Caitlyn Smith, a Hitmaking Nashville Songwriter, Sings Her Own on ‘Starfire’

Posted January 17, 2018 5:10 p.m. EST

Caitlyn Smith

“Starfire” “I scream my lungs out/Confess my secrets, all my sins,” Caitlyn Smith sings on “Starfire,” her first major-label album after three early efforts in her teens. “But they don’t give a damn/'Cause if it don’t sound like the radio — pass.” The song is called “This Town Is Killing Me,” and she does name the town: It’s Nashville.

Where, in actuality, Smith hasn’t fared too badly.

Working as a staff songwriter there, with and without collaborators, Smith, 31, has turned out more than 500 songs, including a multimillion-selling hit in 2015 — “Like I’m Gonna Lose You” performed by Meghan Trainor with John Legend — and tracks on albums by Lady Antebellum, Jason Aldean, Garth Brooks and Dolly Parton, among many others. Now, like fellow Nashville toilers Lori McKenna and Natalie Hemby, she’s stepping forward.

Smith, who grew up in Minnesota, is adept at radio-friendly scenarios of lifelong love (“Like I’m Gonna Lose You”), post-breakup loneliness and anger (Cassadee Pope’s “Wasting All These Tears”), bad-boy behavior (Kip Moore’s “What I Do”) and urgent transportation (Lady Antebellum’s “747”); she has written ballads, rockers, folksy acoustic tunes and arena-country anthems. But she can also be the one to provide the song that lends gravity to a country striver’s album, like “Unsaid,” a regretful elegy sung by Sunny Sweeney.

On “Starfire” it turns out that, unlike some other songwriters for hire, she has a striking voice of her own: lean and taut, with an insistent quaver and a hint of a sob, with glimmers of both the girl-next-door naturalism of Sheryl Crow and the wayward attack of Sia.

“Starfire” is what Smith wants to say as herself. She released a seven-song EP in 2014, “Everything to You,” that, true to its title, was a showcase for how generalized her songwriting could be. Although “Starfire” is by no means the bare-bones radio-unfriendly confessional she hints at in “This Town Is Killing Me,” it is far more personalized, and more dramatic.

The album offers some biographical particulars. “St. Paul” is named after the Minnesota city Smith regularly drove through — playing Wilco songs in her “beat-up Wrangler” — on her way to Nashville. The slow-building “Don’t Give Up on My Love,” the one song on the album written by Smith alone, grapples with the toll of career ambitions on a relationship: “You said underneath your breath/That you didn’t really know, didn’t really know if this is worth it.”

The music, produced by Paul Moak (who has produced the Christian-rock bands Third Day and Leeland), takes some format-defying turns — notably in “East Side Restaurant,” a waltz that begins as something like a French chanson and builds to a string-orchestra climax, treating a breakup as a grand tragedy. (Those strings are on call for other songs, too.) Most importantly, the album presents Smith as someone more wounded, stubborn and complicated than the people-pleasing country-gal image she accepted on her EP.

The song “Starfire” vows, “You ain’t ever ever gonna burn me out,” in a minor-key rock stomp with some Neil Young underpinnings. Her lost-love songs, like “House of Cards,” and “Do You Think About Me,” have an escalating desperation; even a song with a happy ending, the soul-style “Before You Called Me Baby,” opens and closes in a minor key and dwells on how the singer used to be “messed up, wandering, broke down, stumbling, running for my life.” And Smith shows an unsentimentally observant eye in “Scenes From a Corner Booth at Closing Time on a Tuesday.”

Smith never entirely jettisons her Nashville professionalism. It’s there in the way city names — guaranteed to get a shout in concert — are sprinkled through “Tacoma” (which was recorded by Garth Brooks), in the Allman Brothers echoes and professions of infatuation in “Contact High,” and in the cozy homebody promises of “Cheap Date”: “I’d much rather just sit on the couch and make out.” But even in songs she could have handed off to others, Smith has all the flair she needs.