ON SONGWRITING, MARTIN GUITARS AND THE THERAPEUTIC POWER OF MUSIC
IN THE YEARS SINCE THE RELEASE OF HER PLATINUM-SELLING DEBUT, COCO, COLBIE CAILLAT HAS HONED HER BREEZY AND COMPELLING BRAND OF SONGWRITER POP, EVOLVING SONICALLY AND LYRICALLY WHILE STAYING TRUE TO THE BEACHY, FEEL-GOOD VIBE THAT MADE HER FAMOUS. THE GRAMMY WINNER RECENTLY TEAMED WITH GUITAR CENTER TO MENTOR THE WINNER OF SINGER-SONGWRITER 4, AND ALSO RELEASED HER FIFTH STUDIO ALBUM, GYPSY HEART, FEATURING SOME OF HER STRONGEST WORK YET.
Caillat’s reputation for soulful, effortlessly catchy songs began when she first burst onto the scene in 2007 with the hit single “Bubbly.” “I was sitting in my bedroom at home and I wrote the song in about 20 minutes,” she remembers. “It felt different than any other song that I had been writing the previous year and I wanted to sing it to everyone … I couldn’t wait for people to hear it and relate to it.”
While the song launched her debut album and career, it’s that dedication to writing songs others can relate to that has kept Caillat’s songs fresh and relevant. “You know, singing is like therapy, and songwriting is like therapy,” she says. “What I love about writing a song and creating a song from an experience I went through is that it not only helps me but it helps other people around the world, men and women, either fall in love or get through a really difficult time … that’s what I love about music, is that it’s therapeutic for any person.”
Her latest effort, Gypsy Heart, was produced by Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and Max Martin, and it sounds stylish and sleek while the songs possess remarkable depth. Caillat remembers first working with Babyface. “On the first day, we wrote ‘Land Called Far Away.’ And I was so impressed because I’d kind of pigeonholed him into being a writer of soul and R&B and he completely tapped into a new lane and wrote a folk song … He’s so diverse as a producer. We ended up doing five songs on the record together, and my plan is to do my whole next record with him. I hope that happens. The quality of sounds and the songs that he produced for this record are, to me, I think they’re timeless.”
The album’s hit single, “Try,” was born from Caillat’s frustration with the expectations the entertainment industry and media put on artists, especially women, to maintain an expected look and style. “This is the last song that Kenny [Babyface] and I wrote together,” she explains. “I had this record recorded over the summer and my label loved it at first, and then they wanted me to keep writing. They wanted me to be a different artist than I am, and than I always have been … I was like ‘Can we just do one more song—my label wants this, can we just talk about something stupid and give them blah, blah, blah.’” She laughs and says, “He was like, ‘No. We’re not going to do that. Absolutely not.’ I love him because he’s that smart and that much of a powerful legend. He knows what he’s doing and knows not to just give in to the factory that really has nothing to do with the whole writing part of it … He was like, ‘I can’t believe they’re trying to change you. That’s what everyone does in this industry.’”
When Caillat expressed her frustration with the pressures put on not only her sound, but her appearance, Babyface encouraged her to explore it, and the song immediately began to form. “Right then he started singing, ‘Put your makeup on, get your nails done,’ and that’s how we wrote the song. It was basically a conversation of me venting what I’m tired of. And it’s something so much deeper, of what we’ve all gone through our entire lives, of feeling like we have to be somebody else for people to like us.”
This is also a window into Caillat’s songwriting process, and how it has evolved over the years. “I used to just play and write songs on my guitar—that’s the first record,” she explains. “And then … I started working with writers, and we’d play tracks and write over the tracks. That’s how we’d create songs. Now I try to find a good balance between the two, because I find them to be so exciting.”
With a heady list of collaborators, including longtime writing partner Jason Reeves, as well Taylor Swift, Jason Mraz and a bevy of hit-making songwriters spread around the country, Caillat keeps on her toes. “That’s why I call my new album Gypsy Heart,” she says. “Because it’s a mashup of all these different genres. Because I write with so many different people in Nashville or Hawaii or L.A., and some are very heavily produced pop songs and some are very organic, leaning [toward] folk and country, and it’s fun to collaborate with different people and use different instruments and be in different locations, because it really inspires a new wave of music out of you.”
While co-writing with Babyface and Taylor Swift may be a far cry from her early days writing “Bubbly” in her bedroom, Caillat is no newcomer to notable musical circles. Her father, Grammy-winning producer and engineer Ken Caillat, worked with artists including Fleetwood Mac, Lionel Richie, Taj Mahal and Michael Jackson. Colbie grew up in a house filled with music, and her parents encouraged her own interest in singing and, later, songwriting.
In fact, her father even played a hand in her enthusiasm for Martin guitars. “I started out playing Martins,” she says. “My dad has a ’68 Martin that they recorded Rumours [by Fleetwood Mac] with, and I’ve been playing it since I was a kid. It sounds so amazing. We actually used it on my first record, Coco, as well. It never goes out of tune. It’s so crisp.”
Caillat finds that Martin makes the instrument that feels and sounds just right for her. “I know I can tell a difference when I play it,” she explains. “I picked up my dad’s old guitar, and one of my guitar players on the tour had a Martin, and I was playing it on the tour bus. It just sounds so full, and I feel like it travels far. It has a deeper, resonating sound to it.” The current models Caillat plays include the 000-15M, D-42 and D-35, all known for rich tone and bold bass response.
In addition, she’s known for Gibson acoustics, including the Doves in Flight and the CJ-165 with her nickname, “Coco,” inlaid on the koa top. She also writes on a Yamaha C7 grand piano, which she compares to her Martin acoustics when it comes to the right sound. “My Yamaha piano is the same,” she says. “It’s my favorite. It has the same kind of feeling. It just fills the entire house with beautiful tone.”
As her songwriting continues to evolve, Caillat also holds on to what first attracted her to music, which is the joyful and liberating experience of performing. It’s an experience she shares representing Guitar Center in the Greatest Feeling on Earth campaign. “The feeling of singing is—it’s this amazing release, like you feel it vibrating your soul,” she says. “Before I started playing music, I was extremely shy and I didn’t really know how to put myself out there and ask questions and get myself involved in more things, and now that I’m a musician … I’m more comfortable in my own skin. I know myself and I know how to just put myself out there and handle situations that, beforehand, I would have maybe either been scared of or not even put myself in at all.”
It’s notable that this artist, whose songs and live performances celebrate the therapeutic power of music, had to overcome her own fears before she could face an audience. “I had stage fright for most of my life, and it almost stopped me from being a musician and going on tour because I was so terrified of it,” she relates. “But I am so proud of myself and so happy that every single day I slowly conquered that fear and I broke out of my shell, and I learned to love it. I’m so happy that I can write music now, and I can go on tour around the world and perform my songs and meet my fans. I would have none of that if I wouldn’t have taken that first step in breaking through the barrier of having a fear that would have held me back from such an amazing life.”
With Singer-Songwriter 4, Caillat hopes to give a newcomer the chance to have the same kind of amazing experience. “Being a part of Guitar Center’s Singer-Songwriter, it makes me really happy because I started out really young being a musician and a singer,” she says. “There’s so much that goes into it that I wish I would have learned back in the day when I first started out … for me to be a part of this and see these new up-and-coming artists, and hear the music they’re creating, I’m so excited to be a part of it, and I’m so proud of this whole project.”
Caillat recommends that all aspiring artists educate themselves about their art and business, and also cultivate a healthy respect for their own instincts. “Following your gut is one of my main things I’ve always tried to listen to,” she explains. “Knowing when to say no to things, and knowing when to say yes to change … And then preparing yourself in every single aspect of the career that you’re trying to get into. So, if you’re a musician, if you’re a writer, if you want to be an artist, know the business side of it. Know the creative side, know the marketing side.” And, when it comes to longevity in the music business, Caillat stresses the importance of good friends and dependable collaborators. “Know the team that you’re going to have around you, and make sure they’re all honest and smart and that you get along with them. Because that’s who you’re going to be working with daily.”
Amid the stresses of the music business, Caillat has found that it’s the people in her life, co-writers, musicians and producers, who keep her going and who recharge her when she’s feeling uninspired. “It’s so funny,” she says. “The last song I wrote for this record [Gypsy Heart] was at probably the beginning of the summer, and I was like, ‘I am never writing again.’ I wrote two complete full records and recorded them, and I was so burned out on writing and having to express my emotions, and I had no more inspiration. And now it’s been five or six months, and I’m itching to write again. I’m contacting all my writers and producers like, ‘I miss you, can we write again?’ I guess it’s a vicious cycle in the way that I’ll write again and that means I’ll start recording the next record, and that means I’ll be planning the next endeavor.”
For all of the public attention put on finding the right sound and look, on top-shelf producers, glossy videos and international acclaim, Caillat reminds us that the act of making music is a reward in itself, and it should first and foremost be fun. Then, that good feeling can spread, and the music will become therapeutic for listener and artist alike. “When you like the people you work with, that makes a big difference.” She laughs and adds, “I’m gonna write songs because I like hanging out with these people, and we write such fun music together. Why would you stop that?”