Joe Pug & Chris Pureka
"If my thoughts are hard to gather
if I don't know where to start
it ain't my mind that matters
for I have an unsophisticated heart."
Joe Pug, "Unsophisticated Heart"
For the moment, Joe Pug has it figured out, career if not life: Just write the songs that have to be written, play them for anybody who will listen, tour as if you had no home. Oh, and give your music away. Which isn't to say he won't be selling his debut full-length offering, Messenger ( Released 2/16/2010 on Lightning Rod). But free is how he came to make it, more or less.
It worked like this, for Joe Pug anyhow: The day before his senior year as a playwright student at the University of North Carolina, he sat down for a cup of coffee and had the clearest thought of his life: I am profoundly unhappy here. Then came the second clearest.
Pug packed up his belongings and pointed his car towards Chicago. Working as a carpenter by day, the 23 year-old Pug spent nights playing the guitar he hadn't picked up since his teenage years. Using ideas originally slated for a play he was writing called "Austin Fish," Pug began creating the sublime lyrical arrangements that would become the Nation of Heat EP.
The songs were recorded fast and fervently at a Chicago studio where a friend snuck him in to late night slots other musicians had canceled. He was short on money, but his bare-boned sincerity didn't require much more than a microphone and it dripped off of each note he sang.
The early rumblings of critical praise for the EP were confirmed when his first headlining gig sold out Chicago's storied Schubas Tavern in 2008. As word spread, Pug struck upon an idea that would later prove to be one of the most significant in his young career. He offered his existing fans unlimited copies of a free 2-song sampler CD to pass along to their friends. He sent the CDs out at his own expense, even covering the postage. Inside each package was a personal note thanking the fan for helping to spread the word. The response was overwhelming, and to date he has sent out over 15,000 CDs to 50 states and 14 different countries. Without access to radio, Pug managed to turn his fans into his very own broadcast system. The offer still stands, and to this day it's featured prominently on www.joepugmusic.com.
"Look, in the end, I just trust my fans, and the nature of people in general. I need to pay my bills like anyone else does. But I also don't think it's right to ask someone to pay $15 when they don't know what they're getting. So in a way by sending out these CDs, I'm wagering that they'll like my music, and that if they do they'll come to shows, buy CDs, and help me spread the word even further. And so far I've been proven right. Without question, the more sampler CDs I send out, the more music I sell."
Nation of Heat took on a life of its own, passing from friend to friend and iPod to iPod. The crowds swelled and the media took notice. Tours with Steve Earle, M. Ward, and Josh Ritter followed, as did invitations to Lollapalooza and the Newport Folk Festival. He crisscrossed the country incessantly, traveling mostly alone in his 1995 Plymouth Voyager with no stereo or air conditioning. As the tours went on, he became closely linked to the burgeoning indie-folk scene that was coalescing loosely around Pug and his young contemporaries in bands such as The Low Anthem, Langhorne Slim, and Horse Feathers.
After over 200 shows, Pug took a brief respite to record his full-length debut. If Nation of Heat heralded the arrival of a talent to watch, Messenger assigns Pug a deserved spot among the finest songwriters of his generation. From the opening notes of the title track that leads off the record, it's clear that the artist has no intention of retreating to the comfortable or the familiar. While the scathing war indictment "Bury Me Far (From My Uniform)" and the sparse, poetic "Unsophisticated Heart" illustrate that Pug is still a master of the guy-and-guitar song, it's the supporting cast Pug brought on board that truly brings out the record's subtle beauty.
From the haunting, ethereal pedal steel guitar that sneaks delicately under "The Sharpest Crown" to the barrelhouse rhythm section that propels "The Door Is Always Open", it's clear that Pug is as comfortable exploring this new territory as he is solo. "The first record, it was a breeze," he says. "Didn't even know we were making it, just me and a guitarthe songs completely unadorned. This one, it's like that thing where there's an explosion and you realize how many options there are in the world."
With his debut album now finished, the options only get more numerous for the 25 year-old-singer. The remainder of 2009 will be spent touring Europe before he returns home to hit the road in support of Messenger.
Rarely does an artist like Chris Pureka come along. In an age of fleeting success and temporary notions, Pureka is an artist of substance, armed with a sharp eye for oft-missed details and an emotional intelligence that can switch from withering to compelling with a subtle inflection. Now, with her third studio album How I Learned To See In the Dark, Pureka adds some bold new elements to the solid foundation she has been building throughout her ever-escalating eight-year career.
While maintaining the unique alchemy of longing, loss and hope Pureka sets to music, there is a sonic adventurism on How I Learned to See in the Dark that marks a new stage in Pureka's musical evolution. Even from the first notes of the album's opening track, "Wrecking Ball", longtime fans and the newly converted will sense that How I Learned To See In The Dark is a bigger album, deeper and more vast than anything she's released to date. "I wanted it to feel different right away," Pureka explains. "And 'Wrecking Ball' exemplifies many of the elements that are different from the last record." That difference is a newfound edginess, coupled with a more abstract sound: there is a musical depth and complexity that shines through each track, all the while maintaining the space and creative instrumentation Pureka is known for. Standout track, "Landlocked", showcases Pureka's technical prowess with the finger-picking style that won her so many accolades on Dryland while "Broken Clock" is the rhythm driven, heavy hitter bound to be on your next break up mix. "Wrecking Ball" mixes a playful quirkiness in production with an underlying paced anger, laced with twangs of percussive guitar. Finally, album closer, "August 28th" is the deep breath following the emotional tumult that precedes it a return to quiet contemplation for the writer and the listener: "I think the whole world needs a shoeshine/I think we're all living proof."
With her 2004 debut LP, Driving North, Pureka started a career as a touring troubadour and began building an impressive fan base from the ground up: a fan base that started in her native New England and steadily grew to a national level. Fans and critics alike were drawn to her uniquely haunting voice and her acute attention to lyrical detail. Still others lauded her aptitude for crafting guitar parts that speak for themselves. "[She] is such a gifted guitar player and singer that you have to listen to each song twice, once for her guitar playing and again for her passionate lyrics about love, loss and hope." (The Boston Globe) With her 2006 follow-up, Dryland, Pureka further expanded on the emotional topography she charted earlier in her career: continuing to tour and significantly increase her fan base, and catching critics' attention with that signature voice that makes heartbreak somehow sound desirable.
Throughout her career, Pureka has prized autonomy over ease. She has released her albums independently and plays upwards of 200 dates a year, enabling her to maintain a great deal of control over her process. "Independent has become such a buzz word these days. But it's how I've always done it. I'm 100% independent, which means that I am not on an "indie label", I have and am my own label."
That independent streak is also felt throughout How I Learned To See In The Dark. From the use of alternative percussion, to the abstraction of the lyrics, to a new unrestrained vocal quality, this new record represents explorations into broader musical soundscapes. This is aided by Pureka's choice of co-producer: longtime friend, Merrill Garbus (4Ad's tUnE-YaRds). In addition to enjoying the comfort that comes with working with someone you've known since middle school, Garbus brought to the table her signature quirky recording techniques and alternative instrumentation, helping Pureka shift her sound into as-yet uncharted territory. "Merrill's musical path these days has been a lot more experimental. The percussion and looping that she does, the music that she listens to it's not specific to the songwriter genre," says Pureka. "And that's what I'm trying to do a little bit with this record push the envelope a bit step outside of my comfort zone. And I think we did that."
Staying true to the thread of growth that has been her career to this point, the touring aspect for Pureka is seeing incredible growth as well. Three to 4 side players will be joining Pureka on stage each night on her upcoming cd release tour, which sees her playing bigger rooms (Music Hall of Williamsburg, the Middle East and Slims in San Francisco) in addition to four shows at this year's South By Southwest. The two-and-a-half month, 40+ city tour will stop in every major US market from New York to Los Angeles.onward and upward. It has taken years for Chris Pureka to arrive here, and each step has been as purposeful, as precise, and as unwavering as the music she makes.
STRAND OF OAKS
In 2003, Tim Showalter's house burned down, his fiancée left him, and he resorted to writing songs on an acoustic guitar while living on park benches in suburban Philadelphia. Those events informed the entirety of his arresting debut, Leave Ruin , an album about loss and brokenness and lack of faith. But as affecting as it was, Showalter is leery of being stuck in the past. After all, the first word of that record's title is "leave," and one of the first thing he asks when contacted for this interview is, "Can we kind of re-do my bio? I don't want to keep being the sad sack whose house burned down."
These days, Showalter is happily married and comfortably settled in Philadelphia, and he's staring down the release of his second record, Pope Killdragon, an album that's even stranger and more singular. Where Ruin was stark and autobiographical, Killdragon which features odd, laser-beam synthesizers and one bona fide stoner metal track is wild and fantastical. Showalter either invents characters whole cloth, or takes an approach to history so liberal even Tarantino would give pause (John F. Kennedy authors a fable about a knight; Dan Aykroyd carries out a revenge killing for the death of John Belushi). It's a bold, eerie, mighty work though the man responsible for it couldn't be more affable or good natured.
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