Recent Austin transplant Joe Pug discusses the risks he took to become a musician, touring with Steve Earle, and why all American cities are starting to look the same.
It’s difficult -- almost impossible -- not to get that spine-tingling, deeply inspired feeling when hearing the story of Joe Pug.
Imagine a young man the day before his senior year of college -- a mere eight months from graduating from a better-than-average American university. Suddenly, something feels wrong about it all and the young man packs up, throws caution to the wind, grabs a guitar and gets to work. He skips around for a while, eventually lands in Chicago, and starts recording upon other band’s cancellations of studio time. To add to the potential myth that may follow (or maybe just for good measure) he takes a job as a carpenter. While it all may sound like the fictionalized, singer-songwriter equivalent of Into the Wild’s Christopher McCandless, it’s not. It’s the real-life journey of modern folk raconteur Joe Pug.
Since his first EP, 2008’s Nation of Heat, Pug has established himself as the thoughtful everyman. His craft yields songs that balance sharp narrative and social criticism in a way that, if it weren’t for the immense flood of popular music to be consumed today, might one day receive acclaim on the level of folk intelligentsia heroes like Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, or The Band.
However, in giving Pug’s output a listen, it becomes apparent this young man isn’t concerned with acclaim. He’s more interested in spreading some kind of gospel (his tracks named for numbered hymns are worth serious deconstruction on their own) and makes it evident that his songwriting career is more of a raison d'être than a career.
On his newest disc, The Great Despiser, Pug sought to push further in the direction of 2010’s Messenger, hoping to balance his passionate, narrative-driven depth with rock-tinged folk ballads with more instrumental backbone and substance.
Only in his late 20s, Pug has already surrounded himself with upper echelon songwriters like Craig Finn and Steve Earle. With such momentum propelled by some quest for an authentic identity, there’s no doubt Pug will last—huge record sales or not.
PopMatters recently caught up with Pug to find out about the making of The Great Despiser, making life-changing decisions, palling around with some of rock and folk’s elite, and how it all plays a part in his quest to carve out a life on his own terms.
* * *
It’s often noted how you got your start as a songwriter by leaving the University of North Carolina just before your senior year. Is there any part of that story that is mythologized or inaccurate at all?
The story is pretty much accurate. I was down in Carolina and I had rented an apartment with friends to go to school that year. When I ended up leaving the day before classes, I actually -- for the rest of that year -- sent a check every month back to that house for that spot. So, yeah, that’s definitely how it went down.
Do you ever look back at that moment and realize how risky of a move that was? It has proven to be the right choice, but in retrospect in seems rather dangerous.
Yeah. I mean, I don’t know. I’ve always been a person to second-guess a lot of things. I’m not a person that takes moves like that lightly or has done a lot of them in my life. With that particular move, I was so sure of it at the time. I wouldn’t have done it if I wasn’t sure of it. It’s one of the few things that I have been sure about in my life.
That sort of narrative -- becoming a songwriter, at least the way you did -- seems to be more and more well known in the folk and rock world these days. Take a look at a guy like Ray LaMontagne, who quit his job after being moved by a Stephen Stills record. Do you think that’s a reaction to the way things are in this country or is it based more on the individual?
I can’t say that it would speak to a larger, social American narrative or not. I think it’s something that happens to the individual human being and I think it’s happened since time immemorial.
To get your name out there early on you sent out copies of a sampler to fans so that they could listen and play your music for their friends. While it’s a great way to get recognized, it must have been rather expensive. Was there any sort of worry that you’d shell out a lot of money on something that wouldn’t pay off?
Yeah, I mean, think about how much has changed in the last four years since we’ve done that. Now, that’s just par for the course that everyone, even established acts, give their music away, much less starting acts. Guys that are putting out their first record out, there’s no question they can’t charge for it now. Even four or five years ago that wasn’t necessarily the case. There was a little bit of worry, especially sending them out physically. There was a little bit of worry about how much it would cost and if we should be trying to sell it. But, we were proved completely wrong and it’s been a whole engine of people showing up to these live shows.
Is that something you’re still doing now that you’re signed with Lightning Rod Records?
Well, when we first singed with Lightning Rod, one of the sticking points was that we wanted to be able to continue to give some music away for free on a sampler, even music that they had licensed. They have completely stayed true to their word and have worked with us in a great way. We don’t send out the sampler physically anymore, just because we’re such a small organization that we couldn’t keep up with all the requests to get to the post office every week. It’s still available completely digitally online for people to download themselves and send to friends. There are songs from every one of the albums on there.
You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you feel like great art focuses on one of five fundamental stories. Which of these stories are you most interested in retelling and why is that?
You know, I think I’ve always been attracted to -- and I’m not exactly sure which category this would fall under -- I’ve always been attracted to the narrative of the individual and the individual being the only thing you can be sure is real in yourself. I think that’s why I was drawn to Walt Whitman’s stuff when I was younger. I think that’s why I’ve always been drawn to Steinbeck’s stuff and, to a certain degree in much darker ways, later writers like Raymond Carver and Cormac McCarthy deal with that theme as well.
There’s little doubt that your background in theatrical writing has been an influence on some your songwriting, which begs me to ask you to talk about some of your writing and how it matches up with what you’re doing now.
Well, it was plays. I never wrote for the screen at all, but the plays I wrote -- to be honest -- it was completely different. I was really into comedies. I was really into the French farces of Molière and stuff like that. So, all of the stuff I wrote, almost none of it was serious in any way. It was just really light and it was what a 19 year-old dude thought was funny.
Is any of that stuff published anywhere?
Oh, God no. And I will make it a priority to my grave that none of it ever is. (Laughs)
And why exactly is that?
I went back and read some of it. Would you want people to read what you were reading at nineteen years old?
You know, maybe, if only for posterity.
I look back on it and a lot of it is careless and kind of lazy writing. Some of it could be kind of inspired here and there, but I just never really put the work in when I was that age.
Are you still interested in playwriting or is music the only focus these days?
You know, I wish I could say that I was still interested in it. It’s not that I’m not interested in it. Whatever the word would be for like the opposite of prolific, that’s what I am. So, it takes everything I have just to finish a crop of songs for an album. I wish I kind of had the creative juice to also be dabbling in writing plays or a novel or something great like that but I think I only have enough to get the songs out.
Could you talk a little it about your songwriting process? To me, there’s a lot of emphasis on clever word play. I’m thinking back on Nation of Heat. So for you, is it more important that a song serves a goal or is it just as important to come across with something that has clever lines?
Well, I think you start out a song with sort of a kernel of what you think it’s about and then as you write it sort of takes on a mind of its own. You’ll write a line and you’ll be like ‘Oh, wow, this is a really nice line. It’s better than what I’ve been writing before so, maybe, I need to go in this direction.’ I find that the really good songs, you started out with a kernel and by the time you get to the finished product none of the things you originally wrote are even in the song anymore. It’s like the song became three degrees of separation away from that. I think that’s when you get into really cool, interesting imagery that isn’t obvious and when you get into territory where maybe the words are kind of speaking to the listeners' more unconscious desires or worries or things like that.
Let’s switch gears and talk for a moment about the new record. Could you tell me a little bit about the writing and recording process of The Great Despiser?
I started writing as soon as Messenger was over. I tried several different recording situations. I had known Brian Deck, the producer, from a couple years ago in Chicago and we had always talked about working together and it happened to work out with this project and I’m really glad that it did.
It seems as though you’ve been becoming more interested in a more refined sound as compared to the rawness of the Nation of Heat EP. It’s not just you, a guitar, and a harmonic anymore. How did that evolution come about?
Well, you know the songs are still written in the same way: alone with pen and paper. But, I kind of got to the point where, listening back to older albums or demos, I felt like I wanted the instrumentation or the musicality to be a part of the narrative of the song or the emotional heft of the song. That’s the reason we’ve been headed in this direction. I still think you could sit down with an acoustic guitar and play all of these songs cover to cover.
You’ve been compared to Bob Dylan a lot. With this departure from that raw sound of your earlier work towards a fuller sound with a band, have any of your fans reacted in the ‘Dylan goes electric’ sort of way or responded negatively?
(Laughs.) You know, there’s always going to be people that want you to stay the same. But, the job of an artist is to be one step ahead of them in that category of letting your intuition lead and knowing where you’re supposed to go next. I think, for the most part we’ve built an audience, since we didn’t build it over the radio or build it overnight. It’s been so painstaking -- fan by fan, city by city. I think, for the most part, we have an audience that, in a really amazing way, gives us the leeway to try new things and kind of says to us ‘we’ve bought in; we’re following you wherever you go.’ That’s an amazing relationship to have, as a creative person, with an audience.
You played Mountain Stage in the fall of 2010 with the Hold Steady and now have Craig Finn doing back up vocals on The Great Despiser. Did the collaboration with Craig come from that show?
I suppose so. That was the first time that I had met him and I had been a huge fan. Obviously, given the type of music that I write, he’s a huge inspiration. I met him there and was really kind of acquaintances with him. When we finished that song in the studio, “The Great Despiser,” it obviously owes a bit of a debt to The Hold Steady and we were just kind of joking around that he’d be perfect to sing on it. I thought, ‘Why not?’ We found a way to get the song over to him and, amazingly, he agreed to do it. To this day I still don’t know how or why, but he did. I remember listening to the song with his voice on it for the first time and just laughing. I was so hysterical and so amazed that his voice was on there singing words that I had written.
Collaborations like that aren’t something that happens overnight, either. What’s it like to work with someone that you respect and admire?
You know, it’s just a really heavy sense of gratitude. It’s really amazing, You embark on a journey and you hope for certain things and, obviously, not everything comes true that you want it to come true. But, when I really look at what has been along the path these past couple of years, I’m amazingly grateful.
You also found yourself out on tour with Steve Earle for a while. He’s definitely a top-notch songwriter of the genre. What do you learn from a guy like that?
I’ll start with the unsatisfying answer of: everything. The reason for that is that he was out touring behind his Townes record at the time. He had done a whole record of Townes Van Zandt songs. Because of that, he was touring solo and I was playing solo at the time. So, for about a month in the states and a month overseas, it would just be me on stage by myself and then him on stage by himself—we’d be the only two people on stage. I was, like, I think, 23 at the time. So, luckily, I was too young and stupid at the time to know how daunting it was. (Laughs) If I had to do that now, I probably couldn’t get through it. I got to watch his show for ninety minutes or two hours every night. I took so much away from it, stuff that I still use on a daily basis.
So, were you sitting back taking notes or was it a mental thing; what did you do to take all of that in?
No. I’d go sell records after my set and as the lights would go down in the lobby I’d run backstage and pull up a chair next to his guitar tech and just watch the show from the side of the stage every night. I’d watch him as he sculpted the set, putting songs in different places. I’d watch him deal with everything from a seated, quiet Sunday night audience to a completely loud, drunk, standing audience somewhere in Scotland -- I’d watch him deal with them as well. I got to see just about every scenario.
You do a lot of communicating with your audiences at your shows. What it is about that that’s important to you? What kind of conversations are you engaging them in? And what do you think they get to take home with them?
Well, I think the important thing to recognize when you’re talking about that is, just the word choice that you used right there: ‘conversation'. I think that is what is going on between an artist and an audience. I know not all artists feel that way. Some really believe in the opposite, that it’s art for art’s sake and you do it for yourself and that’s it and whether an audience even hears it or not or is much less affected by it doesn’t matter at all. I think there is some validity to that, but it’s just not the ethos that I subscribe to myself. I think that, by putting these songs out that say some things, of course it’s going to make audiences say some things back. I’m listening, you know?
What would you say is the theme of those conversations that you want to have with your audience?
Well, this is probably a question that I would like to respectfully skirt in an interview because I really think that, with these songs, you’re writing poetry and writing about things that have a very nuance meaning. I think for me to try to sit down and try to talk about it right now really wouldn’t make any sense because I’ve spent hours poring over the lines trying to say them exactly right and to just try to paraphrase them in conversation might defeat the purpose of all of that work.
You were in school at UNC, you lived in Chicago, and now find yourself down in Austin, Texas. Of all of those places, what have you learned about America and the way of life from one place to another?
If I’ve learned one, very scary lesson from all of that moving around and touring as well, it is that, sadly, there’s actually like a diminishing difference between all of those places. I think that we’re kind of moving towards a fate where there is no regional America anymore. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I can’t say that I haven’t actively participated in its demise myself, being a consumer in this country, but that’s what we’re heading towards. I have nice things to say about all of those places that I’ve lived, but at the end of the day, they’re all starting to look more and more the same.
How do you feel like you fit in down in Austin? That’s a pretty busy and saturated scene to be involved in.
I’m trying to figure that out. I spend so much time on the road that I haven’t had a chance yet to play too much in Austin. There’s definitely been some acquaintances that I’ve met who’ve turned me on to a few older musicians that I admire a lot that have come out of Austin. One of whom, Tex Thomas, the last song on the album was written by him and it’s a beautiful song. I’ve gotten to know him and visit him a fair amount and talk to him about songwriting. I suppose that’s maybe a start that I may be able to fit in there.