From Maren Morris to Chris Stapleton, many of country music’s newest faces didn’t first find success on stage, but rather in writing rooms creating the lyrics and melodies behind big time hits for other artists. While writing big hits may seem like an easy segue into creating their own, that transition doesn’t come easy. Minnesota-born, Nashville-based musician Caitlyn Smith can tell you that. While she has had songs cut by some of the biggest names in the game like Dolly Parton, Lady Antebellum, Jason Aldean, she couldn’t quite find who she was as an artist for herself, but her desire to never waned.
Now, with her latest album Starfire, Smith has a record with the secret ingredient she was missing before. “I decided to take a step back and pivot; I would just make music that I absolutely love,” she says.
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We caught up with Smith after her New York performance at Time Inc.’s offices as part of Southern Living’s Biscuits and Jam video series. She told us how she shifts between writer and performer, how she’s balancing a new baby and releasing a new record, and how inspiration can come from anywhere, even Google Maps.
On making the transition from songwriter to performer:
I’ve been a performer as long as I can remember. I started playing at church at 8-years-old. I grew up performing so much and writing so many songs that when I was 15 my parents sat me down and said, ‘Hey, we have this college fund for you, but if you want to make a record with it, by all means.’ And that was pretty cool of them. So I’ve been performing since a very young age, which is what brought me to Nashville when I was 16. The first thing I learned when I moved here was you can be a great performer, but if you don’t have songs, you won’t have much of a career. So I learned I had to be a crafter of songs and do it well. So when I finally made the move [to Nashville] permanently 7 years ago when I made a publishing deal, I took a bit of a break from the artist thing to focus on writing. A main part of that was I just didn’t know what I wanted to say as an artist. So I wrote for a few years, and the cuts started coming, which was really cool, but after a few years, ‘I said I think I’m kind of ready to figure this out for myself.’ It took a couple records and an EP to really sort it all out. But I think part of that process in moving here was, ‘Oh I need to write for radio, or I need to be this kind of artist.’ I was trying to fit myself in this box that I thought people wanted me to be in.
I had a lot of closed doors as an artist and instead of getting a record deal I would get Top 10 hits that other artists recorded off my record. It’s been a long road, but when I decided to make this record I started to make that shift of writing for myself, things began to change and evolve in a beautiful way. Now I have this record.
It’s about finding the most honest lyric. Even in writing “Do You Think About Me,” my husband and I wrote that together with our roommate, and he had just gone through a breakup. We wanted to find the most honest lyric down to the exact Starbucks order his girlfriend used to have. We just continued to fight for that so people could really connect with the songs. We did the same thing with “This Town is Killing Me.” Just fight for that first line, ‘I pour my heart out, three minutes at a time / On a J-45, but no one's listening / They're too busy drinking on the company tab.’ That was about playing at these clubs in Nashville and playing these heartbreak songs, but everyone’s just talking. We tried to find those true things people connect with instead of broad and general feelings.
On performing with other artists:
Every single opening slot I’ve played, I’ve learned something. Whether it’s, ‘Yes, I need to do something more like that or maybe don’t do that.’ I take away so much, especially being able to see some of my heroes like Sheryl (Crow) and Chris (Stapleton). When I think of Chris, I think about how he did what he does to 100 percent, and that record really influenced me and gave me the empowerment to do the exact same thing.
On her hit song Tacoma:
I’ve loved ‘Tacoma’ since the moment we wrote it. I was scheduled to write with Bob DiPiero, and I had never written with him before. Bob is a Hall of Fame songwriter and he has written many hits, and I remember being nervous because I didn’t think I had any ideas that day. I was driving into Music Row, and I was at a stoplight, and I typed in the address to Bob’s office. Instead of my phone taking me to Music Row, Google Maps routed me all the way to Washington, to the town of Tacoma. And I thought, that’s a great title. So I started singing this sad melody into my phone, and when I sat down to write with Bob and asked him what he thought of this idea, ‘Tacoma.’ I started to play a little bit of it for him, and it was almost like the roof of the building opened up and a beautiful song baby fell from the sky. We wrote the song in less than an hour, and, as a writer, you have days like that. You know sometimes songs take some wrestling and time, but when they come so easy it’s like you have to get out of the way of the song and just let it be born. Those are the best days.
I loved singing it and started playing it live, and then my publisher said Garth Brooks asked if he could put it on his record. To have one of my heroes record that song is definitely a bucket list item. I knew it was a song for myself, but there was no way I was going to say no to having Garth Brooks sing that song.
On being a new Mom:
It’s totally crazy! But an amazing adventure. When I decided to do this record, I talked to a producer about recording dates. Then, I found out I was pregnant, so my son has been around for the whole ride of this record. I wanted to release these songs before he was born so I could get them out into the world and let them shimmer. We’ll release the full-length next year after I have a little time to figure out the mom thing and how to go out on the road with the baby. I’m lucky he’s a good baby and a cool baby. His name is Thomas Miles, but we’ve started calling him Thomas ‘Frequent Flyer’ Miles.
On hitting the road—and being a foodie:
I’m a big fan of exploring a city. I go on Yelp to find the coolest restaurant in the town. I’m such a foodie, I try to find the best restaurants, to the point where it annoys my husband because we have to go out of the way sometimes. I’m a big fan of asking a townie ‘where do you go’ and ‘what do you do.’ I’m also a big nature fan so we take hikes or just walk around a city. I always say ‘yes to exploring.’ Before releasing the record, we took an Amtrak from Memphis to Tacoma, and the trip will be a documentary to be released with the record. Man, I found some serious gems in the city of Tacoma, like this tea shop called the Mad Hatter. I went by myself. Everyone else wanted to go get a beer, but I was super pregnant, and I was like ‘Mama needs some tea.’ I found this little shop, and it was the best cup of tea I’ve ever had, and it also had the most colorful characters.
Watch Caitlyn's live performance of "Tacoma" in celebration of our Nashville Takeover.