Photo courtesy of Jon Galletti/Lizzie Cates
This pandemic is really getting to me. As an introvert, I wasn’t too worried about it initially. A few weeks of hiding in my house was almost a gift. I quickly learned that even introverts can get tired of living like hermits, and the lack of live music when you live in a place called Music City can become maddening. The other thing that’s rough is interviews. I haven’t done many in-person interviews since COVID-19 entered our lives, but at least we have Facetime. That’s how I “met” Lizzie Cates. Thanks to a decent WiFi connection that day, it almost felt like a real person-to-person interview.
The music community in Nashville is like this giant dot-to-dot board where eventually, all the dots, that each represent someone in the music industry, will connect. Cates came to me via Jon Galletti. Galletti currently plays utility for Jake Owen. I interviewed him a while back for Think Country. Just two more dots to connect. It never stops and it fascinates me.
Cates was born and raised in Reno, Nevada, a far cry from Nashville, where she now resides. Rather than talk about Nashville life right away, we first rolled it back to when she was much younger. I think I actually could have gone almost anywhere and talked about anything with Cates. She had the most infectious laugh I’ve ever heard, and everything about her was warm and relaxed. She’s a person I felt an instant connection with. That’s possibly because she had, and I say this in the most complimentary manner, a sort of childlike passion for everything. There aren’t many people that have that quality, and the reason I recognized it so quickly is because I believe I’m one of them. I don’t necessarily have a passion for everything, but I do tend to enjoy a lot of things others find immensely boring. I sensed something of myself in Cates. She being a much younger version of myself, but still there was something I felt I understood about her. As she told her story, I found out I was right.
Photo courtesy of travelnevada.com
As a little girl, Cates was listening to country music, often pretending to be in the Dixie Chicks (that’s what they were called back then, that’s what I’m calling them for historical purposes) and singing into “one of the worst quality, battery-operated, recording machines, that had some kind of characters on it, could have been Barbie, Bratz or maybe Disney Princesses, and when the batteries started to die, it sounded demonic.” She was, and still is, a huge Taylor Swift fan. “I’m a Swiftie,” Cates said proudly. Music was a big part of her childhood. “I would play with Bratz dolls and pretend they were singers.”
Many times she got away from the music and escaped to the great outdoors. “I was fortunate to live with a camping family, so I spent summers traveling or going to National Parks. I was never an indoor kid. I was always so tan because I was always outside.” Of course, growing up in Reno, the weather is quite a bit different than here in Nashville. Cates explained, “The climate is so dry. When I first got here I wore braids because I didn’t know what to do with my hair. My hair was like, ‘What is this?’ I’d never been in a place so humid. It took a lot of adjusting, and I’m still adjusting.” I told her I didn’t believe there was such a thing as ever fully adjusting to this type of humidity. It’s extreme. Back in Buffalo, New York, where I grew up, it would get quite humid, uncomfortably so, but I’m not sure it ever went on in such long streaks without a break like it does in Nashville. Once summer hits, it’s just humid until fall. The paycheck comes in a long and gorgeous fall, without a harsh winter.
At home in Reno, Cates was listening to a lot of 90’s country as a kid. That’s what her mom was listening to, along with some 80’s rock, like Bryan Adams. Her dad was into older punk rock bands like The White Stripes. “The Tarzan Soundtrack was the soundtrack of my childhood,” exclaimed Cates. Through all of that music, however, country music always rose to the top. Cates told me, “I just loved country music. My grandma loved country and was obsessed with Nashville. Her brother actually lives here. She would always tell me, ‘If you wanna be a country star, you’ve gotta go to Nashville.’ So, I really owe a lot to my grandma. She inspired me.”
Prior to making her move to Music City, Cates made one trip to visit. Alone. “I begged my parents to go. That didn’t work. I ended up coming here by myself. I’d never been on a plane before and I came here one-hundred percent by myself when I was 21. I was like, ‘I gotta go. I just gotta go.’ I had so much fun.” That was brave. I told her that. Although that was just a practice run.
Here’s a girl that’s about to release a brand new single (oh, I hadn’t mentioned that yet, had I?) in Nashville, Tennessee. She must be doing something right. When did she start singing and playing guitar and all of that stuff you need to do to put yourself in a position to release singles in Nashville, Tennessee? There. I mentioned it. I’ll mention it more shortly.
For Lizzie Cates, it was always singing. “For me, singing was always the thing. I never had the backup plan. My mom would sing to me when I wouldn’t fall asleep. She used to sing Garth Brooks and I started humming along. On my fifth birthday I wrote my first song. My dad had an old classical guitar, but I didn’t notice the difference, so I would pretend to play it. I was probably about 11 or 12 when my parents bought me my first guitar, but I always say I was 13 because I didn’t seriously start to play until then. My parents got me my guitar after I went and saw Taylor Swift open up for Brad Paisley, a long time ago. My mom won tickets from the radio station, and we were pretty near the front row. Taylor Swift came out with this guitar, and I was like, ‘Man, I wanna be that, to be able to play guitar.’ My grandpa paid for a couple of lessons. I had one lesson and the following week, that guy (the guitar teacher) moved to LA and nobody called to tell us. So, I was like, ‘I guess I’m gonna learn this by myself.’ So, yeah, I would look up YouTube videos and practice for hours. I wrote my first song. It has two chords. I won’t say it was terrible, but if you were to listen to it, you’d be like, clearly a 12-year old girl wrote that.”
If you ask Cates whether she was a naturally gifted singer, she will emphatically tell you she was not. In fact, she is refreshingly candid when talking about her faults in general. This is a young woman that isn’t afraid to admit when she has stumbled and had to dust herself off, or work hard to see improvement. A trait that’s actually necessary in this town. She never quit. She kept working. When I asked how what she did to get better, she said, “I just kept singing and I don’t even remember when it switched. I think it was just me constantly singing and obviously I switched the songs I would sing so they would fit my voice more. I go back and listen to me singing when I was 18 and it was still terrible. Maybe that’s just me being really hard on myself, but I was just one-hundred percent personality. I still consider myself that. When I first got here, I thought I was super good and I played my first writer round, and I played my song and the person sitting next to me was amazing. I was like, ‘Wow, I suck.’ I had to learn to pick songs that weren’t too high for me or songs that weren’t in the wrong key for me. I’ve come a long way.”
The one thing that is undeniable about Lizzie Cates once you’ve listened to her music, is how much she sounds like Taylor Swift. It’s apparent it isn’t something she’s tried to copy, that’s just her voice and it happens to be very much like Swift’s. An interesting coincidence seeing as how Swift is one of Cates’s idols, but who else does she enjoy listening to? “I’m influenced by a lot of different music from different phases of my life. Better Than Ezra, I love their writing and guitar style. I learned a lot of their songs when I was learning to play guitar. Shania Twain was a big one for my onstage persona. I always wanted to have a big show. No other country artist was doing that when I was growing up. My favorite bands right now are Of Monsters and Men from Ireland, and I love Boys Like Girls. I like all kinds of music”.
Songwriting became more serious during Cates’s high school years. While some of us may have been falling asleep on our desks as we listened to our math teachers drone on about algebraic equations, others were somehow inspired to pen award-winning songs. Maybe they weren’t Grammy awards, but they won something. Cates recounted, “My freshman year of high school I won my first talent show with an original song, which was a big thing for me. I would write songs all over my homework all the time. I remember there was this one math test, and I was really, really good at math. I would always finish my tests early and turn them in with song lyrics I had written on them. I had written a song called, ‘Not Yet’ that I had actually won that talent show with. I had written that song in math class, on that math test and I remember when I won, that teacher was like, ‘I remember that song.’ (Cates laughs)
Still talking about that period of her life, Cates continued, “I started playing around town then. Coffee shops and that.” I mentioned that she must not have been a shy person, to which she replied, “Oh, no. I have a twin sister and we would always have birthday parties together, and every single birthday party I would make her and her friends, and my friends, and our family, sit down and I would put on a show for them. She hated it. She hates country music. Hates it. I’m like, ‘You wanna hear a new song?’ She’s like, ‘No.’ She’s doesn’t even care if it’s my song. She’ll share it, but she never listens to it. (Laughs)
If there’s one thing that shines through when you speak with Cates it’s that she rolls with the punches so easily. She isn’t afraid to admit her downfalls, and she also isn’t reluctant to playback some of her craziest maneuvers, even if there’s a chance the listener might judge her less than favorably. She’s a wide open book for sure, yet in a bright, innocent sort of way, which is what made her so enchanting, and what makes this next story even more unbelievable.
It’s a question I ask a lot. I ask because the answers are always different, with the exception of a career in music being a common thread. What about moving to Nashville? How did that go? Once again, I asked. “I had been threatening to move to Nashville and then I found a place with a married couple and Jonathan Galletti, he was my roommate when I first came here. I found it via a Nashville Facebook group. I was being very sketchy, like, ‘Should I look on Craigslist? Should I find a place on my own?’ I didn’t know how to do it, but I knew that I needed to. So, the only person that I knew in Nashville told me about that Facebook group, so I found that room. I was like, ‘Sure, it’s fine. I don’t know what part of town that is, or where that is, but it’s fine.’ I was so ready to move here. I don’t think it hit my parents until I bought my plane ticket, and I actually bought my plane ticket three days before I got here. So, I had two boxes and two suitcases, that was all I brought, oh, and a guitar. I flew out here and I was super excited and I wasn’t terrified at all, and it was great. I moved here and met Jonathan Galletti and obviously that worked out. Then I played and I realized I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. Wake up call.”
I interrupted this saga to ask where that first gig was at. Cates answered and went on, “I played at the Commodore Grille. I just played their open mic and everybody was so good, and I didn’t get that much of an applause, not as much as the person next to me. It was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I thought that I was super good, and I thought I was ready to be here and maybe I’m not. So, what I did is I just kinda didn’t play anywhere for like, a month. I just went to as many writing sessions as I could, and went out to see people play and see what it is that I have to do to be this good. Co-writing was a big thing for me. I had a co-write with one person right before I moved here, and he was the one that told me, ‘You gotta know how to do this if you wanna make it in Nashville,’ ’cause I just wrote by myself.
So, that was a big thing, and it really helped me develop my sound, and it kind of like, changed my career path a little bit, because I wanted, before I moved here, I wanted to be the next Taylor Swift. I wanted to write my own music and play and be, you know, a country artist. I was like, I never wanted anybody else to record the music that I wrote, which you move here and you realize if you get the opportunity, take it. At the time, I was just like, absolutely not. Nobody will ever record my stuff, and then I got here and started getting into co-writing and I was like, ‘Man, I love this song, but I would never record it, and that kinda changed my career path a little bit, and I was just like, if I could just do this for the rest of my life I’d be happy, like songwriting, ’cause I realized how much I absolutely love songwriting, not only for myself, but from different perspectives. So, that was a big thing from when I first moved here. Kind of re-seeing my whole life and my priorities opening up, my perspectives, which was really awesome.”
Photo courtesy of Jon Galletti/Lizzie Cates
It’s been about three years since Lizzie Cates landed in Nashville for good, but it only took about six months for her to come to the realization that she really made the big move. That might sound odd, but when one considers how she did it, it’s almost bizarre that it didn’t hit her like a brick immediately. Cates described it by saying, “I was co-writing almost every single day and playing like four or five shows a week. I was doing it when I first got here. I wasn’t terrified. I think it was six months later where I was just like, ‘Oh, my God. I can’t believe I did this. I can’t believe I moved with knowing no one, across the country, with only like, very minimal things, just my clothes and my guitar and that was all I had. Then I like, hyperventilated. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I don’t even know how I did that. I can’t go back, like, I won’t be able to do it.’ My heart races.”
She’s right. She can’t go back. I mean, technically, she could go back to Nevada. The state is still there. She can’t, however, go back and change the fact that she’s done “the Nashville thing”. She’s lived this lifestyle. She knows how it works and that’s something she can’t unlearn. It’s in her blood and she’s loved it. It’s hard to let something like that go. I think that would be hard to go back on. How did she get herself enmeshed in the Nashville music community in the first place? We know she went to that open mic night at the Commodore Grille, but how did she find co-writers and really get things going? It’s a question many artists thinking about coming here want answered. She said, “I would just go to all these writer rounds and I would sit there and wait for somebody to be done playing and go up to them and say, ‘Man, I would love to write with you sometime,’ and a good chunk of the time they’ll say yeah. I would write with everybody, even if they weren’t that great. I took every opportunity to write with people, then that person was like, ‘Oh, my God, you have to write with so-and-so,’ and they set up a write with them and before you knew it, you had a million co-writers. I wasn’t picky then, but I definitely have learned you’ve gotta pick where you’re gonna spend your time, but in order to know that, you have to go out and write with everybody.”
That’s good advice direct from someone who came in right at the bottom. Start off with a broad range of people and slowly allow yourself to narrow the field. You can only learn what writers work best with you by seeing what happens with everyone.
Aside from the Commodore Grille, Cates played some of her first gigs in Nashville at all kinds of bars and coffee shops, so many in fact, that she doesn’t even recall many of their names. She does remember playing fairly often at New Heights Brewing Company, a small brewery near downtown, but most memorable of all is when she was asked to play The Listening Room. “I think I’d only been here maybe a year when I got asked to play The Listening Room. That was really awesome. That was a really fun show. It was packed, but all the people that were there were girls from the ages of 16 to 26, which is literally my bracket. So, I was playing all these songs I wrote about moving here and stuff about being young, and so obviously it was a big hit. It was just perfect and I love playing shows where everybody’s dead silent and watching you.”
Another experience that artists new to the Nashville area tell me they often find to be different, and usually much better than back home is the recording process. Add Cates to the list. She told a similar story, “I got to record my Such a Mess album at Dark Horse Recording in Franklin. That was really fun. That was a student project, so they had like, a school. an introduction to production. For their finals they got to record an artist and they got to do a six-song EP. So, I was able to do that and that was really fun because just being able to see how professional people work, because the guy that was teaching the class, he won a Grammy actually, this past year, and it was pretty cool to work with someone who knew what they were doing. It was just a lot of fun. I remember when I recorded back home, it was a very stressful situation for me and I just didn’t have a very good experience, and coming here and working with people who actually knew what they were doing, it was just so much fun. It sucked because we had to be there so early, but it was so worth it. I didn’t just get to record one song, it was six songs. It was just a really fun experience.”
Video courtesy of Lizzie Cates and YouTube
Now, remember that single I mentioned earlier? The one that Lizzie Cates is releasing on July 31st? Well, we’re finally to the part where we get to talk about it. Cates is extremely amped up about it too. Rightfully so. I’ve heard it. It’s worth being excited about. You might also recall me saying she sounds like Taylor Swift. She really sounds like her in this song. Close your eyes and you might swear Cates is pulling a fast one on us and it actually is Taylor Swift handling those lead vocals, but it isn’t. This is all Cates. They just happen to have voices that sound alike. Not a problem for me, and I doubt it’ll be a problem for anyone that has ever enjoyed that era of Swift’s music (think Fearless or Speak Now).
I asked Cates to talk about her new single, to tell me everything she could about it, and she did, even apologizing for rambling, which I explained wasn’t necessary. For me, at least, rambling is a good thing. It beats having to pull content out of an artist, and yes, that happens sometimes too. That’s awkward and deflating when you were really hoping for a fun talk. Rambling is a gift. Cates gave me the lowdown on the new single, “I Like the Way”.
Photo courtesy of Jon Galletti/Lizzie Cates
“For the last year, I feel I’ve wanted to move with my music, because the one thing I love about Taylor Swift is how she evolves, and she evolves her music as I’m scrolling up with it, so I wanted to be able to have that experience. I wanted to write music that really felt like it matured with me and is where I’m kinda at now. So, I sat down in the room with Kate Hasting and Josh Beale, they’re part of the country duo, Hasting & CO. I had the idea of ‘I like the way I like you’ and I told them how I loved that idea, so we were writing it and we were like, ‘Let’s just make it a fun, energetic song.’ I love writing in metaphors, so at the time, I don’t know why, but at that time, I was obsessed with New York City. What I love about New York City is it’s such a big concept, and it’s scary, and it’s awesome, and it’s all these things, but yet it also draws you in and it challenges you, and it keeps you on your feet. I was like, that’s the perfect comparison to when you fall in love for the first time. It’s terrifying, but it’s still worth it. It challenges you and stuff. So, I wanted to write a love song that had a comparison to that, so that’s what we did. So, when we were finished writing it, I knew right then and there, this was the switching point for me. This is the style that I want for my album, or whatever I end up working on.
It actually took us quite a while to finish writing it, because we wrote the first verse and the chorus in April of last year, and it’s actually kind of funny, here’s a quick story. There’s a line in there, ‘You handle my Corolla like a Maserati‘. I used to drive a really, really terrible Corolla. It was like, falling apart. I had just gotten the brakes fixed on it and I was so mad. I said, ‘I wish this car would die so I can get a new car,’ and I left their write and I was getting on I-65 and I got into an accident and totaled my Corolla (she laughs). I texted Kate and Josh and said, ‘It happened you guys! I’m fine, but it happened!’ Kate called me and said, ‘Is this a joke?’ I’m like, ‘No. I handle my Corolla like a Maserati. This is terrible, but it happened.’ I don’t know why, but it took a while.
We actually didn’t finish the song until September. Then we went and recorded it, like, demoed it in October. We demoed it with a guy named Robbie Artress who is a producer here. I had a lot of the guitar parts written. I would try to tell him, ‘Can you record this part?’ I know it sounded so crazy because I would like, sing it, and it was like, we recorded it really fast, and we actually kept all the components of the original demo on the song, including the vocals, except for the drums and the bass. I just think that’s really cool because that never happens. You never keep demos as the song you’re gonna release, but we did, and it was my first time ever working with him, so I was just kinda like, it’s a really cool thing. The number one thing that surprises me is the vocals, because I was just feeling it. We got ’em really quickly. I wanna say we got maybe two or three takes and that was it for the vocals. Then we went back and listened to it, and it was like, ‘I don’t wanna redo them. I feel like I won’t do it that way again.’ It’s just really cool. I just knew when we recorded the song that this is gonna be the first single. It’s upbeat, it’s a perfect reintroduction of me as an artist, and I’m just so excited for the song. I’m so excited for it to finally be out.”
As someone that’s heard the single, I’m excited too. Everyone should be. It isn’t the end of the line as far as new music from Cates either. Exactly when the next batch is coming was still up in the air, but it’s ready. The music business is always full of unknowns and rather than pull the trigger without having definitive information, Cates left us with a touch of mystery. It’s in the not-so-distant future, and that’s good news.
We all miss live music, that’s a fact. Cates included, but we all know where we’re at with that. A slew of radio shows she was set to do has turned into call-ins. At least that’s something, but there is another thing. Originally slated to happen August 1st and now tentatively pushed back to September 26th, is the Miss HOPE United Pageant. HOPE stands for Helping Out People Everywhere. Charity-based, the Miss HOPE United Pageant encourages each contestant to be passionate about volunteering. Lizzie Cates is scheduled to play a middle music segment during the pageant which will be held at the Inn at Opryland in Nashville. Tickets are available through eventbrite.
It’s been three years since Cates made her whirlwind move to Nashville. Does she have regrets? It seems not. She’s loving it. I wondered what she loved most and she told me. “The thing that it comes down to for Nashville is you get to play every single night. You get to co-write every single day. You can’t do that anywhere else to the extent of what you can here. I think that’s just amazing. The community of musicians is overwhelming. Like when I first moved here, one of the things people always asked me was, ‘Why didn’t you go to LA? It’s so much closer.’ Nashville is a songwriters’ town. So, everybody, for the most part, gets along and helps each other and supports each other, and that’s a really big thing for me. It’s technically a big city, but it doesn’t feel like a big city. Like LA is so hectic, and everybody’s out for themselves, and I just didn’t like that. Here I’m just able to do music full-time and you can’t really do that anywhere else and I think that’s amazing.”
Last, but never, ever least, when Lizzie Cates “Thinks Country”, what does she think? “When I think country music, I think of storytelling. They always say today’s country isn’t country, but what it comes down to is the way you write, and I think what always drew me to country music was the storytelling and the way that people wrote. The way you could relate to it. I always feel with country music I can find songs I can relate to more than any other genre, and that’s because country music, if you look up the definition, it’s storytelling. All the songs, it’s how it’s always been, it’s how it will always be, and so to me, country music is storytelling and I love that.”
We love that too. Oh, and we love this artist and her new single. Definitely hit this pre-save link https://distrokid.com/hyperfollow/lizziecates/i-like-the-way so you’re among the first to hear “I Like the Way” on July 31st. Let us know what you think, and let Lizzie Cates know too by following her on her socials which are listed below.
Photo courtesy of Jon Galletti/Lizzie Cates
Lizzie Cates Website: https://www.lizziecatesmusic.com/
*Featured image courtesy of Jon Galletti/Lizzie Cates