“Cosmic country” singer-songwriter Caitlyn Smith appears on-screen, perched against a suitable backdrop of a starry night sky. It’s a background that, she explains with a laugh, she bought on Amazon - so to add a personal touch to the music room in her house. Nearly a year to the day that the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the USA, Smith has become reflective, pondering on how she had to make do with what she had.
Despite having to deal with canceled tours, socially distanced studio sessions and “just okay” Zoom co-writes, it’s still been a banner year for the Minnesota native. An acclaimed writer, she’s penned songs for Trisha Yearwood, Garth Brooks, Lady A and Meghan Trainor - but her “Plan A” has always been to release music under her own name. It’s already led this year to a collaboration with Old Dominion, on Supernova cut ‘I Can’t’ - her first single to impact country radio. It’s also brought a new EP, Supernova Acoustic; a collection of reimagined, stripped-back takes of songs from the record, to be released on March 26th.
Perhaps most importantly, it’s allowed her to begin the writing process for her next album. As Smith explains, she’s more confident in her “genre-less” musical identity - and in herself personally - than ever before.
You just celebrated the anniversary of releasing Supernova. I hadn't realized, but the album came out more or less on the same day that the U.S. was shut down, all because of the COVID-19 pandemic?
We were on the road with Little Big Town at the time - up in Detroit - and they called us when we were at the bar, having a martini. They said, "Tour's cancelled! Get a rental car and go home." Lockdown came in on the day of my album's release; that was weird. It's been a challenging year, trying to get new music to people when nobody's paying attention. In the beginning, even I wasn't listening to music! Everyone was just glued to the news and wiping down their groceries, right?
So how much of the tour did you get to do before they had to cancel it?
We probably did about half of it. It started in January, and we got to the halfway point in March. I was promoting the album, but nobody knew the songs. I didn't get to play a single show where I could sell this record to them.
“Had I released a single to country radio six or seven years ago, I don't think it would have happened. So much work has been done, so much groundwork has been laid.”
But creativity always finds a way, and this album seems to have done so?
I really believe that things happen for a reason; the people who needed to find this record did. I'm also grateful that this single ['I Can't'] got to country radio; it's been my silver lining from 2020. It wouldn't have happened without COVID.
How do you figure?
Well, we decided to re-release this record as a deluxe edition. I sat down with Shane McAnally, who's my A&R guy, and we were talking about collaborations to give the listeners something extra. He's like, "What if I asked Old Dominion?" I was like, "Pff, sure! Ask them!" They had never collaborated with anyone before, so I thought it was a pipe dream. He showed them the song, and they loved it. Old Dominion were in Nashville, I was in Minnesota, and Leggy Langdon, the producer, was in LA - so we cut this track super socially distanced. They all added such magic to it.
Have you gotten to hear it on the radio yet?
Yes! I heard it in my hometown, and it was insane. It was really special. I was up in Minnesota, and my brother calls me - he was driving home from work - and he's like, "They're gonna play your song after Rascal Flatts!" It was literally one degree [Fahrenheit] outside. I put on my parka and my boots, got into my husband's F-150 and turned it on - getting to hear my voice on the station I grew up listening to as a kid was a crazy feeling.
"You could have the best voice in the world, but if you don't have the songs, you're not gonna have much of a career"
But I'm sure you've heard songs you wrote for other artists a ton of times on the radio. How was this different?
It's a little bit more broken open in a way, in that it's my voice. I'm the artist singing, and it feels scarier, in a beautiful way. Being an artist in my own right has always been my Plan A. Then, when I moved to Nashville, I realized that you could have the best voice in the world, but if you don't have the songs, you're not gonna have much of a career. So I started writing like crazy. Getting a publishing deal was always Plan B, but it worked - people started cutting my songs. It was exciting, but as the years went on, it got harder to let them go. The dream had always been that I want to sing.
Does 'I Can't' impacting country radio influence the kind of songs you're writing for your next project? Will it sound more like mainstream country?
Not really. I've always considered myself a genre-less artist because everything influences me. I love a quiet, intimate ballad where I can pull people in, but I also love to grab my electric guitar and rock out. I will always be dynamic Caitlyn Smith, whatever that is. I'm also just trying not to let thoughts about genre creep into my brain, because I think I fell into that trap when I first moved to Nashville. That's why it took me so long to step into my artist's shoes, because I was so worried about what other people wanted to hear from me. I'm super grateful that the country doors have swung open so wide for me now. Had I released a single to country radio six or seven years ago, I don't think it would have happened. So much work has been done, so much groundwork has been laid. You know, we had Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood hold the doors open for Maren Morris, who held the door for Ingrid Andress and Tenille Townes. The more that's happening, the more accepting country music is becoming of women.
Each of the artists you mentioned are so different; they are genuinely in their own lane. I feel that's especially true of women in country right now. Do you think the genre is broadening?
It's expanding! Like the universe, right? It really is, though. It's incredible to see. It almost gives me - or any artist - permission to be themselves more intensely. I feel like it's allowing someone who's not straight down the middle country more opportunities. I'm more on the fringe, and it leaves the door open for artists like me.
Caitlyn Smith's new EP, Supernova Acoustic, is out this Friday (3/26) via Monument Records. Watch the studio session for 'Long Time Coming' below.
Photography by Shervin Lainez.