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Pug turns writer's block into "Windfall"

By Brian Baker, April 2015

In his life and career, Joe Pug has never done anything halfway. So when Pug experienced a crippling lack of creative inspiration after his punishing road schedule to promote 2012's "The Great Despiser," he didn't consider the possibility of taking a short break. Joe Pug was on the verge of throwing in the towel.

"I was deciding if this was still what I wanted to do," says Pug. "It's ironic. I've spent the last seven or eight years learning how to do this, and my facility is the strongest it's ever been. Anytime you practice something over and over, you can't help but get better at it."

As good as Pug had become over the course of two EPs (2009's "Nation of Heat" and 2010's "In the Meantime") and a pair of excellent full length albums (2010's "Messenger" and 2012's "The Great Despiser"), the touring grind in the wake of his last album brought him to the brink of surrender. Perhaps the prospect of writing and recording another album that would result in another half dozen laps around the country proved too daunting for the gifted singer/songwriter.

"We did a lot of touring, and I love doing it," says Pug. "But when you're touring, 45 minutes out of the day, you play your instrument and your songs. The other 23 hours, you're just driving from strip mall to strip mall. There's not a lot of soul in that."

Joe Pug performs

Thankfully, Pug extricated himself from the road before his burn out was beyond redemption. After a cooling off period where he concentrated on just his life, Pug returned to the studio and began making tentative songwriting attempts. The trickle of material quickly turned into a torrent, ultimately resulting in "Windfall," Pug's fourth and perhaps best album to date.

"Once I got to spend time in the studio doing the creative act, it tended to come pretty easy," says Pug. "That's very intoxicating."

As Pug's muse returned and the songs began to flow, he also found himself thinking about his longstanding inspirations and expectations. As he balanced his reasons for wanting to continue to make music with his reasons for wanting to do it in the first place, he came to some startling conclusions, which only strengthened his resolve.

"I think it was the quality of the songs that were coming in the writing process. That's kind of why I named the album 'Windfall,'" says Pug. "The bounty I found was not necessarily anything physical or immediate or tangible, it was letting go of what I think were some pretty unrealistic expectations and desires and opening up my eyes to see what was right in front of me. We have a really devoted audience that supports us, I have a band that's been with me for years on end, same guys (guitarist Greg Tuohey, bassist Matt Schuessler), people who are the back end of the organization, doing the business part of it, they've been with us for years. It was the moment to look around and say, 'Hey, we've actually built something here.'"

Given that Pug's impetus for writing was slightly different -he's built a small home studio and began learning how to write to his recordings - the songs that comprise "Windfall" came out slightly different as well. While his earlier work has garnered comparisons to the likes of Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, the occasional piano touches on "Windfall" add a honeyed Marc Cohn/Bruce Hornsby atmosphere to the proceedings, as well as providing a new texture and complexity to his generally stripped down arrangements.

The first song Pug wrote for "Windfall" wound up being "Bright Beginning," the lead track. After coming home from the truncated "Great Despiser" tour, Pug was complaining to his girlfriend about his dry spell and absently picked up his guitar and began accompanying his rant.

"I naturally started playing that riff, as I was complaining, and I said, 'Hold on, there might be a little something here,' so I wrote that," says Pug. "The next day I was driving in the car and kind of heard the piano part that goes along with it. It was pretty different from anything I've written. It just kind of came out of the ether."

Most songwriters have had the experience of writing a song that seemingly comes out of nowhere. Pug has an interesting perspective on that particular phenomenon.

"All of the best ones come that way, but you have to spend a lot of time writing," says Pug. "You spend 90-95 percent of your time writing songs that are not really that inspired and that no one's going to listen to because if you don't do that, you won't have the facility to get the ones that are given to you down on the page."

Pug has never been an autobiographical lyricist to any great extent, preferring to make literary rather than literal allusions in his work, but there are direct references to his writing block and subsequent breakthrough. It's particularly evident on the ostensible title track, "Windfallen," and again on the emotional closer, "If Still It Can't Be Found," where Pug's melancholic hope for a better future is delivered with gospel passion and folk realism; "If it's not around this corner, it's around the next/If it's not beyond this river, it's beyond the rest/And if still it can't be found, it's probably for the best."

"'Windfallen' talks to that, it's probably the most specific one," says Pug. "And the last song on the album, 'If Still It Can't Be Found,' is really about being at peace; all I can control on my end is just trying to get better at this craft, whether it's learning how to sing better or learning how to write a better song or learning how to record a guitar part or a piano part a little better. That's all I can do. What lies on the other end of that is not for me to decide. As much as I'd like it to be, it's not."

Although "Windfall" is a pretty spectacular outcome from so much doubt and upheaval, Pug's epiphanies also touched his personal life in the form of a proposal to his longtime girlfriend. And perhaps most importantly, his critical reassessment gave him the tools to avoid that kind of blockage in the foreseeable future.

"This is probably going to read as corny on the page, but I'm really trying to appreciate every day getting to do this for a living, whether I'm on the road and getting to put the songs in front of people or I'm at home and I'm getting to wake up, have a cup of coffee and sit down with the pen and the page and the microphones," say Pug. "Those are things, in and of themselves, that I should be really grateful for, and those are things that can't really be taken away because that enjoyment comes from the inside."