Interview: Cassadee Pope Chronicles Life’s ‘Stages’, Embraces Heartbreak on New Album
Something clicked for Cassadee Pope when she started writing songs that she wasn't sure anyone would ever hear. The authenticity that permeates her newest project, Stages, was hard-won and, in many instances, the product of circumstances that seemed like setbacks at first.
Following her full-length debut album, 2013's Frame By Frame, Pope began to write new music and work toward her next record. Then, a series of personal and professional changes took place: The singer broke away from the bulk of the team she had worked with ever since her win on The Voice in 2012, and she ended her engagement to drummer Rian Dawson.
Pope went back to basics. She spent time cheering on her friends, including Kalie Shorr and Emily Weisband, who were putting out new music and enjoying successes of their own. She also spent time in the studio with her producer, Corey Crowder, on a more informal level, writing and cutting the songs that just felt right.
"It started off as something that was just going to be a few songs that I didn't really know what I was gonna do with," Pope explains to The Boot, adding that she was debating whether to pitch new labels or release it independently. "But the story started to evolve. It was changing as I was making it. So I was like, 'Well, let's just see how things pan out ... I'll keep writing and let my life unfold.'"
Pope began Stages with four new songs: "Take You Home," "One More Red Light," "Still Got It" and "Don't Ask Me," all of which eventually found a home on the album. The first two are upbeat love songs that have since become singles, but it was the latter track, "Don't Ask Me," that inspired Pope to delve more deeply into heartbreak.
"That became the song that let me know it was okay to go a little bit more emotional and a little bit darker for some of the record," she goes on to say. "That's why there's a pretty good chunk of sad songs on it, because I was like, 'I think I should talk more about that time in my life.'"
The fans seemed to agree with her. When Pope started performing "If My Heart Had a Heart," a breakup ballad featuring Dan + Shay's Shay Mooney on backing vocals, she knew it had to be her next single.
"Fans [were] telling me that they needed to hear that song, that they'd been through a really hard time," the singer relates. "And some people, you know, it's not even a relationship thing, it's that they lost somebody. They wish they could turn off their grief, and they can't. Things like that let me know this song was striking a chord with people, and that means something."
Pope previously explained to The Boot that Stages showcases more dynamic range than her first album, in part because she knew in order to perform the songs live night after night, she had to pace herself. The project needed quiet moments alongside the ones that highlight the limits of her vocal range. There were other reasons to have quieter pockets of music on the project, too: Those moments reflect her growth over the past six years, and allowed her to hone in on the building blocks of the songs themselves.
"It ended up really challenging me, songwriting-wise," Pope explains, "because I feel like then it's more about the lyrics, and it's more about creating an interesting melody."
Then there's "Gavi," one of the album's most enigmatic and intimate tracks. The song actually doesn't feature Pope's vocals at all, but instead captures an iPhone recording sent to her by her close friend and fellow musician, Jason "Gavi" Gaviati, who died in late 2015 after a battle with Burkitt's lymphoma. Gaviati had been one of Pope's close collaborators since the very outset of her career.
"He actually helped me write and produce my first solo EP before The Voice, and he did it for free, which was amazing. He was always this really incredible keyboardist and musician," Pope recalls of her late friend. As she was making Stages, Pope knew she wanted to find a way to include Gaviati somehow. She made the decision to support We Are Gavi, a fundraiser established by Gaviati's mother and sister to benefit music students who exemplify Gaviati's positivity and spirit of kindness -- but still, she wanted to find a way to involve her old friend in the musical aspect, too.
"Making this record, I definitely opened myself up to signs -- feeling, you know, things in the universe. And he just kept showing up," she goes on to say. "I wanted him to be a part of this record, but that gave me more encouragement that it was the right thing to do.
"I went through our texts, which was really hard, and I listened to some of the songs that he had sent me in the past, and I came across that one," she adds. "I contemplated writing on top of it, too, but it's so gorgeous the way it is, and I wanted his voice to be in it, so I kept the part where he talks about the key of the song."
Pope kept the final album version of "Gavi" faithful to what Gaviati had sent to her. "So much so that when I sent it to my producer ... he was like, 'Hey, do you have a high-resolution version of this?" she adds with a laugh. "I was like, 'Nope!' I wanted it to sound like the way it sounded when he sent it to me. It's literally an iPhone recording that I put on the record."
As producer, Crowder has worked with Pope through every incarnation of her new album, starting from when it was a batch of songs with an uncertain future. Through it all, Pope says, he supported her as a sounding board and mentor.
"He's such a go-with-your-gut kind of person," she explains. "It wasn't like, 'Hey, we should put a banjo in here because I think that we need to make sure we're not neglecting the country sound. He really supported me, and the things that just came naturally."
Stages is out Friday (Feb. 1).
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