I don’t remember much from when I was four years old. My résumé was very thin back then. But Kaitlyn Maher’s memory and CV both begin at four. 

It’s 2008, and a host is handing her a microphone. He tells her to go to the X marked on the stage, and she runs into the floodlights, her pink bows flouncing. Fifteen years later, she can still see it all so clearly.

“I absolutely booked it to that X,” says Maher, now a 19-year-old Duke student who is about to release When Did We Grow Up?, an album of polished yet personal pop songs with a country finish. “I was so tiny, and it seemed so much larger than life, and all these people looked so happy.”

Of course, you too can see it clearly: it was on national television. The host was Jerry Springer, the show was America’s Got Talent, and the song Maher cooed was “Somewhere Out There.”

The audition propelled her to the top 10 of season 3, abetted by her adorability in the judge interviews: “Are you from New York?” “I’m from America!”

Actually, she was from Northern Virginia, where her family had gotten a surprising email from the show after uploading a clip of Maher singing “Happy Birthday” on YouTube, still a fairly new platform and not yet the viral machine it would become. The clip was only meant to reach a family member in Canada, but it also caught the eye of a casting director at NBC.

“My dad was really skeptical of the email because it just seemed so unlikely,” Maher remembers. “So he called NBC and said, ‘Hey, I think you have a child predator impersonating one of your casting directors.’ And they said, ‘Oh, Mr. Maher, yes, we would love to have her come and audition.’ He was just flabbergasted.”

She recalls her parents asking her if she wanted to do it, warning her that it might be a little scary. “I was so excited. I wanted to do it so badly,” she says. In New York, the spell of uncanny unlikelihood went on as she passed Broadway-caliber talents in round after round. She sang “When You Wish Upon a Star,” “What a Wonderful World,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “I’ll Be There.”

“It was big, but it wasn’t scary,” she remembers. “I look back and think, ‘Oh, that was just a cute little kid on stage, and people love that.’ But that was the thing I have always taken away from that whole experience: I loved seeing people be happy when I would sing.”

After AGT, Maher started getting screen and voice roles in movie franchises like Disney’s Santa Paws and touring internationally. 

Kaitlyn Maher. Photo by Angelica Edwards.

“My parents were always very vocal that if I ever stopped liking it, I could just finish whatever I had already agreed to do,” she says. “And I think that because there was no pressure, it always was just such a fun hobby for me.”

To accommodate her show biz career, she was homeschooled until she decided she wanted to go to high school, which turned out not to resemble the “idyllic experience” portrayed in the kinds of movies she had been acting in. But she found new ways to excel, particularly on the USA Debate team. She won a national tournament just before she came to Duke, where she is majoring in public policy with a minor in musical theater.

In the lockdown days of COVID, Maher was busy with school and online debate, but opportunities in the entertainment industry became scarce, and she was entering the acute transitional phase of leaving home for college. She processed it by writing the wistful yet tart songs that compose When Did We Grow Up?

It’s technically her second album, if you count the one she released when she was five, the year after AGT, but as a singer-songwriter, it’s her first. Drawing on her industry connections and studio familiarity, she hired a producer and session band in the D.C. area to record it, and an unexpected sound emerged.

Lead single “Good Friend Salary” is an Olivia Rodrigo–style kiss-off but with pop-country twang instead of alt-rock crunch, and the standout “Silver Line” is Shania-sharp. As you’d expect of a precociously seasoned performer, Maher’s singing has grown clear and strong, and her language skills are reflected in her crisp vernacular writing. (“Silver Line” begins, “It’s 7:00 a.m. in the morning—I know that was redundant, I’m sorry.”)

Overall, the album is suffused with the sense of someone measuring the distance between an extraordinary childhood and an unwritten adulthood; paths branching into entertainment and public policy, from that fleeting, liminal vantage just between them. The title track, on which her father sings backup, is especially poignant, with its textured nostalgia tugging back against the prevailing drive to expand, learn, and grow.

In a clip viewed tens of millions of times, Maher will always be four and running toward that X.

Perhaps now, with a whole field of Xs before her and no one telling her where to go, she wishes she could have gone a little slower. It’s complicated, growing up.

“It’s me chronicling that bridge between childhood and adulthood,” Maher says of the album.

“It’s this push and pull between feeling ambitious and chasing these future aspirations while also wanting to stay in the past with what is known. The album is vulnerable in the sense that it showcases the parts of me that have been more wary and reticent. Being on the cusp is exhilarating, uncertain, scary—all of the emotions.” 

Comment on this story at music@indyweek.com.

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