April 22 2015 01:15 PM

Katie Crutchfield creates a world of lush, intimate songs

Photo by Michael Rubenstein

It’s not all about Katie Crutchfield. The 26-year-old Philadelphia singer/songwriter, who performs and records under the name Waxahatchee, has released three albums of detailed and intimate indie-pop songs that sometimes feel like closely held secrets. They don’t always take the shape of linear narratives; they’re often structured like overheard conversations or stream-of-consciousness inner monologues from a troubled protagonist. And, yes, sometimes that protagonist is actually her.

But Crutchfield doesn’t want that to interfere with anyone else’s experience.

“As far as people’s reactions to my music, I want it to mean what it means to people,” she says during a morning phone interview from her Philly home. “A lot of times, people get hung up on specifically what songs mean in my life.”

She pauses to reflect on a question she’s apparently been asked a lot lately: What does she want people to take away from listening to her music? And while she mulls it over, she is distracted by her dog, Frannie, who competes for her attention.

“People kind of ... want to know, specifically what songs are about,” she elaborates. “I put it out into the world, and I want people to relate to it in the way that they want to apply it to their lives, and not worry about what it means to me. Just kind of detach from that.”

Crutchfield’s songs are certainly relatable, particularly to those in their mid-20s, still figuring out how best to chart their path forward. But it’s hard not to focus on the sometimes deeply personal intimacy within her songs, particularly those of her critically acclaimed 2013 sophomore album, Cerulean Salt. On a track like “Misery Over Dispute,” she tackles relationship problems with melancholy poetry, suggesting that sometimes it’s just easier to be unhappy than to dive into the inevitable conflict: “I’ve whispered and walked on eggshells just to choose misery over dispute.”

Waxahatchee’s new album, Ivy Tripp (released this month via Merge Records), isn’t at all autobiographical, but still maintains that up-close-and-personal feeling so essential to Crutchfield’s songwriting. She said in a statement prior to the album’s release that its title was a term she invented for “directionless-ness” as it applies to 20- and 30-somethings. And as such, the album is littered with its own cast of individual Ivy Tripps, like the woman in leadoff track “Breathless,” who describes her relationship as a “sad story with an end,” or the melancholy narrator of “The Dirt,” who describes herself as “a basement brimming with nothing great.”

Waxahatchee plays April 26 at The Casbah

There’s a lot of anxiety on Ivy Tripp. There are real tears and real pain, too—they just mostly belong to other people.

“The overarching theme of the record is something I observe and not necessarily something I experience,” she says. “It’s not me singing about things that actually happened to me at the time. I definitely have felt that way in my life and experienced that, and have been that person.

“I think that Ivy Tripp is sort of that… trying to find something that makes you happy, and making some irresponsible or conventionally irresponsible choices along the way.”

One other notable difference between Ivy Tripp and its predecessor is in the actual sound of the record. This one feels much bigger and more fleshed out, with more creative, elaborate arrangements. It wasn’t recorded in dramatically different fashion; Crutchfield put it on tape in a rented house in Long Island with her then-boyfriend and current bandmate Keith Spencer and engineer Kyle Gilbride (of Philadelphia band Swearin’, which also features Crutchfield’s sister, Allison). And yet the end result is considerably different. “Under a Rock” and “Poison” each overflow with meaty fuzz-guitar riffs, while opening track “Breathless” features a dense, noisy organ. And standout track “Air” showcases the widest dynamic of any Waxahatchee song, expanding from a sparse ballad to a big, dramatic and sparkling chorus.

The musical ideas are bigger on Ivy Tripp, and it’s likely that Waxahatchee will only continue down this path on albums to come. It’s not always the most practical concern, especially when the tools of the recording studio aren’t always available on the road. But this isn’t at the top of Crutchfield’s list of concerns.

“The songs don’t really become what they are until we’re in the recording process,” she says. “Everything’s really skeletal, and we take our time and build them up. But when we were recording, something that I thought about is, if I wanted to put a harp on a song—and I didn’t do that this time—I wouldn’t worry about how we’re not going to have a harp onstage. I’m always going to put the harp on the record and worry about that later.”

As Katie Crutchfield continues to grow as a songwriter and performer, her ambitions grow with her. But she’s also grown personally—she says she sees the world a little differently than she did when she recorded Cerulean Salt or its more stripped-down predecessor, her 2012 debut, American Weekend. But no matter where she is in her own life, her goal is to create something that resonates on a level that listeners can identify with, just as her musical heroes did for her.

“On Joni Mitchell’s Blue, there are so many proper nouns that are so specific to her life,” she says. “But when I hear that record, I just think about how much I can relate to it. I was in Europe touring and traveling around and I was listening to that record so much. And I felt like she was singing my life right now. That’s so profound. It’s such an amazing experience when you’re listening to music and it’s like, ‘Oh man, this was written for me.’”

Write to jefft@sdcitybeat.com