Cassadee Pope was recently performing a song at the Bluebird Cafe — the small venue made famous by ABC’s “Nashville” — when she abruptly stopped singing. She couldn’t remember how the second verse started. Within seconds, someone in the crowd called out a few words, and Pope was immediately back on track.
“Thank you! I’ve got a fan in the audience, praise Jesus!” Pope said, and started to laugh. “There are so many lyrics in this song.”
It wasn’t surprising that even in a 90-seat venue, someone knew every word. Pope’s loyal fanbase dates to a decade ago, when she was the lead singer of pop-punk band Hey Monday, which toured the world. Then she got a life-changing boost in late 2012 when she went solo and won the third season of NBC’s “The Voice,” performing every week in front of millions of viewers.
Winning a reality singing competition often leads to a roller-coaster career journey, and Pope was no exception. After signing with a major Nashville record label and seeing success right away with a hit debut single and album, Pope eventually found herself in limbo. Her writing style changed as she evolved as an artist, and there were disagreements over the direction of her new music. In 2017, she parted ways with the label.
“All of a sudden, I was on my own,” Pope, 29, said during an interview in Nashville. “There was a lot of self-discovery that year, a lot of ups and downs. I took advantage of the downs and just wrote through it.”
The intense bout of songwriting led to her first album in five years, “Stages,” which she released independently in February. After spending last month as the opening act for Maren Morris, Pope is currently headlining CMT’s Next Women of Country tour. It’s an 11-city trek that stops by U Street Music Hall on Saturday and features Clare Dunn and Hannah Ellis, who co-wrote Pope’s current single, “If My Heart Had a Heart.”
Although striking out as an independent artist has been scary at times, Pope said, she knew she had to leave the major label world when she started worrying too much about whether country radio would play her music — rather than focusing on the quality of the song.
“We’re in this format where we’re trained to think about what the mother in South Dakota [listening to the radio] will think of this song instead of thinking, ‘What’s my fan base? Who am I? And what do I want to say?’ ” Pope said. “The fan base will form around the songs, so why am I trying to do the opposite? That makes no sense. Once I wrapped my head around that and really broke that way of thinking, it opened my brain and I was like, ‘Oh!’ And I just started writing differently.”
Right after winning “The Voice,” Pope knew she wanted to move to Nashville. She performed country music when she was younger, and viewers seemed to love when she sang country songs; her cover of Miranda Lambert’s “Over You” rocketed to No. 1 on iTunes, dethroning Psy’s “Gangnam Style.” She signed a record deal with Big Machine Label Group and released her first single five months later, the Avril Lavigne-esque, pop-leaning “Wasting All These Tears.”
The next two years were a whirlwind as “Wasting All These Tears” cracked the Top 10 and sold over a million copies; her 2013 record, “Frame By Frame,” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard country album chart. She toured with Rascal Flatts and Tim McGraw. But her second single, “I Wish I Could Break Your Heart,” didn’t make an impact on radio, and the label pulled her third single.
As Pope continued working on new music, she scored a hit in 2016 when Chris Young asked her to duet on his new track “Think Of You.” She toured with Young as the song soared to No. 1 and earned a Grammy nomination for best country duo/group vocal performance. Still, when she and her team couldn’t agree on a style for her upcoming sophomore album, Pope knew it was time to leave the label.
She also quickly learned how much she enjoyed having complete creative control. “At first it was, ‘Maybe I’ll record some songs and start pitching them and showing people’ and be like, 'This is the sound. Are you in or you out?’ ” Pope said. But before she knew it, she and her producer finished the whole album themselves. “It just all sort of fell into place.”
Now, as Pope tours with her new album, fans still have favorites from her past — including “Alien,” the song she briefly stumbled over at the Bluebird. She wrote it with hit songwriters Ross Copperman and Jon Nite, who was at the Bluebird with Pope to discuss ASCAP’s “I Create Music” Expo, a conference next month in Los Angeles aimed at music creators. The two of them recalled the story behind the song, which came out of a writing session when Pope talked about the many musical influences from her past; something that didn’t always sit well with country music gatekeepers.
“[Ross and Jon] were like, ‘That’s so cool, that’s so interesting how you’ve loved all these different things and these different genres,’” Pope said. “That’s the first time I really thought of it as a good thing. Now with this new chapter with my new team and everything, we focus on that . . . it’s just been really nice. And authentic.”