There are times when you must draw your line in the sand, dig deep, and stay true to yourself. It’s hard in life generally, but it’s particularly hard in the music industry. There are just too many voices, too many opinions, and too many vested interests. The Bard may have provided the dictum, ‘to thine own self be true’, but how many truly do?
The story of Max Pope – who ditched his management, dropped out of the music biz, exchanged musical equipment for gardening tools before coming back stronger – is one of wiping the slate clean, tearing up the masterplan, and doing things on his own terms. Being true to oneself, in other words.
On the surface, Max Pope’s “very autobiographical” debut album Counting Sheep is the sound of summer lawns, lazy Sundays, and quiet evenings. It’s Pimm’s in a bottle, Henley Regatta in full swing, the cool Hackney hangout in aural form. A jazz-infused, bluesy trip that walks the tightrope of timelessness without sounding dated. Underneath the tranquil exterior, however, lie lyrics ridden with self-doubt and shame.
“Some of the songs I’ve written were definitely influenced by my early, unpleasant dance with the music industry,” reflects the singer songwriter and BRIT School graduate. “There’s a lot about shame,” he concedes, and admits that the album reads like “a diary” preoccupied over “whether or not I’m doing the right thing”.
Back in 2016, a fresh-faced Pope, then classmates with Flo Morrissey and Loyle Carner, left the prestigious BRIT School with a pocket full of dreams and a contact list replete with industry names. His time at the institution had been a period of self-discovery. Although London born, he’d grown up in Brighton under the tutelage of “a very academic school” and raised by his loving Austrian/Moroccan mother. The arrival in London, and at a music school to boot, hit all the right notes. “It was like I’d suddenly found my people,” Max recalls.
Thanks to the BRIT School and the music industry being so entwined, Max found himself with management as soon as he graduated. Pope’s honey-smooth vocal and liquid guitar lines, not to mention his versatility, which could flit between neo-soul to guitar-driven pop in an instant, offered plenty of mainstream potential. A team duly set about moulding him into the next Ed Sheeran.
“[Initially,] I thought it was great that I had a manager, and so did my family. We were all for it, but then you realise they want a thing out of you and it’s not so much just about you exploring your musicality,” laments Pope. “That’s not the business. The business doesn’t really give a fuck about that. The business just wants you to hurry and make your mind up.”
Although early single ‘Didn’t I’ and the EP Less Than Nothing were well-received, he dallied about his next move. His label wanted the fledgling musician to write a “certain” type of song. But those songs wouldn’t come. Instead, a couple of Beatles-inflected tunes arrived in the form of an earlier version of his debut’s ‘No Love (Mr Shady)’ and the now-deleted ‘Rollercoaster’.
“I remember taking those two songs with me to a meeting and saying, ‘I love these songs. This is what I want to put out next’,” Max recalls. But the playback didn’t go as he hoped. His team were incredulous. “My managers said, ‘you sound like you’re on drugs! We can’t put this stuff out! We’re not going to get any airplay. Go and sort yourself out!’,” he says, chuckling at the memory. “So, those songs just got ignored.”
Exasperated, his management farmed him out to work alongside Damon Gough, aka Badly Drawn Boy, to see if they could mainline some commercial gold that way. The behatted Mercury Prize-winner and young artist quickly bonded. Gough became “a bit of a mentor” during their writing sessions (and has a co-writing credit on the track ‘You’ll Never Die’ released on 2019’s UP EP).
It helped that they had traits in common. “He was also a very vulnerable guy. And he’s very honest about things,” says Max. “I was saying to him, ‘there’s this one song that all my team want me to write, and I can’t really recreate it’. He was in the know [about that sort of expectation]. He helped me. He understood what I was going through.”
Gough’s help didn’t stop disillusionment and apathy engulfing the songwriter. “Somewhere in the middle of all that, the music just started fading away from me, really,” he says looking back. “There was just so much pressure around writing songs that I stopped knowing what to write. I wasn’t enjoying it.”
It’s not easy to jump off a moving train and walk away but, in late 2016 and early 2017, that’s exactly what Max Pope did. “I sacked everyone off and got into gardening,” he imparts matter-of-factly. After forming his own gardening business, he realised that soil toil and time spent nurturing plants allowed songs to percolate in his mind, his mental well-being recovered, and he felt replenished.
He now realises that space, time, and nature are inextricably linked when it comes to his creativity. “Some people write music when they’re in really bleak spots. For me, I have to be able to process and reflect on what’s going on.” The silence and space of a garden affords him that. The equation to him is simple: “If I’m healthy, I’m able to write music.”
Counting Sheep is the culmination of a decade’s work. Max is “proud” of the outcome, he says. Complemented by the work of slowthai and Celeste producer JD. Reid, there’s a cohesiveness, but diversity too. The likes of ‘Better Late Than Never’ is a slice of finger-clicking soul that wouldn’t be of place on Harry’s House, ‘The Water’ has the sort of spectral beauty you’d imagine Jeff Buckley singing at Sin-é in ‘93, and ‘Muddy Waters’ sounds like he’s backed by an Abbey Road-era Fab Four.
In between writing sessions with soul singer Mahalia for her next project, Pope has been hitting the studio with a bunch of musicians “jamming” and “working through ideas”. So far, the results have been wild, veering between sounding like Sault, on one hand, and Neil Young, on the other. Pope is clear that he feels enough time has been wasted and is finally coming to terms with his magpie-esque musical impulses.
“I often don’t feel very fixed on a certain style, and sometimes I get a bit caught up on that in my head,” he sighs. “I always think I’m supposed to be Mr Cohesive.” Realising that a commitment to a style and form probably isn’t part of his DNA, he offers a compromise: “I think I’m just going to have to be the sort of artist who puts out a lot of music.”
If perennial hopscotch with musical styles is his future, maybe he’ll be the British answer to Beck. His voice lights up. “You know what? When I was three years old, my dad said I used to run around the house shouting, ‘I am Beck!’. It was one of the first sentences I ever said… I was obsessed with him!”
And with that, maybe another facet of staying true to oneself is unexpectedly struck upon: to accept the artist’s moral imperative not to be a fixed entity destined to repeat yourself ad infinitum to diminishing returns. The questing spirit doesn’t look for a box. It looks for new skies and broader horizons. Max Pope’s instincts are on the right path. It’ll be our joy to see where it leads.
Counting Sheep is out now.