On 'High,' Caitlyn Smith elevates her sound
In March of 2020, Caitlyn Smith was poised to level up. After making her name writing hits for artists like Meghan Trainor, Miley Cyrus and Garth Brooks, she had released her triumphant debut album, 2018's Starfire: a confident, carefully crafted collection that proved Smith was just as potent a solo artist as a pen-for-hire. Then came her sophomore album, Supernova, which doubled down on her emotive, hook-laden pop-country sound and signaled that, while she would no doubt remain an in-demand songwriter, Smith's true calling was that of an artist.
Supernova came out March 13, 2020, and Smith had planned an extensive tour and press campaign that would bring her music to the masses. Then, of course, the pandemic happened, and Smith's plans — like those of many musicians — were dashed. Six months after releasing Supernova, Smith and her husband, the songwriter Rollie Gaalswyk, packed their belongings and moved to Minnesota, Smith's home state. While neither anticipated making that move so soon, the change of scenery proved fruitful for Smith's writing.
The result is her new record, High, out via Monument Records on April 8. Lyrically, it's Smith's most personal collection, as many of High's songs, like the free-spirited "Dreamin's Free," are drawn from her own life and relationships. Sonically, High is her most fully realized project yet, as it's the first album Smith produced by herself — for the first time, the recorded tracks sound just like Smith heard them in her own head.
"The slowdown of the pandemic and the move home definitely created a new space for me," Smith tells NPR Music. "I was all alone in my studio and couldn't shake this idea of, 'What if this next record I just did by myself?' And it was quite terrifying. At first, I was like, 'Eh, that sounds hard. That sounds scary.' But my sweet husband was like, 'What's the worst that can happen? You just try it, you know. If it's not good, you just start over and do something else.' "
The risk paid off; producing the record herself is an accomplishment on its own, but particularly so given the larger-than-life arrangements on many of the LP's songs. The title track, first recorded by Miley Cyrus for her 2020 album Plastic Hearts, builds from a gently smoldering verse to a soulful, larger-than-life crescendo at the track's chorus. Such a transition is emblematic of much of Smith's work, which plays with dynamics and melody to maximize the emotional heft of a given song.
High is anything but Supernova 2.0, but its release is still full-circle for Smith, who kicked off a long-awaited headline tour in early April. She is also still working with Girls of Nashville, an advocacy group she co-founded with artist friends in 2014 in an effort to bring greater gender equity to the boys club that is commercial country music. She spoke to NPR Music about moving out of Nashville, producing High and writing her uniquely beautiful melodies.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
NPR Music: You released your last album, Supernova, in March 2020, right as COVID-19 took hold and shut down the music industry. How did that experience inform High?
Caitlyn Smith: It was not an ideal scenario to release a record. There was definitely a mourning process that I went through with Supernova, because we had such a huge year planned and all this press and all this goodness around the record, and none of it really happened. Putting two years of my life into that and having it met with nothing was really hard. My husband and I did a lot of re-evaluating and I had an awesome opportunity to slow down. It got us thinking about our dream, which has always been to move back to Minnesota and split time between Minnesota and Nashville. In September of 2020, we packed it up and decided to start our adventure of building our dream house up in Minnesota. ... Getting my heart and my brain out of Music City and back to my roots was a big thing for this new record. Learning to tune out the voices and learning to slow down created space in my brain and my heart to write like crazy and spend time on these songs.
There's such a hustle culture here in Nashville. It's easy to get swept up in and to forget Nashville isn't the be-all-end-all of the music world. Did you feel any hesitancy about leaving that behind?
Yes and no. It's something that has been on my heart for years and years. Before my husband and I bought a house in Nashville, we did the back-and-forth and just made it work. As my artist career has been growing, I've been touring a lot more. Minnesota really became my resting place, the place to unplug and get rid of the static. And it became a place of importance just to be near family, having these two little kids and letting them grow up with their cousins. Nashville is a hustle, but the pandemic shook us into seeing a bigger perspective of, "Cool, we're in Nashville. We're chasing our dreams. But what is the bigger picture here? What do we want for our family?" We just kept coming back to, "We want to be home. We'll figure out the rest later."
High is the first album you self-produced. What were some of those early sessions like?
I explain the feeling like, even though I've never been skydiving, I'm pretty sure that's what skydiving would feel like. It's feelings of terror and exhilaration. Going to the studio for those first few tracks, it was a lot of excitement but really a lot of fear. I am definitely a person who's guilty of affirmation addiction and really caring what other people say. So, going into a studio with all my favorite musicians — and worried they would think I didn't know what I was doing — there was definitely a feeling of uncomfortableness that I had to just learn how to push through. ... I could physically feel the discomfort and the growth happening through those first sessions. As soon as we started and the band started playing, it was a breath of fresh air, like, "I know what I'm doing. I know what I like and don't like." As we went on recording, the confidence arrived and it turned from something really, really scary to, "Hey, this is really empowering."
Gena Johnson engineered the record. What is it like to work with her?
What a girl. She just won a Grammy [this week]. I met Gena Johnson early on, as I was starting to get ready to figure this record out. I had been a fan of all the albums that she's engineered, like Kacey Musgraves, the [Chris] Stapleton records, Jason Isbell, and became obsessed with the sounds she was able to get, the sonic landscape. So, we met for coffee and it was an instant connection. She's also from Minnesota. I'd felt like, just in meeting her for the first time, I'd met my long-lost sister. She was so gracious, and saying how she wants to see more women out their grabbing their careers by the horns. And you know she was the first female engineer nominated for an ACM [Award], right? She wants nothing more than to encourage the next generation of women, to show women that they can do this.
We got an early taste of High when Miley Cyrus released her version of the title track in 2020. What was it like to go in and work out your own version of the song?
"High" was one of the first songs I wrote for this record. I'd written the song with my friend Jennifer Decilveo. ... The song got passed around and ended up in the hands of Mark Ronson, who passed it to Miley Cyrus, and Miley loved it. So she took the song, switched it up a little bit, changed some lyrics to really make it her own, and sang the spit out of it, man. ... It's very cool, the way she and Mark Ronson did it, but I always heard it in my head as a little more gospel, a little more country. So it was such a joy to go in and create this big, huge track and to pull out the music that had been in my brain.
You're one of my favorite melody writers, in country or any genre. How do your melodies come to you?
The way I approach melodies is that at the beginning of the song, you really want to pull [the listener] in. So a lot of my melodies are in this lower, conversational tone at the verses, then I find the best place in my voice to really get the right emotion out in the choruses. Sometimes off the bat you want that soaring melody; sometimes you wait. Melody is such a playground for me.
It's been eight years since you co-founded Girls of Nashville. When you reflect on all that you've accomplished with the organization, what stands out as being especially meaningful?
It's a little emotional to look back and think about this sweet little show we created and what it grew into. I'm most proud of the community element that we've created. I'm proud that we've created a space for women to feel like they belong, and that they're celebrated and it's less about competition or fighting for one space. We've done our best to combat that messaging and instead just celebrate each other.
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