In 2017, Cassadee Pope made the tough decision to part ways with the label that had been her home since she won Season 3 of The Voice. Republic Records, in conjunction with Big Machine, had released the former Hey Monday singer’s solo debut Frame by Frame in 2013, but, other than the 2016 stopgap EP Summer, she didn’t give much indication as to when a proper follow-up might be on the way. Not that she wasn’t trying.
“It was just not being on the same page as [the label] and us just not ever really agreeing on the kind of music or what I should do or what songs I should sing,” says Pope, who reached the top of the country charts in 2016 as Chris Young’s duet partner on “Think of You.” “It was really tough. I would have released an album in that time had I been given the opportunity and the trust to go ahead and do that.”
In the wake of these professional changes (as well as some personal ones that included ending one long-term relationship and starting another), Pope began working on what would become Stages, her independently released second album. Enlisting Corey Crowder, who co-wrote and produced “Think of You,” she began to record and release new music, beginning with the intoxicating romantic number “Take You Home” — as in, to the parents who raised you — and, just before the album came out, the plaintive ballad “If My Heart Had a Heart.”
Elsewhere, Stages shows a mixture of ups and downs, from the whiskey-drinking melancholy of “I’ve Been Good” to the pop-funk flirtations of “Distracted.” There’s also a touching tribute to Pope’s friend, late composer Jason Gaviati, in the form of a brief-but-lovely piano instrumental titled “Gavi.” As the album title suggests, Pope describes personal difficulties and growth — along with resilience — on Stages, but bringing it into the world wasn’t without its own struggles.
“There’s been a lot of excitement and pride, but there’s also been a lot of anxiety and second-guessing myself,” says the 29-year-old, who will accompany Maren Morris on her Girl: The World Tour as well as headline CMT’s Next Women of Country Tour in 2019. “And I think that’s all just really the fact that I’m doing it on my own and I don’t have anybody to really blame if it doesn’t do well.”
Backing up a little bit, what convinced you to start recording these songs you were writing?
I think it was the summer of 2017, when I actually started cutting the record. At the time it started off as me wanting to get four or five songs done and recorded and mastered with my producer Corey Crowder, to possibly show people in town and labels and see if I could get another deal. Once we got to that point, it felt really special and I didn’t want to make any compromises. I was dreading the process of bringing in somebody else and possibly having their influence on the record. So I went back to Corey and was like, “Would you want to finish this record with me and actually do this thing?” It was really cool the way it all happened, because it turns out a lot changed in my life over the last year. I had started dating somebody new at that time and everything started changing in my life in a good way. Those are the happier songs on the record. If I hadn’t waited and really let life happen during the making of it, it wouldn’t have turned out the way it did.
You sing about a lot of those changes on Stages, both in positive and negative ways, and it’s right there in the album title. How did you go about deciding how you’d reflect that in the songs?
I wrote “One More Red Light” before anything went down, before any changes, like [before] all the really tough times started. I just wrote that song from a past experience. That song was really just a memory that I was writing about. And “Take You Home,” another happier song, was an outside song that I was sent and absolutely loved and had to have. Then the songs that were written later on, about the newer, better things that were happening [while] making the record, it just sort of happened and I didn’t really try to make it like, “OK, I’m gonna tell it in the order of which it happened.” I just wanted it to feel like a live set and have it flow really well. [With] the songs I wanted to describe the stages I was going through, I just wanted to go with the songs that were really time-stamped for me. I was writing in those really real moments. I wasn’t writing about the past.
There’s a reference to Third Eye Blind that really jumps out in “How I Feel Right Now.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard another country song mention them.
[Laughs]. It’s a band that’s very nostalgic for me. I do tend to go backwards with music and listen to a lot of stuff I listened to in my early teens because that puts me in a good mood. I thought that was a good reference for people my age.
That album with “Semi-Charmed Life” was so big in 1996 and 1997. You really couldn’t avoid it.
I remember feeling so cool at my middle school. We’d have dances at the end of every year. We could bring any CD we wanted, as long as it wasn’t explicit. And the only one they played off the record was “Semi-Charmed Life.” Even though they still have explicit things in there — we didn’t know what we were singing.
The songs “I’ve Been Good” and “Bring Me Down Town” both employ a classic country songwriting device, playing on their title phrases in unexpected ways.
That’s what really drew me to “I’ve Been Good.” That was a song I didn’t write. That was something I heard at a writers round probably five years ago when I first came to town. One of my friends, Andy Albert, was playing it. And side note — I always end up loving songs that were meant for guys. I don’t know what it is. I’m just drawn to them. I had wanted to cut it for years, and had never been able to. It took on a whole new life since I first heard it. I did go through those things: I did start drinking whiskey because I wanted to feel like I was closer to the person I was missing, because he always drank whiskey. Those lyrics really hit home for me in a whole new way.
And “Bring Me Down Town,” I got really lucky and I was in a session with Corey Crowder and Jared Mullins and Sarah Buxton. Corey and Jared were telling [Sarah and me], “We came up with this title, this concept, we cannot wait for you guys to come in and hear it.” So we went in and they were the ones who brought the “Bring Me Down Town” [idea] to us and we were like, “Oh fuck me, that’s good.” [Laughs]
You made a return appearance to the Warped Tour in 2018. What differences did you notice since your previous experiences singing with Hey Monday?
It was interesting to play some Hey Monday songs and some newer stuff because I really for the first time got to compare the two side by side. When I did, it really became apparent to me how much growth happened and how many things happened in my life that made me write these newer songs. And then the fans knew the new stuff, which was really surprising. I couldn’t believe they stayed with me, and followed my career. I got to meet a lot of them, which was great, hearing their stories about how long they’ve been a fan. They were also younger than I expected. I thought maybe our fans would be in their 20s now or older but I totally forgot that when I was 18 [and] touring, our fans were like 14 to 17.
You and several others, like Kalie Shorr, Ruston Kelly and Tucker Beathard, have brought a little emo/pop-punk flavor into country. How do you feel about the way those styles play together?
If I go back and listen to some Hey Monday songs — not all of them, but some of them — and re-sang them with my voice the way it is now and put some different production on them, they could be country songs. The thing that both that sort of emo-pop-rock and country both do, is it’s very emotional and very storytelling. The songwriting to me is pretty similar. I never really got super intricate. Some Fall Out Boy lyrics, you really have to Google them and really read into it, like, “What are they saying?” But my stuff with Hey Monday, just lyric-wise, I’ve never really done that, it’s always been pretty conversational. For me, it was a pretty swift transition.