It is quite rare to find your calling at a young age, but it happens. When Kaitlyn Maher was four years old, she auditioned for America’s Got Talent and became the youngest finalist to ever be on the show. This was in 2008. A lot of time has passed since, with Kaitlyn growing up and pursuing other notable endeavors that are more in-line with activism and politics. Still, music is an area that remains close to her heart, always there for her as she navigates life. It is simply a part of who she is, something she was meant to pursue. Recently, Kaitlyn released a new single “Good Friend Salary,” which marks the beginning of another chapter in her music career. The track serves as the lead single from her upcoming album, When Did We All Grow Up?, due out November 3. The album will fill listeners in on what Kaitlyn has been up to since her AGT days while simultaneously showcasing how her sound has evolved from that of an innocent child with big dreams to that of a young, determined college student. We had a chance to speak to Kaitlyn about this new chapter in her life, noting how far she has come in the last fifteen years.
When doing a basic Google search on you, the first achievement that pops up on your résumé, so to say, is that you were the youngest finalist on America’s Got Talent at four years old. Was it your idea to audition for the show? Do you remember the experience?
I remember the experience incredibly well–in fact, I joke sometimes that America’s Got Talent is where my memories started. The whole opportunity came about super unexpectedly. Some extended family was throwing a birthday party for a relative in Canada, but my mom was pregnant with my brother and ended up being too sick to go. I had always been the cute little kid in the family who loved to sing, so a family member asked my parents to send a video of me singing “Happy Birthday” in lieu of singing in person. Because the file was too large to email, my parents uploaded it to this new, revolutionary site called YouTube. Several months later, my parents received an email from someone claiming to be an AGT casting director totally out of the blue, inviting me to audition for the show. My dad thought it was a scam, so he called NBC to report what he worried was a child predator impersonating a casting agent. Instead, he was greeted by the casting director on the line who said, “Ah, hi, Mr. Maher? Yes, we would love for Kaitlyn to come audition!”
At that point, my parents explained the process to me and asked if I’d be interested. They were incredibly transparent–they explained that there would be thousands of people watching, that I would have to go onstage and sing, and emphasized that there was no pressure to do it. I was familiar with AGT because we watched it as a family growing up, and I was instantly so excited about the chance to sing for people. I remember jumping up and down and shouting, “I want to see the sparkles (my 4-year-old recollection of the confetti that rained down on the winner) come down!”
The entire experience was incredible. The AGT community really looked out for me, and I had the best time with the other contestants, crew, and judges. I’ll never forget how surreal and exhilarating it was to step out on that stage. Watching an audience of tens of thousands respond to my performances catalyzed my love for making music that inspires and resonates with people. It takes some people their whole lives to find something they’re truly passionate about, so I remind myself all the time how grateful I am to have discovered mine at such a young age.
Around the time you released your debut album in 2009, you appeared in various movies and television series such as The Search for Santa Paws and Mack and Moxy. Is there anything that you have learned from acting that you apply to your music?
Absolutely. Acting and singing are very similar in the sense that a primary purpose of both is to make people feel something. As an actor, you’re diving into the mind of a particular character and embodying their emotions, disposition, and decision calculus with the intention of making people understand, empathize with, or relate to them. Music is similar in that it interweaves lyrics, tone, and stage presence to evoke emotions and elicit that same audience response. Over the years, stepping into other peoples’ shoes through acting has made me much more in touch with my own emotions–a quality I’ve been able to channel into writing emotive lyrics and delivering compelling performances with lots of stage presence.
Now that you are older and able to better understand what you want to do, do you have a need to break away from this reputation as a “child star?”
I’ve thought a lot about this question, and I think I land somewhere in the middle. On one hand, I am so deeply grateful for the opportunities I had as a child, and I love that many people know me from or have been impacted by the projects I did when I was younger. It’s never something I’ll be ashamed of or try to hide. At the same time, especially as an almost-20-year-old, I never want to be condensed to “the cute four-year-old who sang” or “the kid in the dog movies.” There’s so much more to me than that, and I’m excited to focus more on who I am today as an artist, student, and human being. I think of it as I’ll always appreciate where I came from and how I got my start, but the journey following that start is just as exciting, if not more so.
After taking time away from the entertainment world to focus on school and other interests like public speaking and political advocacy, you are now re-entering the music business, having recently released “Good Friend Salary” as the first single to your upcoming album. How did you know this was the right time to get back into music?
Initially, I didn’t write “Good Friend Salary” with the intention of it ever leaving my dorm room or voice memos app. I’ve been songwriting for years as a way of chronicling and unpacking experiences and emotions, but, after I played a rough recording of the song for a friend, I was shocked by how much she loved it, related, and encouraged me, “You HAVE to do something with that!” That conversation inspired me to start thinking about releasing music again, something I’d been wanting to do for a while but never felt fully ready for until then.
I’ve appreciated having several years to hone my craft a bit more from the sidelines, as I’ve used that time to cultivate other skill-sets in addition to music: competing in debate taught me the invaluable art of public speaking, participating in a language immersion abroad equipped me with a more global outlook, interning at U.S. embassies and in Congress cultivated my passion for uplifting communities both domestically and internationally. Simultaneously, time away has only reinforced that music is at the core of who I am and what I love. Even before I was certain about my plans to get back into the music scene, I spent my spare hours in the music practice rooms at Duke, writing and recording songs on my iPhone. My roommate (shout-out Amy!) would tell you that she looks forward to my weekly concert recaps—that’s where, at the end of the week, I’ll play her all the songs I’ve written about my experiences over the past seven days. My friends have always been the most amazing audience, but now, I can’t wait to share these stories and songs with the world, too!
The single gets into that unfortunate situation in a friendship when the other person starts asking for support and advice, but then cannot return the favor. And then the dynamic changes from friends to patient-therapist. Is this a personal experience or something you’ve seen friends go through, or both?
Oh, it’s unfortunately definitely both. The song was born out of a personal experience I had in my freshman year of college with someone I previously considered my really good friend until the relationship became one-sided, and they started taking advantage of me caring. The song conveys the message that boundaries are crucial, a lesson I’ve watched many of my kindest, more magnanimous friends also struggle to embrace. While I definitely believe loving hard and caring easily for people are wonderful traits, you have to be especially careful to not get walked over.
I really like the line, “I’m fatigued of playing girlfriend on a good friend salary,” which is where the title of the track comes from. How did you come up with this line?
I came up with that line because I wanted to emphasize the lack of reciprocity in the relationship. I believe friendships aren’t supposed to be transactional, and sometimes you’ll have to give 70/30 for someone else … but you make those sacrifices with the understanding that they’ll have your back at some point when you need it, too. In my situation, when I began giving the person in question the life partner/girlfriend level-care, it was demoralizing to be treated by them as an acquaintance, at best, when I needed support.
Was there another track that you almost chose to release as the first single instead?
I briefly contemplated releasing the song “World Without You” (the final song on my new album) as the first single because I love the message so, so much. Yet, while that song is extremely uplifting and inspirational, it’s definitely more subdued than the vibe I wanted for a first release. I landed on “Good Friend Salary” pretty quickly, as I love its energy and upbeat instrumentation that makes people want to get up and dance.
You will be releasing your new album When Did We All Grow Up? in November. It fills us in on your journey from AGT to now, so how long ago did you start working on it?
I started recording the album in spring of 2022, so about a year and a half ago, but the songs on the album span about six years from a songwriting perspective. “World Without You” was written in high school, “When Did We Grow Up?” was written just before I headed off to college, “Silver Line” was written over the summer after my freshman year of college. The others, including “Outgrow You,” “Miss Mistake,” and, obviously, “Good Friend Salary,” were a product of my college experiences and emotions. I think the beauty of the album is that it both thematically and lyrically represents my growth journey. It’s almost like a time capsule of my high school and college years and experiences, which is a huge reason I really cherish this collection of songs.
What are a few of your favorite tracks on the project?
Ah, I love all of them for different reasons! “When Did We Grow Up?” is definitely very dear to my heart because I think it’s one of the most emotional, raw songs I’ve written, centering around feelings of regret and nostalgia. I wrote “WDWGU” on my bed the night before I left for college, literally sobbing my eyes out as I realized how much I’d taken my childhood for granted and feared I’d never get certain moments back. Something super special about this song is that I asked my dad to sing the backing vocals on it. We’ve done music together for as long as I can remember—whether doing duets in church, harmonizing in the car, or providing feedback on my songs. I’ve learned so much from him as a creative partner, and, in reflecting on my own journey growing up, wanted to both pay homage to his influence on my life and music, as well as allow him to share his perspective on growing older, too. As soon as I decided to record the song, there wasn’t any question in my mind that he had to be a part of it.
“Silver Line” is also a favorite. Two summers ago, I interned on Capitol Hill—my first time having a real “adult” job. I’m from Northern Virginia so, every morning, I’d take the Silver Line metro into Washington, D.C. The first few days, it was thrilling; I felt a sense of independence sitting alone among suited professionals and sightseeing families … it might sound silly, but I really felt like I had arrived! Yet, as the weeks passed, I became gradually disillusioned to the “magic” of the Silver Line as the commute grew more tiresome and monotonous. I realized there’s a part of me that’s terrified of the 9-to-5, and of becoming trapped in a routine that feels void of excitement and purpose. So, I wrote “Silver Line” about my daily journey on the train as a metaphor for growing up and adulthood. At the end of the day, as the song describes, “we’re all along for the ride, hoping one day to arrive.”
You are currently studying at Duke University, so are you planning on releasing more music during your enrollment?
That’s the plan! I’ve just recently finished recording a new project that I plan to release next year. It has some of the most fun tracks I’ve ever created, and I’m excited to share that next stage of my musical development soon. I’m also going to be spending the spring of 2024 in Los Angeles, and I’m really looking forward to being involved in the music scene there, too!
What are your plans post-graduation?
I’m not entirely sure yet! I have a really great offer for a super interesting and lucrative position in D.C. that aligns closely with my public policy interests and major, but my heart is also very much in music and acting. Right now, I’m doing my best to pursue all of those paths so I can be as well-rounded as possible and have flexibility post-graduation. I’m still barely halfway through my degree, so I’m constantly reminding myself that I have time!
Thank you so much for your time. Is there anything else you wish to add or share?
Thank YOU so much! My biggest hope is honestly for this music to uplift and resonate with folks. This album is vulnerable, authentic, and inspirational, and I would love nothing more than for it to help others learn from my experiences and maybe make them feel a little less alone. Also, I’d love for anyone interested in learning more about my music, acting, or life in general to follow along on social media and stay in touch. I’m so excited to begin this new chapter and am immensely grateful for the outpouring of support I’ve already received. Thank you again, and I can’t wait for what’s in store!
“Good Friend Salary” and “Miss Mistake” (out today) are available on platforms like Spotify and Apple Music.
Kaitlyn’s upcoming album, When Did We All Grow Up?, will be available November 3.