Chicago singer-songwriter, Joe Pug , wants to give you his music. Not just a free download for a limited time, but a free two-song sampler – as many as you want to share with friends – mailed out to you at his own expense. What's more, he likes to keep his tickets prices low, and he's bringing his $10 tour to Skull Alley on October 13, along with another talented young band, Vandaveer , who I recently saw at the Rudyard Kipling. (You'd be hard pressed to find better music at that or any other price.) I spoke to Pug recently, on a short rest between a swing through Europe and the beginning of his autumn tour of the States.
Pug is already an acclaimed songwriter, but he's still under the radar for a lot of people as a performer, even after touring with Steve Earle, M. Ward, and Josh Ritter. About the free CDs, which he has used very wisely to introduce himself to new fans for a while now, Pug has a simple philosophy.
“The way I look at it is that I really believe the music I'm putting out there is good, and I think if people have a chance to hear it, they'll come back and become fans for a long time. They'll come to shows and they'll buy records and buy shirts. My idea is to make that initial access to it as easy as possible. That's why I mail free CDs to fans, that's why we go on tours where the ticket prices are very, very cheap.”
Pug's confidence is refreshing without seeming smug or brash. It's hard to get a good line on people sometimes when you're only hearing a disembodied voice on the phone, but one thing that struck me during our conversation – apart from his being one of those rare people who speak, not just in full sentences, but in paragraphs – was a very grounded and mature sense of purpose for a 25-year-old.
When Pug decided to quit his degree program at the University of North Carolina and head back to Chicago, he experienced a period of doubt, kicking around for awhile and working as a carpenter, but when he picked up the guitar again and turned to writing songs, things obviously fell into place. After playing some open mikes and getting a little recognition in his hometown, he was offered a lot of gigs in coffee shops and similar venues as seemed to befit the model of a solo folk-singer with an acoustic guitar – but it wasn't for him.
“I made a conscious decision then that it wasn't the route I wanted to take. I wanted to play rock clubs...and I wanted to open for bands. I didn't want to open for other songwriters. I think it held me back at first, but then I think it really helped me because being the one solo guy in the middle of a bunch of bands, I think it would catch people's attention. And once I had that brief little opening, I could come out swinging and try to hold it.”
The strategy worked, because he started to sell out shows and get great word-of-mouth buzz, followed soon by the critical praise that greeted his first EP, Nation of Heat. His first full-length album, Messenger, was released in February 2010. Pug has an arrestingly earnest voice, which has something of the character of the early Tom Waits, able to send a lyric straight to your head and heart. He creates what I can only describe as “muscular” songs, full of hefty, round, real words, not strung together just to meet the demands of a rhyme, but freighted with meaning, and again, purpose. Here are a few lines from “Call It What You Will” from the EP:
She said, let's call it quits.
Let's not call it the end of the world.
Call it what you will,
I'm heartbroken still,
Words are just words.
It's a break-up song, deft and playful in the way it unfolds: “I called today a disaster/She calls it December the third...” And there is the poet's sensibility in descriptions such as “a brief and star-stricken night.” Picking your way through other songs, a listener is rewarded with such little gems and poignant turns of phrase: “I was born into a circus/And ran away to join a home.”*
The careful attention to the way words are put together is evident in Pug's approach to songwriting – it is the attitude of the craftsman. He's not just sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike – there is a work ethic involved. “I try to wake up every day and practice my guitar for awhile and then just sit down and write with a pen and paper for an hour of two or however long I can sit still. Generally I always have about four or five things going on.” Of course, not everything ends up passing muster. “I think I'm a pretty good judge of when I'm writing pure piss,” he admits with a laugh.
We talked about influences, which can often sound like a broken record, a fact that Pug recognizes. “Kurt Cobain and certainly Bob Dylan. I think anyone who does something similar to what I do, and is American, would have a hard time not being influenced by Bob Dylan.” Things get a little more interesting when I ask about writers, not musicians, because there's obviously a literary streak present (he was studying playwriting at UNC). “I've always avidly read John Steinbeck. I love his work. And I would say Walt Whitman is an influence of mine.”
To me, it is Whitman, more than Waits, Dylan, or any other songwriter, who Pug seems to reflect the most – the rugged poetry, an expansive sense of self, the democratic spirit of a world full of all kinds of people and experiences, from the lovelorn schlub dumped in a parking lot to the soldier, bitterly commenting on his death from beyond the grave. Consciously, or unconsciously, Pug seems to have taken a leaf from Whitman's book:
Creeds and schools in abeyance
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten...
Now I will do nothing but listen,
To accrue what I hear into this song, to let sounds contribute toward it.
(Lines from “Song of Myself”, Leaves of Grass)
Although Pug started out performing alone, he is moving toward putting together a band that is, more or less permanent. “If you find the right guys that really sort of respect a song and really want to serve the means of the song rather than getting their rocks off playing solos and big chords, you can really take the music and the poetry to a higher emotional level.” Accompanying him to Louisville will be bassist Matt Schuessler and Rocco Labriola playing guitar and pedal steel, both of whom played on Messenger.
Tickets for the Skull Alley  (1017 E. Broadway) show are $10 at the door on Wednesday, October 13 at 7:30 p.m. Joe Pug will perform along with Vandaveer, and Sam Hadfield .
*From “How Good You Are”, Messenger