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Joe Purdy [Lowell, Arkansas]

Evan Sawdey
Photo by Amanda Coplans

Know it or not, odds are you've heard Joe Purdy's music on television -- but there's nothing commercial about this artist. Eschewing the lures and traps of the music industry, Purdy is blazing his own path simply for the love of song.

You've probably seen this ad:

Perhaps you even saw its premiere -- during the Super Bowl. The song is by a guy named Joe Purdy. You've probably heard Purdy's music on Grey's Anatomy (multiple times), or maybe you've heard him on Lost, or even House M.D.. Needless to say, the man has become quietly ubiquitous in a very short amount of time.

Photo: William Snyder

Yet, there's something that's noticeably different about Purdy's success. Joe Purdy isn't on a major label. Joe Purdy isn't even on an indie imprint. In fact, there isn't a record store in the land that's carrying Joe's music. Joe Purdy, with nine albums to his name (five of which were released in the past two years), releases everything himself. He writes everything himself, sings everything himself, and produces everything himself. Though his recording and business aesthetic is somewhat similar to Prince, his music is straight out of America's heartland. Joe writes gorgeous, beautifully-rendered acoustic-based folk songs -- pop music with a gently-rounded edge. With his voice as gravely and worn as a dirt road in his home state of Arkansas, Purdy's career has turned into an unlikely success story: a humble country boy selling albums by the thousands on his own terms and at his own breakneck pace. Purdy has been offered a major label contract on three separate occasions... and he's turned them down every time.

The most jarring thing about Purdy's success, however, is how levelheaded the man is. On Joe's website, every single track on each of his albums is available for streaming free of charge. After all, why shouldn't people be able to stream a disc before buying it? It's a question that shouldn't even be posed in the first place, according to Purdy, just as how it's ridiculous for an artist to sign to a label and not own their own recordings: he just doesn't see the logic to it.

When I got a chance to talk to Purdy (who was in New York at the time), it was amazing how friendly and talkative he was: the guy who could become your new best friend in the course of an evening, a storied past filled with dozens upon dozens of stories. Occasionally, he'd interrupt himself mid-sentence with a related thought, story, anecdote, etc., but it only added to his charismatic charm. With his album and single sales finally lurching towards impressive six-digit marks, only one thing is certain about Purdy's career trajectory: he's not going to change his methods one bit.

It wasn't until about a week after we received the e-mail from your publicist that suddenly I saw that KIA ad get massively heavy rotation. I'm sure it's a little intimidating…

Well it's great, man. It's just more than we thought. I dunno, it was kind of... I was... just the thought [of it]: I was a little reluctant at first, but this was a little different than most of the time. Someone will ask you "What do you have that'll match with this ad?" or "What do you have that could fit in the scene of this movie?" and you try to help 'em out, or try to give them a tune you already got, or sometimes they'll ask me to write one. But they actually sent us an e-mail with [the ad] already made, and they're like, "What do you think?" And I was like, "Well, with my sad batch of music, usually I don't get a chance to be funny very often -- and it was a hilarious ad -- I thought it was really funny with the way that they put the song in there, so I was like "Absolutely, yes!" I don't get a whole lot of chances to be funny, so let's go ahead and grab that. But yeah, we had no idea how much they were gonna be playing it.

Well, [during] the Super Bowl, for one…

[Laughs.] Yeah, well... that didn't hurt. Yeah, it's crazy. [You get] friends from all over the country... you get reports of it in different places, and yeah, it's kinda odd. We actually had a version that was on the Spanish channel as well: it's like no words and just the music, and a friend of mine -- John Sadoff, this great composer -- I was in Scotland at the time, and they needed it, and he [was] like "Alright!" So he basically rented an out-of-tune piano and just kind of like did it without... 'cos it's done live, so there's no way to pull vocals from it. So he did the best little imitation of it, which was like him trying to play superbly, 'cos we just kinda have our own style, but he's a great, great player.

Especially with this, and with Lost and Grey's Anatomy, is it suddenly weird to hear your music coming from places that aren't your own guitar?

Well I guess sometimes it's a little weird. It hasn't really sunk in like that, I guess.

Photo: William Snyder

You haven't been stopped in the street yet.

Exactly. No one's asked for me to sign their baby or anything like that. But the one time that it was kind of cool, I guess, was... I was in the Chelsea Hotel in New York, which is a place [where] I'd always stay; famous old hotel. Really cool place. Well, we got into the room and I turned on the television -- like, real late at night, just as we got in from the flight -- and I took one step away from the TV and [the KIA ad] was on. That was one I had to call all of my folks on, like, "Yeah, I just heard myself in the Chelsea Hotel in New York City." That was pretty cool. Other than that, yeah, it's great that it's happening. I'm grateful and stoked for all the exposure, but yeah: life goes on as normal. I'm just trying to make more art and play and enjoy what we got.

Fantastic. In looking through your back catalog -- your massively extensive back catalog -- it seems to me that you're struck with Rob Pollard Syndrome, in which you simply cannot stop recording. Being a musician myself, I know full well about how it can serve as a form of release, but -- in your own words -- what keeps you coming back to recording time and time again?

Well, it's definitely my therapy. I mean, not to get corny or anything, but it is. I mean, I'm not like a sad guy, ya' know, in person. But the reason I'm not is because I get it out in music, and I can be as honest as I want to. I don't have to... and nobody's talkin' back at me in the song: you can get out whatever you need to get out, no matter how bad it is, whatever you did or however you're feelin'... and nobody talks back. As long as you're honest, it's really a release. That's how I work through stuff, and then, ya' know, people close to me sometimes have a hard time understanding why like I'll give them this... sometimes it'll be a very sad record or a very sad song or something, and I'll be so excited about it. Well, that's because the process of making it was my therapy. I mean, that's what brought me back, ya' know? It was a moment I had or a time that I had, and being able to express out loud is... I don't know. It's one of the greatest gifts you can really have, 'cos that's what really takes it away from you, in a way.

Photo: Amanda Coplans

I know you've gone through this many a time, but you've somewhat famously turned down major-label offers on three separate occasions. I can obviously guess as to why, but I also want to hear it from your own point of view.

Well, it's funny you should ask that. I haven't taken meetings in a long time pertaining to that, 'cos it's usually pretty easy for us to kinda say "Listen, we don't want to waste your time or your money, so don't even worry about flying us out or anything like that." I used to kind of make a business out of it: taking trips on the meeting times...

Free hotels.

Yeah! Or getting the flights for the band so that we can go and make a record or a tour based on that meeting. But I dunno... I don't do that anymore, but... well, the night's young, I guess. But I guess the thing most of the time, they just, um... their old system that they have, and this corporate structure that they have, doesn't allow them to be flexible enough to let an artist really be what I think they are supposed to be, which is truly independent and owning their own music. I mean, that shouldn't be a foreign concept to anybody. That you actually get to own your own fuckin' music? I mean, I don't know why that's such a far-fetched notion. An artist should never have to share what they've created. I understand the main compensation for somebody that's helping you; I'm thinking about a partner or somebody that's helping you with a service: they should get a percentage of what happens because of what they do, but when you start talking about owning somebody or being able to tell them what to do with their music or how to make their music, that's when we're gonna have quarrel, ya' know? That's when it's... "forget about it."

And you've gotta look back at times in the '60s when the Beatles were releasing albums every 5-6 months and that's simply just what they did.

Oh, exactly! And [the record companies] could not handle that release schedule anymore... and some [labels] really are trying, and some of the spin-offs from the major labels -- the smaller labels that distribute through the major labels -- you know they're really trying to adapt to the system, and I think some of them are getting there, sure, but on average they really have a hard time being able to deal with that kind of release schedule, because I can't tell you how many times I've heard the term (in a meeting) "slow-drip" -- publicity-drip -- live over [a] two-year period for a record? And I'm sorry; I'm gonna [have] four in the bag by then, or five in the bag, and I'm gonna create what's coming out of me right then. I mean, the concept of not being able to sing the songs you've just written for a crowd because you're touring something that you did so long ago... it just makes no sense. It's about you as an artist. I mean, especially with me. With as many records as we make, it'd be silly for me to do that, because the shows wouldn't be as good, and yeah, I love to sing those older songs as well, but it should be my choice at the end of the day, nobody else's.

Let's talk about those records for a second. I found myself really gravitating towards Sessions on Motor Ave.: it was intimate and inviting at the same time. It seems that, over time, you seem to be gravitating away from this stripped-down sound to more of a full-band kind of sound.

Well, it depends: yes and no. I do what I'm feeling at the time... and touring with the band and rocking, I guess you'd say sometimes [that] it's a great thing and fun, and I love listening to Exile on Main Street, and I love being honky-tonk, and I love being rock and roll, and we have a great time doing all those things and playing those records, but they're all live, ya' know? In a three to four day period, we turn out those records, so it's kind of just a "whatever goes" [attitude], but recently I came back and did a record that was just guitar and vocal called Canyon Joe not long ago. I actually got stuck in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, for New Years because of a snow storm, and I started writing songs about the town that I was learning about while I was stuck there and flushing out some other things, but I wanted to make a record like basically with one microphone, and I kinda held my guitar up to the same microphone that I was singin' out of... and I wanted to prove -- at least, to me -- that I could do that and just tell some stories, and coming as far as I had as maybe a performer, or in my vocals, and just like being comfortable with my voice in the number of years since my first record.

But I still got that in me -- I love that stuff. I mean, I love just piecing stuff together... and [for] my next [album], I moved back [to] where I grew up [in Arkansas]. I got a house on the water there, across from my folks -- just a few minutes away from them. Didn't really intend to do that, but I did intend to get away from LA, and when I come home I want to feel like I'm comin' home. [I'm] startin' to get to that place in life where some things... I've been goin' pretty hard for the past few years, but I'm not gonna stop makin' records, and I'm not gonna stop touring either, but I am gonna make sure and take the time that I need to enjoy life besides doin' that, which only helps me more. I'm gonna make a record at home... the first one I've done that I've played all the instruments on basically since StompinGrounds and Sessions from Motor Ave.... and it's not gonna be the same as those, but it'll have that feeling, you know?

The "do-it-yourself" vibe?

Yeah, 'cos I made Sessions from Motor Ave. in an apartment close to Venice in LA... in this one-room apartment from the hours... like, the only time it was quiet enough to do it was from, like, two o'clock in the morning to maybe six or seven o'clock in the morning. Those were, like, the hours that I was up and that's what I would do, and you can still hear some creakin' in the floors above me in the recording, but it doesn't... I don't care.

In your career thus far, what has been your biggest regret and -- conversely -- what's been your proudest accomplishment?

I guess... no regrets, ya' know? Never regrets, 'cos they're pointless if you can't use what you got. I mean, mistakes shouldn't even be considered regrets. That's how you learn. I mean, I've regretted in the moment, or regretted, like, maybe two seconds afterwards, but overall looking back... if you don't make mistakes then you never get to grow and never get to learn. You can't be afraid to make mistakes. I guess from that way of looking at it, no regrets. Definitely no regrets. Plus, I stay pretty true to where I wanna go and where I don't wanna go... there's kind of a lot of wigglin' room in-between all those. […] But as for biggest accomplishment... Lord knows. Hopefully I haven't made it yet.

Photo: Amanda Coplans

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