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If you’re a country fan, Caitlyn Smith has probably written one of your favorite songs. For years, Smith worked as a staff songwriter in Nashville, penning over 500 songs for singers like Lady Antebellum, Jason Aldean, Dolly Parton, and Garth Brooks. Smith was the brains behind the chart-topping “Like I’m Gonna Lose You,” performed by Meghan Trainor and John Legend.
While she was writing hit after hit for other artists, Smith was also storing up tracks for her own project: A solo album called Starfire, which was released January 19 by Monument Records. Though Smith is primarily associated with country music, you couldn’t, after listening to Starfire, call it a purely country album. Smith has shaped her highly personal lyrics into stunning, genre-defying tracks – some hauntingly bare-boned, like “This Town Is Killing Me.” Others, epic songs fit for the radio, like “Tacoma,” which will make you think of lost love and new beginnings.
We spoke to Smith for the release of her song, “Before You Call Me Baby,” a love song if there ever was one.
Refinery29: “Before You Call Me Baby” is a pretty swoon-inducing track. Can you tell us about the snog, and your inspiration for the lyrics?
Caitlyn: "I wrote it with the love of my life in mind. I’ve been married to my husband, Rollie, for eight years now. Anyone who knows me knows that I was a complete disaster before I met him. There’s something so beautiful when you find your person. When that song title came to me, I knew exactly what it needed to be about."
He’s in your band, right?
"That’s correct, he is. He plays acoustic guitar, and background vocals."
Your whole band’s in the video. How long have you been recording with them for?
"For years and years. I think it was six years ago, we moved back to Minnesota from Nashville for a couple of years. It was those two years in Minneapolis that I put together that band. Some of them I’ve known since I was 15, and those guys are the ones who gave me the courage to start playing out again and chasing my own artist career."
So they’ve been your support system, too.
"They’ve been my support system. They are my family. We’ve done so much life together, and now we’re all having kids together. They’re my brothers."
Before Starfire, you worked as a songwriter for many years. Did you always know you wanted to pursue a solo career?
"Being an artist was always Plan A for me. I saw that you could be a staff songwriter and make some money while writing some songs, and I thought that was a good side job while I figured out the artist part. I spent years in Nashville writing behind the scenes for other people, but it started to become more difficult for me to give up my songs. When I finally made the decision to go in and make this record, specifically writing, I would split my week in half. Half of the week I would write for other people, and half of the week I would write for myself. It became more and more difficult to give the songs up to the artist."
This album seems very personal. How did writing songs for yourself compare to writing for other people?
"Writing for Starfire was definitely a shift. I had to think about what parts of my story I wanted to tell, and it was little more of a vulnerable process. I was digging around in my own heart and sharing my own truth. It’s not to say that I didn’t do that before. But as a staff songwriter, you can play a character and act a certain part in the writing room, and be distant from the song you’re writing. But when I was writing songs for my own record I definitely had to dig around my own heart and write a lot more personally."
In this highly personal record, did one song stand out as the hardest song to write?
"I think the most vulnerable song out of the whole record is the one I wrote by myself called 'Don’t Give Up On My Love.' When you write a song by yourself, you don’t have anybody else to blame anything on. Those are your words. That is your melody. It’s so vulnerable that I don’t like being in the room when someone plays it. I’m so glad that I wrote it and got it out there, and had the courage to finish it myself."
You released an EP in 2014. Did your approach to writing Starfire differ to that solo EP?
"Absolutely. With that EP, I knew I was creating something that I thought everyone in Nashville wanted from me. I was creating the EP with the intention of wanting to get a record deal. When I was playing them out, it didn’t seem to fit correctly. Something felt off. When I went in to write for Starfire, I tried to shut all that [out] and have my only intention be to create music that I love. When writing for Starfire, I tuned out thinking about labels and genre, and focus on being honest and creating music I was proud of."
In Nashville and in country music, is there a pressure to sound a certain way?
"Especially in writing circles, because you’re writing for commerce, you’re paying attention to the charts. In a way it can kill artistry. I was doing that with my own artistry. There was a definitely intention to step back from that, go back to my roots."
In the song “This Town is Killing Me,” you write that Nashville won. Now, you’ve come out with this remarkable album. Does Nashville still win?
"Nashville always wins. But in a different way. As brutal as the music industry and this business can be, this city has my heart, and it’s the reason why I am who I am today. This record would never have been made if it wasn’t for the ups and downs this city and this industry give you. Now it wins in a, ‘Thank you for all the good and the bad and the ugly.’”
The album has influences from a variety of genres. When you were writing, did you try to get away from the limiting conventions of genre? Do you ever feel limited by the concepts of genre in general?
"Genre lines are falling to the wayside. I don't consume music that way. I listen to music based on mood, and all different kinds of genre. If it’s good music, I’ll listen to it. When I went into this record, I didn’t feel genre limitations. And so that’s what I think is reflected in this record. Because of that, people get to make the decisions for themselves, which is really beautiful."
Do you feel like you’re reaching a new stage in your career?
"My goal when I was releasing this record was to create a record that I love. I was having a bit of a 30-year-old crisis of, I’m going to have a baby, no labels are signing me, I don’t know what to do. I want to release music. I just went in and decided to make something I love and put it out there. And we did that. All of my expectations are blown out of the water. I didn’t know Jimmy Fallon and an actual record deal were going to happen. All of that stuff was not in the plan."
One last question. How does your husband feel knowing that there are love songs about him on the album?
"I think he loves it."