Wednesday, Jul. 24-Saturday, Jul. 27

Various times, $10-$65

Various venues, Triangle-wide

“It was kinda like my dream label,” says Katie Crutchfield of the indie-rock band Waxahatchee. “Merge is so respected. I’m from the South, and it’s this beacon of Southern indie culture that really spoke to me.” 

Waxahatchee signed with Durham’s Merge Records in 2014, the year the label celebrated its twenty-fifth birthday. Now, she’s playing this Saturday at Merge’s four-day thirtieth anniversary festival; a lineup of thirty-some bands that includes staples like Spider Bags and The Mountain Goats but also brims with a new generation of Merge bands, which, like Waxahatchee, skew younger and are often fronted by women. When tickets to each of the nights at Cat’s Cradle went online, full passes sold out almost immediately. Cementing the occasion, Governor Roy Cooper also issued a gold-stamped proclamation declaring July 24–27 “MRG30 Week.”

The story of Merge’s origins is well-trod ground. In 1989, Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan, who met as college students working at Pepper’s Pizza in Chapel Hill, decided to start a band, the deathless Superchunk. The same year, while on a summer cross-country road trip, they also decided to also start a label, and Merge—now regarded as a prototypical indie label—was born. Early operations flitted between bedrooms and small Chapel Hill offices, leading eventually to the downtown-Durham, house-plant crowded storefront that Merge has called home since 2001. 

By its tenth anniversary, the once locally focused label boasted international indie blockbusters like Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea and The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs; by its twentieth, it had Arcade Fire’s world-beating Funeral and Spoon’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. This narrative arc has a nice momentum, building from the first scrappy cassettes of McCaughan-adjacent bands in the college-rock heyday to the wider ambit of the internet era.

Yet the driving values of Merge have remained constant: civic and community engagement, commitment to hard work and artistic integrity, and, well, general moxie and coolness. 

“They all have to somehow get out attention and stay with us, which is hard to do, when you listen to music as much as we do with our jobs,” Ballance says, referring to the dozens of demos that roll through her office each week. “They have to bring something new and interesting to what they’re doing, and to Merge.” 

Women have always made rock music, of course, but their presence has long been seen as an exception to the rule. That is changing in recent years, as women have increasingly been taking their places on the front lines of the music industry. You can see this change in Merge’s discography, too, starting in the aughties with the signings of She & Him and Camera Obscura. While its older catalog is dominated by male artists, the past decade of signees features a notably higher proportion of women. 

“At some point, we noticed that we were very male-heavy and made a conscious effort to change it and examine it,” Ballance says, adding, “We’re not choosing them to create gender balance. We’re choosing them because they’re awesome and make great, interesting music.”

The Merge roster has expanded in recent years to include acts like Waxahatchee, Sacred Paws, Swearin’, A Giant Dog, Ex Hex, and Gauche, most of whom are playing at MRG30—energized bands who are serious about music and also happen to be led by women; several of them also have roots in the South. 

In discussions of women’s success in rock, the name that crops up the most frequently—and with good reason—is Waxahatchee’s Crutchfield, who was born the year that Merge was founded and signed twenty-five years later. Crutchfield, who has been making music alongside her twin sister, Allison, since they were fourteen, gives off the rare sense of someone with two feet solidly on the ground—a wondrous quality in anyone, but particularly in an artist with a prolific output that continues to invent, evolve, and surprise her fans. 

Still, when it comes to women in indie rock, one rote, nagging word surfaces over and over again: “confession.” A Google search of “confession+Waxahatchee” yields more than twenty-five thousand results; the game works pretty well with any female indie-rocker. Torres “slotted her bruises and her confessions into a singer-songwriter mode with a distinctly 1990s air” (Pitchfork), while Waxhatchee purveys “devastating confessions” (The New Yorker). It’s a leaden word that, beyond its immediate relationship to shame and dogma, brings to mind both tittering afterschool secrets and the dark writings of female mid-century poets. Not only does it land strangely in 2019; it also feels inaccurate when describing the stories that these artists are telling. In interviews, the indie singer-songwriter Mitski—who falls among this generation of female indie rockers—has been particularly adamant in maintaining that first-person does not a confession make. 

“I think it’s funny that anybody thinks they know what my personal life is and whether what I’m singing about is personal at all,” says Mackenzie Scott, aka Torres. “Some of it is, but there are many voices and layers and angles. Half of the time I am singing from the perspective of a female character that I’m observing.” 

Crutchfield agrees. “I hate that word,” she says. “It’s never used to describe men’s music. It kind of cheapens the writing. Me and Mackenzie, we don’t shy away from that stuff. A lot of my stuff is really dark and depressing, and I think when women are writing about those things, people don’t know what to do with it. A lot of those things we’re talking about are heightened, being raised in the South. It’s exciting to have these conversations with other Southern women and break down a lot of those constructs.”

Waxahatchee’s lo-fi songs shimmer and shred between moments of rage, sorrow, and discovery. This self-assuredness is also reflected in Crutchfield’s touring choices. 

“I’ve always played with women,” Crutchfield told the INDY by phone from Texas, where she was recording a new album. “Even before Waxahatchee, I remember so desperately not wanting to play music with guys, [and] to see women on stage and to have those kinds of creative interactions with other girls. The only tour where I toured only with women was Out in the Storm—I knew people would see that and think, ‘That’s fucking awesome.’” 

A seasoned artist, Crutchfield has played in numerous bands throughout the Southeast, from her home state of Alabama to Philadelphia and New York, where she has also lived. In 2017, a New York Times piece made the bewildering choice of describing Crutchfield and her sister, Allison Crutchfield, as the “D.I.Y. Punk’s Twin Elders,” as if any female musician who’s been around long enough to rent a van is also necessarily tottering toward the grave. That following year, Allison, who fronts the punk band Swearin’, released her first album on Merge. At age thirty, both have a creative output that continues to feel fresh. 

“They have great voices and strong ideas,” Ballance says of the Crutchfields. “Their personality and distinct take on their music really come through in how they execute it.”

In June, Merge signed Torres, who has released three LPs of dark electronic rock. Raised in Macon, Georgia, she found a kind of musical salvation in her teenage bedroom while listening to Taylor Swift. 

“She was one of the only people that was a girl around my age writing her own songs and performing them,” Scott says by phone. “She’s a killer songwriter.”

When Scott moved to New York, she began to write careful, probing songs that wrestle with religious fundamentalism, desire, family, and the body. Ever since her self-titled 2013 LP, Torres has seemed like a star on the rise, with the lyrical precision of an artist with twenty years in the game. 

“[She has] confidence that I really appreciate, a swagger that is really refreshing coming from a woman,” Laura Ballance says. “She makes cool, interesting music and you can tell her soul is in it.”

But last year, following the release of 2017’s Three Futures, Scott announced that she’d been unceremoniously dropped from the label 4AD for a lack of commercial viability. “I wish them all the best,” she wrote on Twitter. “Also, fuck the music industry.” These days, while still professing shock regarding 4AD’s decision, Scott, with the pragmatism of someone who spent her formative years in Sunday school, offers a redemptive narrative. 

“I would owe two more records that I poured my heart and soul into to people who aren’t going to do a good job with it because they don’t believe it,” she says. “They freed me from that obligation.” 

In between 4AD and Merge, she’s been working on a new album, adding that she is honored to join a label run by musicians. 

Merge has always looked beyond straightforward commercial viability when it comes to its roster: That’s the joy and the curse of signing the stuff that you like. Ballance and McCaughan have maintained a commitment to representing smaller acts alongside the bigger, bread-and-butter bands like The Mountain Goats. And anyway, as Ballance says, it’s hard to predict what is going to truly take off.

“Today’s weirdo act is tomorrow’s more commercial act,” she says. “You just really don’t know what’s going to capture people’s attention and become a bigger thing. We didn’t predict the Arcade Fire would become big.”

In a 2013 INDY profile, Ballance spoke about leaving Superchunk—she suffers from hearing loss after years of touring—and her mixed feelings, as a powerhouse female bassist, about being thrust into the position of role model. 

“One of the things that makes me sad about not playing live anymore is that so many young women come up to thank me after shows, and I’m not going to be there for them anymore,” she said then. “My natural reaction used to be like, ‘Me? Oh no, no.’ But after a while, I learned to be happy to do that for them.” 

Scrolling through Spotify, looking up at the Cat’s Cradle stage, or poring over the catalog of a beloved indie label and seeing women represented—taking a seat not just at any table, but at the scrappy, weirdo riff-raff table—is thrilling. And perhaps what feels so off-register about critics’ widespread use of the word “confession” is its suggestion that female artists require an emotional justification for taking up space and expressing an experience of the world. In the headbanger “Never Been Wrong,” Crutchfield  observes a man unburdened by self-doubt, and draws a resilient line in the sand: “And I will unravel / When no one sees what I see.” 

“I think that on the one hand, there’s always been a lot of women writing music, playing music, but the doors are more open to them now,” Crutchfield says. “I’m pretty firmly of the opinion that, whether because of the political moment we’re in or just because of the fact of the matter, I kind of think women are killing it. I think we’re making the best music now.”

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