If you haven’t heard of Canaan Smith yet, chances are 2015 is the year you — as well as country music fanatics all over the nation — will be hearing quite a bit of him. Smith, who has been a hardworking songwriter in Nashville for a decade strong now (he’s written songs for some pretty huge names, including Jason Aldean), initially broke with his hit “Love You Like That” and has been making waves on the road, most recently opening up for Dan + Shay.
Overall, we feel the singer-songwriter — who has quite a bit going on in his life, including marrying his longtime girlfriend just a few months ago — is one of the sharper artists to keep an eye on in the new year, and we think you’ll feel the same once you get to know him: Our Country sat down with Smith and chatted with him about making it in Music City, life on the road, and lots about songwriting.
Our Country: Nashville is such a competitive town with so much talent — what do you think you bring to the table in terms of songwriting that makes you stand out from the many great writers working there?
Smith: That’s a hard thing to answer — if you’re being yourself and being honest in your stories, maybe those are the ones that have the best shot. Country music is about finding common ground and bringing people together, so if you’re telling a story, people can relate to that.
You’ve written with some pretty big names. Do you prefer to write by yourself or collaborate with others?
Both, whatever. Any time you get a song — that in itself is amazing. And a song that finds its way on to radio…the whole process seems so intangible until it happens, and when it does, you just count your blessings. Songwriting, it’s a weird thing — you never know what you’re going to get (laughs). Some days you show up and you’re banging your head against the wall, “Oh my gosh I suck, why am I doing this,” and another day a little golden nugget falls out of the sky. So, just show up and keep doing it.
What instrument do you primarily write on?
I write on guitar, it’s kind of like a third arm. I’ve been playing for 20 years and it’s just the most comfortable way to express myself. I tune it different ways from time to time for an inspiring sound. And I also like to pick up other people’s guitars, because each one sounds a little different and maybe puts you in a little mood that could start off a song in a certain way.
And, what comes first to you — the melody or the lyrics?
It’s different every time — more recently melody these days. Usually if you settle into a melody of a song, that kind of depicts what to say. It’s just that pursuit of finding the blend of the words and music that go together.
What is your musical background?
I got my first guitar when I was 12, and I started right then, writing songs. All sorts of influences — George Strait to the Chili Peppers. I’m just a music fan in general. My dad was a rock singer and I would go to his rehearsals as a kid and sit in and listen and watch the whole process. I’ve always been blown away by it.
A rock singer — like in a local band?
Yeah, a local band. They would tour locally around the area. When he was in his 20s he toured all around the nation—on a small level, but still going for it. So I’ve had it in my veins, I guess!
You moved to Nashville while still in college. Was there a specific point you remember when you realized “Okay, enough, I am going to do music for a living”?
It was my fourth school — it took me four colleges to realize I needed to be in Nashville writing songs. Everyone’s path’s different…for me, the last place I want to be for the rest of my life is in a classroom.
You’ve been in town for a while now. What’s the most challenging part of working in Nashville?
Every day it’s still hard. It’s so competitive. The songs coming in on a daily basis—they’re amazing. The pool is getting smaller and the songs are getting better.
You have written quite a few songs for other artists. Is there a particular song that surprised you with where it ended up?
I had no idea that “Black Tears” would end up on Jason Aldean’s album. Tyler Hubbard and I wrote that while we were in school, about 2007. You just never know where they’re going to land…So that’s a notch on my belt that I’m proud of.
Do you have a particular song that you kept for yourself that you are especially proud of?
“Richmond Road” is a slice of life song about my life growing up; sitting in the back seat on the way to school with my brothers, smoking and having to roll the window down from all the second-hand smoke — in the middle of winter. I lost my oldest brother off that same road. It’s a slice of life story that I’m proud of.
Some artists can write while they are touring; others need to have a specific space to do so. Which type of writer are you?
I’d rather write at home. When I’m on the road I like to stay focused on entertaining and doing my job out there. When I get home I have a studio set up at my house, and it’s a comfortable spot for me.
Speaking of touring. You got married fairly recently — is it difficult to be a newlywed and maintain the touring lifestyle?
It’s not as hard as you’d think if you marry the right person, and I did. She’s a rock star—super understanding and very patient and selfless. She’s a nurse with a lot of talent and she’s going to do big things too. We support each other.
The country music scene is actually pretty supportive of family life in general — more so than other music scenes.
If we couldn’t bring our families out with us, or talk about them, or anything like that, we wouldn’t have most of country music’s songs. Because that’s what it’s all about (laughs).