- Nicole Mago
- Ron Pope's teacher told his mom he was bound for prison; instead, he became the world's most popular unsigned artist.
'It was the coolest thing that's ever happened in my entire life," says Ron Pope of that one dizzying moment during the finale of last year's Aretha Franklin tribute at Carnegie Hall. "I'm out there singing harmony parts with the background singers, and at some point this arm goes across my back, and a giant hand settles on my right shoulder. And I turn my head, and Sam Moore and I are singing into the same microphone. Just me and Sam, just two friends with their arms around each other, singing an Aretha song onstage at Carnegie Hall, like it's the most normal thing in the world. We were like two inches apart and I'm thinking, "Do I keep singing into this microphone?" Because if I was him, I wouldn't want me singing next to him!"
Actually, Pope may at this point have more name recognition than the tenor half of the legendary soul duo Sam & Dave. The 34-year-old musician's aching piano ballad "A Drop in the Ocean" recently surpassed 250,000,000 plays on Spotify, while his more Springsteen-driven live shows led Uncut magazine to declare him "Atlanta's Answer to The Boss."
In the following interview, Saturday's MeadowGrass headliner talks about Lana Del Rey's vocal range, being the world's most popular unsigned artist, and his mom's ongoing plot against the junior-high teacher who said he was bound for prison.
Indy: I saw an "Ask Me Anything" on reddit in which you described your  Work album as the story of your life from when you were 12 up through today. Why 12? What happened then?
Ron Pope: Well, I had a teacher when I was a kid — I actually had her two years in a row — and she really, really didn't like me. And I really didn't understand why, honestly. But anyway, at some point in the seventh or eighth grade, she took away my Walkman. I guess she saw it on my desk or something, and she took it away from me, so my mom had to come to the school to get it back.
That's messed up.
Yeah! And she told my mom, "You shouldn't send him to high school, you should send him to trade school. Every boy that I have ever known like this has gone to prison, and that's the only way to save this kid." And so my mom stood up and was like, "My kid is going to go to school, and he's going to go on to do great, and one day you'll see it!" So at every juncture in my life, my mom has wanted to send this lady news of what I have done, whether it was graduating from college or selling a million records.
And this has gone on for so long now that, when we were at the Aretha thing last year, my mom took the playbill — the booklet that they give out to people who come to the show — and she was like, "I'm going to find her and I'm going to mail this to her!" I was like, "Mom, mom, this was 20 years ago, you got to let this shit go! You can't go harassing her. She's like 80 years old now."
Were you already playing music when this all went on?
Yeah, I've been playing music since I was a kid. I was always in a band, and even before that, as a little kid, I was always in a choir, or the obnoxious little kid singing in the school pageant, or whatever.
What was obnoxious about you?
Well, like when we were in a church, I would sing much louder than everyone else, because I wanted people to hear me. As a kid, I had a much more substantial range, and now I kind of feel like more of a stylist. I'm not like Adele with monster chops. But as a kid in church, I'd be like, "Why don't I just sing it an octave higher than everybody else?" Now I mostly stick to one octave. I'm pretty mellow.
Soon, you'll be like Lana Del Rey; half an octave will be enough.
Yeah, you know, that's all you really need.
Of course, as soon as I said that, it occurred to me that you might be best friends with her.
Actually, I knew her in New York many, many years ago, when she was still going by her real name, Lizzy Grant. And I thought that she was endlessly fascinating, because she was always kind of expressing herself by being a character. She would tell you a story and you're like, "I don't think that's true, but I don't care."
What was the best story she ever told you?
Well, after we were introduced, she told me that she grew up in Arkansas in a trailer park, and was raised by her grandmother. But I'd already known that she was from a family of means in New York. So I was just like, "Huh, you don't say, Arkansas, trailer park." But it was like being around a performance artist. It's not like they're a pathological liar or something, they're just a person creating a character.
Back then, she was a freshman in college, and we were going to play a show together, so she came to my apartment to work on a number to sing together. I was living with a bunch of musicians, and by the time she finished playing her first song, my roommates were seated around her on the floor, just like little kids when their preschool teacher is singing to them. She's an incredibly unique artist and I think she's wonderful. And yeah, as a vocalist, it's not like she or I — or Bruce Springsteen, for that matter — could go on The Voice and sing all the runs and do all the tricks. But we can get across a song in a way that it feels like it means something.
Which brings us to "A Drop in the Ocean." When that took off, how did you feel?
Honestly, my success has been such a progressive, kind of gradual thing, there has never really been a moment where I've been like, "Oh my goodness, I can't believe this is happening." Because "A Drop in the Ocean," for whatever reason, has continued to reach people. I still remember when there was a fan video with the lyrics in it, and it got to 15,000 views on YouTube, I was like, "Wow, man, that's so, so many!" And now, it's grown to, like, I don't even know.
You're up to a quarter-billion streams on Spotify, actually, which means you should have more than a million dollars now. You're richer than Lana Del Rey's parents!
I don't think so. [Laughs.] That's not in the cards for any of us who are playing instruments. You're not getting that finance money! But I will say that, for me, the success of the song has been incredible. Because I started out playing music in the subway — and paying my rent in rolled change and trying to scrape together enough money to buy a slice of pizza — to, for a period of time, being the most popular unsigned artist in the world.
Back in college, of all my friends that were musicians, I was definitely the least talented. I was not the best writer, I was not the best player, I was not the best performer, I was not the best singer. I was not the best looking. But I think the thing that separated me from the pack is that I was willing to stay with it, to treat it like a job, and do the parts that suck. Just trying to find people to listen to music, to listen to your music.
So, when you headline the MeadowGrass Festival here, will you be playing solo or with a band?
I never play solo. So, yeah, I'm going to be with my band, and I'll be playing guitar behind my head, and getting sweaty, and trying to turn the heat up a little bit. We'll have a good night.
Wait, did you just say you play your guitar behind your head?
Yeah, when the spirit moves me. It's like, why did I spend all this time with my guitar behind my head in my room, if I wasn't ever going to do it in front of people?