Max Pope’s music sounds like how summer feels. It’s soulful and sun-drenched – the sort of sound that wafts through the speakers of beer gardens in the summer. Like this one in Dalston, where we meet on the hottest day of the year yet. The 27-year-old, whose debut album has just been released, has a towel and trunks crammed into his tote bag, ready to hit Hampstead Heath ponds afterwards.
In a time of Gen Z stars and micro-trends, Pope is a rarity: a crowd-pleaser, whatever the crowd. His genre-bending, pop-minded soul is the sort to cross age boundaries and climb charts. Like his music, which has an undeniable George Ezra air breezing through it, Pope radiates a similar ease. He sinks as comfortably onto a concrete bench as if he were reclining into a plush loveseat. So, it comes as less of a surprise that he is nonchalant about the release of his debut. Partly, he says, because it’s been a long time coming. “I feel I could have released this album years ago. A lot of the songs are really old,” says Pope, who wrote the title track to Counting Sheep over a decade ago. “But it’s one thing having the songs and it’s another thing to actually be in the headspace to release a record.”
The journey to that headspace has been eventful, if meandering. In short, it comprises the death of a loved one, a newfound solace in gardening, and a failed record deal. That last one was his own choice, by the way. “I signed with a manager way too early,” Pope says. He was scouted as a student at the Brit School, the performing arts secondary in Croydon with alumni including Adele and Amy Winehouse. In his school year was the future Mercury-nominated artist Loyle Carner who he regularly jammed with. “I had put out one song, ‘Counting Sheep’, and all of a sudden strangers were offering me loads of money. It was weird and overwhelming.” Suddenly, he was in meetings with executives telling him who he was, what his music was. At 16, Pope didn’t know these things for himself. “I think I found that quite painful.”
On reflection, Pope has mixed feelings toward his time at the Brit School. He loved it, he assures me. But besides the friendships he forged and the lessons he learnt, Pope has come to resent how closely his education was linked to the industry. In hindsight, he says it feels “a bit dangerous when you’re 16 and learning your craft to have managers trying to nab talent”.
“The best s*** that I make is when I can forget that there’s a f***ing music industry out there. It’s better when you’re not aware of the corporate side of it,” he adds.
Fresh out of Brit School and under flashy new management, it was impossible not to be aware of it. It didn’t take long for Pope to be cornered into pop star territory. The “Next Ed Sheeran” was a term bandied about a lot. “It took me a long time to realise that I was being pushed in a direction that wasn’t me,” he says. The upshot of that though, was that it helped him figure out what was. And while Pope confesses to an urge to wiggle out of any box he’s put in (“I think it p****es everyone off, to be honest”), Counting Sheep showcases an artist who knows who he is.
The album is a collection of charming tracks on which Pope’s optimistic baritone anchors guitar filigree so light it’s ready to drift away on the first wind. It’s music for summer days and balmy nights. Pope wants it to make you feel like how folk-soul star Bill Withers makes him feel. “I literally feel like I’m getting a hug every time I listen to him,” says Pope, who was “genuinely shattered” by Withers’ death in 2020. “His music is very simple. He says it how it is and there’s not a load of pretence. I’ve been inspired by the feeling of that, not necessarily the sound of his music, although that too, but the way it makes me feel.”
Even as a teenager, Pope knew it was the right decision to split from his management even if it risked losing the momentum he had built up until then. “I think that momentum thing is bollocks. It wasn’t a hard decision; I stopped doing it because it wasn’t serving me anymore,” he says. Afterwards, he 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 needed to just stop and work out what was going on.”
To Pope’s surprise, it was gardening that eventually pulled him back to music. “It came out of nowhere really,” he smiles, still sounding baffled at the memory. With zero experience, Pope landed a job as a gardener; a job that turned out to be more heavy-duty landscaping than it was planting flowers. “The guy turned out to be an arse,” he laughs. “He used to give me all the s*** jobs, mixing cement and laying stones. So, I would do that while he would be doing all these amazing things in nature.” But it was the beginning of a new hobby that paved the way for his re-entry into music. It’s fitting then that he is doing a residency at Spitalfields City Farm this week, where he will perform alongside gardening workshops and mindfulness sessions.
“Gardening is all about the process. The job is never really finished, and stuff is constantly growing,” says Pope. He realised the same can be said for music. Or at least the type of music he wants to make. “I don’t want to write a song with any outcome in mind,” says Pope, wincing at the thought. Gradually, he started back up at open mics, which he still does today. He also teaches guitar to kids in Tower Bridge. “No f***ed up music industry is going to actually stop me from being happy now,” he grins. Pope has come to the realisation that “I need to write music for the love of music”. The rest will follow – and if it doesn’t, well, Pope isn’t too fussed either way.
‘Counting Sheep’ is out now on Virgin