If you ask, Nashville singer-songwriter Caitlyn Smith will tell you that a supernova is the fullest, brightest expression of a star in its final moments. But the artist, who built a career of songwriting for stars before her own ignited, hopes her second album—titled Supernova—burns bright a second time.
The album was first released on March 13, 2020, by which point the country was firmly on lockdown. It turned into one of many blips in a week in which many forgot music altogether.
“I thought I had this record that was just going to fall between the cracks, and my heart had already let it go in a way,” Smith said in a recent video call from her home state of Minnesota, to which she, her bandmate/husband Rollie Gaalswyk and two young kids relocated during the pandemic and are now building a house.
Eventually, she and her label, Monument, decided to rerelease the record last September, and label co-president Shane McAnally put her in touch with Old Dominion, who had never done a collaboration, to record a new version of album song “I Can’t.” That turned into what Smith calls her silver lining of 2020—the first country radio single of her own, which hit the airwaves in February.
“I’m so grateful for the magic that they put on top of it because I really feel like they’re kind of stretching a hand out. It’s helping my voice get heard in this country radio market,” she said. “I thought that maybe that ship had already sailed for me.”
As has been widely talked about, it’s very hard for women to find a place on country radio. It used to be even harder. Smith didn’t think expanding the energy on the effort to make it was worth it because she saw many of her talented friends try and fail.
“The climate has changed a lot in the last few years,” she said. “Women have been knocking on the doors, and Maren [Morris]’s been holding the door for someone like Ingrid Andress and Gabby Barrett. … They’ve definitely paved the way for someone like me.”
Caitlyn Smith is no stranger to writing radio hits—both country and pop. They’ve just become better known by those who recorded them, including Meghan Trainor and John Legend, Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, James Bay; and more recently, Trisha Yearwood (“Every Girl In This Town”), Gabby Barrett (“Goldmine”) and Miley Cyrus (“High,” from her album Plastic Hearts).
“I would say that’s definitely my favorite cut that I’ve gotten [recently] because she’s such an iconic artist of our time, right now,” Smith said of Cyrus. “I’ve been obsessed with her voice for so long. To get a Miley cut; I never in a million years would have thought that that was in the realm of things. Like, I write songs in Nashville. I don’t write songs in L.A. The power that she brought behind the song is astounding to me.”
In Nashville, Smith is also known as the cofounder of a collective that gives female artists a chance to network and share their music, known as the Girls of Nashville. The group only had two chances to meet in 2020. The first happened in person, but it was on the night of the Nashville tornado on March 3. The group has a philanthropic component and already had a charity picked out to fundraise for on the night but ended up sending all proceeds to tornado relief.
The second was a virtual all-star showcase with proceeds benefiting artists struggling in the pandemic, for which the group partnered with Spotify’s The Songwriter Fund.
“It’s my passion project, and if all this music stuff goes away, I feel like I’m still going to pour my heart into this little Girls of Nashville community we’ve created,” Smith said, adding that she turned to the community whenever she needed a pick-me-up during the pandemic. “I had so many girls on like speed dial to just like, ‘I need to like cry to somebody today;’ ‘Hey do you want to write because I just really like need to get these feelings out?’ I feel like we really had an opportunity to lean on each other and help each other out.”
Also during the pandemic, Smith started a roughly 30-episode Instagram Live series called Lonely Together, in which she interviewed other songwriters, musicians and other artists like Brandy Clark, Lori McKenna, Tenille Townes, Ingrid Andress, Cam, Rita Wilson and actress Mary Steenburgen.
For Smith, it was a way to get her music out to fans and to connect with fans and artists to talk about lighter subjects; “to get people for a second to not stare the corona monster, and get out of the news and into something that was more inspiring,” she said.
She had met Steenburgen in her work in the Nashville songwriting community.
“She has a very incredible story where late in life, she had a surgery and woke up from the surgery, and her head was filled with music,” Smith said. “She was talking to her husband, Ted [Danson], and … he’s like, ‘Well, it sounds like you need to write.’”
The two have partnered up on several occasions, including on “Glasgow (No Place Like Home),” from the critically acclaimed film “Wild Rose.” The song tied an Elton John number for Critics Choice award for Best Original Song. Smith said she and Steenburgen share the same way of thinking about their art: the same “neurological highway.”
Another unique Lonely Together collaboration was with New York City Ballet dancer Sara Mearns, who recorded a dance set to an acoustic recording of Smith’s “All Over Again.”
“I recorded just a little acoustic version and she just danced in her living room; just this sweet little COVID moment,” Smith said. “I realized very quickly that I would never have what it would take to be a ballerina. It’s so much discipline and so much more Type-A than I’ve ever imagined.”
These days, she’s taking it easy with her family, which she found to be such a joy during the lockdown days of the pandemic. She’s going on walks with her sons, now 4 and 2, having meals at the dinner table and gardening.
Though Caitlyn Smith named her debut album, 2018’s Starfire, for one of her dad’s guitars, the decision to lean into the space theme for Supernova remained at least partially incidental. The title track was the first she wrote for the album.
“The record is a range of emotions, and so you’ve got everything from dealing with loss, loneliness, change, heartache and love, and dealing with time moving so quickly,” she said. “These songs are like sweet little supernovas of emotion, when I thought of them, and so it seemed like the perfect name for the record.”
That’s not to say she’s not obsessed with the cosmos, either. Viewers of Lonely Together probably got accustomed to the star-speckled background she used behind her; the same background as during this interview. Smith said she grew up with the wonder of sunsets, sunrise and the night sky.
She still has vivid recollections of seeing the northern lights from her hometown in Cannon Falls, Minnesota: “It’s literal magic.” Smith has also been to Joshua Tree National Park to watch the night sky without the presence of light pollution: “Oh my stars! No pun intended.”
The connection with space pulls her back to one of her favorite songs from her debut album, “House of Cards,” on which she sings of staring up into the stars.
“It’s an image that I come to a lot … because when I’m staring up at the stars, or up at the sky, or sunset, I can feel my most intense connection to my humanity, to God, to my purpose—it makes me feel so fully alive; it makes me feel so connected,” she said. “That sounds maybe a little heady, but, hell, I don’t care. I can’t help but feel so grateful and amazed when I’m standing under something like this.”
Supernova is highlighted by “I Can’t,” which tells the amalgamated story of numerous relationships that Smith has let go of over the years, including that of a Nashville that has changed drastically since she moved there, and her old self.
Besides the reworked version of that song, with Old Dominion, Smith added a cover of Coldplay’s “Fix You,” which she originally recorded for Amazon. When lockdown first began, she said she noticed she and all her friends had turned away from new music and toward the music of their youth, which felt safer. For her, that included the likes of Paul Simon and Carole King, as well as Chris Martin and co., who were a big part of her life in high school.
Then there’s the simmering “Long Time Coming,” which gets the heat turned up with a nasty guitar solo written and played by co-writer Christian “Leggy” Langdon. Smith cowrote the rest of the song with Jen DeSilvio (“Rise Up”) in January 2019, a couple of months following the birth of her second son. Langdon was coming off a difficult breakup, while she was in a completely different place in her life.
While their emotions didn’t vibe, they put on different goggles to come to a middle ground. After finishing the lyrics, the trio realized it needed a guitar lick.
“He hits spacebar, and while he’s playing the guitar solo, his face is totally deadpan, and then he hits spacebar. We were laughing so hard because it sounds like someone should be bleeding and cutting their soul open, pouring it on the guitar. He literally was just sitting there.”
Smith ended up keeping that demo take on the final recording.
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.