The pause due to Covid-19 has created a sort of forced step back and for some, an opportunity to rethink life as we’ve known it and what it’s going to look like going forward. For Nashville singer-songwriter Ron Pope, the down time resulted in a “journey” of releases, every other week for a year.
The series, titled, “The Builder” includes new songs, “orphaned” songs as Ron describes them, and some reimagined favorites.
AnaLee: Congratulations on finding a way to turn this unimaginable year we’ve had into a really enjoyable experience for your fans. You had just released your new album, Bone Structure the Friday following the tornadoes that hit Nashville in early March, and just as you were gearing up for the tour cycle for that release, everything came to a screeching halt. Tell us about finding your way to what has become “The Builder”.
Ron: So much of what we’d planned to do surrounding the release of “Bone Structure” was, at first, postponed by the tornado and then cancelled by the pandemic. I began writing songs for that album in the latter part of 2017 and we started recording for it at the top of ’18 while we were on the road. It took more than two years to get from the beginning of the process to the release.
The whole thing was so personal; in the end, all the songs were directed at my daughter, telling her about how I look at life, both before I became her dad and then after her arrival. I am not always great at the kind of introspection that is required to create that music; becoming a father forced me to look at my path through a lens that felt especially unflattering. I could probably make an entire album about things I realized about myself while wandering through Harlem on drugs in the early aughts (*storing that concept for later use*). The things that give you your “edge” as a young writer start to look an awful lot like fatal flaws when reflected in the funhouse mirror of parenthood. After wringing myself out on that record, I was pretty bottomed out; I didn’t write a single song for nearly a year once we finished recording. Once the tour and much of the promotional tap-dancing that we’d usually do for an album got cancelled, I shifted my focus more or less entirely to stay-at-home-dad life. I didn’t feel creative; I just wanted to stay at home and protect my family as best I could. We were testing different blueberry muffin recipes, walking miles and miles to feed the ducks, singing songs about sharks and monkeys and raindrops; all the good stuff. After a few months of that, I started thinking that it might be nice to try something creative before I forgot who I used to be. “The Builder” is allowing me to release songs that got orphaned along the way; for example, I loved “Morphine” from the instant that I wrote it, but once the concept for “Bone Structure” shifted and I decided to direct it at my daughter, it didn’t fit within the framework of the album. With
“The Builder,” there is no concept or central principal to focus on; I can just release recordings that I like without any of the baggage I usually associate with an album. Some of the songs are brand new, others are things that I never figured out how to finish during the making of an album; they’re all things I really like but didn’t have a spot for or couldn’t quite finish in the past. It’s incredibly freeing to be releasing music without considering how it fits next to anything else. With each release, “The Builder” can be something entirely new and that’s ok. On an album, I’m always so focused on making sure everything makes sense together. I’m enjoying making these stand-alone statements without any regard for how they interact with each other. One week, you’ll get a delicate ballad like “Morphine” and the next, we’re doing our best Bob Wills. I’m in love with that freedom.
AnaLee: I loved “Morphine” from the instant I heard it! A tender love song with a sort of lilting melody, I find myself humming it quite often. Has finding inspiration been tougher during the shutdown or are the flood gates wide open at this point?
Ron: I have been incredibly inspired by this time at home. I’m not inspired to write all the time, necessarily, but I’m certainly feeling inspiration. I got to spend so much time alone with my two year old daughter at the beginning of the pandemic. That was time that I was meant to be on tour. Even when she was a newborn and I took a few months off, we were never truly alone together for long stretches of time, so those early days of quarantine were exceedingly special for us. I was learning about her in a way that I am not sure I would’ve ever had the chance to if the status quo hadn’t been put on pause. There is nothing like spending time with a small child to shake up how you see the world. I’ve been watching her change so quickly; there’s real magic in that. I’ve always felt a strong bond with her, that goes without saying, but this time has allowed me to get to know her in a way I’m not sure I would’ve had a chance to if our normal lives weren’t flipped upside down.
Am I terrified that we might not be able to go back to work for a long time? Of course I am. I am also trying to maintain a degree of perspective about the ways that this has been good for my life; I genuinely appreciate the extra time this shake-up has given me with my baby. Watching her learn about her world continues to inspire me daily.
AnaLee: You went to Blackbird Studios in Nashville to capture an acoustic performance of “One Grain of Sand”, a hugely popular song from your 2012 album Atlanta. I know your long-time fans appreciate these reworkings of old favorites. What’s it been like for you to revisit these songs during this reflective time?
Ron: It is easy for me to move on from songs once we record them. I’m not putting on my own records and listening to them for fun; after we walk out of the studio, I hear my recordings considerably less frequently than even the most casual fan. When a song gets as popular as “One Grain Of Sand,” sometimes I’ll go back and consider how I might reinterpret it if I’d written it today.
When we play it on the road, it sounds nothing like the studio recording and how we played it in early 2020 was altogether different than how we did it in 2016 or 2014. I’d never tried to play that one solo, not even when I’ve been on my solo-acoustic tours. It was interesting to try it this way, because even when I wrote it, I imagined it as a big, full sounding thing. I was surprised that the emotion in there feels even more palpable when the song is performed in a delicate way; with the band, I’m shouting about being willing to be hurt just to feel something. When I’m playing it solo, it feels somehow more defiant. I love how that can happen when an artist reimagines a song. I wrote this eight or nine years ago; my life has changed immeasurably in that time, but I still remember what it was like to live in this story. I’m glad that I can pop in for a visit without having to pack my bags and move back in.
Here’s the acoustic video of Ron performing “One Grain of Sand” at Blackbird Studios in Nashville and some lovely visuals for the song “Morphine”:
“One Grain of Sand”
Ana Lee is on middays at WMOT, and is also the host of The Local Brew Hour, which airs Sundays at 7am and Mondays at 7pm on 89.5 WMOT and wmot.org.