Joe Pug is one of those songwriters who etched his name into the annals of folk music history with the first song he ever put out.
It's called "Hymn #101" and it's the classic-sounding first track on his self-released 2007 EP Nation of Heat. In just four minutes and 40 seconds of knotty poetry, cryptic symbolism and fingerpicked swagger, it established Pug as a major songwriting talent, and even earned him a lifetime of Bob Dylan comparisons.
"Hymn #101" also set Pug on a course that led him, eventually, to where he is when he picks up the phone for an interview with the Inlander: At home in Maryland, just outside Washington D.C., where he's watching his two young children in between tours to promote his fourth full-length album, The Flood in Color, released earlier this year.
These days, he rarely goes out for more than a couple weeks of touring at a time. But it was a long road to get to this point, he says.
"I spent about 10 years — from my early 20s to my early 30s — just on the road constantly and I hit a point where I couldn't do it anymore," he says. "I couldn't be on the road for 200 days a year, and I didn't want to be. So I just made the decision to stop. And then my family happened, and that's a whole other reason not to do it.
"When you're playing that many shows, you either burn out or you artificially keep yourself going by doing a bunch of drugs. There's no two ways about it. So I did the first one. I ended up burning out."
Cutting way back on touring a few years ago gave Pug the bandwidth to be more fully engaged in the shows he does play. ("They feel like fun again," he says.) And just as importantly, spending less time on the road allowed him to dedicate more time to the creative process of writing and recording songs — an entirely different part of the job than driving around and playing old songs for rooms full of fans.
"It's certainly been a lot healthier for me creatively to not be on the road," he says.
As a result, Pug had the time and space he needed to write "an immense amount of songs" for The Flood in Color. As he did so, he'd send them to Kenneth Pattengale, who produced the album, but is also a songwriter in his own band, the Milk Carton Kids. If, after years of writing, recording and touring, Pug lost perspective on what kinds of songs should go on an album, Pattengale was there to help guide him in the right direction.
"Eventually, I began to see which songs he was pushing me towards, and once I saw that I could write more songs like that," Pug says. "Once we decided on the first three songs of the album, the other seven got written pretty quickly. But to get to those first three songs took a really long time."
The Flood in Color is worth the wait. At 10 tracks and just about 25 minutes long, it's Pug at his best, stripped down to his seemingly endless supply of pensive lyrics and endearing melodies, accompanied by well-plucked acoustic guitar and tastefully arranged bass, keys, harmonica and strings. In a way, it feels like a return to Pug's earliest works, and his audience agrees.
"The feedback I've been hearing is that people see it as a successor to Nation of Heat, sonically and emotionally. And I agree," Pug says. "I learned a lot from this record, mainly the realization that I can write a lot of songs but not all songs are 'Joe Pug' songs. That's something that I'll carry with me for every album I make for the rest of my life." ♦
Joe Pug with American Field Day • Fri, Oct. 18 at 8 pm • $17 advance, $20 day of • 21+ • Lucky You Lounge • 1801 W. Sunset Blvd. • luckyyoulounge.com