Joe Pug is a 30-year-old singer-songwriter, but he sings and writes with a depth and wistfulness few veterans achieve.
Before becoming a full-time musician, Pug studied playwriting and worked as a carpenter. Now the Maryland native has two EPs and three studio albums to his name, and knows his way around Americana and folk-rock music. In his new record, Windfall, Pug continues to branch out from traditional folk conventions while retaining his impressive, adept lyricism.
Isthmus recently spoke with Pug about four of his favorite tracks, which he played during an Isthmus Live Sessions performance in January. Pug returns to Madison on April 10 for a concert at the High Noon Saloon. Chris Porterfield of Wisconsin’s own Field Report will open the show with a solo set.
“Hymn #101,” Nation of Heat, 2009
Instrumentally, “Hymn #101” is a bare-bones offering. Yet through the song’s lyrics, Pug shows that even in his younger days he could dish out Americana wisdom like Bob Dylan in his prime. Of course, Pug’s youth influenced “Hymn #101” too: “The first time I played it live, I forgot some of the words,” he says. “So I held out the word ‘come’ to stall for time. That ended up becoming a key part of the song’s phrasing.”
“How Good You Are,” Messenger, 2010
After finding independent success with the Nation of Heat EP, Pug followed up with his full-length debut, Messenger. Though the record features a full band accompanying Pug’s bread-and-butter guitar and harmonica, “How Good You Are” is another stripped-down song that showcases Pug’s ability to tackle a subject such as human worth with ease.
The song includes lines like “They said that I was worthless”/“That my family died unknown,” but Pug wanted to make the lyrics more positive. “I ended up pairing it with this other refrain (‘How good you are’/‘How good you are’) that I had been working on,” he says. “And I think it balanced the song nicely.”
“Stay and Dance,” Windfall, 2015
This comforting track, the third on his new LP, suggests that Pug’s songs are beginning to sound less weary as he ages. “This was the last song written for our new album,” he says. “We were lacking that one tune that would bring the whole thing together, and I think this one sure did.”
“Burn and Shine,” Windfall, 2015
“Burn and Shine,” which Pug and his band have been performing as their opening number on their current tour, is one of his most toe-tapping, story-like songs. “I don’t usually write songs that are this narrative-driven or this fast-paced,” says Pug. He’s had the track in his arsenal since at least 2010, but when backed by a full band on Windfall, “Burn and Shine” feels like another substantial step forward for the modern troubadour.