Joe Pug: Cover Your Tracks

Joe Pug’s story is well chronicled in roots music circles. While a student at the University of North Carolina, Joe dropped out of school to pursue music by playing open mics in Chicago, recording his first EP Nation of Heat and distributing it for free. Since that debut in 2009, he’s been a mainstay of roots and Americana music, crafting songs that are both of our time and timeless. Last year, he started a podcast called The Working Songwriter, a wonderful collection of conversations between Pug and some of the best songwriters out there, including Joe Ely, Tift Merritt, Sara Watkins, and Hayes Carll. We got to chat with Joe in advance of his show at The Sinclair on May 25, about songwriting, performing solo, and the music business today.

RLR: It’s been almost two years since your last album, Windfall. How has your relationship to those songs evolved as you’ve brought them around the country on tour?

JP: One way that they’ve evolved is I’ve been playing a lot of solo shows, recently, and I’ve had to reinterpret them for a solo setting. And that’s kind of made them new for me in the last year, and that’s given me a new relationship to them.

RLR: You’ve talked about in the past that there’s a huge difference between performing with a band and performing solo – that the lift is really different. Can you talk about how you think about those two settings and what factors you think about – whether that’s the set list, or your own preparations, etc.?

JP: On a very basic level it’s really difficult for people to pay attention to a single person, on single instrument, for 60-90 minutes. That’s always been the case, and particularly in this day and age where all of us are so used to being stimulated by our devices, it can be really hard to put on a compelling show, just yourself and an instrument. I think about everything from different pacings of songs, to literally the stage picture and how it looks, what house music that is on before, what music I walk on to, what music is on afterwards. You just have to be very detail oriented when you’re doing a solo show because it’s just really hard to keep people’s attention for an hour.

RLR: Do you have an approach when you notice that the audience’s attention starts to flicker? Some artists admonish, some invite…

JP: I’d never admonish; at the end of the day people are coming to the show and they’re paying money and if they’ve paid money and don’t feel like paying attention once they get in, I mean, I still get paid. [laughs] There does have to be a certain amount of buy in from the audience in the first place to get something out of a show, and there are some nights when I think that I’m controlling what I can control here, and this particular audience didn’t come in desiring to be a cohesive group that’s going to pay attention, and there’s not a whole lot I can do about that.

Now, I think if you were to consistently run into audiences like that night after night, then the problem is probably you, not them. But if nine out of ten audiences pay great attention and there’s one a particular that doesn’t, then they as a group came in not ready to engage with the show.  

RLR: I remember you’ve talked about Joe Ely’s incredible equanimity with that kind of thing.

JP: He’s very, “no peaks, no valleys,” that guy.

RLR: If we can step back, I’d like to ask you about economy in songwriting. I’m thinking about a song like “Bright Beginnings,” which has the line “These days all we do it seems is chase our checks and call them dreams.” There’s so much packed into that one line, and I’ve heard fiction writers talk about this in terms of ‘economy,’ and to get there, they have to write ten pages that they throw away to get to one page of quality. How true is that for you, and what is your ear tuned to as you’re writing to let you know that you have enough and that there is space for the listener to bring his/her experience to the song as well?

JP: I guess that’s several different questions there. The first one is do you generate a lot more material than you end up using, and the answer is yes, definitely. One of my favorite writers, Annie Dillard, said you really owe it to the audience to not show them your footsteps, your tracks of how you got there. That’s your job; they get it delivered on a silver platter, and that’s what they’re paying for with a song. Now, as I’ve gotten older, and I’ve done it a lot more and my facility has improved, I can do it with a lot less than I used to. That’s the work there, for sure.

As far as knowing how much you can pare it down and still get the idea across to a listener who has no other context, that is…that’s the question, really. You get it sometimes and you don’t get it other times. I’ll go back and listen to songs later and I’ll lament that it’s too obscure or I’ll lament that I kept in too much information, and it’s a balance you’re trying to make every time you write a song.


RLR: What’s been the biggest surprise to you as you’ve done The Working Songwriter for just about a year?

JP: I guess the biggest surprise has been how easy it is. Essentially the people I’ve talked to are all in my list of contacts on my phone. So I can send a text to set up a time to have the conversation and record it. So, in comparison to the lift of setting up a tour and publicity and all of those things, it’s been surprising how simple and without complication it is.

Joe is playing May 25 at The Sinclair and you can get tickets here. Definitely check out The Working Songwriter too. It is, “what every writer wants,” Joe says. “An ironclad excuse to put off actually writing.”