On a blustery, icy December afternoon, Caitlyn Smith arrives at a familiar Twin Cities coffee shop. Bundled up in a hat, boots, and cozy layers, she remarks that it’s nice to break out winter clothes. A native of Cannon Falls, Minnesota, Smith has spent the past 11 years living in decidedly warmer Nashville, Tennessee—a move to pursue a blossoming music career.
Our meet-up starts with a smile and a hug. We grab our beverages, and find a quiet table. Before diving into questions, she eyes the recording app on my phone, and promptly downloads it. (“For future songwriting,” she says.)
When we transition to reflecting on her years as a songwriter and artist so far, she has a reply ready, “I call it ‘the long and winding road.’” Smith has written songs recorded by Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks, and Meghan Trainor, and has come into her own as a performer and recording artist. As the opening act on country stars Little Big Town’s 2020 tour, she’ll showcase material from her latest album, Supernova. But a lot came first.
“Growing up in a really wonderful small town, there were a lot of opportunities to spread my wings and try things out,” she says. “There’s an incredible music scene in Minneapolis. So much of who I am and the music I create are rooted in this state.”
During her teen years in Minnesota, Smith drove up to the Twin Cities every weekend to catch shows at spots like the 400 Bar, Turf Club, and Varsity Theater—sometimes sneaking in to see bands she loved. She recorded her first album when she was 15, and played her share of gigs at coffee shops and county fairs. At 16, visited Nashville for the first time, and was hooked right away. For years, any money she made would support week-long Nashville road trips. She’d drive down, meet people, write songs, come back to Minnesota, and repeat.
In 2009, Smith married songwriter/guitarist Rollie Gaalswyk (whom she met in the Minneapolis music scene), and they moved to Nashville together. Smith soon signed a publishing deal—originally meant to be a plan B—and dove headfirst into songwriting. To date, she estimates she has written close to 1,000 songs, including some platinum-selling country and pop hits.
Despite her writing gifts, it took a while for Nashville labels to see her artistic potential. “I would go and play them my new songs, and they would say, ‘We love it!’” she says. “But instead of signing me as an artist, they would ask me if they could cut that song for their new artist that they had just signed.”
Smith eventually took a leap of faith and independently released her own EP, Starfire, named for the Guild guitar given to her by her father. At the same time, Smith was pregnant with her first son. She figured she could release the first five songs and work out the next step later.
Much to her surprise, the EP got traction and recognition. Rolling Stone called Smith one of the “10 New Country Artists You Need to Know” in 2016. Soon, she had a record deal, as the newly revived Monument Records in Nashville saw her as a continuation of a legacy of singer-songwriters on its roster that had included genre-defying artists Kris Kristofferson, Roy Orbison, and the Dixie Chicks. Smith says, “I remember I signed my record deal while bouncing my baby on my hip—not showered—and I was thinking, ‘This is not how I pictured it. This is crazy.’”
After a full-length re-release of Starfire with Monument Records, her own headlining tour, and tours with big country artists like Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, Smith recorded her new album, Supernova, to be released March 13. (Her recently announced tour in support of the album is scheduled to include a Minneapolis show at First Avenue on May 9.) On both albums, there’s a mix of folk, blues, and country—and Smith says she feels like a country artist “by association.”
“I really love to identify myself as a genre-less artist because my influences are so vast,” she says. “I think that’s why my music can fit in 10 different boxes. The genre lines are becoming less and less important now in a streaming world, where people are listening to mood playlists instead of going to their specific [genre].”
The album’s introspective title track was the first song Smith wrote for the project. The “star” theme of both albums was an accident, she says, but she’s glad it worked out that way. “A supernova is the fullest, brightest expression of a star,” she says. “I was looking at the record and thought about how each of these songs are tiny little blasts of human emotion, with the most intense lows of loneliness and sorrow mixed in with the highs of love and life. It’s all up in your feelings.”
Smith’s success reaches far beyond Minnesota state lines, but strong ties remain. To start, her touring band. “They just fly to the shows, and whenever we rehearse for a tour, we’re coming up here to rehearse,” she says.
Starfire has an ode to Minnesota called “St. Paul,” but Supernova goes even further. She debuted the single “Put Me Back Together” live at the Bell Museum planetarium last fall. She also recorded a five-song live video at Pachyderm Recording Studio in Cannon Falls, where Nirvana, the Jayhawks, Trampled by Turtles, and many others have recorded over the years. In 2018, her hometown declared April 20 as “Caitlyn Smith Day,” and she has returned to perform free shows there since.
For her current tour with Little Big Town, scheduled through May, Smith has planned a personal, stripped-down show geared for the theaters’ beautiful acoustics. She and husband Gaalswyk play stripped-down versions of tracks from Starfire and Supernova, while providing insight into the life of a Nashville songwriter, and sharing personal stories behind the songs she loves so much.
“I’m a big storyteller,” she explains. “It’s not just me standing up there playing the music. I really like to get a little vulnerable as well.”
Minnesota Monthly: Do you have a comment to make on country music in general? And particularly country radio?
Caitlyn Smith: I feel a little bit like an outsider. I feel like I’m country by association, but I did not make a country record. I think a lot of fans of country music love my music. It’s obviously a little discouraging that country radio isn’t playing as many women as they could. I think they’re missing out on a gigantic amount of talent and incredible, life-changing songs. They could be changing people’s lives here! I see a lot of my girlfriends trying to march down the country radio road, and it’s really discouraging as a woman.
But! I also think that it has created a new wave of women that are a little more DIY. They’re getting out there, rolling up their sleeves, and doing it themselves with or without country radio. They’re making great music and finding their fans regardless. So whether or not country radio will change, I don’t know—but I think that women will still persevere.
In your own albums—both Starfire and Supernova—you can hear folk, blues, country obviously. Do you think about genre when you’re creating?
I really love to identify myself as a genre-less artist because my influences are so vast. I think that’s why my music can fit in 10 different boxes. So, yes—to all of those. I think, also, that the genre lines are becoming less and less important now in a streaming world, where people are listening to mood playlists instead of going to their specific [genre].
So, your biography said that you only wanted to pick songs for this album that give you chills. I’m wondering if you could describe the “a-ha!” moment you get when you know a song is going to be on an album.
It’s hard to describe, because it’s really almost a physical feeling. When I’m sitting down and I’m listening to songs, a big piece for me is the lyrics. Do I want to sing this every night? And is this a piece of my story that I want to tell? Some of them are chosen because they’re really fun to sing and it gives me chills to sing those melodies. So, I think the “a-ha” moments are different for every song. Because, in creating a record, I’m also thinking about the live show as well and the moments that I want to create for an audience. I can’t have a record that only has songs that make you want to cry. I also search for those Aretha Franklin “Natural Woman” moments. It’s a bit of a rollercoaster that you’re creating. It feels different every time.
Who are you listening to right now?
It’s probably not super original, but I can’t get enough of the Billie Eilish album. It’s so amazing that she’s so young but creating such beautiful music. And I’m newly obsessed with the new Harry Styles record. It is so good. Go listen to his song “Falling.” The lyrics give me chills. I love that the latter half of the record is really creative. I feel like he was listening to the Beatles a lot or something. Sonically, there’s a lot of treats tucked in there. I’m always listening to Paul Simon. But I think especially towards the end of the year, I tend to go back to the oldies but goodies.
This is something that I just stumbled upon early this week—do you still host the Girls of Nashville show?
Yes! This is my passion project. We’ve been holding [quarterly] shows for the last five years now. It’s myself, another artist-songwriter Heather Morgan, and another artist-songwriter named Mags Duval. The three of us decided one day that we wanted to get a couple girls together to play some music, and we all invited too many people. It ended up being a night with 13 girls. And I’m not sure if you’re familiar with writers in the round, but it’s usually three to four artists sitting up on a stage and they each share a song, tell a story, and kind of go around.
It became our passion project to really celebrate women in Nashville. And the crazy thing is, what we thought was just going to be a fun night with our girlfriends turned out to be this sold-out show. It’s sold out every single time we’ve hosted. We’ve had incredible artists grace our stages. Our goal is to get young artists who are up-and-coming, women who have songs currently on the charts, whether they’re sung by a woman or a man, and then also get our heroes up there as well. We’ve had Kacey Musgraves, Maren Morris, Colbie Caillat, Michelle Branch. It makes the night really special.
The other element of the Girls of Nashville that I’m really proud of is that it creates this community. Backstage, these women are getting to meet their heroes and network. Songs have been written because of this. Maren Morris found her bass player through this!
Any parting thoughts?
A lot of people ask me where my song ideas come from. I have a songwriter mentor that told me one time, “If you can’t think of anything to write about, then you’re not paying attention.” And I love that quote. Because truly there’s a song in everything.
A lot of people also ask me, “OK, I want to be a songwriter, what do I do?” And you write. You write 500 songs, you throw them away, and then you do it again. You perfect the craft, you become a student of songs. And for me, I’ve got a running list in my phone—titles will randomly pop up in my head, or I’ll eavesdrop on a conversation, or see a billboard. There’s music and songs everywhere. As an artist, you just have to remain open, because the music can show up at any time.
When I lived in Minneapolis, for so long I thought that the muse had to find you in the middle of the night. I wouldn’t write a song for a month at a time, and then all of a sudden I would write a few. I realized that if this is something that I really want to do, I just need to sit down and write it, whether it’s bad or good. Get rid of your editor and just try.