Joe Pug and the Duty of Poets
The hair is shaggier than I remember, dry and framing his face, giving him the look of attractive apathy reserved solely for guitarists.
Languid, he sits in a New York living room filled with yellows, light streaming from behind. I sit on a patch of grass on a Dublin street corner, watching the bobbing head in a Skype window spotted with drizzle, wind streaking water across the face that has taught me lessons about authenticity and assumption several times prior.
In 2007, Joe Pug occupied a corner mic at a dive that no longer exists in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood, his jeans with white t-shirt and shorn hair over a baby face not hinting at gravitas. They didn’t hint at him being able to legally drink at the bar. I was present to talk with Chicago Farmer, headliner, and had dropped in with enough time to hear the last two songs of warm-up act Pug. That night, the then-22-year-old revealed a soul so ancient it audibly creaks, and I left with a handful of his lyrics lacerating any clarity I hoped to maintain in those meditative moments before sleep.
Speed ahead to 2010, when in an artists’ colony in New Hampshire news surfaces that a hotshot Chicago singer-songwriter would be gracing the colony’s stage, which was big news because he’d been in Paste magazine and tours Europe and hangs out with Steve Earle. I interviewed him, he who’s contorted face mid-chorus never left my right brain, and he was, verifiably, cutting through the industry chaff at the speed of a Mississippi sharecropper. Yet here he was playing a 50-seat room in a New England town for a cut of the door. In the green room he went about intensely filming a video on his phone using toy dinosaurs and speaking about poetry. He still looked like a boy scout.
He told me then, “I feel like the best lyrics have always been written. It’s just a matter of getting in touch with inspiration, or whatever you may want to call it, and just really getting in there. The lyrics—however far away that they are—you’ll find them. They’re right where they’re supposed to be. And what you need will come. It’s the same with painters, other types of artists, professors–you know what I mean? That’s why certain songs that you don’t feel are perfect, or any good, could uncover much truth.”
Raw and emotive lyricism—and bardic delivery—are his hallmarks. When asked the most necessary ingredient for songwriting, he replied, “Focus. It doesn’t matter what sort of logic a song has, it should be interested in having a soul.”
September 2013 arrives. Pug is set to return to perform for his considerable Irish fan base in three cities while I’m living in Ireland. He is two LP’s (2012’s The Great Despiser, 2010’s Messenger) and two EPs (2009’s In the Meantime, 2008’s Nation of Heat) along his route, and the tour is the third of four extended runs this year.
Preparing myself for interview, I tell myself not to wilt a bit inside at loss of innocence; to ready myself for the possibility of a road-weary, somewhat jaded sovereign, whose passion for emotional phenomena and magnifying the unseen through word and sound has devolved into a passion for flirting, or for keeping his eyelids at least half-open, or his snark under control. Ask any woman who’s played the role of ‘The Enemy’ in this business long enough and she could tell you war stories.
Instead — in the oft-frenzied, oft-giggling, stream of consciousness flow that endears fans nearly as much as his artistic output — he says, “A poet’s job in society, eh? It’s taking on abstract questions that the rest of the world doesn’t have time to answer. The masses have to work a demanding job, they have to raise a family, whatever the task may be. Luckily through the idea of the division of labor, the poet can shed some light on those (leftover) questions for them.”
Obviously, rock star hair has made no difference.
When Pug, born Joe Pugliese in Greenbelt, Maryland, quit playwriting studies at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, he took a job as a carpenter in Chicago to support his growing habit of songwriting, and of throwing that voice like a field-hardened Texan around dingy clubs. He epitomizes an “everyman” sensibility from his business model to his occasionally politicized topics; for example, his path to the recognition currently enjoyed came about through a simple promise on his website to mail any number of free physical copies of his first EP to anyone who wanted to distribute or own them–as long as the requester sent a handwritten letter.
A glimpse into the spirit informing Pug’s artistry can be found in his most recent newsletter, wherein he spends more time recommending “You Can Have It” by Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet Phillip Levine, or the interviews with surgeons and policymakers on Alec Baldwin’s new podcast, than his tour dates.
A longtime lover of verse, it’s the blunt storytelling coupled with subtle turn of phrase in songs like “Bury Me Far From My Uniform” and “Speak Plainly, Diana” that Pug uses to unique advantage.
He says, “There is something deeply affecting about hearing words in a cadence. You can hear the simplest, most trite phrase in the world, but if it’s rolling over you with a constant meter, it can be devastating. There’s something inevitable and grounding about hearing the end of a good couplet.”
In 2011 Pug moved to the musical boilerplate of Austin, Texas, where he remains when not traversing the globe like a bardic minstrel of old. He’s currently playing a 32-date American tour to run through Thanksgiving, which began three weeks after his 2013 European stretch.
He is not ragged. He is not beaten. He continues the poet’s duty.
“The very best shows are a catharsis for both the singer and the listener,” he says, chuckling.
Tour dates: www.joepugmusic.com