On The Road With Country Girls Wednesday and Waxahatchee
Country music is having its moment. The genre, which used to be conspicuously absent from both the Billboard charts and Pitchfork “Best Of” lists, has recently become both a mainstream and indie phenomenon, thanks in large part to bands like indie stalwart Waxahatchee and Asheville darling, Wednesday. But neither Waxahatchee, the musical alias of Katie Crutchfield, nor Wednesday, the breakout band fronted by Karly Hartzman, sound quite like what you’d typically call “country.” With her recent album, Rat Saw God, Hartzman gives her North Carolina roots a shiny shoegaze makeover (think Slowdive with a Southern twang, and an 8.8 from Pitchfork.) On tour supporting the record, Hartzman took a break to chat with Crutchfield, who’s carved out her own country niche by creating indie pop hits from gutting lovelorn ballads. Over Zoom, the artists talked about tour and how they manage the chaos.—ALEX WEISS
KARLY HARTZMAN: Hey. What’s up? How’s it going?
KATIE CRUTCHFIELD: Yeah, good. How are you?
HARTZMAN: Good. Just shoved a taco into my mouth real quick. You know how tour is.
CRUTCHFIELD: Oh, I can’t wait to talk about tour. Where are you right now?
HARTZMAN: I’m at Mohawk [in Austin, TX].
CRUTCHFIELD: Oh my god. That’s fun!
HARTZMAN: I was just asleep on one of their really long couches.
CRUTCHFIELD: So how’s tour going?
HARTZMAN: It’s good. We started in Atlanta and then you know how tour actually starts, not the first day you leave home, but the first time the plans and stuff change, and you realize like, “Oh wait, I’m allergic to something here that I didn’t realize,” and all of those environmental things start to get different than your hometown, and the food changes? We just kind of made that jump yesterday in Dallas. So now I’m away from home.
CRUTCHFIELD: You’re fully away from home. How have the shows been so far?
HARTZMAN: So good and weird. I always expect no one to show up. But people are stoked and coming out. I met an 11 year old girl yesterday who was like, ‘I wanted my mom to get me black lipstick, but she wouldn’t.’
CRUTCHFIELD: Oh, that’s cute.
HARTZMAN: It was so cool. It was her second concert and I was like, “This is your second concert? Geez.” I think my first concert was Never Shout Never, which was a really cringey like, emo MySpace Hot Boy concert or something.
CRUTCHFIELD: I remember those days. MySpace Hot Boys. Where are they now?
HARTZMAN: I don’t think they’re doing well because they ended with that era. No one cares.
CRUTCHFIELD: Yeah, for sure. My first concert was Alan Jackson, which is cool. He’s like a pop country guy from the ‘90s, but he wrote a few absolute bangers. I just covered one of his songs on the tour I was on.
HARTZMAN: I’m straight up not familiar. Is there a song that’s like his bop?
CRUTCHFIELD: “Chattahoochee” was his big hit, if you remember that song. “Gone Country,” also. That’s a good one.
HARTZMAN: We play so much random shit. We have a tour manager for the first time on this tour and she’s just like, “I could not explain what y’all put on over the aux in the van to anyone.”
CRUTCHFIELD: I remember one time someone in your crew told me that you guys listened to just sound effects. Just straight up sound effects.
HARTZMAN: That actually came up today! We were on a bit yesterday where – do you know the ringtone that’s like [sings] duh nuh nuh nah nah on the piano?
CRUTCHFIELD: Of course.
HARTZMAN: Yeah, we just listened to that on a loop because someone was talking about how that was their grandma’s ringtone and that’s who we listened to for a few minutes.
CRUTCHFIELD: Honestly, I could see that being a weird dopamine trigger. My phone’s going off. Something exciting is happening.
HARTZMAN: Yeah, I feel like we just try to match the chaos of what tour is inherently, and sometimes that’s the only thing that fits. Also the boys are just so boy. They just do boy shit. I think I probably say, “Y’all are so stupid,” 15 times a day… lovingly. I love them. I would not want it any other way, but it’s been chaotic.
CRUTCHFIELD: Yeah, the chaos of boys on tour is weirdly comforting sometimes. I depend on it.
HARTZMAN: It’s better than quiet too. Otherwise it would be just a silent environment of… I don’t even know.
CRUTCHFIELD: That’s good. I was going to ask you, obviously it’s your project, but it also really feels like a band. I’m just curious if it just always was that way–if you guys always had an easy time navigating that?
HARTZMAN: Oh yeah, because I only started playing guitar in 2018, so I just didn’t really know much.
CRUTCHFIELD: Really? I had no idea. So you haven’t been at this for super long?
HARTZMAN: I mean, I’ve wanted to do it for so long, but I just didn’t get lessons or whatever. Jake [Lenderman, guitarist] started getting lessons when he was seven or something. And my parents just, they’re music lovers, but they weren’t musicians and didn’t really know. They knew I wanted to perform. So I did theater, I did dance, but I was like, “There’s something else missing.” And I always loved music, but I was just like, “I don’t know if I have that muscle.” Then finally in college I was like, “Fuck it. I’m just going to buy a guitar and start.” And Alan [Miller] started playing drums with us–this was his first time being in a band. But then Xandy [Chelmis, lap steel player], Jake, and Ethan [Baechtold, bassist] are just incredible, and have always been incredible musicians. But I find a lot of good things about not being experienced, because I just make up a lot that someone who maybe knows theory wouldn’t. Then they come in and just fill in the rest, because they have to–I literally can’t tell them what to do because I don’t know how to play a lot of stuff. We’ve got a thing down. It’s very specifically Wednesday.
CRUTCHFIELD: For sure. I mean, I’ve been playing guitar for almost 20 years, but my skill set has never progressed. I just learned how to play an F chord last year. But I’ve purposely done that. I think it’s helpful because then you don’t get super caught up. I find that my music school friends have so many hang ups and caveats when they’re making music. I don’t have any of that, which is great, but you have to have those people around to flesh it all out.
HARTZMAN: And to fill in the spaces. But you need people that don’t tell you to change what you’re doing. I want to stay where I’m at, because there’s a lot of magic in not knowing. And I feel like, in the way I work, having other ideas can do nothing but improve what’s already there. That way, anything that’s added is exciting because it’s someone else bringing their little special sauce or whatever.
CRUTCHFIELD: You’ve got to have a special sauce. But I was going to ask you, because I know you have a tour manager on this tour, how is that feeling?
HARTZMAN: Oh my god, I have so much more energy! I used to take, like, a two-hour nap every day, sometimes right before we would go on stage, because I was just so exhausted. And the thing that exhausted me specifically was having to boss people around and having to know everything, when to be places and just being the point person. I feel like I can go for so much longer now having just this one extra person helping us. We’re driving still and one day it’ll be a whole crew or whatever. It’s just so crazy to think it only gets kind of easier from here.
CRUTCHFIELD: Yeah, having to wrangle everybody, I always did that in all of my bands too, and being the keeper of the information is in itself just so annoying. But I think as the crew gets bigger and the shows get bigger, the actual performance itself feels harder sometimes.
HARTZMAN: In what way does it get harder?
CRUTCHFIELD: I feel like as the production of my shows have gotten a little bit bigger, and the crowds have gotten bigger, there’s just a weird sort of energetic pressure on the actual set. I find that is its own sort of weird, exhausting element. The show itself becomes a little bit more of a tiring sort of slog, but also really rewarding.
HARTZMAN: Right, because it’s like, the performance has to be worth these tickets and this crew. I get that for sure.
CRUTCHFIELD: I remember I had this weird panic attack when we first played The Fillmore in San Francisco. Have you ever been there? There’s big chandeliers, and the ceiling is so high, and there’s all these people stocking the bar, and so many crew people loading our gear in. I just had to be alone for a second, because I was like, “This is too much. This scares me. There’s way too many people working for this show.” It really stressed me out. Now I’ve actually been thinking about this for my next record and just the next phase of my life. Like, “Do I want to keep doing this this way?” I literally feel like I put on a costume to go on stage. I was wearing these big dresses and so much makeup and glitter, and even that just feels like it sort of raises the bar of the performance. It’s like you trade off a little bit responsibility-wise.
HARTZMAN: Well, that means I have a ways to go before I have to start doing more on stage, because I look like shit on stage every night. [Laughs]
CRUTCHFIELD: No! I love your stage outfits.
HARTZMAN: Thank you. I just don’t have a wardrobe thing or anything, so it’s just a bunch of t-shirts and shit smashed into my suitcase. I like fashion, so it’s an interesting thing to think about one day being able to incorporate that into the show. But for now, I feel like I put on my black lipstick, that’s what gets me into it. It also helps that the band is not my name. Do you feel that way? That you have your Waxahatchee moment on stage and then you come off and you’re Katie? Because I am so thankful my band is not my name, that way I don’t equate my self-worth to myself on stage. I can have this other identity.
CRUTCHFIELD: Definitely. I have never really thought about that in the context of performing, but one-hundred percent. I think that’s dead on. I always thought about it, like the specific tone or songwriting voice that I have as Waxahatchee is its own sort of thing. I like keeping it separate, because I do think if your entire identity is that, there’s too many different directions it can go. You have to learn how to be happy without it.
HARTZMAN: I’ve found myself just wanting to be ultra close to my family with all of this success, and I’m clinging to my parents and my sister. I don’t know, just the more positive stuff that happens, the more aware you are of it being taken away, and I just want to make sure I have an unconditional love that I can really rely on, because they don’t care what I’m doing. And I’m keeping my friends very specific too for that exact reason–people that knew me before all this. I just want people in my life that don’t care if one day I just stop doing what I’m doing. I don’t plan on it, but shit happens.
CRUTCHFIELD: Totally. If I can offer any wisdom, I would say the best thing you can do is try your best not to internalize any of it. Don’t internalize the praise, and if there’s weird comments or whatever–anybody who gives you a hard time online–just try and protect yourself from it. All of it, good and bad.
HARTZMAN: Do you read stuff about your music when it comes out?
CRUTCHFIELD: I try really hard not to. When Saint Cloud, my last record, came out, there were a few things that were written by writers that I legitimately really love, like Jia Tolentino and a couple other people, and I would read those because I was excited. But no, I try really hard to read absolutely nothing.
HARTZMAN: That’s interesting. I read stuff more than not, because weirdly, stuff doesn’t get to me very easily, positive or negative. I’ve seen a lot of both already, and I’m realizing some people just don’t like country music and that’s fine. I mostly just proofread because I’m telling stories about my family, so I’m always just making sure people aren’t talking shit. That’s the kind of shit that pisses me off, stuff that’s not about the music. It’s really not a critic’s job to judge, unless I was doing something actually fucked up. It’s not their job to analyze my life.
CRUTCHFIELD: Totally. I had a record come out a few years ago that was about a really bad breakup that I had. People who were fans knew who the person was, and I would try my very best to protect this person’s identity, but the songs were so obviously about them. Then there were a few times that person got named and I called my publicist and was like, “Nah, that can’t happen. Sorry, that’s not fair to anyone involved.” Like, this isn’t TMZ. We’re making indie music.
HARTZMAN: People love writing that me and Jake are dating. I mean, it would be different if we broke up and they were still doing it. I don’t like to use the word “triggering,” but they don’t know how that would affect you, seeing someone’s name that maybe you don’t like.
CRUTCHFIELD: Yeah, it’s tricky knowing how much to share. But your songs, all of the ones on the new record anyway, are pretty autobiographical.
HARTZMAN: Basically. I wasn’t nervous to share them with anyone really, except the stuff relating to sex and drugs. God, I keep on bringing up my parents! But it was mostly just like, “Damn, I hope y’all don’t think you did a bad job because I am so thankful for these experiences that informed who I became.” Any worries I had about it just brought me closer to them because they were like, “Oh yeah, we fucked around in college and high school too.” And the more my parents revealed to me, the more I’m just fascinated by them. People are so interesting. Imagine if everyone could write a soul-bearing record about their shit. It feels really good.
CRUTCHFIELD: I know. It does feel good. It’s really cathartic. It sounds so corny, but it is a really great way to process stuff. Do you keep a journal or anything?
HARTZMAN: I don’t journal just because I’ve never really gotten into a good meditative habit with that. Do you?
CRUTCHFIELD: No, not really. But I’ve had a couple mentor-y type people that have always told me, “You need to be keeping up with what’s happening because your life’s exciting and I think you’ll probably want to look back and remember how you were feeling in these different moments.” So I’ve been doing this thing lately–and it’s so scary because I’m like, “If anyone ever found this, it would be so embarrassing”–where I’ve been keeping an audio journal. So I just record myself talking for 10 minutes at a time when certain things happen, just to remember it. Maybe 10 years from now, I might want to hear it.
HARTZMAN: Since I was in high school, I just take videos and mash them all up into one big video at the end of every month. So I’ve been doing that for five years. That’s my way of documenting stuff. I’m definitely a memory hoarder. I am really inclined to store that stuff away. But I could not be a journal-er. I just don’t like thinking about myself that much.
CRUTCHFIELD: I was going to ask: you’re a person who really seems like you have your shit together. I feel like I get that from you energetically. I feel like I’m that way too, and I definitely used to be that way when I was younger, but then I just completely did everything I could to fight it with drugs and alcohol for a decade. I did that because I felt very connected to the myth that you have to be really fucked up, or your life has to be a mess, in order to make anything that’s cool. What are your thoughts about that?
HARTZMAN: When I wanted to be a musician, I read a lot of autobiographies by other musicians and very quickly realized, “Okay, everyone that fed into that regrets it.” I’ve never been capital S sober, but on previous tours, since I was in charge of everything, I felt like I didn’t have room to celebrate. So I’ve actually just started being able to have a drink or two and smoke weed on tour for the first time in forever.
CRUTCHFIELD: Honestly, that’s amazing. I’ve never in my life had that ability. I have to have a hard boundary or it’s complete chaos.
HARTZMAN: Yeah, I’ve always ideally wanted to just be able to have a good time and not hurt anyone or myself. It is hard, though. I feel like I’m just going to be forever figuring out the balance. I don’t even know if there is one.
CRUTCHFIELD: I know there’s a couple unicorn people who can have a couple drinks and feel great, but aside from those few people, it’s truly you’re either sober or you’re completely fucked up after a certain amount of living on the road.
HARTZMAN: I mean, I get why people need to cope. It’s not easy what we’re doing. I feel like I just have to keep some kind of balance.
CRUTCHFIELD: It’s all about balance. You deserve to celebrate. Things are going so great and I’m so happy for you guys. I feel like Wednesday has restored my faith in music. I’m so excited to see you guys play this week. Is it Friday?
HARTZMAN: Friday, yeah.
CRUTCHFIELD: Hell yeah. It’s going to be amazing. And you guys can stay at our house in K.C. if you need to.
HARTZMAN: We’ll definitely take you up on that.