The cover art on singer-songwriter Joe Pug’s latest album, The Great Despiser, shows a nearly naked man barely hanging on to the end of a rising balloon.
Who knows what it means? Pug says his lyrics are somewhat autobiographical, but they have enough metaphor and allegory thrown in to create some space between the man and his art.
Still, one way to read the cover is to imagine the balloon as Pug’s career, forced upward by the success of his heartfelt early work and a clever personal marketing campaign. The man, clad only in underwear, is Pug himself.
“I really don’t think you do necessarily get better as a songwriter,” Pug said in a recent telephone interview with C-VILLE Weekly. “It is a constant struggle to stay in the same place and not get worse.”
The same place wouldn’t be a bad one for Pug, who’ll play The Southern Café and Music Hall with his two bandmates on February 12. Pug’s first EP, Nation of Heat, made a huge critical splash in 2008, and his songwriting was repeatedly hailed for its earnestness and easygoing honesty. In a sea of singer-songwriters, he was compared to the greatest folk artists of all time and had somehow managed to wow people with simple three-chord tunes made with spare instrumentation.
Then there was the marketing genius. These days, artists like Pug know they have to give away their music to be heard. There is simply no other way to gain a following. But in 2008, free music was less common.
“It was still a relatively novel thing at the time, so we were able to bring a lot of listeners under our tent because of that,” Pug said. “I was lucky that I picked that moment in time.”
Pug readily recognizes the role luck has played in his career. He says he was lucky to have a manager that was onboard with giving away product, for example. But once fate opens the door to success, Pug believes luck goes by the wayside, and it’s hard work that takes you through.
Pug and his team have tried to focus everything they do on the fan’s experience. Not only have they given away CDs through the mail so people could share them with their friends, they’ve experimented with selling concert tickets direct to consumers. Which is not to say everything has always worked out the way they planned.
“We have put direct-to-fan ticketing on hold for the time being,” Pug said. “It’s labor intensive, and we don’t quite have the capital to continue doing it.”
The focus for now is on clinging to the balloon. To that end, Pug added instrumentation (that his previous albums lacked) to The Great Despiser, making the latest effort more textural and colorful, stacking new sonic layers on top of his sparse guitar playing and resonant singing voice.
“The reason my first albums didn’t have any of that was I didn’t know any other musicians, and if I did, I couldn’t afford to pay them,” Pug said.
The richer context only serves to highlight Pug’s singable hooks and heartbreaking, esoteric lyrics. Put on “Silver Harps and Violins,” and see if you don’t come away with the chorus—“There’s a world out there, I know there is/Where they’ll play my songs on their silver harps and their violins”—stuck in your head for hours. Queue up “Hymn #76” and roll this nugget around in your noggin: “To trust me is to travel past the towers/Those that make it back from here are few.”
Pug along with his standby bass player, Matt Schuessler, and electric guitarist, Greg Tuohey, are headed back to the studio in March with the hopes of building another critical darling. They had expected to get started last month to get a jump on the record before the current tour, but Pug said the songs weren’t ready.
The band, according to Pug, is another story. “They’re both musicians that have the ability to play like virtuosos on their instruments, but don’t feel the need to prove it on every song,” he said. “The songs I write are simple, and the band is overqualified.”
Pug said he himself is best suited to looking forward, staring up at the balloon. A man who’s made some difficult choices over the years, including dropping out of college the day before the start of his senior year, he has a hard time looking back. He admitted he thinks about the leaner times but tries to remember that “the moment you become sour, your creativity suffers.” He said he struggles to listen to his past work without thinking about what he “would have done differently.”
“As you move on, I think to create new material, you have to kill the old material,” Pug said. “That is the creative process.”
He’ll give the old material one more go for this tour. Then it’ll be time to “use that to our advantage,” he said, trying to capture in the studio the appeal of live music, all the while riding the balloon up and up.