Don't give Blake Shelton too much credit for Cassadee Pope's decision to go country. Though the Season Three winner of The Voice came into the show as an aspiring pop star, she clinched her victory with covers of songs by country greats such as Faith Hill, Miranda Lambert and Keith Urban. But Pope insists the song choices were hers, much to the delight – but not direction – of her country-to-the-core coach.
"He didn't make me [sing country music]. People misconstrue that," the vocal powerhouse tells Rolling Stone. "He never pushed me to do anything, and that's what I loved about him. Blake picks really unique artists who already have a vision for themselves. He just wants to be the platform that helps them get to where they need to be."
Pope is used to the misconceptions about her new career direction, as she begins promotion for her first country album, Frame by Frame, which will be released October 8th. Though she sang nothing but country music as a child, the Florida native doesn't get defensive when answering the incessant "why country?" question. She is proud of the musical miles she logged as a pop singer before The Voice, fronting the bands Hey Monday and Blake (which is, coincidentally, Pope's middle name), and she admits that the question has merit. With its pop-punk sound, Hey Monday landed gigs opening for Fall Out Boy and Yellowcard, along with a spot on the 2010 Warped Tour. So the singer understands the confusion over her newfound preference of banjos over electric guitars. She says genre-hopping not only brings her back to her roots, but also satisfies a hunger for lyrical authenticity.
"As a songwriter, I've always loved to tell stories," she says. "But in my band, it was always about what would make sense for a band to put out. It's hard to release a song that's so personal to me when there's four other guys in the band that had completely different upbringings. Now I can get really personal."
Frame by Frame was a fitting title choice for Pope's solo debut in that each track is a snapshot of a memorable moment in her life, whether she wrote it or not. She names "11" as the song showcasing the most vulnerability, as she and co-writer Nathan Chapman put to music the feelings she experienced as an 11-year-old child whose parents were going through a divorce.
"Emotionally, I'm speaking in the past tense. If I wrote a song about how I feel about the divorce now, the song would be, 'I think they did the right thing!'" Pope says with a smile. "But I've never really opened up that much about myself and my past. It's the most personal thing I've ever released."
Another heartbreaker on Frame by Frame has given the upcoming album its first taste of success. "Wasting All These Tears," the project's first single, sold more than 125,000 copies in its first week of release and topped the iTunes Country Songs chart. Though the soaring ballad was Pope's first original country hit, it could easily cross over to pop with its Avril Lavigne-like angst and production massaged by a former rocker-gone-country himself, Dann Huff. Pope's contemporary stamp on her own brand of country music was something she and Huff developed together as a way to appease Hey Monday fans while also recruiting a new country fan base, all the while staying true to the kind of music she wanted to make.
"It was a little bit of a challenge," the 23-year-old singer admits. "I love country and rock, and I wanted to fuse them together. But I also knew that there were certain elements that needed to still be there to be both country and cater to my old fans. Working with Dann Huff was the missing puzzle piece. He was the one who really brought it all together."
In spite of the nods to her musical past, Pope views her country career as a "fresh start." She says paying her dues in the pop world doesn't really count when it comes to Frame by Frame, so she doesn't bat an eyelash at the long hours of cross-country travel, visiting an average of four radio stations per day to introduce herself as a "new" artist. People she meets on those radio tours are only validating Pope's decision to use the record deal she won on The Voice to establish herself as a country artist.
"It's just a much different vibe," she says of the difference between the country and pop worlds. "The fans are really loyal, and as far as the business side goes, I've had more creative freedom than I ever had before in pop. Everybody lets me do what I feel like is real to me."
That was the strategy Shelton had with Pope on The Voice. Though he doesn't have bragging rights for sparking her jump to country, he can still say "I told you so."
"Right after I won, I remember texting Blake, saying, 'Do you think this will work? Do you think people will accept me?' He told me they already have. So that was a big encouragement for me to come down to Nashville and dive in head first."