Music

Joe Pug

Making it work

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Joe Pug writes every single day.

As a writer, I find that to be intimidating. It seems a little excessive. What’s he trying to prove with his daily writing habit? Does he think he’s better than me?

Even though I write on a deadline, which should imply that I possess a measure of self-discipline, I am not moved to write every day. And Pug writes songs. I write about people who write songs. It’s pretty easy to figure out which one of us has the harder job (hint: It’s not me).

Just who does Joe Pug think he is, anyway?

As mentioned, Pug is a singer-songwriter. He’s one of those guys with an acoustic guitar and a story—we’ve all seen endless variations on this theme.

Except Pug has some things going for him that others might not. He’s toured with Levon Helm, Josh Ritter, M. Ward, and more. His first big tour, when he was just 23 years old, was opening for Steve Earle, who has become one of his musical mentors. His songs draw comparisons to John Prine and Bob Dylan, which is about as good of company to be in as it gets.

If you’re getting the impression that Pug may be better at this troubadour business than most, you’d be right.

Before he wrote songs, Pug was going to college to become a playwright. And in his songs, you hear not just his musical influences, but also bits and pieces borrowed from his literary heroes, writers such as Walt Whitman, John Steinbeck, and Raymond Carver, all revered as much for how they tell a story as they are for the stories they tell.

In that vein, Pug’s songs are rich with imagery and allegory, and his facility with words runs deep. Sometimes he eschews the standard verse-chorus-verse structure in favor of songs that read more like poems. Sometimes he reaches for a rhyme. Somehow, he always makes things work, even when it seems like they shouldn’t.

Doing things his own way and making it work is pretty much the hallmark of Pug’s entire musical existence. College didn’t work for him, so even though he was just a year from graduating, he dropped out, moved halfway across the country and pursued music instead. When he recorded his first EP, Nation of Heat, doing business according to standard industry practices didn’t work for him, so he gave two-song CD samplers to anyone who wanted one. By the time he was done, he’d shipped 15,000 samplers—postage paid by Pug. He’d also sold 20,000 copies of Nation of Heat—a crazy number for an unknown artist and a debut release that isn’t even a full-length album. And he’d made fans in all of the cities and towns he’d soon tour through. Predictably, what happened next was more albums, more acclaim and more touring. In 2014, after playing 400 shows in just a couple of years and gaining momentum and fans at a rate commensurate with his talent and effort, Pug realized that playing music was no longer working for him. So, he did what no musician on their way up does: He canceled his tour, went home and decided to take an extended break. 

When he’d regrouped, what he learned was that he still had some things to say, musically speaking. But this time, he’d do it his way. And he’d make it work. For Pug, that meant bucking the prevailing myth that an artist must create and push those creations into the world, no matter the personal cost. Once he became comfortable with the idea that he wanted to make music, but he didn’t need to, that he would rule his music and his music would not rule him, that’s when he began work on the collection of songs that became his 2015 full-length Windfall. I’m guessing he’ll be playing the lovely “If Still It Can’t Be Found” from that album at every concert for the rest of his life.

Which brings us back to Pug’s daily writing habit.

He says that only a tiny fraction of his daily output ends up on his albums and that 95 percent of it will never see the light of day. It is certainly true that his lyrics seem distilled down to their essence, with meaning carefully balanced against economy of words. He also says that he’s writing his way toward the “batch of good songs” that will comprise his next album—he’s probably close to done at this point. No use rushing him though. He’s going to do it his own way. And he’ll make it work.

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