Press play on any one of Caitlyn Smith’s songs and you’re bound to be captivated by her striking voice that has a distinct way of pulling the listener in. Look into her song catalogue and you’ll find an equally gifted writer who covers the musical spectrum with co-writing credits ranging from the hit Meghan Trainor and John Legend duet “Like I’m Gonna Lose You” to Garth Brooks’ heart rendering “Tacoma.”
In this edition of Female Friday, the brilliant songwriter chats with Sounds Like Nashville about why her parents offered to pay for her to record an album instead of college tuition, what it means to be a student of song and the valuable lessons she’s learned throughout 2020.
How would you describe your journey and evolution as a songwriter?
I started writing at a very young age and it was very much an exploratory scenario where I was journaling and writing poems. It was constant word vomit and feeling vomit and I tried to turn that into songs, then my songs became more organized and structured. When I was 15-years-old, my parents sat me down and they had noticed my diligence in music. I had done this talent competition called the Minnesota State Fair [Amateur Talent Contest] and entered it with an original song and I ended up winning the competition. A ton of people were asking for a copy of that song, and so that sparked my parents sitting me down and saying, ‘we’ve got a college fund over here, would you like to use that to make a record?’ I did have to pay them back, but as a 15-year-old kid, it was such an incredible experience to then take the songs that I’ve written and be able to record them and put them on a record. The producer set me up with another songwriter up in Minnesota by the name of Joel Hanson and that was my first collaboration, it was there that I really learned the beautiful art of co-writing.
Then I took this record to Nashville and what I didn’t know at the time was that songwriting was a career, that you could have a job writing songs for other people. On my first trip to Nashville, I saw that there was this whole community of people just making stuff up and completely fell in love with it, and when I found that little place in the world, I found the place that I wanted to be. The big thing that I learned in coming to Nashville was becoming a student of songs, and that was a big thing that helped me in my writer journey. Collaboration, number one, and then becoming a student of songs and dissecting the hits and the great songs and the songwriters’ songwriter, digging into their catalog. Just as performing was, so was songwriting where it was trial by error. You write a hundred songs, you throw them in the garbage and you write a hundred more and you learn every time you write something.
What are some of the biggest challenges and rewards you’ve experienced in your career?
The first thing that comes to mind is learning how to take ‘no’ for an answer was a really hard lesson to learn and I’ve learned it time and time again. Also learning to get thick skin in this business, and that comes by having your heart broken a hundred times and picking yourself back up again. When I came to Nashville, I had this naive mindset of ‘you just grab your guitar and you play for a record label and then they’ll sign you and then you’ll put out a record and all your dreams will come true.’ I was very naive and there was a lot of challenges that I’ve faced where I’ve been told by every single label in town ‘no’ at least once, sometimes multiple times, but it’s all part of the journey. All of those ‘no’s’ taught me a lesson. So the big lesson that I had to learn after years of being in this town was to learn how to carve out my own lane, not listen to what I thought other people wanted me to do, and truly be the artist that I wanted to be at the end of the day – create the music that I believed in, even if nobody else did. It took the long and winding road to get to that place, to become comfortable with myself enough to put out music that I loved.
When I look back at the last decade that I’ve gotten to do music, I sit here in a house that I own because of music, and I sit here in a city that I love, in a community that I’m so grateful for, and it’s all because of music. Some of the great rewards as a songwriter [are] having my songs recorded by heroes, absolutely mind-blowing, bucket list items that I didn’t even know could exist in my bucket list. On the artist side, I’ve had the long and winding road and all of these challenges and it took me so many years and I finally got to the point where I thought ‘maybe this artist career isn’t going to happen for me’ and it really took letting go for the beautiful rewards to start coming into fruition. That was a reward in itself of learning to let go to then have beautiful things fall into my lap. Being able to make the music that I want to make at the end of the day has truly been the greatest reward and being able to have music be a job. Every day I wake up and I am so grateful for that.
Your new album Supernova dropped around [the onset] of the COVID-19 pandemic. Have any of the songs taken on new meaning for you?
Absolutely. I found that in this really crazy year that music has become the great healer and I’m seeing all of these songs through a new lens too. When I sing “Long Time Coming,” it’s become an anthem that ‘I’m going to get through this time of quarantine, I’m going to get through this year and we’re going to make it through the other side okay.’ “Lonely Together,” the last song on the record, has taken on a new meaning for me, but also so many people have messaged me about this song becoming their quarantine anthem. I wrote the song originally about being on the road and missing my community at home, but being grateful that I get to do it with my little family and we get to be lonely together. Now it’s taken on this whole new meaning of we’re here staying at home and social distancing, but the beauty in all of this is that we are doing it all together. It’s been amazing to see how these songs take on different shape and I think that’s the beauty of music; how you can write something very specific to your life, but it can take on different forms for you and also the listener as time goes on.
If you had to pick three songs that you’ve written that truly define you, what would they be and why?
That’s a great question. It’s hard to choose three because they’re all your babies and different songs I feel define you at different points in your life. But the first song that floated to the top of my mind is “House of Cards” on my first record, talking about the beauty of the fragility of life, the roller coaster that we go through as an artist, thinking that you’re not good enough and so much questioning. That song always hits me in all the feels. On this record, “Supernova” has been such a definition of how I want to live my life, but it also includes all the snapshots that have been important to me and moments in time: leaving home, becoming a mother, all of these tiny, beautiful moments that I would love to hold on to and remember; “Supernova” being a way that I want to live my life in this bright, beautiful blast before I burn out, so that’s another one that I feel like is very life-defining. I feel very connected to “This Town is Killing Me” on my last record too because it’s such a huge part of my story and the journey that I’ve lived. It also is a beautiful reminder to me that no matter how hard the music industry weighs on me and how much it does kill me, that I do it because I love it and because there’s nothing else that I would rather do.
On the lessons she’s learned in 2020:
One thing that 2020 has really taught me is to go really small with my life. There’s so much out there that we can’t control, but the things that we can control are the messages that are going on between our ears and our headspace and the messages that are going on in our heart space. I’ve been in this great discovery of paying attention to those things and I think it’s poured out into Supernova and it’s continuing to pour out into the music that I write. I think in a time where the world is total chaos, it can feel so terrifying, so helpless, but if we go really small with the words that we’re saying, the way that we’re treating people around us, the way we’re taking care of ourselves and even the music that we’re putting in our ears – it matters. I think that it really can make all the difference in hope that when we come out of 2020 and all of this really difficult stuff that we can hopefully all come out brighter, beautiful, stronger, and better people on the other side.