Caitlyn Smith talks about chasing that perfect song, from Cannon Falls to Nashville

courtesy Caitlyn Smith

When singer-songwriter Caitlyn Smith decided to focus on her writing, she could hardly have imagined what dividends that work would pay. Songs written or co-written by Smith have been recorded by artists including Dolly Parton, John Legend, Garth Brooks, and Meghan Trainor. Now, the Nashville resident — a native of Cannon Falls, Minnesota — is getting ready to reclaim the mic with the release of a new solo album, Starfire. The album is expected to arrive early next year, and the title track is out now.

I recently talked with Smith by phone as she traveled down to Cannon Falls after a visit to the Twin Cities. She was getting ready, she explained, to help her parents move to the Badger State. Our conversation touched on her early years in the Minnesota music scene, her new music, and of course a couple of local legends — one of whom she’s already collaborated with.

What motivated your parents’ move to Wisconsin?

You know, they actually found a little log cabin [on], like, 25 acres and it’s near some of their good friends, so I think they just found their dream home and are going for it.

Well, it sounds like an experience you might get another song out of.

Yeah, I hope so. It’s going to be really beautiful there, I know that.

Let’s start by talking about Cannon Falls. That’s where your roots are, that’s where you lived until you moved out of the house…at around age 18, right?

Yes, correct.

What are your memories of Cannon Falls? Was there anything about it that sparked your musical awakening?

Absolutely. I grew up singing in church there and singing at local little community events, county fairs — so I started gigging around Cannon Falls at a pretty young age. Every year I entered the Minnesota State Fair talent competition and that was super fun. I actually ended up winning the teen division at [age] 15. After that, my parents sat me down and were like, “Hey, we have this college fund, but we see you’re really diligent with the music thing.” I put together a little band of friends in Cannon, as, like, a 12-year-old. We would like gig around the area. So, when [my parents] sat me down at 15 and said, “Do you want to use your college fund to make a record?” I said, “Absolutely.” So I had a really great launching pad.

Do you have any siblings who are involved in music, or were your parents?

Yeah! My brother was in my band when I was a kid; he was a drummer. My dad’s a police officer and my mom works as a paraprofessional at a high school, and they always loved music. My dad would sit around playing guitar, my mom would sit around playing piano, but they weren’t [professional] musicians at all. [They] just loved it.

So they were involved and decided to support your career.

Yeah, they were always so supportive of both me and my brother in our endeavors. I went to Minneapolis at 15 to make my first record, and then gigged enough and sold enough albums to pay my parents back for that loan, and then made another record. After making that first record, I heard that Nashville was a place where you should go if you want to do music. So, I went down there at 16 years old and found this incredible music community down there and started songwriting and collaborating with people in Nashville.

If we can go back just a little bit to when you came up to the Twin Cities to record the first album — where did you record, who did you work with?

I worked with a good number of amazing Minneapolis musicians and recorded at [a studio that] was called Seedy Underbelly, a studio that was owned by John Kuker, who just recently passed. So we recorded one of the records there, one of them in a basement in North Minneapolis. I loved the Minneapolis music scene as soon as I started coming up to the Cities. I cut my teeth at the 400 Bar, playing gigs there…you know, mid-week gigs there for like five people. And the Turf Club, and, you know, a lot of Minneapolis, St. Paul bars. As a kid I would try to sneak in the back door and sneak in the gigs…I just loved music. The Twin Cities music scene was a heavy influence.

Even though you were under 18, it sounds like you were basically playing regular bars and venues, and not really trying to do the all-ages scene thing.

Totally. I had the Xs on my hands. I wrote about it…I have a song on my new record called “St. Paul.”

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Why did you choose to write the song about St. Paul…as opposed to Minneapolis, or Minnesota, [or the] Twin Cities? What was it about that city in particular?

St. Paul was the skyline that I would see when I would come from Cannon Falls into the Twin Cities…and St. Paul just sang better than “Minneapolis” and it sang better than “Twin Cities.” But really, that was my first kind of feeling of freedom, when I would cross over that bridge on 52 into St. Paul, enter the Cities. That was that feeling of freedom that I was trying to capture.

What years were these, that you were gigging around in the Twin Cities?

I probably started around 16. I didn’t move to Nashville until I was 23, so there were a good handful of years in there that I just gigged around Minneapolis. I would play bars on Saturday and church on Sunday, ‘cause it paid well. So I was really playing whatever gigs I could in Minneapolis. While I was living up there I was going back and forth [from Tennessee] as much as I could afford it. I would do the 14-hour drive, spend a week crashing on someone’s random couch in Nashville.

Then you decided to focus on your songwriting really specifically, and hone in on that.

Yeah. So I realized pretty quickly, after spending some time in Nashville, that you can be the best singer in the world, but if you don’t have the song, you’re not going to have much of a career. So I started seeing that songwriting is really what I needed to focus my energy into. Because I could sing all different genres, and I was still experimenting with what I wanted to do as an artist, I decided to take a break from the stage and just focus on crafting a great song.

So, when I found my first publishing deal at 23, moved to Nashville, I took a break from the stage and just started writing. It ended up turning out way better than I thought. Within the first year of living there and writing there, I had cuts [recorded by] a handful of really large artists…and the cuts just started coming, which was really exciting. But, after a handful of years of writing for other people, I got the itch to just really be back to performing. So, I started trying to figure out how to write for myself and what it was I wanted to say.

It seems like you’re a collaborative songwriter as well. You often collaborate with your husband, and the musicians who are going to be recording your songs. How does that process work? I know it must vary from artist to artist.

I’m constantly digging into new music and reading and watching movies, and eavesdropping on conversations. Song ideas can come from everywhere. I keep up a long list, in my phone, of ideas. So, when I go to a songwriting session, I pull up that list and kind of see what feeling’s in the room, and we go from there. So it’s different every day. Sometimes a musical idea will come into the room and we’ll chase that, or sometimes we’ll just focus in on a title and try to see what that sounds like.

Sitting here in Minnesota, one of the more obvious comparisons is, of course, Dan Wilson — another guy that came out of Minnesota and collaborated with a lot of storied artists. Have you met Dan?

I have met him. I was a big fan of Dan, right away when I started coming to Minneapolis. The studio we recorded in, Seedy Underbelly, I know Semisonic did their “Closing Time” record there. So I was instantly a fan of him, and I actually got to collaborate with him this last year. It was everything I dreamed of; he is an absolute legend. So, I definitely admire him and look up to him.

Tell me more about that collaboration.

It was so special. He was having a trip in Nashville, and I had just always had it on my bucket list that that’s somebody that I wanted to write with, since he’s been such an inspiration for so long. It just so happened to work out; my publisher got us together in the room. We wrote one of my favorite songs that I’ve written this year, which hopefully it can make its way on the next record.

So, not the one that’s coming out [next] year?

Not this one that’s coming out, no, we were already done recording by that time.

You have a new album coming out! You must have touring plans.

Yes, absolutely. So the record is slated to come out in January of next year. The single drops at the end of the month. We plan on touring it this spring, and so I’m very much looking forward to that part of the process too, ‘cause I love playing and visiting different cities. Can’t wait!

Another musician who gets mentioned in your bio, more for geographical than for musical similarities, is Prince. He always made a point of being careful not to be categorized as making any one kind of music. Do you think about that, as someone who crosses genres yourself?

Yeah. When I went into make Starfire. I really didn’t want to focus on genre, I didn’t want to focus on radio. My goal was to just to create music that I loved. When you don’t put yourself in a box, or don’t let other people do that, you’re able to reach so many more people. That’s our goal with Starfire. We’re not really gonna put it in a category, and just let people who love music listen to it.

Do you have a sense, in the Nashville music community, is that changing?

Yeah, Nashville has really broadened. When I first went down there it was very heavily country, but I feel people kind of have gotten the memo that it’s not [only that], and there is a ton of different genres there. It’s really just a music community. They love their songwriters and they love their musicians, and celebrate them.

Interview transcribed by Colleen Cowie