Nikki Pope: Rocks
By Ash Hoden
Nikki Pope rocks. It’s true. I’ve seen videos of live performances, heard songs from her latest album, we’ve met face to face… It’s intense, as though she herself is a physical manifestation of song. There is no question of who she is or what she’s about — she lays it out for you as plain as day. And now that I’ve got the in, I’ll soon be seeing her live and in person on a Broadway stage. I can’t wait.
2015 was a big year for the 27-year-old British singer. She wrote a play called Swindled which was a finalist at the Strawberry One-Act Festival, she co-wrote a second play which also did well in the same festival later that year, and she released an EP containing three songs she co-wrote with her producer, Austin Bello — himself a member of Forever the Sickest Kids. She also gave her first Broadway performance at the Iridium. Her first full-length album is scheduled to be released this fall. Singing is nothing new for Pope, but prior to this explosive output she hadn’t written in nearly a decade.
“In 2014 I had a big struggle with my visa and for some reason it took a long time [to be processed]. I was sort of stuck here for one year. I couldn’t do anything. I was allowed to be here but I wasn’t allowed to work. So I was very depressed. Writing was what saved me. It opened up a different department for me in a way. It was like I’d rediscovered something about myself from way back when. And it just helped me through a really tough time. I’d always loved writing, and English was one of my favorite subjects in school. Even though I hadn’t written for a long time, it was so awesome to put all these things that I’d been feeling from the previous year down on paper. Then to see it come alive in front of your eyes… All great experiences. All valuable. That was huge for me, because I learned so much about myself.”
Pope was raised in Leicester, England, a serene town in the countryside, replete with ponds and gardens and a homey atmosphere. She knows one or two other people from there who went into the arts, but not more than that. Now that she lives in raucous New York, it’s difficult for her to sleep when she goes back. Quiet can be unsettling too. When the time comes to have children though, she would like to raise her family in a similar environment. This time may come sooner than later, as well. Pope recently became engaged to a 24-year-old film director who founded a production company. He’s one of the youngest people to win a BAFTA and he’s based in Cardiff, Wales. “It’s beautiful. Just mountainous… Greenery…”
I ask when she first started singing. “When I started talking,” she says with a smile. “I actually have a home video — I must have been two-years-old. We were on holiday and I was singing The Sound of Music. Do you know that part, ‘Cuckoo, cuckoo?’ Every time it came on I would pull out the pacifier, ‘Coo-coo.’” When she was eight Pope began to take formal singing lessons. “It was with a woman that trained me in opera, which at the time I hated. Hated it. I had to beg her to sing some Disney or something. But I tell you what, I’m so thankful for it. Because I really feel like opera is such a great technique. It’s such a great base if you’re learning how to sing for the first time.”
When she was thirteen she enrolled at Dupont, a well-regarded school for performing arts. There she studied five years with a teacher named Kevin Fountain. Singing was the focus throughout. “He was more than a teacher for me. He was like a best friend. He allowed me to take whichever route I wanted, with the base of musical theater underneath it. We’d make sure we do musical theater, mainly because that’s great for honing your technique. It’s really difficult to be constantly on your game for such an intricate genre. But then he’d let me do Whitney Houston or — I don’t know what I used to belt out back then — but he would always let me have a voice. He was with me through those really tough, struggly years when you’re growing up and you’re finding yourself. He was wonderful. He allowed me to sing the songs I wanted to sing, but [he] also gave me the discipline and the technique to sing all different genres. He encouraged that freedom to say how you want something to go. I always feel like you need a strong opinion, but you’re also able to take criticism. He was really great with that. He was always goal orientated and target-driven as well, which is something I must’ve pulled from him.”
From Dupont she went to Los Angeles where she attended a four-week acting course. During this time she met a woman who worked as a film producer. Pope needed to return to the UK after the course, but this producer asked her to fly back to California for a screen test. She even offered to help Pope get a visa that allowed her to work in the United States. Based on this promise Pope again landed in Los Angeles, but the woman failed to follow through. “She suddenly just disappeared. It was really strange. She would make up excuses as to why the screen test had been put back, or whatnot. And then she started to take on my roommate. She was getting her out there, and… I’m literally there not knowing what to do. Basically, there was a little squad of these girls that she would big-up and then drop. By this point I’m on the sidelines, just watching it. You know, I had no car in L.A. I had nothing. My roommate drove, so when she was out all the time I was literally in four walls doing nothing. And I had gone there on false pretenses.”
One positive came of her time in Los Angeles though. Pope befriended the musicians from the band Forever the Sickest Kids. “I didn’t know [who they were] when I met them, which is probably a good thing. It’s weird how everything all connects back together, isn’t it? I always feel like you meet people, even if they’re at the wrong time, eventually it will make sense.” At this point in her life she hadn’t yet made the decision to pursue music full time. Her connection to this band would prove influential in deciding. With no visa and no screen test, and unwarranted legal threats being lodged by the woman who had promised to deliver both, Pope once again returned to Leicester.
For a time she worked as a wedding planner. Then, Forever the Sickest Kids did a UK tour and Pope hit the road with the band. “I’d meet them at different areas of the UK and jump on the bus for a few nights. It was awesome. We’d show up in London outside the venue and there’d be — this is about 6:30 in the morning, ready for a 10pm show — and there would already be lines around the corners. It was the most surreal experience. I don’t think I was really exposed to live music until I met them. Not properly. You know, live music, being in the band… We used to sit in the walk-in wardrobes just playing and singing. This was maybe nine years ago.” Referring to her own career: “I would love to do that. Just for that to be your life and you’re surrounded by like-minded people. You know, just touring the country. I think that’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Anything more is a bonus. Just to live that: ‘Alright I’m living out of a suitcase.’ To live that life for a few months, I’d love that.”
Since her first visit to the United States, a family trip to Florida when she was nine, Pope has been obsessed with America. “I just loved it. It screams personality. It’s an in-your-face, screaming-at-you-and-you-can’t-ignore-us, type of thing. And I love that. I’ve always had this obsession with America. And there’s still so much to explore as well.” When she was twenty-one the time came for her to explore New York.
“I remember the taxi driver dropping me off. I was staying in Stuy-Town. You know how crazy that is. He dropped me off at the intersection, and I thought, ‘I have no idea where I am.’ I had two suitcases, a hand luggage, and a laptop. But the two suitcases were both broken, so they were scraping on the floor. I had just gotten off this flight and I had just left all my family and friends. You’re just there looking up at these buildings. ‘What have I done? Where am I? What’s going on?’ I remember going into a door and calling security over the intercom. ‘I don’t know what to do, I don’t know where I’m going!’ ‘We’re coming to get you.’ I’ll never forget it, the guy that helped me up to my apartment, he said, ‘If anybody asks, tell them you’ve been here three months.’ I never quite understood why he said that but it made so much sense as it got further in.’ Yeah, that was my first night in New York City. I found the first three months here [to be] so tough.’”
“Adapting. Being homesick. Which was crazy because I had already spent six months away from home. It wasn’t as though it was my first time away from home. But now I feel like I owe it to [my family] and myself to move back eventually. I think that that’s going to be a really difficult move because I love New York so much. I love New York so much. There’s not one part of me that says, ‘It’s time to go.’ That’s quite scary, isn’t it? It’s cool, but it’s scary. I feel like I haven’t had everything that I need out of it.”
What are you looking for?
“That’s a good question. That’s a really good question. I don’t even know what I’m looking for. But I still don’t feel I’ve had it all yet. I still don’t feel I’ve taken every opportunity I could have yet. So, yeah, that’s really clever. I don’t know what the answer is to that one. Do you feel the same way, or do you sometimes have times where you’re like, ‘I’m out?’”
I don’t know that I love it as much as you do, but it’s important for me to be here for what I do. I just have a feeling that I’ll know when I need to go, and I don’t know why.
“Right. That’s what I say. But it’s quite scary to think, ‘Well I’m not feeling it yet. So, will I feel it in two year’s time?’”
During her first three years in the city Pope studied drama at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. “Acting, I believe, is like the base of everything. I feel like being able to act enhances everything you do as a performer. Even though I’d love to go in and do a play or something, just because I feel like it would be very easy to drop the ball with acting. It’s one thing to be able to go on stage and sing for three or four minutes. It’s another thing to act in front of a live audience for two hours.” Through this program she was also able to establish contacts and become integrated with the city. She met people and got a feel for how things operate. “You’re in such a resilient city where everybody is strong. You know, you never meet someone weak in New York, do you? If you do, they’re probably not here next time. I love that about New Yorkers. They work hard and they play hard. It takes a certain somebody to succeed here. And everything is at your fingertips here. You can get more done in a day here.”
Now, while she’s getting established in the greater music world, she can be found singing at Ellen’s Stardust Diner. “It’s allowed me to be an artist without that struggle, because we earn great money there. You get to sing and you get great money. They also gave me my first show in the Iridium, which was huge. That was in May 2015. Then I did another one in November. We sold out both shows and it was my own show on Broadway. That was the first time I’ve properly sung with a live band, and that’s a challenge in itself. Oh, god, there’s no feeling like singing with a live band. There’s no feeling… Because you’re all together on it. You’re not following a track, they’re following you. You’re completely backed up. You’re completely supported. It’s like being on stage. It’s like being in a play. It’s like being in a cast. One person drops the ball, the other one picks it up and throws it back to you. I find that really fascinating. Such teamwork and support. Someone hits a bum note, the other one plays over it so it makes it sound great. I hit a bum note, someone plays over it so it makes it sound great. It’s an incredible experience.”
It’s hard work as well, and not quick in delivering rewards. I can relate when she says: “I’d get frustrated that things weren’t moving fast enough. I came up with this theory that your twenties are for learning the craft, and having experience in different things, and building up your resume, and your contacts, and your networks. So your twenties are your hardest out of the lot of them. But then all the great characters come in thirties, forties, and fifties onwards. Because they’re the characters that have experienced life, and people want to know about that. That’s something that has really helped me in times of… It just means, ‘Ok, my thirties, that’s when it’s all going to fall into place. If I keep working hard now and making these contacts and networking, that means in my thirties it will slip into place much easier.’ That’s the way I try to look at things.”
Pope is also in the process of developing the tracks for her soon-to-be-released album. The first three went into her EP, and she recalls the process of working on them with Austin Bello in his Virginia studio. “I remember struggling a bit before, and he said, ‘Just get here. Have an understanding of what you want to say, but let’s just get here and spit some words.’ I thought, ‘No, I need to be prepared. I need to go there being prepared.’ He said, ‘Don’t. Just get here.’ That was huge for me, because that’s all we did. Everything I did write got switched up and changed towards the end anyways, because we’d collaborated, and you know, two minds are better than one. That’s a whole different thing that I’m still learning. That’s what I love about this industry: you never know everything. There’s always something to learn. During the process of recording it’s all experimental. I think that’s what really makes it a fulfilling experience, to write your own music and be able to sing it how you want to. Yeah, and sort of take the reins on it and… And it be yours. You’re in control.”
Pope rocks, like she always wanted to.
“I’ve known since I was down here” — about knee-high — “what I wanted to do. I had a phase of being an ice cream lady. Yeah, I wanted to eat that ice cream. And I’d go around in my little van. It was short-lived, but I wanted it for awhile. I didn’t understand other people who didn’t know what they wanted. It’d drive me crazy. As I’ve grown up I’m so much more understanding, because from down here” — knee-high — “I was like, ‘I’m going to be in musical theater.’ Then you get up here” — grown-up height — “and everything changes and goes off into directions. It’s just part of the process, isn’t it? I feel like everybody’s path was meant to go the way it was supposed to go. Even if you take detours, it’s all part of the process.”
But she rocks several different ways.