.”
In the weeks before Saint Cloud’s March 27 release date, Crutchfield was “in denial” about the coming pandemic shutdown, believing her tour—including a canceled August show at Knuckleheads—would go off as planned. (Things became more real on March 11, when the NBA announced it would suspend its season indefinitely; Crutchfield, a big NBA fan, supports the Philadelphia 76ers and former Jayhawk Joel Embiid.) But even as her lilac tree failed to bloom, the past few months have brought unexpected surprises. The New Yorker article, written by Trick Mirror essayist Jia Tolentino, was a high point. “In my opinion, no one writes about the loneliness of the social media era that we’re in better than Jia,” Crutchfield says.
Best of all, the national press picked up on songwriting legend Lucinda Williams’ deep influence on Waxahatchee’s turn from rock to something closer to country, from the front-and-center vocals to the terse lyrics that transform specific details into universal emotion. For one of her last social interactions before the shutdown, Crutchfield traveled to Nashville to meet her hero, interviewing Williams and husband Tom Overby over a dinner of catfish and butterbeans. “She answered any question that I wanted to hear the answer to,” Crutchfield says. Among their conversation topics: how to write songs that resonate after you’ve found relative peace.
“I think that there is something inherently relatable to longing and pain, and I think people are always going to react to that,” Crutchfield says. “But the making of Saint Cloud made me confident that there’s a lot beyond that that I can tap into and that’s exciting to me.”
After taking three years to make Saint Cloud, Crutchfield, who has compared her productivity and work ethic to Parks and Recreation’s notoriously Type A main character Leslie Knope, says she’s curious whether her sobriety has given her access to more fertile creative ground.
“I usually do a record every other year, but with Saint Cloud I took two years in between,” Crutchfield says. “I got sober, and I was focused on this whole other part of my life and really had to get to a good place with that before I could even fathom making a record. That’s partially why I think that with my next record—and I hate to say this, knock on piano—but I could see myself making another record quickly, I could see myself back in the studio soon, because I’m in a flow.”
As it turns out, both Crutchfield and Williams make a habit of collecting place names as much for their musical ring as their personal significance. Williams’ Lake Pontchartrain is Crutchfield’s Waxahatchee Creek, named for a river near her childhood home in Birmingham. St. Cloud is her father’s Florida hometown. “I took all that stuff from Lucinda,” Crutchfield says.
Earlier this year, a summertime drive through the Kansas countryside yielded a new entry in Crutchfield’s song ideas in the Notes app: “Lone Star Lake.”
“‘I’m going to use that in a song,” Crutchfield says.
Katie Crutchfield wrote the songs for Waxahatchee’s fifth album in Alabama, Michigan and Kansas, snagging shambolic Detroit folk rockers Bonny Doon as backup and Bon Iver adviser Brad Cook as producer. The record sees the singer-songwriter moving away from her lo-fi roots, with lyrics addressing her newfound sobriety and twangy guitars inspired by the country musicians she grew up listening to in her native Birmingham.
OXBOW “I have a history of putting songs up front that maybe don’t sound like the rest of the record,” Crutchfield tells Kansas City magazine. “This was even called ‘Intro’ right until I wrote the final lyrics.” Its repeated chorus of “I want it all,” sets the context with its opening line: “Barna in white/ married to the night/What dreams become concrete, they may feel trite.” (“Barna,” a nickname for Barcelona, refers to the festival show where she decided to get sober.)
CAN’T DO MUCH With its jangly guitar and discreet backing vocals from Bonny Doon’s Bill Lennox, this song presents a sonic version of the album’s cover art: Crutchfield reclining on a rose-filled pickup truck in a powder blue dress that could have been pulled from Loretta Lynn’s closet. “I want you, all the time,” in the chorus refers to a difficult relationship but could just as easily apply to substance abuse.
FIRE Written partway through a drive from Birmingham to her new home in Overland Park, “Fire” was inspired by the sun glancing off the Mississippi River, making West Memphis, Arkansas, appear to be ablaze. Crutchfield has said the lyrics are a personal pep talk.
LILACS The last song Crutchfield wrote for the album, “Lilacs” feels positively joyous after the incisive self-reflection of the album’s first three tracks, even as it deals with codependency and other hard-to-kill habits. It’s also about real lilacs, the ones the singer picked from a tree weighed down by blossoms in her front yard, placed in Topo Chico bottles and used to decorate her Overland Park home.
THE EYE Crutchfield defined this mysterious two-word phrase in an essay commemorating the twentieth anniversary of her hero Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, her favorite album. “Being an artist is double-edged,” she wrote. “Making something out of thin air that others will take in and connect with is like having a magical power … Being consumed by the vision, the calling of the eye, is sometimes the flip-side.”
HELL “I’ll put you through hell,” Crutchfield repeats throughout a song about the songwriter’s own role in combusting previous relationships, romantic and otherwise.
WITCHES This feminist anthem shouts out some of Crutchfield’s best friends and collaborators, including twin sister Allison, Snail Mail singer-songwriter Lindsey Jordan and Marlee Grace, a performer who dances in the video for “Lilacs.” The fair-weather “myth” Crutchfield sings about here refers to the branding, social media and other hustles musicians must do to get ahead.
WAR Written to Grace, a friend who was integral to Crutchfield getting sober, “War” is another self-reflective track that confronts the album’s twin themes, addiction and codependency.
ARKADELPHIA With its folding chairs, American flags and trailer park fireworks, “Arkadelphia” features some of Saint Cloud’s most evocative songwriting. It’s the album’s longest (and darkest) song, inspired by a friend from Alabama who has struggled with addiction. “If you get real close to the ending,” Crutchfield sings, “I hope you know I did what I could.”
RUBY FALLS Despite Car Wheels’ overarching influence, the back stretch of Saint Cloud has just as much in common with Williams’ previous album, the elegiac Sweet Old World. That includes this masterpiece, written about a friend who died from an overdose.
SAINT CLOUD Conceived as the album’s closer, “Saint Cloud” begins on the New York City subway, travels to Crutchfield’s father’s hometown of St. Cloud, Florida, and ends on a tranquil note, backed by little more than Crutchfield’s voice and a gently strummed guitar: “And I might show up in a white dress/Turn reluctance on its ear/If the dead just go on living/Well there’s nothing left to fear.”