Earlier this year Ron Pope released his ninth studio album, Calling Off The Dogs; a concept album following the evolution of a relationship from first sight to last interaction. In the midst of his summer tour, Soundcheck caught up with the New York based artist at the venue before his Edinburgh show, to talk about the record.
Soundcheck: So is this your first time in Scotland?
Ron Pope: No, I played in Glasgow earlier this year and last year as well.
SC: How does touring abroad compare to being back at home?
RP: You know, people often ask questions like ‘well what’s the different between your audience in this city and that city’ or ‘what’s the difference when touring in Europe and America or Australia and Europe’ or whatever, and I would say every night is different. So like if you play in London this tour and then you come back in six months and play there again it’s going to be a completely different thing. It’s the vibe of the individual people that come, sometimes it’s what day of the week it is, what time you go on, if it’s a town where people are going to drink, if it’s an all-ages show or if it’s only older people. There’s a wide variety of factors like the time of the year, so it’s really like every night is different. There’s no like ‘crowds in Berlin are always like this’ or ‘crowds in Sydney are always like this.’ It changes from show to show.
SC: Your latest album, Calling off the Dogs, is a concept album. What prompted you to do a concept album?
RP: Well, I wrote ‘Blood from a Stone’ which is the final song on the album and it’s about the end of a relationship– the final interaction between two people. And then I had ‘Lick My Wounds’ which is about the first instant that you see someone, like that moment where it’s all possibility. You look across the room and before you say a word, before you know anything about the person, you just see them and you’re like what’s going to happen now? And then in the same period I had ‘Silver Spoon’ which is kind of about a nebulous period in the middle. And I got to thinking. I was like well, what if I try to tell this story? You know, write a linear narrative that follows people from the first moment they see each other, through falling in love and then falling out of love, and then it ends with their last interaction; what would that be like? And so, it was an interesting challenge to take on.
SC: How did you come up with the title, Calling Off The Dogs?
RP: Within the song ‘Silver Spoon’ there is a line that says “When they’re calling off the dogs and you’re sleeping on the lawn, will your heart desert me?” and usually what I do when I’m going to title an album is I write down all the titles from the songs, and then I listen through the album and I pick out lyrics and things that are within the songs and I’m like ‘eh, maybe this, maybe this, maybe this…’ and then I’ll also write down ideas that come to me as I go through. Usually I do that once or twice and see what I come up with. For this record I wanted the title to feel really unique and kind of distinctive because the record feels very unique to me. It’s a very kind of distinctive thing so that’s why I picked Calling Off The Dogs.
SC: What would you say is most different about this album compared to what you’ve done before, besides the fact that it is a concept album?
RP: Kind of everything. From a compositional standpoint, from the very beginning it’s very different because for many years what I was trying to was write the most straightforward and simple things that I could do. And with this record, whatever the most simple or straightforward thing was –whatever was like ‘oh, I would do this’ –when that came to mind, I did something else. Every single time. So, from a compositional place it comes from a different universe than I usually write in. There are songs with movements like classical pieces, mixed meter and key changes, and all kinds of crazy curveballs within the composition.
From a production standpoint, I’m doing all kinds of things that I would have never put in my records before. I kind of tried to create a really new, really distinctive palate for this. So you’ll hear thumping hip-hop-esque kind of low end in some of these things, like an 808s & Heartbreak kind of thing. And then you’ll hear choirs, orchestral arrangements, there are horns and woodwinds, strings and a big rock band with crazy guitars going on kind of sonic experiments and soundscape stuff like rain, people laughing, birds flying, and things like that. There are all kinds of crazy stuff happening within the production as well. So really, it’s kind of everything; it’s the fact that I treated it as one long composition. It’s a 47 minute concept album rather than individual three to five minute songs telling individual stories this is one 47 minute linear narrative.
SC: What about the album artwork; where did that come from?
RP: Abbey Ley, who is this incredible graphic designer who has worked with us before, she did the packaging for Atlanta as well, she is just really, really interesting and comes up with the best stuff. Abbey listened to the record and drew and painted and sent us a ton of ideas and then put it all together, she is a wizard.
SC: Do you have a favourite song on the album?
RP: In my mind it should be consumed as one thing. So, I don’t really think about it like that. In terms of playing them live, I’ve been really enjoying playing ‘New Friends’ recently and that has been fun. In terms of listening to it though, I would say I really think of it as one thing –I mean, you don’t sit around and listen to your own albums– I don’t, I guess some people do… I’m sure they must. But I feel like if I were going to listen to something like this I would want to listen to the whole record.
SC: Was there any part of the album that was more difficult to write?
RP: Every single aspect of making this record was so hard. Every part of it. Because at first, I started writing without intention and so I began with some exercises; Like, I had always wanted to write a song using falsetto, where I sang in falsetto the entire time, because I love Richard Manuel from the Band and he did that sometimes. I kind of developed my falsetto because I was such a big fan of his I thought that would be me, as a kid. That, and the Temptations and some of that stuff to sing along you learn to use falsetto. So I wrote ‘Blood From a Stone’ and then I had always wanted to write a song with movements like a classical piece, but that still felt like a cohesive pop rock sort of thing so I wrote ‘Silver Spoon.’ And then ‘Lick My Wounds’ is an example of us working in mixed meter. For a while I was just like ‘oh, this is an idea, that’s an idea,’ just kind of messing around. Once I got down to the business of ‘I want to write this concept album,’ you’re not just trying to write songs that you like or songs that you think are good, or compelling, you also need to write something that has a place within the narrative.
I wrote more than 50 songs for this record; it was just an incredibly arduous process. For every song that you hear there is probably three or four other songs that sound something like it that I wrote as I was fiddling with the idea of ‘how do I get to what this is?’ and, ‘this thing that I want to execute, how do I execute it?’ In the studio I would try to create something with no reference –there’s no reference to what I wanted to do. I didn’t have a reference where I could say ‘oh, it’s going to sound like this record’ like, ‘let’s make it sound like Led Zepplin IV, or the Haim record, or 808s & Heartbreak, or whatever.’ It was like ‘let’s take a piece of this, and a piece of this, and a piece of this, I like this, let’s do this,’ but there was no ‘oh, listen to this song it will sound kind of like this.’ There was none of that. So that was incredibly hard, and we were in the studio working on it some days banging our heads against the wall like how are we going to make this work? How are we going to make this come together?
I am blown away that it came out well and that it sounds good because there were periods in the midst of this where I was like this might be a really big mistake. It came out to be something that I really love and am incredibly proud of but I didn’t know when I started that it would be like that.
SC: Do you prefer performing live or playing in a studio?
RP: I love to play live because you get to interact with the audience; that’s really cool. I love releasing records. Making records is hard, it’s an arduous process it takes a long time and it is challenging. But releasing records is fun because you get to see how people react to the music. You’re creating it in a bubble, you’re in a vacuum. Your fans aren’t there to hear what you’re doing. So, it is interesting to hear what people think when the music comes out.
SC: Your first big solo hit (‘A Drop In The Ocean’ 2008) has a lot to do with YouTube. How important would you say social media is to musicians now?
RP: For me I think all facets of social media were kind of involved in my career. It has been incredibly valuable because, to some extent, it democratised a lot of things that maybe weren’t so democratic before within the music industry. People will find a recording like that, like ‘A Drop In The Ocean,’ people took ownership there like ‘I love this song; I’m going to share it with my friends.’ And ‘One Grain of Sand’ is a really interesting example of this because it has had no television placements ever… like nothing else happened except for one person told their two friends, those two friends each told two friends, and so on until it just sort of snowballed into this giant thing. I think that for me the internet has been an incredible tool. I was kind of beginning my process as a recording artist right as all of these things were kind of starting, like social media and stuff like that, and so it was really cool to be involved in that from the beginning.
SC: Are you working on anything new at the moment?
RP: I’m working on trying to stay alive on the road. Carl (Ron’s cousin and tour manager) and I have been doing yoga, going running… I have been writing a little bit so there should be something…before I die there will be another record… Hopefully.
SC: Do you think you’ll do another concept album?
RP: You never know, a concept will have to come to me.
SC: So, you’re open to the idea? It hasn’t been that traumatic of an experience?
RP: It was really hard but it’s cool, I’m proud of the record. Maybe, you never know.
SC: Just one last question, is there anywhere on the tour that you’re really looking forward to seeing?
RP: You know, honestly and this is no joke, I generally don’t know where we’re going. I’ve been on tour constantly so I’m really kind of like, I sort of know… I know we’re going to Germany. I think the show I’m most excited for; we have a run coming up in the fall in America and so I’m going to play at Music Midtown in Atlanta which is the festival that I grew up going to as a fan, like I saw Bob Dylan there, and I’m playing that in September. It’s kind of like a crazy full circle thing which I’m really excited about.
SC: I think that’s it for now, thank you for chatting with us!
RP: Thank you!