Woe Is Joe

20 November 2012 | 6:15 am | Nick Argyriou

“A songwriters economy of words in being able to tell a whole story in a four-line verse or four-word line.”

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Joe Pug's follow-up record to 2010's Messenger is this year's The Great Despiser, a richer release that was motivated by the man's enthrallment for the 'storied songwriting tradition' of Austin, Texas. For a town that has bred the likes of Guy Clark Jr and Kris Kristofferson, to 2012 Texas Heritage Songwriters' Association Hall of Fame inductees Townes Van Zandt and Lyle Lovett, this was the idyllic place for Pug to continue to refine his craft.

Having toured Australia each year since his debut in 2010, the Maryland-born, Chicago-based artist has since tapped into the essence of both Nashville and his latest abode of Austin, the city where he wrote his sophomore. Pug returns here for a run of shows this month and recalls how those early visits with touring partner Justin Townes Earle helped forge his admiration for this land.

“The first tour in the States with Justin was a fun tour; it was about eight weeks long and I was playing shows that were sold out, and on the side he wouldn't shut up about his Australian visits,” he larks. Both Pug and Earle have since become firm festival favourites Down Under and have delivered intimate club spectacles ever since. “Having been a few times, I just love it there now,” the performer adds.

While The Great Despiser was written in the inspired artistic landscape of Texas, it was in fact recorded back in Chicago at Engine Recording Studio with producer Brian Deck (Modest Mouse, Iron & Wine, Califone, Gomez). The album features key players such as Sam Kassirer (Josh Ritter, Langhorne Slim) on piano, organ and marimba, and Califone's Jim Becker on rumbling guitar. The Hold Steady's Craig Finn even inserts a little backing vocal on the album's title track, so it's clear that Pug is making all the right creative moves.

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Delivering yet another classy country-rock and folk release that demands repeat listens due to its potency, not because you don't 'get it' first up, The Great Despiser is somewhat dissimilar in texture to Messenger, and is coated with sharper shades. Even the instrumentation is raised slightly with Pug admitting the achieved his wish to have “finally created arrangements that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the lyrics”.  It's a charmingly paced album filled with light and shadow, his trademark troubadour darkness, scholarly words and a rare splendour that few singer-songwriters can match.

“I think you ultimately want to create a work that doesn't completely reveal itself on the first listen, and it has to be engaging enough to bring people along and to impress them at first and be more complex over time,” he agrees. Meanings also need to be taken on many different levels in order to further draw the listener into the wild narrative world of a songwriter, as Pug explains: “That's when you are really on top of your game when you are able to connect [with the listener] on both a surface level and a deeper level.”

Writing from a clean slate for The Great Despiser in Texas throughout 2011, Pug attests to not wanting to reproduce anything that he's released previously, both lyrically and in a recording sense. That's his motto – going forward – as should be the case for all musicians, but in many cases it just doesn't come to fruition despite best intentions. “I just think it can be really disadvantageous as a songwriter to have a bunch of songs lying around that you can fall back on if you had to,” he says.

“I like to really clean out the whole shed and the whole job of writing songs is by any means necessary to keep myself excited and inspired, and if you do that one thing, everything else falls in line behind,” informs Pug. Even though this sounds like a no-brainer, it's quite a challenging zenith to reach as an author of song. “That's the key thing – like, it sounds so simple but it's difficult and you fail at it more than you succeed at it, which is my experience,” he tells.

By ways of Texan songwriting deities, you can take a pick of countless luminaries' styles seeping into modern-day artists' sounds, particularly when you are entrenched there on assignment like Pug was, and still is. In many instances, it's impossible not to be heavily influenced by the greats, but it's all about channelling and balance, as well as bringing something novel to the table. “Part of the reason I came down to Texas was to be close to that songwriting tradition and obviously Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle, who quickly went to Nashville but grew up here [are up there as muses],” he explains, before adding Lucinda Williams' Texan chapter to the mix plus a few more.

“Bill Neely I admire, as both songwriter and performer, and then of course a fellow whose song [Start Again renamed Deep Dark Wells] I ended up covering. Harvey Thomas Young is another.” Recording with Brian Deck, Pug has this collection of tunes continuing to pull on that folk thread that's invariably roots-driven with a slender sea shanty mélange. From track to track, the Pug chronicle is undiluted and resolute and, like Messenger, is informed by a string of loosely based ideas rather than a focused concept piece, something that Pug admits is nigh on impossible to achieve as a songwriter.

“I really believe it's ultimately an exercise doomed to failure because songwriters quite often have very different strengths to people who are novelists or playwrights [which Pug himself was studying to be at one time] or screenwriters because of the constraints of the form in which we work,” he says. Explaining that the limitations range from “a songwriters economy of words in being able to tell a whole story in a four-line verse or four-word line,” Pug admits that he and his peers spend much of their time reducing the written word instead of building it, so any yearning to construct the idealistic concept masterwork is frittered away.

“You just spend so much time on the minutiae, that you build up that [particular] muscle in a very large way, and it can be, if not crippling, [it becomes] a much weaker muscle when you want to look at things in a broader way,” he states. Having played some US shows with the heartbeat of The Band, Levon Helm, only weeks before he passed away from throat cancer in April, Pug continues to reflect on his time spent with a bona fide legend of the game and uses it as continual impetus. 

Driving an insane distance from Austin, Texas where he and band were attending SXSW, to MichiganTheatre in downtown Ann Arbor is clear evidence of his dedication. “When we were offered this gig we drove pretty much 25 straight hours and bisected the country because this was such an experience,” informs Pug. “It really made me and the guys feel like we were part of the tradition, to be accepted by this man whose music has had such a profound impact on our lives, and I don't think I can overstate how affirming that was personally… I'm just so grateful.

Joe Pug will be playing the following shows:

Wednesday 21 & Thursday 22 November - Workers Club, Melbourne VIC
Friday 23 November - Annandale Hotel, Sydney NSW
Saturday 24 November - The Waiting Room, Brisbane QLD
Sunday 25 November - Mullum Music Festival, Mullumbimby VIC