Now I’m staring at an empty chair and I still see you everywhere
And go to places that we’d go just so I can feel you
‘East Side Restaurant’
Songs are moments, caught in time and preserved like good wine. Photographs you look at and try to remember the moment the shutter clicked but music lets you drown in the melody and words until you find that place you needed to go. The good and the bad, the mundane and the beautiful, the pleasurable and the painful. We drop the needle to go back in time, to revisit that person or place, or to make new memories. Caitlyn Smith’s Starfire released today (19th January) and produced by Paul Moak, gives you that space.
Back in 2016 Smith released the Starfire EP compromising of 6 tracks, all of which are included on the full-length album. I wrote then that “records that often mean the most to us, come to us when we need them the most; a longing to feel understood; therapy to heal our heartbreak and sadness; and at times, when we can’t put what we feel into words or even when we don’t know what we feel, a song can give us that understanding. Starfire does all those things with ease. Maybe it’s because Smith sings, writes and arranges more like a blues artist rather than the country artists she writes for. Think Billie Holiday over Dolly Parton.”
After spending two days immersed in the record, with the songs I recognise by their opening bars, to the ones that are still new, like the guy you have only had one date with but are longing to know more, I still stand by all of the above and more.
The record opens with ‘Before You Called Me Baby’, with its heavy electric guitar intro followed by Caitlyn’s soulful and emotive vocals, creating a sparseness but one that never feels empty or sad. Drums follow soon after and the track fills out and grows, like a heart does when it finds love.
“I was messed up, wondering, broke down, stumblin’
Running for my life.”
It is obvious to anyone with ears that Smith has a powerful and a soulful intensity to her voice but she never over does it nor does she use when she doesn’t have to. Throughout the album, she reels it in on the vulnerable lines and let’s it almost run away from her but never quite. Words convey the story but it is only the complexity of Smith’s voice and the way in which she delivers the lyrics, does the song get given its meaning and you fully feel the emotional weight.
‘Before You Called Me Baby’ and ‘Do You Think About Me’ bleed into one another like open wounds and memories. Opening with a lone drum beat, bass line and her vocals, and unlike the previous song, the emptiness and sparseness is overflowing with sadness, and that uncontrollable urge we have all experienced to drag the past back, like finger nails through the dirt, back into the present.
“But can’t we just go back in time when you were holding me?”
The verses are full of details and memories of a person long gone. Memory of the person and memory of place is the fabric that glues this song together, and reminds how little everyday things can bring us to our knees when the person we lived them with are no longer with us.
“Every time that I order my coffee black
Your memory keeps coming back
In double tall Breve latte, two pumps classic.”
‘East Side Restaurant’ is cut from a similar cloth of ‘Do You Think About Me?, but imagine that cloth is white silk with red wine stains and curled up rose petals still on the bed, the stale smell of cigarettes lingering in the darkness. The song is cinematic in its detail and arrangement; full of desperation and longing, the strings and guitar evoking Italian Neopolitan city streets at night, and the mood part Leonard Cohen, part The Civil Wars with its melancholy and the expectancy of tragedy around the corner.
“I knew that it wouldn’t last
Tripping out in taxi cabs
It all moved way too fast
Now, you’re out there moving on
And I’m wondering what went wrong
In an east side restaurant.”
The verses are half whispered, half being pulled out of her heart with the choruses soaring high above the rooftops, with echoes of the Israeli-French singer Yael Naim in vocals. The song is more love poetry than love song.
“I raise up my empty glass and cheers to whatever we had
I wish I could drink you back .”
This sensuality and attention to detail pulse throughout Starfire. ‘Scenes from a Corner Booth at Closing Time on a Tuesday’, with Smith playing the observer and participant simultaneously, painting a picture of all the comings and goings to a slow groove you could dance to, the hook ups and illicit transgressions, all seen from a corner booth.
“Then the door flies open and the breeze blows ‘em in
I can see her wedding ring, and know that it ain’t his
And her lipstick is guilty red, he pulls her close and they start to dance.”
Scattered amongst the songs that sift through the memories, are songs that push you forward. ‘Tacoma’ is one of them, ‘St Paul’ another. The latter a love letter to a city where Smith first cut her teeth performing in smoky dive bars is one of them. The folksy rhythm and Smith’s soft “Ah ooo, Ah ooo’s” takes you to the open road, the windows down and the breeze in your hair. Though not a love song in the traditional sense it still evokes the same feeling of leaving something or someone behind, of remembering the good times you had together but also wanting more.
“St. Paul, all those nights you made me love you
St. Paul, all the trouble we got into //
I ain’t gonna lie sometimes it hurts
You’ll always be my first.”
‘House of Cards’, which alongside ‘East Side Restaurant’ is my favourite from the album, is a torch song for the questioning, the sad and the little lost amongst us all. It’s for the parts of us we think we have lost along the way.
“I still miss you
And I want you back
And I’m out here under the mirror moon digging up the past.”
The song begins with a gentle acoustic guitar followed in by a deep vibrating bass. Smith’s subdued and beaten down vocals then make their entrance, and you already know you are there to listen. When talking about her transition back from songwriter to performer, Smith recalls a moment after a particular bad record meeting,
“I remember sitting on my guitar case on the sidewalk, crying after a horrible label meeting, and it started to rain, and I thought ‘This will be a great scene in the movie someday.’ “
The scene may not have made a movie yet but it made the cut for ‘House of Cards’.
“And I need to cry, but I’m afraid to cry
‘Cause I just might cry forever.”
Starfire closes with ‘Cheap Date’. A languid jazz song, sparse but intimate and warm, with the softness of the piano and accompanying guitars and percussion. Smith tells her lover that she would much rather stay home with him and their 45s and West Side Story. There’s a sensuality to her voice, her words. A passion. The piano drifts over and weaves around her vocals, with an electric guitar coming in in the latter half of the song.
“I’ll be your cheap date
Put my little black dress away
I’m not really into the party downtown
I’m more about the right here, right now
Think of all the loving we’ll make
Think of all the money we’ll save
You don’t have to go far to take me home
I’ll be your cheap date.”