“You know that feeling of clicking to the top of a roller coaster?” Caitlyn Smith says as she sits in her dressing room a few hours before her live-television debut on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. “Yeah, we’ll it’s kind of been that feeling all day. Like ‘Here we go. This is really gonna happen!'”
The breakout singer-songwriter was speaking to that evening’s monumental performance – which, it should be noted, saw her showcasing some mammoth vocal power on “Contact High” and wowing Fallon in the process. But Smith easily could have been addressing her entire career. One that after 15-plus years spent as a seasoned Nashville songwriter, with writing credits for everyone from Dolly Parton (“You Can’t Make Old Friends”) and Lady Antebellum (“747”) to Meghan Trainor (“Like I’m Gonna Lose You”) to James Bay (“Hear Your Heart”), now finds her experiencing her long-overdue breakout moment as a solo artist.
“Every part of the journey has beautifully layered on top of the next,” Smith says, noting that every hardship she’s endured on her musical journey led her to Starfire, the fierce and forthright singer’s equal-parts gritty and gorgeous debut LP, released last week via Monument Records. “It all feels pretty beautifully orchestrated and all the right timing,” she adds. “It’s a very sweet and wonderful moment to finally be here.”
Not that it was easy by any measure: even as she found success writing songs for others, Smith held on to a dream of being a successful artist in her own right. She’d wanted to be a professional singer since her earliest days growing up in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, a small town located approximately one hour south of Saint Paul. By age seven she was taking vocal lessons; at 12 she was booking her own gigs at local coffee shops. She even convinced her supportive parents to use her college-fund money to record her first album. “This has all been a hope and a dream I’ve had since I was young,” she says with her typical brand of aw-shucks humility.
Still, Smith won’t deny how during some of her lowest points in Nashville, “there were so many times where I wondered, ‘Should I give up? Should I really be doing this?'”
“Nobody really knew what to do with me as an artist,” says the singer, who veers between classic country (“Tacoma”), pop (“Don’t Give Up on My Love”), blues (“Contact High”) and gut-wrenching soul (“East Side Restaurant”) on Starfire. “I was never really a great fit for any of the other labels there. I was always kind of outside the box.”
To that end, she took matters into her own hands. Despite having previously released several albums independently to little fanfare, in the summer of 2016 Smith gave it one last shot. And for the first time in her career, she was completely selfish in the process.
“I made that record completely for myself,” she says of the Starfire EP, which topped the iTunes Singer-Songwriter charts and led to her signing a deal with the recently revamped Monument Records. “I had decided to make music that was not thinking about radio, not thinking about genre, and just thinking about songs and music that I love.”
“It was definitely surprising for me,” she adds of the positive attention that came in its wake from fans and many in Nashville who’d long snubbed her. “I definitely noticed it. And to think, all I had to do at the end of the day was just make music that I love. What was I doing all these years?”
Smith had planned to quickly release a follow-up five-song EP, but after giving birth to her first child, the now-17-month-old Tommy, she opted to slow things down. “By the time I was ready to release the entire thing Monument had come around and a year of time had passed,” she explains. “And plus, I had written a ton more songs.” So Smith hunkered down in producer Paul Moak’s Smoakstack Studio in Nashville’s Berry Hill neighborhood and cut four more songs for her full-length album. (Two of them, she notes, didn’t make the cut for Starfire but will be released at a later date.)
Smith says adjusting to her new life as an in-demand artist “feels strangely right,” but balancing her work and family life “is something we as humans are always going to need to work on,” she says.
Still, she admits she’s lucky to have her family by her side nearly every step of the way: her musician husband, Rollie, is in her touring band, and Tommy typically comes out on the road with his parents. “It’s my little gypsy family,” Smith says with a smile. “To be able to do what you love, play a show at night and then kiss your baby and tuck him into bed … I wouldn’t want it any other way.”