Early in Caitlyn Smith’s career, she became known as one of Nashville’s most reliable songwriters, penning pop and country hits for Miley Cyrus (“High”), Garth Brooks (“Tacoma”), Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers (“You Can’t Make Old Friends”), and John Legend and Meghan Trainor (“Like I’m Gonna Lose You”).
With 2018’s Starfire, she stepped into her own as an artist with an elegant, pop-fueled project. She had planned to continue building on that project’s success with the 2020 release of Supernova.
However, the release plans for Supernova in March 2020 happened to coincide with the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic, causing tours to be shuttered and sending album promotion plans into disarray. Smith and her family left Nashville for Smith’s home state of Minnesota during the pandemic, seeking a place of quiet and space to decompress.
“The very next week, I was like, ‘Just fill my calendar, I’m going to write.’ I needed to keep my mind busy and it was such a difficult time for everyone,” Smith tells Billboard.
The result is the airy, dreamy eight-track album High, which came out April 8 via Monument Records. The album is the first half of the two-part project High & Low, with the second half slated for release later this year.
“We are almost finished with the rest of the album. On the second half of the album, it will be more of the gritty songs. You can’t have the high without the low,” she says.
Instead of turning to someone else to helm the project, Smith produced the album herself, a prospect she says she initially found “terrifying.”
“It was like skydiving,” she says. “It was something exciting that I wanted to try, but when it came down to walking into the studio that day, it was scary. But once the first downbeat started, what an exhilarating feeling.”
She worked with engineer Gena Johnson, who has worked on albums for Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit and Kacey Musgraves, among others. She says that Johnson “helped create this space for me to just try things. Maybe at times I didn’t know quite how to articulate the sound I was going for, but she helped me get there.”
For three months ahead of recording the album in Nashville, Smith says she became “a student of records,” relistening to all of her favorite albums from artists including Patty Griffin, Paul Simon, Harry Styles and The Chicks, dissecting the sounds that drew her to each one.
“When I listen to this record, I can hear little pieces of all my favorite records all over it. There’s a section in ‘Nothing Against You’ where I can hear a bit of a Beatles vibe in the bridge. The album starts with this beautiful fiddle intro that is sweeping and inspired by an old Rufus Wainwright record and pulled that feel in. For me it was an experiment in taking all the sounds that I love and playing with them and seeing what fits within my music.”
The album takes its name from Smith’s rendition of “High,” while another track on the album, “Dream’s Free,” embodies a romantic feel with a timely message of holding out hope in trying circumstances: “We ain’t rich but the dreamin’s free,” she sings.
“That idea came out of the pandemic, with touring and all the big stuff that got taken away,” Smith recalls. “My husband and I were on a Zoom call with our counselor and they said, ‘Even though there is all this trauma, I encourage you guys to not stop dreaming together.’ My husband and I would go on long walks with our kids and would stay in that dreaming headspace.”
Elsewhere in the song, the lyrics detail dreams of drinking champagne in Paris, or moving to Yellowstone — a line Smith says was inspired by a certain popular television show.
“Yes, we were all binge-watching Yellowstone. I wrote that song with Shane McAnally and Lori McKenna, and I think we were all watching Yellowstone at the same time. Absolutely, we all bought cowboy hats,” she said with a laugh.
Smith dug into her back catalog for “Nothing Against You,” which she wrote with McAnally and Matt Jenkins.
“I heard it and thought, ‘How did I miss this?’ Just being in the pandemic and feeling all of these emotions in my marriage, it felt like the perfect time for this song.”
In producing the album on her own, she says, “I feel like I could write a book on the things I have learned about this process. I learned to not be afraid to take a chance on yourself and believe in yourself. I have struggled with that through the years, because of the journey I’ve had as an artist, just hearing ‘no’ from so many people and not being sure if my artist career was even going to grow wings. I came to this town with a great deal of naïveté and it got shaken out of me a little bit. But I surrounded myself with a supportive community, with many of them being some badass women who inspire me to try new things.”
She also learned to trust her own instincts.
“It was a big lesson in tuning out the outside voices. With social media, we are in this comparison culture all the time, and I think we can all use that lesson of getting the affirmation from ourselves, that we are fine the way we are and who cares what everybody else thinks?”
In stepping into the role of producer, Smith joins a relatively small group of women who have produced country projects (either their own, or for others), including Victoria Shaw (who co-produced Lady A’s 2008 debut album), the late Lari White (who was a co-producer on projects for Toby Keith and Billy Dean), Gail Davies (who produced many of her own records), Alex Kline (who has produced for Tenille Arts and Terri Clark, among others) and Alison Krauss (who won a Grammy for producing Nickel Creek’s 2002 album This Side, and produced Alan Jackson’s 2006 album Like Red on a Rose, in addition to many of her own albums with Union Station). Maren Morris and Carrie Underwood each have producer credits on some of their projects, too.
Smith hopes to see a rise in the number of female producers.
“When I first moved to Nashville, if I had seen several female producers, I might have done this a lot earlier. I don’t know why there aren’t more yet, but I bet seeing this wave of women coming up, seeing this new generation of women taking the horns of production, I hope it will birth a new generation feeling empowered and inspired enough to do it themselves.”