ON HER NEW ALBUM, SHURE MICS AND MAKING A BEAUTIFUL SOUND
Colbie Caillat’s soulful pop, nuanced singing and emotionally open, easily connectable songwriting have moved from MySpace to the mainstream seemingly as effortlessly as songs like “Bubbly” insinuate themselves into your head.
Surrounded by music her whole life, with her father, Grammy-winning producer/engineer Ken Caillat, entertaining houseguests like Fleetwood Mac, it seems natural that the urge to create would call to her, but for a long while, it called in secret. “I fell in love with singing when I was really young,” Caillat says. “I was really shy and I would always sing around the house, but anytime someone would acknowledge that I was singing, that I could sing, I would get really quiet and shy and I would stop.”
It wasn’t until she was inspired, at 11 years old, by Lauryn Hill’s version of “Killing Me Softly,” that she finally divulged her secret. “Because my parents were in the industry and I could ask my dad advice,” she says, “they gave me the tools to get where I am today. They put me in guitar lessons once I said I wanted to be an artist, vocal lessons so I could help mold my voice and tune my instrument [and] piano lessons so I could be diverse in my songwriting. So, once I said I wanted it and loved it and had a passion for it, then they helped me get there.”
Even though Caillat saw singing and writing as something that she just enjoyed for herself, it was when she realized there wasn’t anything else she really wanted to do, that it was time to get serious. She says, “I had to go to college and I didn’t want to take any of the classes. I always wanted to be in the arts. I took photography, painting, interior design—I saw how [much] fun it could be and how much work it would take. Combining those two, I knew I had to make the decision and I couldn’t sit around anymore.”
Having parents who were involved in music is something she feels was an enormous benefit, simply because they understood. “When I decided to be serious,” she says, “my parents were amazing. They let me quit my jobs—I had, like, a bazillion jobs, and I would quit them all the time. They wanted me to focus solely on music. If that’s what I wanted to do, they were going to give me my chance for a year—just to go in it 100 percent.”
Part of that support was providing working space while she discovered her voice as a songwriter. “My friend, Jason Reeves, who I write most of my music with, moved into my house—my parents’ house—and we wrote songs every single day,” Caillat reminisces. “It was a little unrealistic, because we were 19, 20, and we didn’t have jobs. We were going to the beach every day, and on hikes and writing songs. But I knew if I wanted to be an artist, I couldn’t just be a studio singer, I had to actually write my own songs.”
Another step forward was when another friend helped Caillat establish a social media presence. “One of my really good friends put my music up onto MySpace. I had no idea what it was,” she says. “He was, like, ‘There’s a thing called MySpace Music, and people can hear your songs.’ Within six months, people around the world had spread my three songs to their family and friends, and I became number one on [their] unsigned artist chart. And then I got offered record deals.”
Caillat is quick to attribute a big part of her success to the initial support she received from family and friends. “It was because I had that chance to stay home and focus on writing these love songs about relationships and life, and actually put focus into my music.”
A big part of what drives her work is the rush that comes from the process of creation. “The feeling of playing music is just unreal,” she says. “It really makes you feel like you are creating something brand new, and you want the world to hear it. When you’re in the studio, to be able to create this masterpiece that is unheard by anyone and, when you’re writing, to change any lyric or any melody, that is going to be the song. You can change any little thing. It’s your decision, it’s your choice.”
That creative urge, for Caillat, stems from her voice. “Singing,” she says, “that’s what I love to do. I sing all day long, and when I sing, new melodies come out, and I find myself writing a song. It’s really just a chain reaction, because then I’m writing a song and I want to go record it in the studio with my friends and bring this piece of music to life. Once I do that, I want people to start hearing it. I want my label to hear it. I want to put the album out so my fans can hear it.”
That sensitivity to the feeling of creation still holds true on stage, but in a slightly different fashion. “When you’re performing live and you’re looking around at [the] musicians on stage with you, you’re all playing something completely different, but making this beautiful sound together that thousands of people in the audience are dancing to, and listening to and just loving every moment of—it’s really this feeling like no other.”
Known and respected as a collaborator, Caillat finds part of her inspiration simply in working with friends, old and new. “I love working with musicians and writers and producers, creating a song that none of us would have created by ourselves. Kara DioGuardi said it really well—it’s like playing a good game of ping pong. You keep bouncing the ideas back and forth. You’ve got to keep it up in the air—one person comes up with the melody and then the other person has a perfect lyric length that would match the melody—the whole concept of the song keeps evolving. It’s such a fun, creative process.”
“Once you’ve known the people, it’s just friends—you just want to keep having these writing sessions to hang out with your friends and see what you can come up with. When I get to do a duet with someone, I love male vocalists—to be able to sing with someone that can really sing and that has that emotion in their voice, to write a duet together and then get to sing it and record it together, and then get to travel the world.”
Both in the studio and on stage, Caillat has been using Shure microphones, with the classic SM58 being her stage choice, and an SM27 in the studio, in part thanks to her father’s years of experience. “My dad was one of my producers and he loved how the Shure [SM27] sounded with my voice because it showed the warmth and it showed the crispness in it. It made the listener feel like they were right there in the room with me when I was performing.” Similarly, she feels the SM58 stands out for live shows. “It adds this crisp sound to your voice [which] makes you sing differently and makes you perform better,” she says.
With a new album coming out in spring/early summer, featuring multiple producers, including several tracks produced by Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, Caillat expects to show an expanded face to the world. “The direction I wanted to go was classic rock and have that acoustic feel. The songs were beautiful. Some of them even leaned pretty country-folk. Then, in July, I was almost done with the record, I wrote with Ryan Tedder and it really changed my perspective on the sound I wanted.
That change in perspective forced her to take a step back and think about what she wants the new record to represent. “It showed that there is growth,” she says. “As an artist and as a writer, it’s okay to evolve and experiment and try new things. Once I heard how we made it sound, I wanted to keep writing. So the past six months, I have been writing and in the studio finishing these new songs. Now I am deciding if I want to have a record that’s mixed, or if it’s just one or the other.”
Caillat started her career by discovering a passion that she couldn’t ignore, and made it happen by not shying away from the work that was needed to get there. “I wanted to sing and because of that, I wanted to be able to write songs,” she says. “But I wouldn’t be able to write songs if I didn’t have an instrument to accompany me. So I had to take the lessons to get there. I think for anyone, in any career they want—any passion, any dream that you have—know it’s going to be so hard, going to be so much work, but if you love it so much, know that you’re going to get to do what you love every single day. Take baby steps, day by day, learning what you need to learn to get yourself better and better, and just keep putting effort in and make sure you’re having fun.”