Cassadee Pope on music in schools, guitars, Hey Monday, and Let the Girls Play

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Country music artist Cassadee Pope has been singing long before her appearance on The Voice. Pope began vocal lessons at the age of 4 and was involved in music programs at school. She started her first rock band in high school and then formed the pop punk band Hey Monday with friends Mike Gentile, Alex Lipshaw, Michael “Jersey” Moriarty, and Elliot James.

In 2012, Pope would change genres and pursue a solo career as a country artist. Also that year, she was a contestant on the third season of The Voice with Team Shelton, ultimately becoming the first female to take home the coveted trophy and, more importantly, the winnings and a record deal with Universal Music Group. Since that time, she has released two EPs and two studio albums, Frame by Frame in 2013 and Stages in 2019.

Gibson and the Give A Note Foundation partnered together on Giving Tuesday for the Generation Next Nashville Event for an evening of food and fun with music performances by local artists, presentations about school music programs that have benefited from the Give A Note Foundation, and a donation presentation of guitars from Gibson Gives to a local Nashville public school.

Pope performed an intimate acoustic set to close out the evening and also took the time to sit down with Guitar Girl Magazine to chat about the importance of music in schools, her musical background, reuniting with Hey Monday, her Gibson acoustic, songwriting, Let The Girls Play movement, and, of course, advice for aspiring artists.

We’re here with the Give A Note Foundation and Gibson Guitars for Giving Tuesday at this important event. It’s great to see what this foundation does to benefit schools and that Gibson supports it in so many ways. What does having music programs in school mean to you?

I can’t stress enough how important it is to have music in schools. I remember being a kid and realizing and discovering that I loved to sing. I took voice lessons outside of school, so I had a coach, which she ended up being my coach for about seven years. I took violin lessons in school and played violin for four years. Singing in the school choir, working with all these teachers, collaborating with all the other kids in my class, being in jazz band, and learning how to read music, all of that stuff helped shape me as a musician and helped shape my voice.

I just can’t imagine not having that as a part of my childhood. To see Gibson and the Give A Note Foundation come together and give guitars to a school in need is such an amazing thing.

When I went to school, they didn’t offer guitars in the classrooms. It was mainly violin, so I played the violin.

I don’t remember very many guitars in my school either. I think jazz band had maybe one, but most of them were horns and those kinds of instruments. Guitar wasn’t prevalent for me in school either, so it’s cool to see it happening because I think every kid growing up at some point wants to be a guitar player; some it’s for wanting to be a musician, and some it’s just to be cool, but either way, there should be an option to test it out and try it.

Exactly. Did you take music lessons beyond school?

Yeah. My voice coach – she was my main source of learning how to sing and perfect my craft. Then in school, it was more collaborative, more jazz band and violin and choir.

When was it that you first knew that you wanted to be a musician? I know you started a band in high school.

I was in high school when I started my rock band. I actually don’t really remember the moment I decided I was going to be a singer because I started taking voice lessons when I was four.

Wow. That’s young.

I was really young. I really loved it! I don’t think there was a moment of, “I could do this for a living, or I could do music.” I was always like, “Oh, this is what I’m going to do with my life.” Then eventually, in high school, I started playing in bands. At one point, I wanted to be a zoologist because I love animals, but then I realized I couldn’t because I didn’t have time. So I was playing in bands on the weekends, and then it just slowly turned into, “Oh, I’m going to take my senior year of high school and do it online because I don’t have time to go to school.” I was playing so many shows and going to music conferences and stuff. So from an early age, I guess I knew I was going to do it for a living.

When did you pick up the guitar?

I started playing when I was about 9 years old. I think that’s when I got my first acoustic guitar from “Santa.” I picked it up a lot, and I learned to play by ear. Then I remember when I was in my old band, Hey Monday, my guitar player, Mike, was like, “Do you want to learn how to play guitar?”

To him, learning was teaching me in drop D, which is not the most common way to play. It’s usually standard tuning, but I learned to play guitar in drop D. I still never learned notes or anything, so it’s all by ear, but that’s been really helpful to me to be able to play along to really anything and to listen to a song and go ahead and start playing it. Also, to write in drop D is really easy for me to come up with a lot of different progressions and to play along with other people in a session.

When it comes to songwriting, do you write on guitar, and how do you approach your songwriting?

It’s definitely different in every session, but I do start on guitar some of the time. Sometimes, I bring in a lyric or a concept, and then sometimes, somebody else in the room will come up with a music part. A lot of the time, especially in Nashville sessions, I’m not the best musician in the room! I might be good at singing, but man, some of the guitarists and pianists in this town — I love to let people just go off and do their thing. So it just depends on the day and who the session is with.

That’s what’s so great about this town. There are so many talented musicians.

Yeah. I feel like I’m getting better with every session I do because I’m with BMG Publishing, and they put me in some amazing rooms with some songwriters that I just really look up to and respect. Every session, I feel like I’m learning something else.

When did your collaboration with Gibson form?

I remember back in my old band, Hey Monday, my guitarist played Gibson, and he would be like, “Gibson, Gibson, go Gibson.” I didn’t play guitar on stage a ton. I started playing a little bit on electric, but when I started getting more into the country side of things, I started playing acoustic a lot more. When I did my first country radio tour, I played a Gibson acoustic. In country music, naturally, because I play so many acoustics shows, I play a lot of acoustic guitars. So it’s been a long relationship that started about ten years ago or something like that.

What models do you play?

A parlor. They’re smaller, so they’re easier for me to play because I’ve got small hands, and it has a smaller body to where it’s not engulfing my whole torso. I love the way they sound, and I think they’re beautiful as well — on stage with whatever outfit I’m wearing because I do think about that, it all goes together.

From the rock punk background and transitioning to country, when did that come about? Was that because of The Voice and working with Blake Shelton?

It actually wasn’t. I sang country as a kid. I learned to sing listening to Martina McBride and Faith Hill, and I would cover Trisha Yearwood – all those girls. Those were the artists that I grew up trying to sing like, and that was probably until I was like 13. Then I started getting more into rock music and boy bands and Avril Lavigne and Michelle Branch. Then during The Voice, a lot of the most vocally challenging songs that I’ve covered over the years have been country songs. I had a lot of country songs on the list of covers that I was going to do for The Voice, and one of those songs was “Over You.” That was the first country song I performed on The Voice, and it went over amazingly. It changed everything for me, I think. It felt really good, and I felt like, “Oh, maybe I need to go back to my roots, and maybe there’s something to this.”

So after the show was over, I pretty much had to decide to keep going the rock route or go back to my country roots, and I’m glad I chose to come to Nashville.

When it comes to Gibson and guitar tone, thinking back on your time in rock and then now in country and your acoustic, can you define what guitar tone means to you?

I think since I’ve always played in drop D, my tone has always innately been a little more bassy, a little more dark. In rock music, it was a lot of me playing rhythm and my guitar players shredding and doing a lot of solos and whatnot.

Now, I think in country music, my tone has gotten a little less dark and a little bit more middle range, but it’s still in drop D. So I feel like I bring more of a bass sound to an acoustic set. There’s less shredding on top of it. It’s more melodic parts.

I saw your interview with Andy Albert on YouTube where you talked about his song, “I’ve Been Good.” I know you do a lot of your own songwriting, but you wanted this song on the album, Stages.

I do love writing my stuff, but the thing about being in Nashville that I learned was sometimes somebody can write about your life better than you can. I didn’t go through what that song was talking about until like three years ago. When I first heard it three and a half years ago, I loved it before even feeling what those lyrics were talking about. So fast forward to the time when I was cutting my record, I thought about that song. I really wanted a song that twisted the knife, and that just hurt your heart when you listened to it. That song came to mind, and I was like, “Oh, I wonder if it’s still open or if I still can have it.” I texted Andy, and sure enough, it was still on hold for me.

I got lucky. I think when the right song comes along, the pride of writing everything myself kind of melts away, and I just want to sing it because it fits.

That’s great when you find “that” song from a special songwriter.

Yeah, it’s cool that we have a history too. He played in a few rock bands back in the day, and I played in mine. Our paths crossed a lot, and we both ended up in Nashville. He’s doing really well, and I’m doing the artist things still, so it’s cool to be in the same town. Then just to sing a song that he wrote and have it be one of the most popular songs on the record! I always loved the song, but I didn’t really know what to expect performance-wise. It was one of the highest streamed songs. I got a lot of feedback from fans on social media about how much they related to the song. It was sort of like a sneak attack song. It just really reacted well.

Hey Monday just recently performed. How was that?

It was awesome. It was so surreal looking to my left and right and seeing the guys that I played in this band with ten years ago, being on stage again, and playing old songs —we haven’t released anything since probably 2010. It was a sold-out crowd, and they were going crazy. They sang every word. It was like a time warp. It was so weird because it was like muscle memory — I caught myself doing these hand motions and gestures and things during these songs that I used to always do on tour.

It was great because a lot of fans that never got to see Hey Monday got to see us that night. A lot of fans that have seen us a million times got to see us again. It was really cool. We printed a limited-edition t-shirt, and I had a bunch of friends come out before us and play a song from their old bands. It was just a cool throw-back pop-punk night where everybody just came together.

What about more radio play for women in country music? Let the girls play!

I think more hearing women in country music, in general, would be great across the board – on the radio getting playlisted, being on more festivals together, more tours, for sure. It’s a very loud conversation, and hopefully, that turns into action. There are some major strides with CMT Next Women of Country. We took that overseas for the first time earlier this year with a UK tour, and most of the venues were packed. That whole thing where women don’t want to hear women is BS.

Any advice you would like to offer for a young girl wanting to pursue a music career?

Trust your gut because I know, especially being a girl in music, we tend to hear a lot of criticism and what we should do from everybody. It makes us second guess ourselves, and we end up going down this rabbit hole of not being able to make decisions without the approval of people around us. I would just say, don’t ever lose that voice inside your head or that feeling in your gut of no, ‘you should do this’ or ‘no, you shouldn’t do this.’ We have an instinct for a reason. That’s a real thing. That’s my main thing.

And then as a side note, always try to improve your craft. We’re all supposed to be a work in progress, so the minute you feel content and think you can’t get any better, I think that’s when you know you probably should. I don’t know, take lessons or go to media training, or do whatever you can to keep getting better at everything in your profession.

Any new music on the horizon?

I’ve really had a good time writing this year, but there’s honestly no real agenda. I’ve been thinking, “Oh, it’d be great to write toward a record,” but I’m really just writing about my life and trying new things, going into new sessions with new writers, and trying new ways of writing. I think that is definitely going to be a part of a project eventually next year, but for now, I’m just sort of trying out some songs here and there.

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