Around the three-minute mark of Cassadee Pope's first country single, "Wasting All These Tears," she hit an impressive high note and drug it out for a solid nine seconds as a hypnotic instrumental figure repeated underneath, heightening the drama in a song about a woman recovering from a breakup. The performance clearly connected: Pope ascended to No. 5 on Hot Country Songs and No. 10 on Country Airplay, becoming the first country female whose debut single was certified platinum by the RIAA since Taylor Swift in 2006.
On her sophomore single — "I Wish I Could Break Your Heart," released to radio via Play MPE on March 3 — Pope similarly hits a big note just after the two-minute mark, potentially setting up a signature sound for the former champion of NBC's "The Voice."
"I really just love belting," says Pope. "I look up to artists like Martina McBride and Kelly Clarkson. They leave it all out there on their recordings and onstage. I don't know if it's a signature thing, but I really like to do it a lot."
The note is a particularly telling moment in Pope's development as an artist, because her big-voiced performance was not necessarily part of the road map in the demo she originally heard. Singer-songwriter Jon Green provided the voice on the demo, delivering "Break Your Heart" with more of a masculine Keith Urban/Chris Martin graininess.
"I didn't even think of a girl doing it," says Ashley Monroe ("Heart Like Mine," "The Truth"), who co-wrote it with Green and Gordie Sampson ("Jesus, Take the Wheel," "Song About a Girl"). "It's so cool to hear Cassadee wail it. It's cooler to me from a girl's point of view."
Actually, the songwriters had no one in mind when they created "Break Your Heart" at Sampson's writing room, The Shack, even though two of them are artists in their own right: Green fronts London-based pop/rock band The Bonfires, and Monroe is both a Warner Bros. solo artist and a member of Pistol Annies.
"I haven't gone into any sessions as yet looking for material for my own project, The Bonfires, but I definitely hope to on upcoming [Nashville] trips," says Green. "I think Ashley was already finishing up her own record at that point, so she too wasn't looking for anything she could sing herself particularly."
Instead, they were just looking for a quality song, stirring the creative pot by fusing talents with three distinct accents from three different countries.
"I brought Tennessee, Jon brought British, Gordie brought Canadian — he's from Nova Scotia," says Monroe.
Monroe also brought the title, "I Wish I Could Break Your Heart." "I always like to go in with some sort of idea, especially when I'm with people I'm big fans of," she says. "So I was like, ‘I don't know, guys. I feel like this needs to be written. I've had this title for a little while.' I forget which one started chugging and making it."
"I recall Gordie and I immediately latching onto it and [the words were] singing great over the guitar lines we were jamming," Green adds. "I really liked starting with the hook line, too. Straight out the gate we have a story and an angle."
"I Wish I Could Break Your Heart" became the first line of the song, leading into a verse with a revolving melody and a quiet resolve. That title resurfaces in the chorus, which is distinctly different in tone — a fairly linear melody, centered at a higher pitch and delivered with a pleading immediacy.
"I like that when songs almost have two hooks," says Monroe. "That's a good little accident to have."
Pitching the chorus higher than the verse "was part of my idea," she continues. "I just wanted it to almost sound desperate, not in a pitiful way but in a kind of frustrating way, like, ‘The truth is I would never hurt you because I love you, but it'd be nice to know I had the power to.' "
The song was written and the demo was finished within 90 minutes, Green recalls. Monroe could have sung the demo, but she opted to let him have it, figuring males are having greater success in country's current climate and that her vocal tone might limit how the song was received.
"Everybody hears my demos — ‘Oh, that's good for Dolly [Parton] or Lee Ann Womack,' " she says. "My voice isn't good on demos."
Republic Nashville signed Pope to a recording deal shortly after she won The Voice in December 2012. Wrensong Publishing president-owner Ree Guyer-Buchanan pitched "I Wish I Could Break Your Heart" to the Big Machine Label Group, and before January 2013 was over, Pope had it on hold.
"I didn't really think, ‘Well, this is from a guy's perspective,' " says Pope. "I knew what that felt like, and I'd felt that before in past relationships. Weird emotions came over me when I first heard it, and I loved it right away."
She recorded it at Martina and John McBride's Blackbird Studio, singing with the band during every take in the tracking session and pushing her voice in the process. Drummer Chris McHugh (Keith Urban, Little Big Town) gave the arrangement room to build by playing the first verse on a miniature drum kit — "It looks about half-size," says producer Dann Huff (Rascal Flatts, Hunter Hayes), "and it sounds exactly like it looks" — and steel guitarist Paul Franklin (George Strait, Vince Gill) threw in a repetitive two-note trill on the chorus that serves as a melodic and rhythmic break.
"There's a lot of stuff on that track, real kind of subliminal stuff that you really wouldn't even identify as steel guitar — the little segues into choruses, I call them waves," says Huff. "We work on those harder than we work on anything else. You feel some sort of crescendo into a chorus, but we can work really hard on almost making those invisible-sounding. He's great at that."
Huff played a four-bar solo — a "non-solo solo," as he calls it — and the label released a Wes Edwards-directed video even before the single shipped, with Pope singing in a suspended, steel-framed heart and crushing another glowing, plastic heart under her stiletto heel.
"I was so nervous about it because I was wearing strappy heels where my feet were exposed," she says. "But I crushed that baby. I got it down on the first take."
It's not difficult to picture country fans head-banging during the chorus of "Break Your Heart" on the drive to work. At least one of the song's writers has already had a similar experience.
"As an out-of-towner trying to earn the right to work in Nashville, to hear her smash the vocal, to get to have a song produced by Dann Huff and to hear it sounding so rocking was a big honour," says Green. "I got sent the mix, and I was air-drumming along to it on repeat in my car for about two hours."