Max Pope’s music sounds like summer feels. It is soulful and sun-drenched – a sound that wafts through the loudspeakers in the beer gardens in summer. Like this one in Dalston, where we meet on the hottest day of the year so far. The 27-year-old, whose debut album has just been released, has a towel and swim trunks stuffed into his tote bag ready to hit the ponds of Hampstead Heath afterwards.
In an era of Gen Z stars and micro-trends, Pope is a rarity: a crowd pleaser, regardless of the crowd. Its genre-bending, poppy soul is the kind that transcends age limits and climbs charts. Like his music, which exudes an undeniable George Ezra vibe, Pope exudes a similar ease. He sinks into a concrete bench as comfortably as if he were reclining in a plush sofa. So it’s not surprising that he’s calm about the release of his debut. Partly, he says, because it was a long time coming. “I think I could have released this album years ago. A lot of the songs are really old,” says Pope, who wrote the title track counting sheep over a decade ago. “But it’s one thing to have the songs and another to actually have the mind to put out a record.”
The journey to this headspace was eventful, if meandering. In short, it encompasses the death of a loved one, a newfound solace in gardening, and a failed record deal. The latter, by the way, was his own choice. “I signed with a manager way too soon,” says Pope. He was spotted as a student at the Brit School, Croydon’s secondary performing arts school, with alumni including Adele and Amy Winehouse. In his high school year, future Mercury-nominated artist Loyle Carner, with whom he whined regularly. “I had a song out called ‘Counting Sheep’ and suddenly strangers were offering me lots of money. It was weird and overwhelming.” Suddenly he was in meetings with executives who told him who he was what his music was. At 16, Pope didn’t know these things himself. “I think I found that quite painful.”
In hindsight, Pope has mixed feelings about his time at the Brit School. He loved it, he assures me. But alongside the friendships he’s forged and the lessons he’s learned, Pope resents how closely tied his education was to the industry. In hindsight, he says it “feels a bit dangerous when you’re 16 and learning your craft when managers are trying to nab talent.”
“The best thing I do is when I can forget there’s a freaking music industry out there. It’s better if you’re not aware of the corporate side,” he adds.
Fresh out of the Brit School and under flashy new management, it was impossible not to be aware. It wasn’t long before Pope was pushed into pop star territory. The “Next Ed Sheeran” was a term that was buzzed around a lot. “It took me a long time to realize that I was being pushed in a direction that wasn’t me,” he says. However, the result of this was that it helped him figure out what was. And while Pope confesses the urge to squirm out of every box he’s been put in (“I think it annoys everyone, to be honest”), counting sheep shows an artist who knows who he is.
The album is a collection of enchanting tracks on which Pope’s upbeat baritone anchors delicate guitars so light they’re ready to drift away at first wind. It’s music for summer days and mild nights. Pope wants you to feel like folk-soul star Bill Withers makes him feel. “I literally feel like I get a hug every time I hear it,” says Pope, who was “really devastated” by Wither’s death in 2020. “His music is very simple. He tells it like it is and there isn’t much pretense. That feeling inspired me, not necessarily the sound of his music, although that is true, but the way it makes me feel.”
Even as a teenager, Pope knew that stepping down from his management was the right decision, even if it risked losing the momentum he had built up to that point. “I think this momentum thing is bullshit. It wasn’t a difficult decision; I stopped doing it because it no longer served me,” he says. He then experienced what he calls a “series of unfortunate events,” including the death of someone close to him, which led to a two-year hiatus from songwriting. “I just stopped creating for a while. I just had to stop and find out what was going on.”
To Pope’s surprise, it was gardening that eventually brought him back to music. “It really came out of nowhere,” he smiles, still sounding stunned at the memory. With no experience, Pope got a job as a gardener; a job that turned out to be heavier landscaping than planting flowers. “The guy turned out to be an asshole,” he laughs. “He used to give me all the shit jobs, mixing cement and laying bricks. So I would do that while he was doing all these amazing things in nature.” But it was the start of a new hobby that paved the way for him to get back into music. It’s fitting, then, that he’s taking a residency at Spitalfields City Farm this week, where he’ll perform alongside gardening workshops and mindfulness sessions.
“Gardening is all about the process. The job is never really finished and it keeps growing,” says Pope. He realized that this also applies to music. Or at least the kind of music he wants to make. “I don’t want to write a song that has any outcome in mind,” says Pope, wincing at the thought. Little by little he started playing open mics again, which he still does to this day. He also teaches guitar to children at Tower Bridge. “No fucking music industry is gonna stop me from being happy now,” he grins. Pope has come to the realization that “I must write music for the love of music.” The rest will follow – and if they don’t, well, Pope isn’t too excited either way.
Counting Sheep is available now from Virgin
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/max-pope-interview-counting-sheep-b2113135.html Singer-songwriter Max Pope: “I stopped creating for a while”