As a student at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Joe Pug (or Joe Pugliese, in his pre-abbreviated undergrad days) was focused on becoming a playwright, not a songwriter. He kept his ears open, though: He didn't play shows, but he saw plenty. A favorite of Pug's was John Howie Jr., still leading the Two Dollar Pistols at the time, and Pug would catch him at campus-convenient spots like The Cave and Local 506.
Then Pug made a rather abrupt move to Chicago, still without plans to make music or, for that matter, without any real plans period. Shifting his focus, he started playing out and found his way into that city's strong roots scene, one that extends well beyond the Bloodshot Records orbit.
Pug's clearly a quick study or a born lyricist, or both. Just a couple years into this serious music-making thing, he's already got a lot to show, including tours with Steve Earle and Josh Ritter and a pair of alert-a-friend EPs, 2008's Nation of Heat and last year's In the Meantime. Turns out, though, that those two offerings were just a warm-up—if, that is, you can consider the musical equivalent of going 90 for 100 in the pregame shoot-around "just a warm-up"—for his full-length debut, Messenger. Pug cops to being upset with the album in the middle of making it, but his head has apparently cleared in the aftermath. "Mistakes were made," he says. "But at the end of the day, I'm very, very proud of it, man. I don't think we put a bad apple out there in the bunch."
Can't argue with that: From "How Good You Are," which imagines Mike Doughty as a Heartlander, to the divinely questioning "Not So Sure" to the Nebraska-channeling, war-indicting "Bury Me Far (From My Uniform)," Messenger offers a bushel of penetrating songs. And it doesn't hurt that they're presented in a voice with a knack for italicizing key lines ("I'm not a cause, not a Christ, not a ransom/ I'm not a reason, I'm not a debate") and for piercing any anti-singer/ songwriter armor that you might have donned. So bountiful is the record that selecting only one cut for this exercise was a challenge. The spinner finally stopped at "Speak Plainly, Diana"—a Nation of Heat reprise—with the main reason being perhaps the most fundamental: It's the song that you're most likely to find yourself singing to yourself during a midafternoon mind-wander.
The Independent Weekly caught up with Pug preparing for a show in St. Paul, Minn., as the opener for Justin Townes Earle, and did its best to coax Pug to talk about "Speak Plainly, Diana."
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: Let's start with a playwright question because that was your area of study at UNC. How much different is the mindset when writing a play vs. writing a song? Has a scene in a play ever become a song, or vice versa?
JOE PUG: I don't think I've ever taken anything that directly to turn it into a song. But I think it's sort of the same process, really, just trying to articulate yourself. Obviously, there are different conventions you need to adhere to. With a play, writing the music for it is a whole different routine, but as far as the words go, I'd say there isn't that much difference.
The names Bob Dylan and John Prine were in the quote on the copy of Messenger that I bought, and I've seen those names elsewhere in press. Any pressure when names like that pop up?
Well, more than anything, that's very flattering. But, no I don't really [feel any pressure] because it's not necessarily what I feel; it's just what other people are saying. And they have their own reasons for saying that. I think some of the comparisons would be accurate. I think I lifted a bunch of stuff from those guys. But I'd say that those guys probably lifted a bunch of stuff from someone else who came before them. [Laughs.] That's the type of music we're playing here, music with a very large history and a very broad context. Absolutely, I borrowed from those guys.
And what's been your favorite comparison, and what's been the strangest that you've read or heard?
The favorite would be when I got compared to John Hiatt once. I really love John Hiatt, and I've listened to his music a lot, and I think he's a huge influence. Frankly, I'm surprised more people haven't picked up on it, which is all right. As for a strange comparison: I don't know. No one's gone out that far on a limb yet. You could do that. You could compare me to the B-52s or someone.
And then we could see whether that pops up in another story somewhere. Music writers have their own tradition of lifting stuff. I had a tough time picking a song for this because I could make a strong case for every one; they all hit me in one way or another. Which Messenger song would you most like to talk about and why?
I think the song that came out the best on the record, the one I'm sort of partial to and really like, is the song called "The Sharpest Crown." It happened really late in the recording process, and we weren't going to put it on. When we first started recording, I demoed a bunch of songs. That that was one of them, and we sort of forgot about it. We were getting ready to have the record mastered, and me and the producer, Steve Shirk, were listening back to a bunch of things, and we listened back to that. We said, "Hey, that's not so bad. Let's try and get an actual recording of it." I just really like the way it turned out. I really like that song a lot.
Well, I didn't choose "The Sharpest Crown." I finally chose "Speak Plainly, Diana" because it's the song I find myself singing the most—and now that you've planted that seed, it does have a John Hiatt feel to it—and for me it's also the most mysterious. Now is that just because I don't know the backstory, or is it designed to be a little mysterious? There is mention of "mystery in the basement...."
Yeah, the lyrics in that one are more abstract than I usually do. I think that works because a lot of the other songs on the record are so upfront. To have one tune on it that you can't quite pin down, I sort of like that. And I like that it ends the record.
You anticipated a question I was going to ask later, but I'll ask it now: What makes "Speak Plainly, Diana" such a good closer for Messenger? How did it end up in that spot?
That's another one that wasn't necessarily going to make it on the album. I was hell-bent on not having any songs from Nation of Heat on Messenger. That song had actually been done at a much earlier recording session with a totally different band in a totally different studio, and it was just sort of an orphan, hanging out on a hard drive somewhere. Then we went back and listened to it and said, "Man, this has just got to be on there." Yeah, it's the same song, but I think it's much more realized in this version.
OK, who's Diana? And what has gone on that has led to her being on the other end of the words in the song?
I don't think that would be a specific person. I think that's the whole point of that tune: You don't quite know.
I guess you might want to preserve a little of that mystery in a song and not always give away the whole story.
Yeah, like sometimes I'm really disappointed when I hear a songwriter's description of a song I really like. Actually, all the time I'm very disappointed. So I'll probably just leave it at that.
But it won't stop me from asking more questions about it. Just feel free to dodge.
Fair enough, fair enough.
One message that I take from the song is control what you can, and don't worry too much about what you can't and enjoy the ride, hence the "I don't mind ridin' around" refrain.
I'd say that's probably hitting pretty close to the idea there. Definitely.
Lastly, I think "Make your favorite sound" is good advice for everyone, whether that means singing in the shower or screaming into the woods behind your house. Where did the idea for that piece of advice come?
One thing I do like about the song is that it might be a little bit abstract, but I also think it has its own logic going through the whole thing. You know what I mean? It's not like three random verses thrown together, you know? So even if you don't know what it means, it has its own system going on. So that particular line fits in perfectly with the rest of the song.
Joe Pug opens for Justin Townes Earle at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro Tuesday, March 9 (rescheduled after its January snow-out). Show time is 8:30 p.m., and tickets are $14–$16.