There is a video from Sweden’s now-defunct Bravalla Festival in 2014 that perfectly illustrates what’s been going on with Georgia singer-songwriter Ron Pope’s career. It’s filmed from side stage inside a large festival tent, looking out toward the crowd. Pope, seated at a keyboard, introduces his song “A Drop in the Ocean” and the crowd, several thousand strong, erupts with the kind of screams and applause you’d expect from a Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber show, then proceeds to shout-sing every word.
It’s a scene that feels miles way from the struggle and faith-testing search for purpose that Pope describes in the title track from his new album Work. The gentle acoustic number unfurls an evocative narrative that was seared in his memory well before he was leading sing-alongs in Scandinavia: cold pre-dawn days of breaking his back for an hourly wage, a teacher who was convinced he’d wind up in prison, and eventually fleeing in search of something else. He still sometimes wakes in the middle of the night, relieved that he didn’t buckle when things weren’t working in his favor.
“I had a nightmare that I didn’t do all these things, that I just gave up at any of these points along the way and decided that it was enough,” says Pope. “That’s the thing that I find the most terrifying. The thing that haunts me is the idea that I could have given up at some point and I could have ended up somewhere other than where I am.”
Instead, through some combination of persistence and ingenuity, Pope and his wife (who also serves as his manager) have fashioned a successful DIY operation with his Brooklyn Basement Records – an outlet for his guitar-forward Americana rock, as well as a handful of other artists. Earlier in 2017, he participated in the tribute to Aretha Franklin at Carnegie Hall, but he’s been racking up victories like that one for some time. Pope’s songs like “A Drop in the Ocean” and “One Grain of Sand” are streaming giants, with a hundred million Spotify plays between them. Pope has been releasing albums in some form or another for nearly 15 years, initially with his band the District and now in his solo singer-songwriter iteration, a deep catalog that has proven to be a blessing in the on-demand age.
“My project is kind of tailor-made for streaming because I had put out a bunch of music and I had a number of popular-on-the-internet tunes,” he says. “Without any global media exposure, those songs were big but they hadn’t saturated the world – they hadn’t reached all the people they might reach. [When] Spotify took off in Scandinavia, someone might say, ‘Have you heard this song?’ and somebody would say, ‘No’ and they’d go to Spotify and they’d check that song out. And if they liked that song, they could listen to me for eight hours at that point.”
Pope got serious about his songwriting as a by-product of a social strategy when he transferred into New York University as a junior and didn’t know a single person. His ability to play guitar and sing ultimately led him to a songwriting club, where he started work-shopping his new ideas.
“I went to meetings of every imaginable thing,” he says. “I’m not Jewish and I was like, ‘Maybe I’ll go to the Hillel, I don’t know. I’m alone. I need friends, now!’ So I joined a songwriting group that they hilariously named SAPS, the Songwriters and Performers Society. My songwriting circle was no shit called SAPS.”
Joke fodder name aside, the songwriting group was a crucial factor in Pope’s decision to pursue music as a profession. His days were consumed with practicing or playing for change in the subway. There were plenty of lean times before he was able to support himself as a touring musician, but he never questioned his path after that.
“The notion that I might become a musician stems from that period in my life, where I was really lost and I was trying to find my way,” he says. “I think a lot of kids that feel different end up in the arts because you sit in your room and you write and you draw or you play guitar or whatever. You find other creative people, you see your peers out there. You say, ‘I’m not so strange, I’m not bad.'”
Pope thoughtfully mines this personal history from childhood to the present day on Work, nodding to the beloved-by-Springsteen topics of blue-collar existence and straining to escape the traps of circumstance. The album opens with the raucous, horn-laced rocker “Bad for Your Health,” recounting a traumatic spring-break trip to Panama City, Florida, and later gains some much needed clarity about a former lover in “The Last.” It’s a slight departure from Pope’s previous albums and songs, which tend to favor more fictional lyrics drawn from his experiences rather than literal retellings. “At some point you have to strike a balance between what is your personal life and what goes in your art,” he says.
In the waltzing “Someday We’re All Gonna Die,” Pope links his notions of finding happiness and a meaningful existence with an enduring example set by his free-spirited grandfather.
“One day in the middle of winter when he was like 54 years old he was like, ‘Fuck it. I’m retiring. It’s cold,'” he says. “It was the middle of winter, they were unhappy and they moved to Florida. Just like, nope. He was a plumber. It wasn’t like he was a Wall Street tycoon or something, he just decided he would figure it out because they were unhappy and they wanted a different life. He taught us all that by example, you gotta live your life and find joy in it.”
Work doesn’t confine Pope to one particular genre convention for his personal narratives either. His pensive acoustic numbers are tempered by other styles: country banjo flourishes in “Someday We’re All Gonna Die”; jangly, Fleetwood Mac-style FM rock in “Can’t Stay Here”; and a couple of blistering electric rockers like “Let’s Get Stoned,” with its greasy Crescent City piano licks and shuffling groove.
“Since so many people are coming to me for the songs, I can’t get onstage and play my version of Albert King,” he says. “I have to figure out how to make it make sense in the context of what my fans are coming for. So I can’t kick ass and rock all night and I can’t treat every song like the last two minutes of Wilson Pickett’s recording of ‘Hey Jude,’ even though I would love for all music to always just sound like that.”
It’s a stew of musical ideas and stories sourced from many different points in time, but firmly held together by Pope’s consistent songwriting voice. From the tale of survival in “Work” to gracing international stages, he’s done a thorough job of smashing through obstacles and proving his doubters wrong.
“It’s all in there, which is not what I imagined we were going to be doing at this point in my career,” he says. “I feel really glad we got to this place.”