Kate Berlant Has a Therapy Breakthrough With Waxahatchee
It's Nice to Laugh

Kate Berlant Has a Therapy Breakthrough With Waxahatchee

Mutualsis a new PAPER series dedicated to conversations between musicians and comics that we're launching as a part of It's Nice to Laugh. Why? Because musicians and comedians tend to be the most interesting people in the room and do very different yet remarkably similar things for a living. From navigating a stage persona, to the writing process, to their precarious industries, there's a lot to discuss. Plus, we realized they were all already hanging out.

Kate Berlant and Waxahatchee's Katie Crutchfield have been friends for six years. It's a tale (we're learning with this series) as old as time: the comedian and the singer-songwriter met at Sasquatch Music Festival in the golden days of 2014. After playing her own set, Katie caught Kate's hour of stand-up on a whim. Blown away, she tweeted at the comedian, asking if she wanted to meet up. The pair spent a beautiful night in a festival yurt.

Over the past six years, both women have helped define their fields. Katie broke out of her local Birmingham, Alabama scene in 2012 with her gut-punching debut American Weekend just as the old guard of moody indie rock dudes were beginning to fade. She's brought Southern roots and authenticity to the genre. Expect to see her latest record Saint Cloud — a future classic country-rock collection about self-determination and sobriety — all over end-of-year lists.

Kate's weird, silly yet cerebral, highly improvised style has helped inspire an entire generation of experimental millennial comedy. Alongside her stand-up and digital shorts, she's developed a multi-purpose Hollywood presence, hopping between surrealist art house thrillers (Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You), blockbusters (Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood), and indie comedies alike (High Maintenance, Search Party). She and creative partner John Early were scheduled to finish taping a comedy pilot before the pandemic hit.

With their projects and tours on hold, PAPER got the two friends together on Zoom for a conversation about writing process, personas and (not) getting hit on at shows.

Kate: Well first of all, how are ya?

Katie: I'm great, honestly. I mean, from an existential standpoint, the same as everybody. Sad, depressed and anxious and all that. But on a day-to-day level, I'm great.

Kate: Totally! The banality of plague.

Katie:[Laughs] It really suits me.

Kate: At the beginning, I had euphoria. Like, "Finally a break!" And then compounded with like, "I'm so lucky" and "how dare I complain!" But now I'm kind of dipping into the complaining more and starting to feel… the lows are low. I already have mood swings, I'm so moody and reactive in general. I'll have 45 minutes where I'm completely despondent, but then I'll be more alive than I've ever been.

Katie: Exactly, same. Every day is insane in how far on the spectrum I travel. On both ends. Just constantly. It's exhausting emotionally, because it's so up and down.

Kate: It's so nice to hear that you're also having that experience. It's so startling and so deeply existential and insane. Do you feel productive? Are you able to write?

Katie: Kind of! Now that my touring income is up in the air, I'm just exploring all these different ways to be creative, but also to make money. I'm going places I never thought I would go in that realm, because up is down and down is up and what the hell else are we going to do? It also depends on how long we're going to be here. I just put out a record, so normally I would not be thinking about writing, but I think because I might be here for a long time it might be valuable writing time.

Kate: So you would be touring Saint Cloud [Waxahatchee's latest album] right now?

Katie: I would literally be in LA today or tomorrow.

Kate: Where were you going to play in LA?

Katie: At the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles. I love playing in churches.

Kate: I would kill to see you in a church. God, you were supposed to be on tour, I was supposed to be in production. Today was going to be the final shooting day of my sketch comedy pilot with John Early.

Katie: Oh my god!

Kate: So that's not happening! This is also the longest I've gone without performing since I was 17, when I started doing stand-up. I guess it's nice to not experience complete identity collapse. Like I don't feel like, [feigning seriousness], "Who am I without the crowd and the lights?" I mean, of course, part of me feels that way. But what I'm experiencing actually is the joy of not having the guilt of not performing, when when I'm not doing a million shows — the guilt and dread and the feeling of betrayal. It's nice to not have that, because you just can't do it. Do you have any kind of relief? Or do you miss performing?

Katie: Yeah! I have also experienced that forever. I always have that FOMO, if I'm not performing shows and other people are. But now, no one is playing, so it's easy to let go of that. The thing is, the tour that I'd be on right now was going to be my first tour in 15 months, which is already the longest I've ever gone since I was 16 or 17. Now it might be a full two years without touring for me, which is insane. We've been doing our Lives… which is sort of like. You know on the Titanic, when the ship's going down and everyone's freaking out, and there's the band in the corner playing for the people as the ship goes down? That's how I feel on Instagram. We're the band. We're just making it a little easier for people by doing our song and dance.

"What I'm experiencing actually is the joy of not having the guilt of not performing."

Kate: Totally. I will die tap dancing for sure. Oh my god. That question of productivity is so loaded, particularly now when you're a writer, this idea of like, "You can always be working," and "What a gift! This time is a gift. You can finally just double down on your work." I'm already a horrific procrastinator and it's almost impossible for me to focus. Being on stage is usually how I write — it's how I write — because it's really difficult for me to just sit down and have ideas come. Like I said, I'm profoundly jealous of and amazed by musicians.

Katie: Honestly, it's the most mutual feeling ever. I just think all musicians feel the same way about comedians. It's just truly... we're all just fascinated and in awe of each other. So, I'm so curious, I don't know anything about your beginning. I don't know anything about how you got to be a stand-up comedian. When I was thinking about this, I was like, "I have to get the story."

Kate: I wish this story were more romantic. It's a classic class clown origin story, but I started doing stand-up when I was 17. I started writing jokes and then I performed stand-up for the first time at my all-girls high school. I killed! Not to brag. Then I started doing open mics in LA with my fake ID.

Katie: Are you from LA?

Kate: Yeah, I did the 5:30 at the Laugh Factory on Tuesdays. I think about that now and I'm like, "How did I do that?" It's the most self mutilating... just completely, the darkest, most thankless environment. That's kind of it. I just started performing and then a couple years later, I was in New York and just doing like a million shows and open mics.

Katie: What compelled you to do stand-up, specifically? Was there a person that you loved? It's just such an interesting thing to pick up at 17.

Kate: It's funny because now, with the proliferation of comedy and stand-up, an 18-year-old, is like, "I can be a musician, or a stand-up comedian, or a chef…" It just felt very natural just out of being the class clown, being the funny one. I would go to Amoeba Records — RIP it's now going to be turned into a CVS, so depressing — but I would just go to the comedy section and pull out comedy CDs and DVDs. I watched David Cross' tour doc called Let America Laugh. I just thought it looked so fun. The idea of touring, just going and performing all over. That's what really turned me on. I remember, I watched it, turned it off in my high school bedroom, went to my laptop, just started writing jokes. [Laughs] My jokes were like, about the pope. I was trying to be like a Catskills comedian. My first stand-up — which I do have on DVD — was all one-liners that were weird and absurd. I came out on stage in a kimono and a wheelchair and stood up. I see myself in it, but it's... yeah. When did you start?

Katie: About the same time. I started playing music when I was fourteen. When I started playing guitar and songwriting, Alison was also starting playing drums, so we learned to play together.

Kate: Need that footage. Now.

Katie: When you were just talking about, like, you saw yourself in it with your eyes but you're also just like, "What?" I always feel that way when I see old footage of us playing. I'm just like, "Who are you? What were you thinking about?" I feel both connected to her and far away from her. There is an amazing mini-doc about my first band when I was 17. In it I have the craziest Southern accent and we're all angsty and talking about how our parents won't let us do stuff.


Kate: Okay, so, what else? Origin story? Check. Quarantine? Check. I don't even know how to ask. I've realized that I don't know how to talk about music. I love music [laughs] — I'm not like other girls — but, fundamentally I'm incapable I think of talking about music and I get really shy about talking about it.

Katie: Why?

Kate: I don't know! I don't know how to describe it. Like I love your music and your voice, but I don't know how to talk about your voice. Not that you're asking me to or the world needs me to [laughs]. It's just funny... [feigning seriousness] I guess I feel the limits of language are the most pronounced when I try to describe music.

Katie: It's a hard thing to describe. You kind of need to talk about other music in order to talk about it.

Kate: I knoowww. I guess that's all art criticism. But with music, I feel like, more so than a painting or something, you're trying to describe a feeling. It's very difficult. But anyway, I love your music. I cannot imagine what it's like to write a song. I'm in awe. What is that? Writing a song, what is that? With Saint Cloud, like, how long does it take to write a goddamn album?

Katie: My process has really evolved. When I first started writing songs, I would sit down and write a song in two hours. With Saint Cloud, I did this thing, and I've done it with every record before it, and it's become so pronounced this process. I do this kind of weird, creative nesting around a record where I'll kinda be gathering information, like gathering things I'm excited about: other songs, books, words, language, random things, melodies. I'll gather all of this stuff very slowly over the course of six months. Then once it's all kind of there and I've built the nest, I can write very quickly. But in that process, I'm writing bits and pieces, a verse here, a verse there. I have to write a lot of bad lyrics to get them out of the way. That happens first. As I continue to do that I get closer and closer. Saint Cloud was definitely the record it took me the longest for me to write. I was working on it, kind of passively for a year, maybe eighteen months. Then actively after that, for three or four months, very seriously, tying up all the loose ends and finishing it. The process of building this little world takes a year and it's kind of passive and it needs to be passive. I can't focus too hard on it, and then, once I get that all in place, then I can write pretty fast.

"It's like... inner research? DO NOT PRINT THAT OR I'LL SUE PAPER."

Kate: I like the idea of passive work. I respond to that. Because my process — dare I say — is purely fragmented.

Katie: Yes, I'm very interested.

Kate: Like I said, I write on stage because I improvise so much. I have general ideas I want to explore, or moments that I want to have. Or of course, there'll be certain lines or certain language that I know I want to inject. But it is so fragmented. Like, my notebooks are just chaos. That idea of passive work... I pray to God that's what I'm in right now. I'm just like "Oh, I'm just passively thinking, I'm letting the ideas come." I remember I went to a Phantom Thread screening and there was a Q&A with Paul Thomas Anderson himself. He said something like, "Writing is 90% research" or something like that. Maybe it wasn't 90%, it was high. And I was like, "Oh right." Just that idea of research, and I guess what that would mean to people like us, which isn't necessarily historical research, but it's like — DON'T PRINT THIS IT'S INCOHERENT — inner research? DO NOT PRINT THAT OR I'LL SUE PAPER.


Katie: What I think of as my writing time is 90% me walking around my house, in my underwear, eating cheese. It's wandering or piddling around, not doing anything. You kind of have to do all of that bullshit. Just make the bed, or talk to people on the phone — kind of like what we are all doing right now. You have to do that for a large chunk of that time to get that good ten minutes of total fluid writing. It's just part of the process, it's just part of it.

Kate: It's so true. It's so brutal. That it's often literally ten minutes. You're chasing ten good minutes, for years or months.

Katie: It is! This is a little bit of a left turn, but I was thinking about when I first met you and saw you do stand-up. I was so blown away by how specific your comedic persona and voice is. I had never seen anything like it. I feel like it's very influential. Now, I see things now and think, "That's so Berlant! That's like a Berlant-ism." I want to know how that evolved and how you got there. 'Cause it's like, it's political, but it's making fun of political. It's four steps ahead of everybody. I'm so curious about it.

"My writing time is 90% me walking around my house, in my underwear, eating cheese."

Kate: Well. Thank you, let it be known. God, I don't know. The main shift was when I started improvising. I used to record myself monologuing, like free association on my old 45 pound laptop, just talking as different people, talking as characters, but they're not exactly characters. That was how I started to tune into something that felt funny and natural to me. At open-mics, for years, I felt like I was trying to convince people that I could do something well, that I didn't even really respond to. Conventional stand-up open-mics didn't feel like where I should be, so I actually started going to a lot of music opens, or crazy mixed ones. There was at Under St. Marks theater, which is where I really figured myself out. It was poets, like some old man with a recorder. There would be maybe one or two people who were doing comedy. I finally felt comfortable to not just deliver jokes, I could explore. The goal was always to be funny, and getting a laugh was always the goal, but I let myself achieve that however I want. I just got more comfortable with improvising and free-associating, and more comfortable with the moments between laughs. Just becoming at ease with not knowing what's coming, and trying to be at ease with finding it and "being present," which is so embarrassing to say. I struggle so much with being present. Like, I'm so unfocused and reactive. Stillness is not something I'm comfortable with in my regular life. I think through stand-up is where I can maybe — HAVING A BREAKTHROUGH, WHERE'S MY THERAPIST — maybe stand-up is the only place I can truly be present. OH NO! But also, it's inherently not present. That's what it's so exciting and why I love performing. You have to be radically present, but then also, there's this inner technology that takes over, where you're like, "Well, what's next?" Like you are seeing the future.

Katie: That's when I know I need to take a break from performance. When I drift. 'Cause I can totally drift sometimes. And that's when I'm like, "I'm maybe doing this too much, I need a moment to miss this." Because I agree. When I'm at my best, that's when I'm at my most present.

Kate: God, and taking breaks. I used to really fear... Do they have this in the music culture? In comedy, there's this real culture of like [slams fist on desk], "Four shows a night, at least!" I'm so glad that I started in New York, but it imposes this pace and this discipline on you. As someone who feels very undisciplined — stand-up's the only area of my life where I've ever been disciplined — when I took a night off or two nights off, you feel this deep shame. It's taken me years. I think only in the last two years, have I been able to be like, "Oh, it's actually okay to take breaks and to even not perform for weeks." I mean, I'm still always terrified that I'm going to lose it. Do you ever feel that — feel like you're going to get on stage again and be like [mimes tapping mic], "Is this on?" Like, not know what to do?

Katie: Not really. I really only have that feeling with songwriting, where I'm like, "I've forgotten how to do this. I'm not good at this anymore. That's a wrap. It was fun while it lasted." And then I have to work through that. I've never had that with performing. I have to say, I have noticed, it's such a thing with comedians to overwork. Where does that come from? Do people put that on themselves, do you put that pressure on each other?

Kate: That's so interesting to see you notice that about stand-up. Because it's sooo true.

Katie: With your shows and your podcasts... it's crazy.

Kate: It's so there. I don't know what it is. One way to see it is... just the desperate need for attention. The need to constantly be getting attention at whatever cost. I think it's partially that.

Katie: Well with music, you're trying to build a persona. So you want to be mysterious, you want to wanna kind of, go away. With music, I feel like it's more that.

Kate: That's funny. I'm always curious from a musician's point of view, what is a good show? Obviously, if you're doing comedy, a great show is when people are laughing the whole time and you feel like you're doing it in the way that you wanna do it. Because what's weird about doing stand-up is that you can have a show that went well, that you hated. I feel like in music, that must be so common.

Katie: Oh, yeah. That's exactly the same. A great show is, you play well, everyone in the band is connecting — 'cause that's the thing, most of the time you're not the only person on stage. The band is on, everyone's connected and alive on stage. The crowd is really with you and active and excited without being too annoying. It's just this perfect synchronicity. There've been many times where you feel like the crowd is into it and everyone is reflecting back to you, like, "That that was amazing!" But you know in your head, you hated it.

"Maybe stand-up is the only place I can truly be present. OH NO!"

Kate: You're like, "That was shit."

Katie: Yeah. Either, you performed bad or someone else did.

Kate: I forgot who it was that said that, it was relayed to me once, but it was like, "You're not a comedian until you're killing and you still hate the crowd." That idea of chasing a good show. How I feel about comedy is that you're so desperate to keep performing because you're always as good as your last show. Which is also a kind of freedom, because if you didn't have a good show, it doesn't matter. The next week or the next day, you can have the best show you've ever had. And you have to keep having the best show of your life.

Katie: That's what you're chasing.

Kate: That's what's funny. You can have a show that's like an "important show," where it's good money and there's a good sized crowd. And then two days later you're at a bar doing a small low stakes show, but you're like "Well that was the best show that I've ever had." It's scary to say that, because it makes it seem like... but it's the truth. You have to keep getting better and you have to change.

Katie: Totally. I've really learned that in the last few years. I'm very fortunate for this fact, but I can go to New York or LA and play a huge show. It's scary and exciting and built up in your brain and very often, those shows are hard. Those are the shows where there's so many people you know in the audience, the audiences are bigger. Obviously sometimes you walk away from those and it's just the most amazing, fulfilling thing. But sometimes you walk away from those, and it was the worst show ever for one reason or another, or you're just off or you put pressure on yourself. And then you go to Louisville, Kentucky and play to fifty people and it's the best show of the whole tour. Sometimes the high pressure ones are hard and the low pressure ones are great. You truly never know. Which is one of the most exciting things about performing, you truly never know.

Kate: Ugh, the alchemy! Now I'm getting nostalgic of performing. I haven't felt that yet. Now I'm like, "Oh, no!" Truly, I'm scared. I just have this rush of "I'm going to lose it. I'm going to get on stage and be like [mimes being speechless] and just not be able to do it." I have that so hardcore. As I always say, the only thing worse than a bad show is a good show. Do you have the feeling of, after an amazing show, the deep depression that follows?

Katie: Oh yeah.

Kate: Yeah, right! What is that? How did they design that?

Katie: I don't know. I've never really assigned any meaning to that, or what it's about, but I definitely have it.

Kate: It's the fear of never getting it again. It's the fear of actually getting what you want I guess. When you actually have the great show you've been chasing and you get it, and you're like, "Oh, I'm still not happy" [laughs].

Katie: I do that with anything, though. Anything good that happens to me, it is always immediately followed by this deep fear and sadness that it'll never happen again.

Kate: Exactly, I know. [Joking] That's why we meditate. That's why we meditate, Katie. Wow, okay, well this is absolutely a groundbreaking conversation. What else? Jealousy, passive work, hating the crowd.

Katie: We didn't really talk too much about that. I was going to ask you about [hating crowds].

Kate: It's so funny... actual heckling is very rare. It's extraordinarily rare and I've always just approached it with just, "Ignore, ignore, ignore, and always ignore."

Katie: Always ignore. It's the same with music, especially when I'm solo.

Kate: People talking over music! Capital punishment.

Katie: The woooos are a lot to deal with.

Kate: The wooos!

Katie: I mean, comedians are obviously playing a part onstage, but you're also giving yourself. You're just a person up there, talking. As a musician, you're not really a person talking, you're delivering this thing. It's not really about sharing who I am with people. There's a wall. So I don't want to have to show the whole room me being pissed off. That throws a wrench into my whole plan. That'll fuck up a show, definitely.

Kate: I'm interested in what you were saying about the wall. stand-up and music, right, it's this idea of right, vulnerability, you're exposing the wound, like, "Here I am, world!" Yet I've never fully related to that. I mean, there's nothing more vulnerable than being like, "I demand attention now. Love me, love me." That is inherently so embarrassing and vulnerable. But, for the most part in my stand-up, I don't explicitly talk about myself. Like it is myself, but it's not myself. I always am more interested in being in this slippery place between who I am, and a persona. I wouldn't even say that when I'm doing stand-up, it's my voice, even. I've never... I still don't really know how to talk about my relationship with stand-up or myself on stage. But it's interesting to hear you say that, because I project such vulnerability and openness onto something that you do. In watching you perform, I'm like, "That's Katie," So, for you to say, "Of course, there's a protective barrier" — you're still engaging in persona, obviously.

Katie: If you were to put me in a lineup of other musicians, I think I would fall somewhere in the middle where I'm still building a little bit of a mystery, but I'm also just myself. Isn't that interesting? That you identify me as doing that, as being this person who's vulnerable and open. But I really identify that with you and your standup. It's so funny, we both have these walls. Fans must come up and feel they feel like they immediately know everything about you. I can see people attaching themselves or their experiences to you.

Kate: That definitely happens, for sure, with comedy. With music I can only imagine, because music is so deeply personal. With comedy people don't... People are listening to your music and they're crying in their bedrooms. Maybe that's also what I'm jealous of. Music just hits harder. It stays with you longer. I'm sure people approach you in such an intense way, 'cause you're in their heads. They're connecting with you because they can't express their own experience, but you're able to express it for them. That's intense! Did you get into music so that people would fall in love with you and you could get kissed?


Katie: Yes and no, I guess. I did want to say this really quickly though: I think stand-up hits really hard. Laughter — the ability to make people laugh, to me as someone who doesn't always do that — is so powerful. It's a superpower and I'm in awe. The interesting thing about music is that you return to music a lot. That's the only special thing about music. People will listen to my song, if they really love it, they'll listen to it ten times a day.

Kate: And it imprints! They'll listen to it ten times a day, then three years later, it'll come on and they'll be like, [gasps], "That summer!" That's fucking cool. That's what you have. That's what music has for sure. But, what I mean, I'm curious about the seductive... [Laughs] Obviously I know you didn't become a musician so people would wanna kiss you. But there is this base-level need for attention and love that [feigning seriousness], "brought us to the stage." Maybe that's part of of my jealousy of musicians. Your voice is just so, so lack of a better word beautiful. I... What am I saying. Okay so, I find that as a woman in comedy, people don't hit on you.

Katie: Yeah?

Kate: Yeah. I was like, "Oh, I'm in my early 20s and I'm in New York City. People are gonna fall in love with me on-stage. I'm gonna be going on dates every Friday and Tuesday." But it's like... no. People are scared of you and think it's weird.

Katie: Oh, totally.

"There's a weird paradox in being a woman who is able to achieve some power in art. It's not like the way people worship men. I don't actually think it goes the other way around."

Kate: Am I literally just asking if people hit on you like crazy? I don't know what my question is.

Katie: As you were starting to ask me this, in my head, as I was formulating my answer, and then you were literally saying what I was going to say. I came up in a scene that was 90% guys. When I was young, Allison was the only other girl who I knew who really played music, so we were kind of just one of the guys. We didn't really get hit on. You know? I was just one of the guys in the crew.

Kate: Me, too. That hell.

Katie: It's funny. There's a weird paradox in being a woman who is able to achieve some power in this art. Of course, people are like [mimes "holy Jesus" sounds] to a certain degree. But it's not like the way people worship men, or the way women worship men. I don't actually think it goes the other way around. It's a totally different thing. Maybe I just view it that way because I'm being self-deprecating, or have a distorted view of how people see me. But that's how I've always felt. It just doesn't work the same way.

Kate: It's bearded women syndrome. Or the power of the bearded woman. We're a freak show, a woman performing this historically masculinized role. Since you and I obviously read as femme women. It's so interesting, I'll write a book about it when I'm 62. I don't know what else to ask!

Katie: We've covered so much ground.

Kate: I know! This has been historical. This will be in the Smithsonian. This is so fun. This really put me in a good mood. I feel like I'm ready to, dare I say... work? Am I gonna write today?