Singer-songwriter Joe Pug has a background in theater. As such, his second full-length album, The Great Despiser, builds a scene around the listener and allows them to fill in the blanks.
The former playwright is now a rootsy artist living in Austin, Texas, but he’s still trying to answer the same eternal questions he explored as a student at the University of North Carolina. On his new album, The Great Despiser, he digs into the unconscious part of the human condition and for the first time invited a full band into the studio to help him.
Unfortunately, Pug doesn’t have all the answers. To him, however, just posing the questions is the job of music and art.
“It can draw out of you something that maybe you unconsciously knew,” he says. “Or it can explain feelings that you’re having that you didn’t know how to articulate yourself.”
Indeed, talking with Pug is an enlightening experience. Soft-spoken and well-read, he called in to CMT.com recently to introduce the new album, talk about his latest favorite book and describe the nucleus of all great works of art.
CMT.com: Fans came to love the straightforward approach on your previous records. Will they notice any difference on The Great Despiser?
Pug: I think instrumentally it will certainly be a departure. There’s a band on most of the album, and the touches are much more integral than on past albums. But the songs were written in the same way — just me in a room sittin’ down and getting ’em out. I forget who it was that said it, but they said, “Writing songs is like giving birth. You’ve got to go out on the porch and do it your damn self.” It’s what you gotta do.
I think the title is really interesting. What does The Great Despiser mean to you?
It’s a character in one of the songs. I suppose at first glance that title can be a lot more negative or sort of nasty than I perceive it to be. I think this particular character in the song finds a lot of things to despise, but I think it’s because he has such a love and such expectations. And I think a worse crime than despising something can be not feeling anything for it at all.
I know you have a background in theatrical writing. To me, your songwriting often resembles poetry. How do your ideas come to you?
Well, I usually just write with a pen and a page rather than with a guitar in my hands. I just sit down, and sometimes I sit down for a couple hours and nothing happens. I really think more than anything else, the habits [my education] taught me are really important. I genuinely believe that anyone can write. It’s just a matter of committing the time to it. It takes a lot of time. That’s not to say the best songs aren’t written in a flash of speed. The best songs always come out in a few seconds. They write themselves. But they don’t come out in a few seconds if you haven’t been living your life and you haven’t been putting in the time to make yourself ready to write.
I get the sense that, in your mind, songs are much more than just entertainment.
I don’t know that they are more than entertainment. I think that they might be just a very specific kind. As an older songwriter once told me, “You’re not trying to teach anybody. You’re trying to remind them.” When they come to shows, you try to tell these stories. And, hopefully, people are going inside themselves and being reminded. Then they fill in their own details. It’s their story that’s being told onstage.
I’ve heard that you’re a pretty voracious reader. Have you read anything lately that’s kind of stopped you in your tracks?
I’ve been down in Texas, and I hadn’t read Lonesome Dove since high school, so I read that. And from there, I went on to this book about the Comanche tribes in Texas right after the Civil War. They were all being brought onto the reservation at that point, and the Comanches were like the last holdouts and they were very vicious. The name of the book is Empire of the Summer Moon. Basically, when there is a “summer moon,” they called it a “Comanche moon” ’cause the Comanches could raid for like 500 miles. It was a really good book.
Do you often gain inspiration from stuff like that?
No, not really. Nothing direct. I just really think that good books and good works of art are all kind of about the same five things, which is all these very human characteristics, all these very human emotions, desires, shortcomings and contradictions. I think that a really good work of art — whether it’s fiction, nonfiction, poetry, movies, music, whatever — they are usually about the same five things.