Saturday, February 20, 2010

after all the trouble, after all of the commotion...i walked right through, the door was always open (joe pug interview)

Joe Pug was gracious enough to let me sit down with him before his show yesterday evening to discuss, among other things, the release of his debut full length album Messenger, and the past couple years that have sent this Chicago based musician all over the world singing things that hold people's hearts in a vise grip.

So it seemed natural to ask if that decision to leave the University of North Carolina right before senior year for Chicago was driven by the desire to make music. Apparently it wasn't; at least, not at first. He claims he started playing guitar more than he had before for something to do other than the carpentry he had taken up (his father's trade, too).

MBFA: So carpentry isn't Plan B?

JP: Oh no. I'm a horrible carpenter.

Honesty like that is what carries Joe Pug's music. Especially in his lyrics, where his mark on me has been defined by his ability to take big, inexplicable feelings and put them into a couple lines that just dissolve me. No frills, no fluff.

JP: I had a professor in college who said that a writer needed to have an infallible bullshit detector. You need to be able to edit yourself really honestly.

He went on to describe his writing process (one he admits is slow and very purposeful), writing out lyrics in the air with his hands, and using an invisible red pen to cross out big sections and single words. I could practically see the trimmed excess float into the ether, leaving only the miraculously few words that do much more when unburdened.

JP: I like to take out whole parts of songs I thought it needed and say, "what is the song now?"

It was a new experience to hear one of my favorite artists talk about his song writing process like I would talk about my old college papers. But it brought up the fact that as the audience, we don't see that. Joe Pug puts out albums that roll with power in a way that feels so effortless and natural. Like he woke up one morning with truth in the front of his mouth and on his fingertips.

JP: Have you read a book by Annie Dillard on writing?

MBFA: I haven't

JP: She talks about the writing process and how the audience doesn't need to see it. They just need where you get to. [holds up his hands to show a mountain climb by fingers through the air, with one hand at the base, and one hand reaching a high point] so they just need it when what you're writing gets up here. They need to skim the cream off the top.

MBFA: So you edit yourself a lot then?

JP: There are a lot of Joe Pug songs that aren't powerful. They just don't leave the studio!

I was so tempted to ask him what Joe Pug song he felt like was the most powerful, but I couldn't impose a Sophie's Choice on the guy right before a show. So I settled into talking about the EP he released last year, Nation of Heat.

MBFA: At first I thought maybe you were going for something political with a title like that, but it's not an album that speaks to government politics. Did you have a message you wanted to get out there when you released the record?

JP: I think that a specific message...that's more you, the audience, than me. I think it's more my job to give a blank canvas to put yourself or what you want on it.

MBFA: That's not something I've thought about before; art as a blank canvas.

JP: Oh I think the best artists are able to do that. They're able to give people something to put themselves on. It's what I try to do, or hope to do.

MBFA: Do you have any artists you think do that very well?

JP: Well, all the artists that I would probably count as my biggest influences. Let me think...I think Lucinda Williams does a great job...Steve Earle, and of course Bob Dylan. He kind of invented it, or a way of doing it.

MBFA: You've been compared a lot to Dylan! Do you think that's accurate?

JP: Well sure! Similar styles...I don't think it's far off the mark. And it's definitely flattering, but I also think it's also an unimaginative comparison.

While the conversation turned back to his music and his new material that he is hoping to record during his 12 hour days in the summer, I remembered a quote I had heard and still can't quite pin down even now, about the writing process. How it is like walking around, eating and drinking life, and then the next morning is when you are able to throw it up into a song. Joe chuckled after I outlined the idea of it, and then expanded on it.

JP: I think that's a really good comparison, actually.

MBFA: Music as the morning after.

JP: Yeah. I'm just now getting to to the point of taking some really big, emotional things that happened a couple years ago and being able to write songs around them. Every time I've tried's come off too overt and specific. But I think I'm getting to the morning after now.

From his boundless and fervid set opening for Justin Townes Earle, and the goosebumps that made the topography of my arms match everyone around me in the Bluebird, I would say that Joe Pug has only begun to make music that reflects the honest living of life. In fact his set and his music remind me very strongly of a favorite Annie Dillard quote:

"I would like to learn, or remember, how to live."

Check out his wonderful album, Messenger, that I have not stopped spinning since I got my ears on it.

Fun Fact: The full band version of Speak Plainly Diana is how he always envisioned the song during the writing process.

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