The album cover of Motel Bouquet, the March 30 release from singer-songwriter Caitlin Canty ’04, shows a bundle of yellow roses in a plastic water bottle, sitting inside a cupholder as a car zooms down the highway. While on tour with Darlingside, Canty received the flowers as an anonymous gift at her merchandise table. She began taking them with her wherever she went to serve as a lighthearted reminder of the joy in making music amidst the daily grind of a touring artist.
“What a beautiful way to make out this ridiculous traveling life we live,” she said. “It felt like such a sweet, happy way to keep that spark – the reason we get out there, that grind.”
After graduating from the College, Canty spent five years working office jobs in New York – playing music on the side – before trading her cubicle for the stage in 2009. She has since fully embraced the traveling musician’s lifestyle. In 2015, Canty moved to Nashville, Tenn., where she has taken advantage of Music City’s plethora of accomplished performers. In the past three years, she has toured extensively alongside the likes of Peter Bradley Adams, the Milk Carton Kids and Jeffrey Foucault, who produced Canty’s critically-acclaimed 2015 album Reckless Skyline.
Canty’s first release since moving to Nashville, Motel Bouquet sits at the intersection of devastation and hope – in her own words, “the storm that had come before and the light that comes after.” Nashville resident and Punch Brothers banjoist Noam Pikelny produced the album, which was recorded with a live band over the course of just three days. While featuring the intelligent and considerate introspection that has always characterized her songwriting, Motel Bouquet sees Canty’s voice soar higher than ever before. “Everything kind of felt natural with this record,” Canty said. “It all made sense and fell into place.”
As a self-described musical minimalist, Canty brings in a full band for the sinister “Scattershot.” Somber fiddle licks blend beautifully with Canty’s tender alto, which The San Francisco Chronicle called “casually devastating.” On “Motel,” Canty mixes in a pedal steel guitar to achieve a freer sound than she has previously offered. She sings in the refrain, “Yellow sun beat on the window/ Light cut straight through the blinds/ It was love that broke my sorrow/ Like the day breaks the night.”
“Motel” may well be Canty’s best effort since 2015’s haunting masterpiece “Get Up,” which was nominated for Song of the Year at the Folk Alliance International Music Awards.
Years before Canty began recording in studios, she got her start in songwriting at the College. Also a heptathlete for women’s track and field, Canty studied under the tutelage of Bernice Lewis, artist associate in songwriting. “She sort of came to me a lot more fully-formed than most kids do,” Lewis said of Canty. “She already had her skill set and a style of writing and great vocals and even a lot of self-confidence.”
Canty took a Winter Study course on beginner’s songwriting one year, and she took another on advanced songwriting the next year. “I had an acoustic guitar that I got right before I left for college,” she said. “I loved singing and was obsessed with songs – everything from Tom Petty to Led Zeppelin to Johnny Cash.”
She said that Lewis’ courses allowed her to begin investigating how songs moved her – and how to move others through her own music. While writing was difficult at first, Canty attributes much of her success to hard work and a refusal to give up. “It took me a while to be able to build up the songs that were good enough to play every night and start to fill that suitcase with those experiences and songs that I felt I wanted to sing every night,” she said.
Canty emphasized the importance of using personal experience and reflection as fuel for songwriting. “We aren’t just robots putting words on paper,” she said. “We’re trying to live the life that fills us with empathy and things we want to share. We all have to find our voices, find our paths.”
Canty has a close relationship with Darlingside, an indie folk band of Williams alums. She overlapped with some of the band’s members at the College, and Darlingside’s youngest members graduated the same year that Canty quit her day job to pursue music. Don Mitchell ’06, a guitar and banjo player for Darlingside, encouraged the two acts to collaborate when they were both getting started. Darlingside moved into a house in Hadley, Mass., and Canty would often take the bus from New York to play with the band. Later on, Darlingside began performing as a wedding band to make ends meet, and Canty joined on several occasions.
“When you’re the dance band for a wedding, your job is to get the party started,” Canty said. “It’s a good workout.”
Currently on tour with Pikelny, Canty will be playing in Cambridge tonight and in Northampton on Friday. “Noam’s going to play guitar and some oddball instruments,” Canty said. “It’s one microphone – probably one of my favorite ways I’ve ever toured. I’ve played with a lot of people, but it’s really special to take your producer out and play a duo show. The plan right now is to tour behind the album and start going through songs for the new one.”
While Rolling Stone named her as one of the “10 New Country Artists You Need to Know” in January, Canty said that she sees herself as part of the Americana genre – a catch-all term for roots-based music containing elements of folk, blues, rock and bluegrass. Regardless of categorization, she said that she will continue to focus on what she does best: writing songs.
“I don’t know what sort of witchcraft is responsible for my or anyone’s ability to stay on this career path – if you can call it that – except writing good songs and not giving up,” she said.