Joe Pug is one of Loud Hailer’s favorite songwriters so we were delighted when he agreed to sit down with us for a chat.
Joe Pug is a singer-songwriter who, from his first album, has consistently produced evocative and beautifully crafted tunes culminating with his latest and, in Loud Hailer’s opinion, best album – The Flood in Color. Joe was kind enough to take some time out from family duties to chat with us about working with Kenneth Pattengale on The Flood In Color, songwriting, and the life of a musician during the days of COVID-19 amongst other things.
LH: First off, I hope you and your family are all good and well.
Joe: We’re all safe and healthy, thank you very much. Same to you.
LH: It’s a strange and interesting time for the music industry right now.
Joe: Yeah, I mean the music business will be one of the most hard-hit businesses. Any sort of entertainment, service industry, and travel – it’s the three-headed monster there.
LH: What’s been impressive is how such a lot of musicians, yourself included, have pivoted to do something to keep you in the position where you can earn a living, doing live-streams for example. You’ve now become a staple in our household on a Sunday night. We watch your live-stream every week. You are also performing private concerts. How are you finding that because it must be a lot more up close and personal with your fans than you would be typically at a live show?
Joe: It’s within a Zoom meeting so I converse with everyone as the show is going on. It’s like playing a show and in between every song, you’re talking to people in a merch line. I’m used to doing both of those things. I’ve actually really liked it. I’ve really liked getting to see people across the country and all across the world get together with their families for some music. It’s been nice.
LH: It seems like it’s been super popular, you’re pretty much all booked out for now, right?
Joe: Yeah, we sold out and we’ll probably put another round on sale next month I would imagine.
LH: Excellent. I’m always interested to hear how different songwriters go about songwriting. How much has it changed for you now with the family? Are you the kind of person who always had to go and take some time away and lock yourself away? Or is it happening all the time?
Joe: It used to be go lock myself away and do that but as my family’s gotten bigger, I just have less and less dedicated time that I can put towards it so I have to use found time, so I will find myself… you know I used to just write with a pen and paper, and then take those lyrics to a guitar and see if it worked. But the problem with that is you lose some time because if you’ve written something and it’s really good but then you take it to the guitar and it works on the page but it doesn’t work on the guitar, then you’ve wasted all that time. So I find myself with found time, writing with the guitar in my hands without pen and paper and that’s been a huge change for me, for sure.
LH: So you literally just try to grab a minute whenever you can.
LH: Are you finding any inspiration from what’s going on around us at the minute? Are you writing at the moment?
Joe: I am writing at the moment, yeah. I mean, I certainly filter present experience into the songs, but I find when you sit down to write songs, you don’t really choose the subject material. You just start playing, you kind see whatever comes into your mind and you chase that rabbit down. So some of it is the present, but a lot of it I think your inspiration is not yours to choose and so sometimes it’s from past experiences as well.
LH: You have a very particular way of writing. There’s so much imagery in it. I love the first track on The Flood In Color, “Exit.” There is a line – “In the moonlight of a broken Red Roof Inn” – which just evokes such an image in my mind when I hear that song. I know you were a playwright when you were at college, I’ve heard you say that some of your primary influences on the literary side were Walt Whitman and John Steinbeck. Is there one thing that you think has influenced you more than anything else in terms of the way that you write lyrics?
Joe: Yeah, I don’t have a very sophisticated system for it. I think that when I am writing a song though, and once I’ve gotten the meter down, and the meter’s the most important thing, once I’ve gotten that down if I find myself stuck, my system just kind of says, ok go to imagery. You can’t move your way forward, ok then paint imagery. You can never go wrong with it.
LH: When I have spoken to different songwriters, there are songwriters who write in a way where you can get into a discussion around “what did that song mean when you wrote it?”. With you, I don’t really want to ask that question because I feel like you write in a way that allows people who listen to your music to put their own meaning on it. I feel if I asked you, what did that song mean and you told me it meant something different than what I thought, it would probably ruin it for me.
Joe: Yeah, yeah, that’s my whole goal. I try to put as much imagery out there as possible and I hope the listeners will hang their own details on that backdrop.
LH: I think it really lends itself to that. That being said, when you do sit down, what normally comes first? Would there be a kernel of an idea around lyrics and then you build the song around that or a particular line?
Joe: You know, these days I won’t really move forward on anything unless I have both a lyric and a melody coupled together, basically the nugget of the song. And if I don’t have a nugget for a song, I won’t bash my head against a wall. I just won’t move forward writing. Generally what happens is a lyric comes into my mind and it’s married to melody and a little bit of a meter, and when that comes in, it’s almost like I’ve received like a transmission of something. Once that transmission comes in, then I can go about… that’s where the craft of writing comes in. You can extrapolate that to the song that’s meant to be. You know, I used to try just from a lyric, I used to try just from a melody, and I find those are usually pretty bad results so I just really like to get that lyric married to a melody before I start.
LH: You were pretty relentlessly on the road before all of this happened, with The Flood In Color. You’re fairly well embedded into this business now, but I read about when you first started out and you would sit at the side of the stage and watch Steve Earle and that you learned a lot of stagecraft from him. Who are the people that you watch now? Is there anyone in particular now that you think you really take a lot from?
Joe: I think the best people doing this type of stuff out there now are Todd Snider is probably at the very, very top now that John Prine is gone. Obviously, Lucinda Williams is at the very, very top. Who from my age? I have a friend in the band called Strand of Oaks who, every time he puts out an album, I really go that and see what he’s working with now and see what I can steal. Yeah, so that would be the first three that came to mind.
LH: Oh yeah, I loved both the interviews you did with Tim (Showalter – Strand of Oaks) on your podcast, The Working Songwriter, where you interviewed him and then I particularly like the one where he interviewed you. That was a really good interview. I was interested in a lot that came out of that. The bit that stood out was your honesty about when you were first getting to grips with being a headliner and going on stage at Lincoln Hall here in Chicago. You felt like you hadn’t done what you wanted to do and then smashed your guitar in the alley at the side of the stage. It was really interesting for me to hear someone talk so honestly about that side of being a performer, how much it affected you.
Joe: Yeah, that was one of my lowest moments for sure.
LH: Coming out of that, do you ever get to the point where you feel comfortable that you totally know what you are doing as that headline act?
Joe: Yeah, so I’m there now. It took me about 7 or 8 years to learn how to headline. And now, if I want to play it really conservatively at the show, I know exactly what show to do and it works every time. Then the problem becomes what percentage of the show do you keep new and novel so that your fastball, your best show doesn’t calcify in place and become some irrelevant museum piece. So that’s the challenge now, pushing myself as much as I can to keep some novelty in the show. If you’re playing clubs a couple of hundred nights per year for close to a decade, you’ll learn how to put on a club show. It’s a pretty simple thing to do. It does take a long time, it takes a lot of reps but once you get it, you understand it, and, you know, if you told me that I just had to go on stage and throw my fastball, I’d feel pretty confident in front of most audiences that it’ll work.
LH: We have seen you at The Hideout in Chicago as well as at the City Winery. At the City Winery show, it was just you and you looked so at ease just chatting with everyone. That was a night of great music and some really funny stories. We particularly liked the song, “I Don’t Work In A Bank” which had everyone in that place laughing.
Joe: When you’re playing solo, you really have to mix in stories otherwise it gets a little bit much to listen to someone with an acoustic guitar for 93-minutes for sure.
LH: I totally agree. When I listened to that interview you did with Tim on The Working Songwriter, I’d already listened to The Flood in Color a few times beforehand. It wasn’t until I listened to that interview and you both mentioned how short the album was, that it even registered with me. I didn’t notice it at all when I was listening to it, it was only afterward. When you were recording it, did you actually have any concerns about that as you were going through the process?
Joe: No, I mean it was actually our goal. We wanted to make really short songs and then we did get a little bit of concern from the people’s whose job it is to sell that record, but ultimately the people – I’ve worked with the same agent and manager for a decade now – and ultimately when we got push back from parties that were more peripheral, we just decided, you know what, cool, that’s your opinion but we like what we’re doing here, we think we know what we’re doing here and we’re going to dance with who brought us.
LH: This album was produced by Kenneth Pattengale from the Milk Carton Kids. It was the first time you’ve worked with him as a producer right?
Joe: It was the first time I’ve worked with him. We had a producer in Lexington, KY for the before this named Duane Lundy, and then for our album The Great Despiser in 2012, we worked with a producer in Chicago named Brian Deck.
LH: With Kenneth, it sounded like it was quite collaborative. You’ve said that he was very honest and straight with you when you were sending him stuff in respect to what he thought would work and what wouldn’t.
Joe: Yeah, he co-wrote a lot of the songs with me. I’d send them into him, we would edit together and some of his editing was so fundamental that we ended up putting him on as a co-writer for those songs.
LH: When you worked together on the instrumentation, was that between the two of you? One thing I would say about The Flood in Color is that all of the backing instruments that you have on there, really complement those songs perfectly. It wasn’t too much and it wasn’t too little. Did you both work on that together?
Joe: That was all him. I just trusted him a lot, I put all my trust in him. He sent me a budget for how much it would cost and then I just showed up at the studio. When I showed up at the studio, there was a bunch of musicians there that I’d never met. I’d play one of the songs for them and we’d go into the cutting room floor and Kenneth would tell everybody what he wanted to hear and then we’d just go at it for a little while. It was really fun.
LH: Did you just record live in the room?
LH: Has that been your typical approach for previous albums or was that new, in terms of doing it live?
Joe: We did it to a certain degree with Windfall, the one before it, but there was zero overdubs on the record and there were zero vocal overdubs. There was zero vocal comping. When we finished the record, we all went out to eat together and the piano player Phil said, “This is like one of the first records I’ve ever worked on in like 10 or 20 years that there’s been no vocal comping on it whatsoever.” It just kind of came together that way. It was great.
LH: It’s interesting to hear how many musicians are going back to that approach or find that kind of approach appealing. If nothing else, from a time perspective it must be great since you have limited time in the studio.
Joe: I mean the crux of it is you have to have really, really, really good musicians and really, really, really good musicians are very expensive so it’s an expensive way to record. But, if you end up spending half the amount of time, then it works.
LH: In terms of going forward, are you going to look to take that same approach on records? Or are you constantly trying to change it, would you look for something different?
Joe: Yeah, I mean I’m working on a new record with Kenneth now. We’re kind of down the line in a process and we decided we wanted to take another bite at the apple together. So we’re working together in exactly the same way as before.
LH: You’re a true touring musician. How are you copying being stuck indoors and being home all of the time?
Joe: It’s great! It’s awesome! Don’t get me wrong, I love playing the shows, I love what I do for a living. I would never change anything. I’ve very grateful for everything so I want this to be put into context. But that being said, I have really young kids, and with really young kids, you don’t see them for two weeks and they’re completely different. The developmental stages move so fast, so I’m loving being at home right now, man. I mean obviously, it’s a horrible situation for our country and for the world, it’s a horrible health situation for so many of our fellow citizens but you know, that aside, I’m loving being home.
LH: I think that one of the good things that’s come out of it is it’s been a good time for everyone to take stock of what’s important. But also, can you imagine if this happened 15 years ago when we didn’t have any of the technology we do now? You couldn’t share things on Zoom, you wouldn’t be able to do a live-stream that sounds anywhere near as good as what it does now.
Joe: Yeah, it would be a bummer, so at least we have that on our side.
LH: At least it gives you the opportunity to still bring music to people, that still sounds good, as well. On a Sunday evening, I have to say you sound pretty good! Thanks for taking the time to speak with us.
Joe: Thanks. Nice talking to you.
You can catch Joe’s weekly live-stream on his YouTube channel every Sunday evening at 8pm CST. You can also keep an eye out for new dates being released for his social distancing personal concerts here.
Interview By: Phil Walton
Photo By: Kirstine Walton