Interview: Caitlyn Smith – “I Feel Like I’ve Found My Home. It’s Wonderful.”

If you’ve encountered Caitlyn Smith through her albums, you’ll already know what a phenomenal songwriter and recording artist she is.

If you were lucky enough to catch her on stage at the C2C festival this year, you’ll have discovered for yourself what a powerful live performer she is too, with a real gift for connecting with her audience before hitting them hard with stories full of heart, truth and healing.

Caitlyn Smith Interview 2022
Photo – Shervin Lainez

I was delighted to grab some time to talk with Caitlyn a few weeks after her London appearances. We discussed the recording and release of her new album “High”, and coping with the changes brought about by Covid measures.

But first I asked her – How was C2C…?

I had so much fun at C2C, but it was BUSY!

You were everywhere! It seemed like wherever there was a stage, you were playing there!

It was awesome! I was so grateful, I was making up for all my lost time, that I have not been over to the UK.

It is quite a while since you were last over.

Well, the last time I was over there was 2016, and I’d just signed my record deal and also was pregnant, so I’ve had 2 kids, so I think it was just the logistics of juggling two tiny humans and trying to get over there was a lot.

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but certainly over here you are one of THE names that people were talking about during C2C, and have continued talking about. You made a real impact with the crowd in London. What were the highlights of the weekend for you?

I think, meeting all of the people after the shows was my highlight. Because I hadn’t been able to get over there since I released Starfire, my first album, so to be able to meet all these folks and learn how these records have made their way into people’s lives and impacted them; that was very, very special for me. And also, I was told this was going to happen, but the UK audience in general is magical. Because there’s such a reverence and respect for the songs, and such an attentiveness. Honestly, that’s just one of the biggest treats as an artist. So I had a blast with the whole thing.

I don’t know how you feel about this, but from what I hear from other people and certainly in my own experience, it’s the sad songs – or maybe better to say the more personal songs – that seemed to land and connect the most with the audiences over the C2C weekend. As a writer and a performer, how do you feel about that? Because you don’t only write sad songs, of course!

Oh… It makes me feel like I’ve found my people (laughs)! I am a lover of sad songs. The more devastating the better. So I feel like I’ve found my home, really. It’s wonderful. And, as a songwriter, I love listening to people’s catalogs. I always gravitate to those deep cuts that are a lot more personal, a lot more tragic, a lot more… whatever. So it was a joy to be able to bring all of my feelings.

Caitlyn Smith Interview 2022 Bluebird Café C2C 2022 Tebey Tony Arata
Caitlyn Smith brings a memorable, emotional performance to the Bluebird Café Sessions at C2C 2022, joined on stage by Tebey and Tony Arata.
Photo – Luke Dyson

A lot of those personal songs are co-writes, and you have a whole host of co-contributors – Luke Dick, of course, he’s someone else who made a mark with the audience at the CMA Songwriters evening

I still cannot stop listening to… what was his song about the homeless man? Steve! That was my favourite song of the night. It was so good! And that was also very emotional.

Yes, that’s right! And then you have people like Gordie Sampson, Troy Virges, Bob De Piero… writers with that kind of stature and catalogue of their own. And they’re making contributions to these very personal songs of yours. So, things like This Town Is Killing Me, which I loved that you played it at the Songwriters evening because it’s such a great song but I was also a little surprised because it’s so sharp, so cutting and so deep emotionally; and Tacoma, which is another song that has that emotional level to it that I know hit people hard over the weekend. With songs like that, what do those kind of co-writers bring to a song like that?

Oh my goodness. Well, that entire list of writers, they’re all my heroes. And they’ve become some of my favourite collaborators because… They can go off and write a hit on radio, they can go do that. But I love that they’ll go there. And I feel like a safety with them in my collaboration, where I feel comfortable enough to open up my heart. Like, This Town Is Killing Me, I knew I wanted to bring it to Gordie, and to Paul Moak. I knew that they would get it. I knew that they would feel it. And all those writers, their reputation precedes them, of course. They are master craftsmen. So when I have an emotion or a title that I feel is big, and I want to do it justice, I want to bring it to the best, and to these writers that I feel will truly understand.

That’s interesting. I guess a lot of people might think, “This is so about me, it’s MY story and only I can tell it properly”.

Well, the way that I will process and bring a song is, I will say, “Here’s the feeling and the emotion”, and I’ll drop it in the middle of the room. And I’ll throw out a lot of random lines that are maybe clunky, but are like “Here’s the sentiment, everybody”. And I feel like someone like Gordie or Troy or Bob can kind of chisel and help craft that line so it’s, like, exactly perfect. And I’ve learned so much from them over the years. They’re all geniuses. And it’s fun to create with geniuses.

You mentioned Starfire earlier, and you released your second album Supernova unfortunately just as the pandemic was starting to be felt globally. That must’ve been a real blow professionally and personally for you. How did you handle it at the time?

Man… I mean, it was a very emotional time for everyone. For me, I spent the last two years of my life putting my heart into this little record, and then to have this build up happen and then… nothing. It was very devastating. I was definitely mourning the loss of this record. But really, what it taught me, and I feel like I keep reliving this lesson, is just to hold everything lightly.

I talked to a dear friend of mine who helped put it all in the perspective of, “Ok, this isn’t the best case scenario, but this record will do what it needs to do. It will get to the people it needs to get to. It will heal the people that it needs to”. And just holding it lightly, like, letting it go, because… I’m such a control freak, and I’m gonna be like, “No! We gotta really promo this record!”. And to not have that grip on it, it was definitely a challenge. But I can kinda step back now, a few years after the whole scenario, and look at I and say, “You know what? It did what it needed to do”. And it got me to the next record. And here we are.

I imagine most people will have cause to think in quite negative terms about the pandemic, but was there anything about it that you’ve been able to reflect on and found to be helpful or beneficial somehow, or even that you enjoyed?

Totally. There was so much richness within the devastation, that me and my little family found. We had a big year planned, we were going to be all over the globe touring with everybody. But instead, I’ve got two young boys, a five year old and a three year old, and instead we built a garden. Which as a touring artist you don’t get to do. We ate beautiful home-cooked meals every day. We spent time at the dinner table. It allowed us this opportunity to slow down, and go really, really small, and do our best to find peace in that. And that is something I will carry with me, and hope to continue to come back to continuously, because… Man, isn’t that so good for the soul? We get so caught in the rat race, we gotta do this, and do this, and be this. But to just have this moment of taking a breath, and really nurturing the things that matter the most… Wow, what a gift that was. And I got to write a ton of songs (laughs)!

Listening to the new album, High, it does seem to be coming from a more happy place than the previous albums. Is that a fair observation?

I would say so. A lot of the songs, I was just hanging out with my kids and my husband. We moved back to our home state of Minnesota during the pandemic, and it allowed us this space to just really reset and slow down. And so I do feel like, in going home, it opened up a lot of peace. So I would say Yes.

This first project is called High, and it really touches on a lot of the highs, and even in the loss that you can still find those. This will be followed with a full project of High & Low. So the more devastating pieces are coming (laughs).

So, the title track is a song that will be familiar to many people, as it was recorded by Miley Cyrus, of course. How did the song get to Miley? Was it written with her in mind?

That was a song that I wrote with my friend Jen Decilveo, and we wrote it in Nashville. There was a kind of a country, gospel-ly emotion around at the time. In writing it, I knew that it was the first song for my next project. But the song got passed around the music business, you know, it ended up with Mark Ronson, he passed it to Miley and she loved it. She took it as her own, changed a few things to really put her stamp on it, and when she said she wanted to cut the song I was like, “Yes!”. That was a bucket list cut, as we say in Nashville, for both Jen and I. So I was happy to have her record it. But Miley and Mark did it in a little more of a subdued way. I had always heard it a lot bigger, so I really wanted to go in and record my version.

Was that a little odd, given that you wrote the song, someone else had recorded it, and you were almost doing a cover version of your own song?

It is and it isn’t. I mean, I get the same thing with Tacoma, Garth Brooks had recorded it before I did but I really felt connected to the song. So I went in and did my version. I think, just as a writer, being in Nashville for so many years, I always love hearing the songwriter version. And so it wasn’t really strange to me. I love songwriters recording their own versions of their hits, you know? So, no, it felt totally natural.

Because you do take a different approach to your songwriting when you’re writing a song for yourself, as opposed to a song that’s specifically for someone else to record?

Yeah, I definitely do use a different approach. I mean, if I was to sit down with Miley to write a song with her right in the room, I would be doing a lot more digging around in her brain and heart, and trying to pull her story out (makes a pulling motion with her hands). In a song like High, it came from this way (makes a pushing outward motion), and that’s probably why the connection to that song it there. But if another artist wants to record your song, it is literally the highest compliment. It’s like Christmas. And I’m here for it.

You chose the produce the new album yourself. How did you find that, wearing both the artist and the producer hats at the same time?

Writing the songs is one element of vulnerability. Performing the songs is another element of vulnerability. But being in charge of the sonic landscape, and creating everything around it, and being in charge of all the little details of how the song is presented is another layer of vulnerability that I didn’t really know existed. I’m no stranger to the studio, I’ve been cutting records since I was 15 years old. But production in general, I’ve always kind of sat in the back an it’s been a little mystifying, but I’ve always been intrigued by it and curious. And I think the pandemic lit a bit of a roll of opening up my curiosity.

I was set to make a new record, but I kept going through different producers in my brain, thinking, “I don’t know if any of these fit this group of songs”. And this little bird was like, “What if you did it yourself?”. And I was like, “SHH!”. But I couldn’t quite shake this idea, and I became very curious of what my music would sound like if I just cut out all of the outside voices, and put myself fully out there. It was a very vulnerable experience, a very terrifying experience, like a rollercoaster, but also one of the most valuable seasons of lessons that I’ve ever had in my life. I think from learning about leadership, to sharpening my ears, to even having the confidence in the studio, it gave me so much space. I could write a book on it. Maybe one day I will.

And maybe write a song about it too!

Exactly! (laughs)

You’re on tour over in the US beginning in April, but everyone over here will want to know when might we see you back in the UK?

We are really trying to sort it out that we can come to the UK, I’m hoping later this year. We’re working on that right now, it’s on the top of my list of priorities. Going over there for C2C, like I said, I feel like I found my people. So I want to be back as soon as possible.

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