Americana Highways had the opportunity to chat with Ron Pope on his new album, Bone Structure, which is decidedly his deepest, most authentic work to date. We asked him about that and a whole lot more.
AH: I read that you grew up in Marietta, Georgia. What kind of music were you exposed to at an early age? What were you exposed to back then that carries over to the music that you make now, if any?
RP: I think the biggest thing that shaped my taste forevermore was starting to play out as a young kid. I was exposed to much older musicians and they showed me the music that they grew up on. I don’t care where you lived in America, most teenagers in the 90’s probably weren’t being shown Robert Johnson unless they were really into music and hanging out with much older people. There’s stuff that my family exposed me to that’s in there too, of course, but playing music in bars where sixty-year-old guys were also playing probably had the biggest impact on me.
AH: How old were you when you started writing your own original songs?
RP: I started writing songs with my friend Chris Kienel (who was later in The District with me) when I was 12 or 13. We didn’t get serious about it for a bunch of years. I don’t think I wrote anything that wasn’t embarrassing for the first eight or so years, which was a good lesson in sticking with something.
AH: Your song, “A Drop in the Ocean,” is often considered to be one of the first hit songs boosted by the internet. What was your reaction to becoming one of the first artists to utilize the medium of the internet so successfully in terms of music promotion?
RP: I don’t know if I can say that I had a “reaction” to using the internet to promote my music. It was just my reality; I’d been out plugging along, making my music for a bunch of years in relative obscurity. When I started to find an audience online, I just figured that we should keep pursuing that, because it seemed to be working. That’s the mindset I’ve maintained all of these years.
AH: How did the success of “A Drop in the Ocean” change the trajectory of your career?
RP: I would say that the shortest answer is “absolutely.” It changed the trajectory of my career absolutely. Before that song, nothing was happening. After that song, something was.
AH: Your music has been featured in such television series as So You Think You Can Dance, The Vampire Diaries, and 90210. How did having your music featured in a popular medium such as television impact your career?
RP: I don’t know if the television placements have impacted my career all that much. I will say, when you’re a working musician but not a household name, it’s easier for Mom to explain to people what you’re doing when she can say “Turn on your TV and his song is on this show!” On the personal side, that’s a plus for sure.
AH: I read that you were once signed with Universal Republic and that since leaving the label you have produced all your music independently. Having made music under a major music label and independently, what is the difference in navigating both spaces?
RP: I was already releasing my music independently for multiple years before I spent my time on a major label (which was less than a year). I didn’t get a single dollar worth of value out of my time on that label, so I’d say the principal thing I learned there is that you should only work with a major label if they are contractually obligated to spend a significant amount of money on your project. That’s really the only way to know that they’re going to work with you and try to provide some value. The most important lesson I could give any new artist is this: The classic music business is dead; as a result, you don’t need the validation that comes with “getting signed.” Only take on partners whose interests and vision align with your own.
AH: Your latest record Bone Structure was released on March 6, 2020. I’ve read that the new album was born out of a new mindset concerning mortality and your newborn daughter. Give a little context about the creation of the new album and the messages you convey through it.
RP: I’d been working on a new album for quite some time. It was light-hearted and energetic, more focused on vibe and energy than content. While we were in London on tour early last year, a scary situation played out around us. I was dropped off where we were staying. I went inside to my wife and our eight-month-old daughter. A minute or so later, the driver who’d just dropped me off called me frantically. He explained that two masked men had just attacked his car just a few feet past our door. He was really confused and was unsure why the people had attacked him. We called the police who came out and assured us that this wasn’t some kind of targeted attack (they felt it was just a random act of violence). The whole night really shook us up and I started to think a lot about the idea that our lives are so fleeting. I began to fixate on the notion that anything could happen to me and then I wouldn’t be here when my daughter grows up and has questions or needs advice. With that in mind, I set out to make a completely new record. Every song speaks to my daughter. I’m either talking about my experiences as her father so far (on songs like “My Wildest Dreams” and “Practice What I Preach”) or sharing stories from my own life with some kind of moral (like “Bone Structure” or “Habits”). It’s the only time in my life I’ve made a record for an audience of one.
AH: The song “Take the Edge Off” was co-written with Emily Scott Robinson. Talk a little bit about writing with Robinson and the creation of that song.
RP: I was planning on writing this whole record myself. Emily is a close friend of mine; she was in to visit and we were discussing the feeling at the end of a relationship, where you know that it’s smart to move on but it feels like it would be easier to just go back. We found that we’d each had almost identical experiences with that, so we decided to write a song about it. The lesson is that sometimes the hardest thing is the right thing. Sometimes it hurts, but you just have to go through. I figured, if one co-write was going to end up on the record where I’m speaking so personally to my daughter, it wouldn’t hurt to have that co-write come from a brilliant woman who I admire so deeply.
AH: Where do you often take inspiration for your music?
RP: Life. My own, the lives of those around me. I’m just paying attention.
AH: Who are some of your favorite songwriters?
RP: Bruce. Dylan. Tupac. Joni Mitchell. Otis. Stevie Wonder. Lots of people, and what kind of songs I like changes with the seasons. Currently listening to a lot of James Taylor and Caroline Spence.
AH: Do you have a favorite song of your own that you believe sometimes gets overlooked?
RP: I hardly ever know what people will like; I just put out what I like and hope for the best. Who knows what a hit record sounds like? Maybe Quincy, but certainly not me! I really like the song “Good Life” from my last album Work. I thought maybe that one might run away, but you never know with my songs. Sometimes, a song of mine will get popular like eight years after the album comes out. My fans are sneaky like that.
AH: How has the music industry changed since the release of your first record? How have the changes impacted you as an artist?
RP: My first record was my band’s 2004 eponymous release The District, and then my first solo record was Daylight, which came out in ’08. When I was coming up and first starting to play in bands in the late ’90s and early 2000s, the traditional music industry still existed. You’d make demos, play in bars, try to build a local and then regional audience and hope to get the attention of people “in the business” with the hopes that you’d get signed, get a manager, and more broadly, gain access to everything that people in the real music business had access to (like major media exposure via TV and radio, big-time studios and producers to make records, global distribution of your records to stores, etc.). Now, young artists can create whatever they’d like, self-release and distribute, and access a gigantic global audience online. A lot of the gate-keepers of old are gone now; if you can find people out in the world at large who get what you’re doing, then you’re in the game.
AH: What has been the biggest challenge for you as a performer?
RP: I’ve always been very comfortable performing. Real-life is way harder for me than making music. I feel right when I’m on stage, connecting with an audience. Now, I’d say the greatest challenge of my career is that I don’t want to be away from home, because I want to spend my time with my wife and our baby. That’s obviously a pretty serious issue since tour (by definition) takes you away from home.
AH: How are you adapting to the current situation of COVID-19? Are you coming up with ways to still connect with your audience amidst the current pandemic?
RP: I’ve been doing an online concert series on my Facebook and Instagram pages; it’s called “Live and In Sweatpants” and I play every Saturday at 7:30 pm central. It’s been nice to be able to play some music and connect with my audience. In this incredibly abnormal time, I’m always trying to find things that feel normal, and playing music for people is such a central part of my life. We’ve also picked back up our little Instagram cooking show “Frankie’s Test Kitchen” on Sunday nights. I did pork chops with vinegar peppers recently (a family recipe so old that no one made it anymore; I learned about it at a restaurant and then my grandma told me that my great-grandmother used to make them that way). We’re just trying to stay connected; people turn to artists for a distraction. I’m doing my damndest to distract myself and everybody else out there as much as possible while also trying to keep my two-year-old from jumping off the couch. We’re all trying to find a balance in this weird new era.
AH: What’s next for you?
RP: I have no idea. For the foreseeable future, I’d imagine I’ll be home just like everybody else. Maybe I’ll start writing songs while my daughter naps and one day we’ll make another record? For now, I’m doing a lot of long walks to feed the ducks (she’s big on ducks right now) and trying to make sure everybody who might like Bone Structure gets to hear it. And cooking; so much cooking!
Ron Pope’s latest record Bone Structure is available wherever you stream your digital music. https://www.ronpopemusic.com