Caleb Caudle writes most of his music alone. He finds song inspiration in nature—hiking, fishing, and being surrounded by water—and admits that it sometimes takes years to finish a song.
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“I don’t feel like there’s a rush to it,” he tells American Songwriter while seated outside of Hibiscus Coffee & Guesthouse in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, hours before his performance at 30A Songwriters Festival. “Because if a song lasts forever, I want to make sure it’s right.”
Caudle’s 2022 album, Forsythia, produced by John Carter Cash, proves this adage true. The project includes one of the first songs he wrote as a teenager. “Shattered Glass,” meanwhile, is more recent. The song was penned after a tornado hit his home in East Nashville in March 2020. It’s a dark and detailed song that he says was written during a time of transition.
“Songs are there to help you navigate life,” he adds. “I think I think songs are a good source of healing.”
During the four-day 30A Songwriters Festival along the 30A resort corridor on the Gulf of Mexico in Northwest Florida, Caudle shared his journey and the details behind his latest album, Forsythia, in a conversation with American Songwriter. Read our discussion with Caudle below.
American Songwriter: What does it mean to be invited to perform at a songwriters’ festival? Does being here inspire you?
Caleb Caudle: Yeah, it’s a cool byproduct. It is cool to see so many people like Will [Kimbrough], who I might not see again till next year. I feel like a lot of us songwriters, we’re always running up and down the road. Everybody’s from all over and so it’s cool to have everybody in one place and get to introduce them to one another. It’s a beautiful community so I feel good to be a part of it.
AS: Tell us about your journey as a songwriter. Did you grow up writing songs?
CC: My mom says I was writing at a really, really young age. She said she’d find scribbles on napkins in my pocket when she was doing the laundry. I’m really attracted to words and what they can do, and how meaningful they can be. I think that language is so important, and there’s a lot of bad songs out there. If I can balance the scale, I feel like that’s my life’s journey.
AS: When do you feel like you arrived as a songwriter?
CC: Probably when I was like, maybe 17, 18. I think I wrote my first good song when I was 19. That was eye-opening because I had probably written 50 songs or more up until that point, and then I wrote a good one. Then I was like, “Oh, they all have to be like this. This is the new standard.” I’ve had that moment happen several times in my life and it’s interesting.
I’ve been writing for over half my life now. I didn’t think of that until this year. It does get harder I think, as time goes on because when you write so much, you know you don’t want to retread ground. You just want to keep that freshness that makes you feel and now I know immediately whether I have a great song or whether I’m wasting my time or whether I’m just getting the bad ideas out. It’s fun being a writer and it’s challenging. It’s still just as exciting as ever for me when I finish a song and I still feel like I felt when I was 15.
AS: What was it about the song you wrote at 19 that you realized was different?
CC: It felt really personal, and it felt like only I could write it. Because it was my own experience, it became like a compass for me. That was the big turning point. I realized you don’t need to sound like someone else. People just really want you to be yourself and I think that’s a really hard lesson to learn. It’s something that you can still struggle with for your whole life, trying to find the real you.
AS: Do you remember the title of that song?
CC: It’s called “Red Bank Road” and it’s funny, it closes out the new record. It’s just me and Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas on the song. It was one of those ones that I always played live but I never really had a good recording of it. People would ask me after a show, “Where can I find this song?” and so I always knew I wanted to cut it again. It just felt right to do it with those guys. I might not ever get an opportunity like that again, so I seized the moment and I love how it came out.
AS: You wrote a song with John Carter Cash, featured on your 2022 album Forsythia.
CC: It was really laidback. We were fishing. He’s got a pond there [at Cash Cabin] and we didn’t catch anything, but we wrote that song. It’s called “The Gates” and it’s on the new record. We just had a beater guitar. We’d pick up the guitar and we’d write a little lick. It’s pretty informal, which is my favorite co-writes.
AS: Where’s the most unique place you’ve written a song? Is fishing and writing songs a normal thing?
CC: I don’t know if any of it is normal. I write mostly in the woods. I hike a lot and so I go hike by myself and that’s where I do a lot of my writing and just turn off the phone. I know it’s hippie-dippie, but I’ll go stand in a stream and let the water pass by and put my hand on a tree and try to just … that stuff’s been there before me, and it’ll be there after me and I’m just inspired by it.
AS: You turn off your phone. Are you writing songs in your head?
CC: Yeah, because I’ve always kind of thought, “If it’s something that I can’t retain then it probably wasn’t worth keeping.” Maybe that’s not the way to go. I’ve probably lost a lot of good lines that way, but I don’t know, it felt right for me. Everybody’s got their own process. I don’t think there’s one right way to do it, but that’s how I’ve always approached it.
AS: What’s one piece of songwriting advice you’ve learned?
CC: Pay attention to what maybe seems mundane because I think that there are a lot of moments in everyday life that are worth writing about and that people can relate to. The master of that would be John Prine or Guy Clark. They’re really good at capturing those very simple moments and making them feel complex.
I feel like details are the last frontier for writing and for me, it’s all about painting a picture and trying to take not only my listeners but also myself to a moment. My biggest advice is, pay attention and then, details, details details. I can’t stress it enough. There are so many songs that are bland because they’re too open-ended. The more details you give, it’s weird how that translates. I think the more specific you can get, the more broad appeal that has. I love songs. I’ve studied them for as long as I can remember, and that’s something that feels really true to me.
Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images