Determined to do "what I want to do," Cassadee Pope bucks convention with her new music, leaning on the support of her boyfriend, former Nashville costar Sam Palladio

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For her first full-length album in six years, Cassadee Pope knew she had to be fearless. But that didn’t stop her from having a bad case of the nerves leading up to its release last month. “I went to the dark place for a minute,” she tells PEOPLE.

She knew it was time to bring in a little emotional reinforcement — but her boyfriend, Nashville’s Sam Palladio, was visiting his native England at the time. Pope asked if he could return to Nashville earlier than planned.

“And he did,” she says. “It was a really good thing because it ended up being amazing. If it had been bad, then I would have wanted him to be there to comfort me. But even on the positive side, I would have wanted him to be there to celebrate with him. So yeah, it was really sweet that he was here.”

Cassadee Pope and Sam Palladio
| Credit: Live in the Vineyard

Indeed, the album, Stages, has been making waves. It debuted as iTunes’ top country album, and it’s been reaping lavish reviews ever since. That momentum is now helping to power Pope as she’s begun to open for Maren Morris on her GIRL: the World Tour; she’ll follow that up by headlining the CMT Next Women of Country tour.

The album is a bold move, produced independently. But choosing that path, Pope says, has finally given her the freedom to fully express herself, and she does so, of course, with one of the most emotionally charged voices in country music. The events of the past two years have given her a lot to emote: the devastation of a broken engagement that ended an almost eight-year relationship, a personal growth spurt that led her to a new life with Palladio, and a professional growth spurt that led her to rebuild her entire management team and cultivate her musical identity.

“Without taking those risks and taking those chances, you don’t ever reap the benefits,” she says. “I went with my gut and how good it feels when you succeed. For me, I already feel successful knowing that I did what I wanted to do.”

Cassadee Pope’s Stages
| Credit: Jeff Nelson

And phone calls from record labels since the album’s release have been heightening that feeling of success.

“I think the album is making a good enough splash to where people are saying, okay, we want to be involved,” she says. “It’s scary, but I feel good about it.”

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Thinking back 10 years, Pope acknowledges, this isn’t exactly where she thought her career would be today. But then a decade ago, the Florida native also thought she was headed toward rock stardom as the lead singer in Hey Monday during what she calls her “pop rock emo girl” era. That band was history by the time Pope turned 22. While struggling as a solo artist, she took a wild gamble and auditioned for the third season of The Voice.

The payoff, of course, was a coveted victory, but it left her with a national fan base that loved her voice but didn’t necessarily know who she was as an artist. She laughs when she hears that American Idol winner Scotty McCreery has called singing competitions “glorified karaoke.”

“Absolutely!” she says.

Cassadee Pope
| Credit: Jeff Nelson

Still, Pope says, the experience served as a strong springboard into a career in country, the music she grew up with. Though it’s a genre known for its authenticity, she says she eventually got bogged down in “overthinking everything.”

“‘Will this song offend this demographic?’” Pope says, recalling conversations with former management. “‘Will this song connect with the mom in Boise, Idaho?’ There were just a lot of cooks in the kitchen, finding different reasons for it to not work. And in my head I’m thinking I would rather have a smaller fan base who is really loyal and who will give me a career than be safe and everybody kinda likes my music. That’s not the career I want.”

Cassadee Pope
| Credit: Jeff Nelson

The last solo music she released on a label, an EP in 2016, stalled on the charts. But her collaboration with Chris Young on “Think of You” that same year earned her a No. 1 and a Grammy nomination, and it reminded fans of the punch her voice packs. Now with Stages, Pope believes she finally has delivered a complete picture of who she is musically.

Seven of the 10 songs are co-writes; an 11th cut is a poignant snippet of piano music performed by her friend and collaborator Jason (Gavi) Gaviati, who died of lymphoma in 2015. Its inclusion is testament to how personal this album is to Pope.

“Every song is a very specific stage,” Pope explains, and the moods vary wildly on the album: “It’s all over the spectrum. It’s happy, it’s sad, it’s heartbreaking, it’s exciting.”

All describe a piece of her, she says, over these past two tumultuous years, but she’s grateful to be discovering her story has universality: “Somebody tweeted me the other day that ‘your record has been my exact life over the last year.’ I’m like, what? Seriously? As personal as you think a song could be, there’s still so many people that’ll relate to it.”

Pope is grateful, as well, that the heartbreak in her songs is in the past — a fact, she says, that makes gut-wrenchers like single “If My Heart Had a Heart” liberating to perform.

“Honestly,” Pope says, “I’m in such a good place, and I think if anything, I can sing them with more emotion because I know that I’m not going to tip over and go into a dark place and start crying everywhere. If I was still in that place, I would have to really hold back and just focus on singing the song. Now I can get into it and emote. It feels like an alter-ego almost, even though everything’s really personal. So I’m actually emoting more having been out of that emotion for so long.”