Joe Pug: The Big Picture

Joe Pug March/April
photo by Dusdin Condren

The centerpiece of Windfall, the new album by Chicago singer-songwriter Joe Pug, is a beautiful, worried tune called “Great Hosannas,” which features a hymnlike melody and some of his most evocative lyrics. Drawing out his syllables like dying breaths and blowing on a harmonica like it’s a church organ, he runs through a list of buzzwords and catchphrases, from the corporate (“paid compassion, sponsored mercy”) to the banal (“payday lenders, closet smokers”) to something akin to suburban surrealism (“floodlights trained on open faucets”). The verses are animated by an almost palpable sense of dread, yet in finding the courage to face an uncertain future, Pug finds some hope that he can make it better. Flip the lights out. Turn the water off.

The song’s original title was “Dogshit Fragment #69.”

When he wrote it, Pug didn’t have much faith in the tune. “That one came about in a much different way than most of my songs come about,” he says with a laugh. “Greg Tuohey, the guy who plays guitar in my band, was writing a jazz instrumental album, so we agreed to do this thing to spur both of us to write. We had to send each other three new demos a week.” What started as an invigorating creative exercise eventually turned grueling, as Pug admits he struggled to meet his quota. “I was running out of ideas, but you have to do your homework. So I did this one very quickly, gave it that title, and sent it over.”

He didn’t think about it again until months later, when he was recording Windfall in Lexington, Kentucky, with producer Duayne Lundy (Vandaveer, These United States). While Pug and his band were trying to decide which songs to track, “Greg says, I think we should do ‘Dogshit Fragment #69.’ It’s really good. So he’s responsible for hearing something in that one that I didn’t even hear at the time.”

“Great Hosannas” is a very different kind of song for Pug, who gravitates toward lyrics grounded in character or narrative. Most of the songs on Windfall involve regular people facing enormous tribulations, deriving some precious hope not from their odds of success but from their faith in the endeavor. Some, like the narrator of “Veteran Fighter,” resemble Pug himself; others, like the tobacco farmers on “O My Chesapeake,” are obviously fictional creations. But “Great Hosannas” is less about individual humans and more about humanity in general. “It’s a pretty grim exploration of what we’re in for in the next 15 years.”

Perhaps the song’s forbidding tone derives from Pug’s recent on-the-road implosion. Following the grassroots success of his first two albums – 2010’s Messenger and 2012’s The Great Despiser – he toured almost constantly for years, which put a strain on his relationships and especially on his creativity. He took a long break to muster his sanity, which allowed him to approach Windfall with a rejuvenated sense of mission. The turning point, he says, was realizing that he could give it all up: “There are these musicians out there who say they’d never do anything else in their lives. It doesn’t matter if they’re poor. They’re on the road 11 months out of the year. I’m not that way. I don’t feel like I would sacrifice everything for music. Life is bigger than that.”

Windfall sounds like a man celebrating his own good fortune. “I feel like I’m in a very positive place in my life right now,” he says. “I just turned 30 and I’m getting married this summer to my partner. I’ve been with her for a long time. It’s just a very happy time for me.” But such fulfillment can be precarious, and these songs sound like Joe Pug the songwriter leaving messages for Joe Pug the touring musician, who’ll be performing these songs for many hard tours to come. “Don’t give up, it’ll get brighter / Stand your ground like a veteran fighter.” “If you’re in it for the long haul … there’s not a drought could drag you down.”

“You have to walk a really fine line with those songs so they don’t end up sounding like, ‘Did you ever know that you’re my hero?’” he says with a laugh. “They can get a little maudlin if you don’t watch yourself. Not to get too dark here, but you can’t change the fact that you’re going to get old and you’re going to die. That’s how every story ends. What you can change is how you experience that brute fact.”

This article appears in our March/April 2015 issue. Subscribe here.