Caitlyn Smith has that inexplicable "pregnancy glow" as she sips a decaf coffee at an East Nashville café, talking about her own parents as she preps for the birth of her baby boy. The singer's mom and dad were any teenaged budding artist's dream. They allowed her to juggle school with gigs before she could even drive — and went so far as to give up her college fund so that she could make an album.
"I made enough money off touring and the record that I paid my parents back," Smith tells Rolling Stone Country nonchalantly, as she details all of the do-it-yourself ways she made cash as an indie artist performing mainly in her home state of Minnesota back then.
An obsession with Americana icon Patty Griffin led Smith to Nashville when she was 18. She noticed Griffin's name on the Americana Music Festival's lineup and made a cold call. "I thought, 'I wonder if they have a spot for me?' So I emailed them," she remembers, "and they wrote back, 'Yes! We'll pay you $200. Come play!'"
The trips to Nashville became more and more frequent, but it was songwriting, not singing that consumed Smith's time in Music City. She signed a publishing deal (choosing between several offers) and stopped chasing the spotlight to really hone her craft.
"I took a break from being an artist for a while, because I just wanted to focus on what it takes to make a good song," she says.
And that didn't take long. Smith's very first cut, "It Ain't Easy," was recorded for what became the biggest-selling country album of 2011, Jason Aldean's My Kinda Party. Cuts by Lady Antebellum ("747"), Rascal Flatts ("Let it Hurt") and Cassadee Pope ("Wasting All These Tears") followed, as did recordings of her songs by larger-than-life legends Garth Brooks ("Tacoma") and Kenny Rogers with Dolly Parton ("You Can't Make Old Friends"). Smith was on an enviable, but all-consuming songwriting trajectory. But that desire to perform never left her, and Smith started to miss the days of writing for her own voice. She teamed with renowned songwriter-producer Brett James for a 10-track album and started shopping it around. . . only to be told how great her songs were, but not necessarily how great she was as an artist.
"I ended up getting two Top 10s off that record," Smith says with a pause for dramatic effect before clarifying, "by other artists!" But despite being told "no" time and again when chasing an actual record deal, there are no hard feelings. Smith is the kind of person who sees the glass half full — and the bills paid. She also says the rejection sparked a desire to do more experimenting in the studio, crafting songs without any genre of radio in mind.
Adding to her discography of a handful of self-made albums, Smith released an EP, Everything to You in 2014, introducing herself as a recording artist to her largest audience yet. She included her own, more stripped-down version of "Wasting All These Tears" on the project, along with six other soaring tunes that showcase her sky-high range. Smith has the kind of versatile voice you can't quite put your finger on; she sounds like no one else on pop or country radio. But if forced, one might say she's a hybrid of Carole King, Alison Krauss, Michelle Branch and Carrie Underwood. And she's her own worst critic: "[The EP] was good, I was excited about that," she says, "But it didn't feel like exactly the right thing."
Chasing that "right thing" was a two-year journey of writing only for herself. Smith says she changed her whole songwriting approach, ditching the "character hat" and digging deeper, allowing herself to be more vulnerable. The result is Starfire, a five-song EP out now that will expand into an entire album in the coming months. On the project, Smith shows once again she's equal parts King-grit and Underwood-polish, as her voice takes a rollercoaster of a journey through personal highs and lows.
"So many songs on this record are just me opening up my chest," she says, calling Starfire a "genre-less" project. "We just kept the vocals raw and emotional. We didn't set out to make it sound like anything other than just my heart exploding."
Starfire opens with the slow-burning love song "Before You Called Me Baby," which was inspired by Smith's husband, fellow musician (and frequent co-writer) Rollie Gaalswyk. "Do You Think About Me" follows, a post-breakup ballad that marries soaring vocals with a little gravel — smartly accompanied by only subtle guitar and percussion. Her spine-tingling "Tacoma" more than holds its own against Garth Brooks' version (on 2014's Man Against Machine), as she belts her co-write with the legendary Bob DiPiero with the kind of conviction that indicates she's felt those feelings and traveled those miles. [See her captivating "Tacoma" video below, which was filmed during an Amtrak train ride from Memphis to Tacoma. And look for another clever, cinematic song written with DiPiero on the full album.]
The spirited title track is Smith's musical full-circle moment. "Starfire" was the name of a vintage guitar given to her by her father. But along with nostalgia, the song was inspired by paying her dues — and keeping her chin up doing so.
"I've been in this town seven years and have heard 'no' so many times, had so many doors closed in my face," Smith reminisces. "So being here today, I'm either an idiot or just ridiculously stubborn!"
The volatile ride that is the music business rears an uglier head in closing track, "This Town Is Killing Me," which plays out like a devastatingly poignant letter to Nashville, admitting defeat. Smith can't count how many times she's questioned her move to the country music capital — thanks to all those closed doors that also inspired "Starfire" — but it was one particular rejection that inspired her to write about all the "no"s, all the lonely times away from family, and the times she played for audiences where "no one's listening, they're too busy drinking on the company tab."
"You want to create songs for the radio, songs that will pay the bills. But you're not going to write 'Honky Tonk Badonkadonk' every day. You'd wanna kill yourself," she says of having song after song turned down because it's not "radio friendly." "But even though it's brutal, hard being so far away from our families, we do it because we have to."
"Nashville, you win," she sings in the gorgeously sparse closing track. She talks about the feelings that sparked "This Town Is Killing Me" as if they came just yesterday, yet Smith's many victories are certainly not lost on her. As she gets into nesting mode to welcome her first child, she's seen chart-toppers in both her songwriting and recording worlds: "Like I'm Gonna Lose You," the Meghan Trainor-John Legend duet written by Smith, Trainor and Justin Weaver, hit Number One on the pop charts. And on its first week of release, Starfire topped iTunes Singer Songwriter chart and Spotify's "Viral 50."
Smith isn't worried about her career catapulting to new heights just as she should be slowing down. "It all seems too perfect," she says of expecting the baby just a few short weeks after her EP release. "He's been along for the ride for this whole [EP]. . . And now I'm excited to take this little boy on the road."
Just the kind of mindset her parents nurtured.