For many people, it might seem like Caitlyn Smith’s shiny talent came out of nowhere. But the truth is that she’s been in pursuit of a label deal and a successful career since she was 16 years old. Smith wasn’t sure it would happen for her: she almost had a music career in Minnesota, but decided to pivot and pursue a songwriting career in Nashville.
For a time, the now 31-year-old musician was churning out tracks for everyone from Dolly Parton to Meghan Trainor. But after years of making songs for other people, she decided she missed making music for herself. What resulted in that was Smith making a handful of records — and getting rejected from label after label. It took her giving up her dream to finally get her major label breakout with 2018’s Starfire, an album full of perseverance, nostalgia, love and the realities of marriage. But Smith sums up her journey best on the record’s title track: “You won’t burn out this starfire, no matter what you say.”
“Starfire” is just an entry point into the fusion of sharp rock n’ roll and modern country music. Premiering below is the video for another Starfire song “Scenes from a Corner Booth at Closing Time on a Tuesday” — a syrupy track with a keen eye for people watching. “It’s the longest song title I’ve ever written,” Smith confesses. The video was recorded live with her band in St. Paul, Minnesota, in an old mattress factory that transformed into a recording studio. “I played with some of these guys for 15 years,” Smith explains. “They’ve been my band for forever, and so it was a really fun place to record in.”
Can you tell me the story behind Starfire and what went into making the record?
Well, I have spent the last eight years living in Nashville. I come from Minneapolis, Minnesota, and made my way to Nashville after many, many years of going back and forth. I found the songwriting community here and fell in love with it. So when I moved here eight years ago — I actually was a performer in Minneapolis, but decided to take a break from stage and become a student of songs and writing. After a handful of years in Nashville, writing songs and having songs recorded by other people, I began to miss the stage, and I began singing my own songs. And so I kind of went on a journey then to find my own voice and to find out what I wanted to say. I made a few records and pitched them to labels around Nashville, and continuously just heard no, no, no, pass. And with many very difficult years of perseverance and continuing to try and try again, is what led me to Starfire. After I had had my heart broken by the music industry enough times, I sat down and said, you know, ‘I’m just gonna make a record that I love, with songs that I love.’ I’m not gonna think about record labels; I’m not gonna think about genres; I’m not gonna think about radio. I’m just gonna make music. And that’s what we have with Starfire.
Did you ever feel like giving up, and what would you have done if something didn’t work out?
I absolutely did feel like giving up many, many times. And my sweet husband was my rock through the whole journey and encouraged me and reminded me that this is what I was made to do, and to keep going. But I definitely thought a time or two about just retiring from music and becoming a yoga instructor instead.
That would be awesome too.
True. I think I might still do that.
Who are some of the singers you’ve written songs for in the past?
I’ve had songs recorded by various country artists like Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, Lady Antebellum, Garth Brooks, and also pop artists like James Bay and Meghan Trainor and John Legend.
Do you have any funny stories about working with any of them? Were you working with them directly, or were you just writing songs that were being sent to them?
There are a few that stand out. The first one that comes to mind would be the Dolly Parton-Kenny Rogers song. My co-writer is Don Schlitz on that song, and Don Schlitz is a Hall of Fame songwriter, and Kenny Rogers actually asked him to write that song title [“You Can’t Make Old Friends”]. He gave Don that song title, and Don and I sat down about a week later, after he had talked with Kenny, to write the song, because Don had asked if I wanted to be part of it. And so we wrote the song, and then we didn’t hear anything for like six months to a year. It was so long. We wrote the song, sent it to Kenny, and just thought, oh, he didn’t like it. Bummer. And I found out on April Fools’ Day that Kenny Rogers was recording it, and he was making it a duet with Dolly Parton. And I thought it was a joke. I was beside myself. But it ended up being not an April Fools’ joke, but really the best news that I had ever gotten.
How did Nashville and Minnesota influence your record? Because you were sort of torn between those two places.
Yeah, absolutely. There’s so much of who I am put into this record: a song like “St. Paul” is just my story in a short little three or four-minute song. A song like “This Town is Killing Me” came out of my years in Nashville — my years of hardship as a songwriter and musician. And so a lot of these songs would not have existed without those two places. I’ve had to really walk the long and winding road in Nashville, and that’s a big reason of why I got to the point of making this record.
Tell me about the title track of the record. “Starfire” is such a vibrant word.
The title track, “Starfire,” is really the cornerstone of the record for me. With all of those years of hearing no and hearing “I don’t really know if you’re good enough,” it was my anthem to myself of not giving up and making music because I love to do it, and want to do it.
How did getting married and having a child influence this record?
Songs are everywhere, and they’re in everything if you just pay attention, and so my husband is absolutely a topic in this record. He’s absolutely one of my strongest muses. In “Before You Call Me Baby” I talk about how I was a disaster before I met him. In “Don’t Give Up on My Love” I talk very vulnerably about the difficulties that this career has had on my marriage and just really pleading with him to stick with me. And “Cheap Date” is really us in a nutshell: how we love to just stay home. And so my marriage is all over this record.
You were pregnant while making the record, right?
I was extremely pregnant. My little baby was along for the whole ride of that. And now with writing for this new record, there’s definitely a new door that’s been pushed open. Now that I’m a mother I’m able to write a totally different kind of song, and look at love a totally different way all because he’s in the picture now, which is really cool.
Now that you’re at a point in your career where the record is getting a lot of attention, are you still going to be writing songs for other artists?
Yeah. I love songwriting so much, and it’s something that keeps my brain active. So when I’m home in Nashville and have some days off, I am definitely songwriting. Recently I’ve been writing for different movies — some for TV — and that’s been a really fun exercise in writing. And so I’ll definitely write songs until the day that I die, and they don’t always have to be for me.
When did you feel like you got your big break?
Well, it’s been a really interesting year, because when I set out to make Starfire, I did it independently. I had kind of given up on the label dream. And it was like, I’m just gonna make a record, release it independently, and do it all myself. I had a little bit given up on the big, shiny dreams that I once had as a 16-year-old. It’s very interesting that as soon as I was able to let that go, I released the record, and then within a year got a record deal, and was on major television playing The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and the Today show. Major publications that I respect and love are writing about the record. Fans are coming out of the woodwork. Everything just exploded. So it’s been hard to name one moment, because I feel like I haven’t even been able to slow down with all the wonderful things that have been coming my way. And so I feel like the big break happened, really, when I was able to just let it go, create music that I love and not put so much pressure on myself to make something happen.
Has anybody since your album came out ever reached out and you thought, oh my god, this person is a fan of my record?
There have been a few people that have sent me tweets and direct messages. I’m trying to think who specific that I died. Well, Martina McBride. I grew up listening to and singing her songs at country fairs. I loved her growing up, and she had sent me a message, and I died.
You mentioned a “next record” before. Are you working on a new one?
I have started writing for another record, yes. Starfire we recorded, or started recording it about two years ago, so a lot of these songs are actually very old to me. In that time I’ve even written over a hundred songs while making that record, so there are definitely plans in process right now. It’ll be a little bit down the road.