First Published December 2020
ALWAYS RISING HIGHER, SHINING BRIGHTER
It’s said – and more often than not it’s true – that you can tell a lot about a person by knowing who their friends are. Likewise, for an artist, you can tell a lot about someone by paying attention to who they’re often spoken about in the same breath as.
Floridian singer/songwriter CASSADEE POPE has one heck of a crossover of folk who show up in both those two groups. There’s guitar wizard Lindsay Ell. There’s the runner-up from season ten of American Idol, Lauren Alaina. There’s RaeLynn, whose 2017 debut album Wildhorse introduced itself to the world by way of the Top Ten on Billboard’s All-Genre album chart, whilst also debuting in the top spot on Billboard’s Country album’s chart, which made RaeLynn the first female country artist to do so since Maren Morris with her major-label debut long-player, Hero, in 2016. And there’s Maren herself, one of the Highwomen, a Grammy winner, and thanks to collaborations with Niall Horan and Zedd and Grey, a name known worldwide as well as being one of modern country’s superstar names.
If Cassadee happens to be a name new to you, then knowing such artists are both her friends and contemporaries should be your first clue to her greatness. And not just as an artist, by the way, but as a person, too. And let there be no doubt, that greatness runs deep, and exists independently of anyone she might know.
Cassadee was the winner of The Voice US back in 2012, when she was coached by country mega-star Blake Shelton. That same year, her version of Over You from the show became an iTunes #1, knocking Gangnam Style back into the #2 spot. In 2017, Cassadee became the first ever contestant from the show to be nominated for a Grammy, thanks to her duet with Chris Young, Think Of You. She’s also toured with Chris, with her friend Maren, with Tim McGraw, and with Dierks Bentley, to name but a few of the marquee names who have invited her on the road. Funnily enough, though, Cassadee’s musical journey began in what might be described as a world away from country, in a pop/punk band called Hey Monday whose big break came when Pete Wenz – bass player with Fall Out Boy – discovered the group’s demo in his manager’s office. Hey Monday’s single, Candles, even featured on an episode of Glee.
Quite apart from her list of achievements as an artist, however, what always stands out about Cassadee – certainly to this writer – is her authenticity. She is, to put it simply, real to the bone. That was always how she came across to me before I actually had the pleasure of spending some time in her company. And, wouldn’t you know it, a little time in conversation with Cassadee proved that hunch to be right on the money.
There were so many reasons why I was looking forward to chatting with Cassadee, and when that opportunity came my way a few weeks back, there was nowhere better to start than with the remix to her single Rise And Shine, from her EP of the same name. Now, for those who may not know, remixes in country music are generally more the exception than the norm. So when I first heard about the Rise And Shine remix, what made me most curious was why Cassadee might have wanted to present that particular track in a different light. But then, I heard Cassadee talk somewhere about when she heard that Dave Audé wanted to do the remix, which made it sound more like the idea might have come from outside of her camp. So, I asked Cassadee how, in fact, it did all come to happen…
“Well, my manager, Daniel Miller, texted and said how would you feel about a remix of ‘Rise And Shine.’ And at first, I was like, this doesn’t sound like a song that would lend itself well to a remix [laughs]. I’m thinking, you know, of it being turned into a Calvin Harris kinda remix – uuugh! – and that doesn’t seem like it would make sense. And then they said that Dave wanted to do it. Obviously I know his work, but I looked into more, and I was like ah, ok, he’s got a different vibe and it’s not super-clubby all the time. So I said ok, let’s try that. Then I got sent a verse and chorus of what he was thinking for the song. And that was so exciting, because it really just added this whole other anthemic level to the song that I wanted the song to have. But it being acoustic obviously, it only could go so far. I really felt like he took it to the next level, with a lot of the kinda big 80s snare sounds, and it was very ambient. I just felt so excited about it, I said yeah, definitely, let’s go ahead. And he was really great to work with, he was open to some tweaks. I wasn’t sure because I’ve never done a remix with somebody, so I wasn’t sure how the process would go. But it was really collaborative and I’m super happy with how it turned out.”
As Cassadee mentioned there being some tweaks involved, I wondered if it was a case of Dave sending her along some different versions as he worked on them to see what she liked and make sure she was cool with the direction the track was taking?
“Yeah, definitely. And like honestly, there weren’t that many things. There were two little notes that I had, and they were really minor changes. For instance, the beat was coming in a little later on the second verse, and I wanted it to come in a little earlier. He sent me what he had, kind of the first round of what he felt comfortable sending me, then I had a couple of tweaks, and he did it in like an hour! And that was that [laughs]. That was the extent of the back-and-forth as far as tweaking the song [went].”
Cassadee has described her Rise And Shine EP as being, “emo-country, acoustic record”, a description I happen to really like. As an acoustic collection, it’s obviously going to be quite different to a full-band affair anyway. But coming so soon after her album Stages (February 2019), it seemed clear to me that Rise And Shine is also a record she values just as much as her Stages long-player, and creatively-speaking, is a side of herself that Cassadee thought important enough to share with her fans right now…was I right?
“Yeah, definitely. This album was a product of the pandemic, it was me really wanting to release something – not just for the fans and hopefully helping them out – but for myself. It was a tough year, you know. I’ve felt a big jolt in my lifestyle in not travelling and meeting fans, playing shows. So I was thinking about what I could do that would be safe, but that I could still get new music to people. And I also felt like the world at that time [early in the pandemic] was in such an acoustic state, of there not being a lot of things to be able to distract us from our problems, with not being able to go to shows, and not being able to go to house-parties or to clubs or whatever. So, I felt like it was a kind of parallel to where we were in the world, and I was really happy to see that people were appreciative of some new music and were connecting with some of the lyrics, too.”
I wanted to move on to ask Cassadee about her songwriting. In speaking about her song How I Feel Right Now, she described going into that writing session that day with no real ideas about what to write, but then telling her co-writers on that session about a relationship she was in, and in doing so saying something like, “…and that’s how I feel right now.” And in that moment, there was their song! How important is it for Cassadee – as a songwriter – to be able to allow herself to open up like that about her personal life? And also, and perhaps more importantly, the importance of having co-writers with whom she knows she can be so open?
“I’ve definitely learned that unless you’re willing to completely open up and share things, you’re not gonna get the depth that you want to get in a song. When I first came to Nashville, that was a really weird thing for me. I wasn’t completely trusting in the process. Telling people about my personal life felt really odd. I mean, at that point, I hadn’t been to therapy ever, so I just wasn’t used to opening up to people to that extent. But once I started, and I started to get the songs that are still my favourites – some of the songs on my first record, ‘Frame By Frame’ – I realised, well, that’s what you have to do in a session. Now, going into the sessions – and this year I’ve been writing on Zoom a lot – I’ve really been super, super intentional with the direction. I’m definitely going more pop/rock for the next full-band record. I’ve been going into these sessions with a clear, focused idea of that sound. And then also, I’ve had so many ideas that have just come up for me, maybe like two seconds before a session! Then I’m like I want to bring this up in the session. So it really depends on the day, but I’ve definitely felt so inspired, especially with the year we’ve had. Socially inspired, but also with this new approach that’s pop/rock and heading in that direction. It’s opened my mind up to a lot more ideas. If I feel a certain way that day [of a session], but someone says something that makes me want to write a different idea, then I’m being open to doing that.”
Something else Cassadee once said is that, “I will probably never stop writing about my first love and my first heartache.” As a songwriter, I wondered if what Cassadee meant by that is that she returns to old relationships a lot to almost mine those memories for songs, looking at things from slightly different perspectives, or focusing on a slightly different emotion each time?
“Yeah. I mean, I think that first love and your first heartbreak will stick with you, it will be so vivid, and it will be the first time that you’ve felt that thing, that deep, deep pain or that deep, deep obsession with someone. I think the first time is always the most vivid in your memory. Obviously now, fast forward to being thirty-one, and I’m writing about all relationships I’ve been in, so I’m not discriminating against the other ones [laughs]. The first time of anything is so vivid in your mind. For me, it’s so easy to go back to that feeling and write from that place. I think that’s always going to be something that people can relate to as well. I don’t ever want to just write love-songs, or just write life-songs or whatever. I want all my projects to be pretty well-rounded as far as the lyrical content goes.”
Cassadee had mentioned this year in the context of what’s been happening socially, so I wondered if she found herself taking on any of those subjects in her lyrics? Not necessarily in a protest song style, but still directly relating to what’s been happening in the world this year, on the socio-political side of things as well as with Covid…
“Yeah, I’ve basically got a song where I’m calling people out who are basically being judgemental about someone’s lifestyle as if it’s affecting them. The actual hook-line is, ‘If you were happy, you would mind your own business’, [laughs]. I just was so frustrated with seeing my friends who are gay, or who have a new baby and posted a picture only to have people commenting saying ‘you’re not holding it right!’, or whatever! I just got so fed-up with people that were so invested in someone else’s life, especially my friends. So I just wrote a song that day and it’s turned out to be one of my favourites actually! It’ll be something people hear, for sure.”
On Cassadee’s song Distracted, she’s joined by Lindsay Ell, Lauren Alaina, and Raelynn, all of whom Cassadee said came in to record their parts during CMA Week in Nashville, which is, of course, one of the craziest times of the year for country artists. I had the pleasure of interviewing Lindsay a couple of months back and what I noticed about her – not just during our chat, but in other interviews I’ve seen with her too – is that she always takes every chance she gets to give a shout-out to her friends who are also artists. And I’ve noticed that same trait in Cassadee. I asked her to tell me about the importance of that community of friends who are also artists.
“Oh man! I mean, it’s really saved me in so many ways. I remember really not leaning into it until three, maybe three and a half years ago. I had gone through a really weird year of transitions, getting out of a long-term relationship, getting out of a record deal, really doing all of those things at the same time. And I needed friends to really help me through that. So I leaned on my friends because I just wanted to connect with them on a level I just hadn’t been able to yet, just because of my own mental capacity I wasn’t able to really lean into those friendships as much as I could have. And also, just having someone that I was with for so long, who was my person to go to for everything, and now all of a sudden I was single, so I had to lean on my friends. The friends that I felt like I had the most common ground with are my artist friends. And it’s really the best decision I’ve ever made because now there’s just this group of girls and women that are there for each other, even when I just need to vent. Or if I just need to have a drink with someone and have it be light and easy. It’s a group of women that are going to be whatever we need to be for each other in whatever moment they need us. Lindsay and Raelyn, and Lauren, and Maren [Morris], those are the friends that I’ve really connected with over the last few years that have helped me through some pretty tough times.”
Speaking of character traits and personality traits, from her time on The Voice on Cassadee has had some amazing opportunities to work with some equally amazing artists; Blake [Shelton, her mentor on The Voice] obviously, Chris Young, Tim McGraw, Dierks Bentley, Maren, and of course, Sam Palladio. In working with and being around those guys, what did Cassadee learn from watching how they do things that she’s been able to apply to her own career or take into her own life?
“I think there’s a certain level of confidence that all of those guys that you mentioned have. There’s confidence, and there’s also humility. I’ve noticed that most of the people I’ve come into contact with – especially in the country world – are so humble, and so family orientated. They just want to be your mentor. Somebody that I’ve been really lucky to work with on a personal level, but also on a music level, is Karen Fairchild, from Little Big Town. She’s kind of been like a ghost-mentor for me [laughs]. It’s not like when we hang out there’s a slew of selfies and stuff. When I see her, I’m like a sponge. I’m like ok, tell me everything! [laughs]. When I had that year that I was talking about earlier, when I was really transitioning and not having a team around me, she was the one I called and I was like, can you meet with me and can I pick your brain about stuff? I asked her about a manager I was thinking of hiring, and she knew about him and was able to tell me things. And she has that humility. She has the confidence, but she has that humility. I think that’s something that is kind of a constant in the biggest country artists. There’s that relatability. And when you see them and meet them, and hang out with them, I think they all have that thing in common. And I’m lucky to have people like that that I can look up to and ask questions.”
And speaking of Sam, with whom Cassadee is in a relationship – and who duets with her on the song California Dreaming on Rise And Shine – the pair had an actual show at the City Winery in Nashville just the week before we spoke. I asked Cassadee how it felt to be able to perform again.
“I haven’t had a full-band show since December , so I was really excited to get a full-band show! [laughs]. I had done a couple of acoustic things this year, but yeah, nothing like that. We had a really good time! But it also made us realise, hey, we could do this! You know, if we want to do a co-headlining tour someday or something like that. It felt so good to be up there in general, but to be up there with him was really fun. He sang harmonies on my songs, I sang harmonies on his songs. It was just a really fun collaborative night, it was amazing.”
Did Cassadee and Sam have an audience there with them to enjoy the show?
“Yeah. So City Winery basically had a big outdoor tent with tables, two-tops, four-tops, and six-tops. So if a household had six people in it and they wanted to come to the show, they were taken care of. The crowd was set up…gosh…like a good twelve feet from the stage, so we were never exposed to anyone. The crowd had to wear masks, too. Sam and I, we’ve been pretty on the cautious side of things this year, and haven’t really gone anywhere or done anything. We went to a friend’s show, that was kind of a big deal for us, and we hopped up for a couple of songs at City Winery. And that’s when we realised that they were doing such a good job. So we actually said to them that if they had any open dates we’d really love to do a show because we thought they were doing such a good job. And then yeah, fast-forward to it happening and we sold it out, and it was awesome.”
Cassadee is an independent artist now, coming from a pop/rock background from her time with her band Hey Monday, and she has the most magnificent arm tattoo that’s both beautiful and hard to miss. Plus, Cassadee and Sam live over on East Nashville, somewhere I learned all I know about from listening to the brilliant singer/songwriter Todd Snider. So it’s probably fair to say that Cassadee is far too free and independent a spirit to fit nicely into the kind of categories and products that country radio often seems to prefer. Only the actual music itself should ever matter, of course, but has Cassadee ever found that country radio can be a battle for an artist like her?
“Oh yeah! I mean, I’m at the point in my career – and especially this year – where I’m just writing the stuff that makes me really happy. Like, my next full-band record, I’m going more pop/rock and I’m not focusing on making sure I tick all the boxes that country radio has. There has to be a country accent in the voice, you know, and there has to be a banjo, there has to be steel [guitar]. I’m really not focusing on any of that, because I know deep down that I’m a country artist and that my sensibilities lean country. But I also love pop/rock, and I don’t want to ever feel like I have to compromise who I am to fit in a box, or in a format. Just because I would love a country radio hit, that can’t be what drives my creative process, I know that now. I know that if it does, I’m not gonna get the song that stands out. Yeah, it’s definitely been a struggle over the years. I’ve had success, and I’m proud of that for the things I’ve accomplished. I definitely think if I were a little bit more what country radio is used to from a female, I would maybe get better attention and radio-play. But I also know there are women that are seemingly the perfect country-radio female specimen, and they still don’t get played. I think that’s all I really needed to realise this year. Like, wow, why am I really trying so hard and giving things that I think are perfect for country radio…and they still don’t play it? So why don’t I just do what I want, and just do the most authentic thing I can think of and just see what happens? It’s a lot more creatively rewarding that way, so it’s been nice to just do that this year.”
Cassadee had a very special virtual Thanksgiving planned with her fans, so we wrapped up our chat by talking about that, and also her hopes for what 2021 might hold in store…
“The meet-and-greets have been so fun. I’ve been doing them through an App called Loop, and it’s basically I think twenty-five or thirty fans at each meet-and-greet. Everybody is in a line but they get to go into a chat-room and talk to each other, and I popped in there as well. It’s really kind of fun and casual. I did a Halloween one where I wore my Halloween costume, being a ghostbuster [laughs]. And I picked a few fans whose costumes I loved and I sent a little merch-bundle to them. You get a merch-bundle when you purchase a meet-and-greet anyway, but I threw in a couple of extra little things that I thought people would like. Then for the Thanksgiving one, it’s just gonna be more of a conversation, with the theme of what we are grateful for, trying to take the positive from all of the heaviness that’s been going on. Talking about the silver lining of this year and what we’ve learned. That’ll be nice. I’ll probably do a Christmas one [laughs]. I’ve just really loved being able to connect with the fans, even though I haven’t been able to in person. Then the rest of the year, I mean, I’m going to continue to write but I have a pretty solid group of songs to start recording a record, getting into a studio that’s big enough so that we can do it safely, all socially-distanced and with temperature-checks. It’ll definitely be a different recording process than what it’s been in the past, but I want to get started and also keep everybody safe. So that’s on the horizon, for sure. Then just enjoying the holidays. My mom and sister are in Nashville, so I’ve been able to see them. I want to lean into the fact that there’s a new year looming and we can all exhale after this past weekend [of the US Presidential election], and just take comfort in next year being a different year!”
~ RISE AND SHINE, the brand new EP from CASSADEE POPE, is out now on all platforms.