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Care and loathing

Joe Pug stays in touch with his inner critic



Like any artist, Joe Pug wants people to like his work. He just doesn't want to hear the compliments firsthand.

"To me, any amount of adulation or praise can really be crippling as a writer," says the musician. "Because in the moment that you begin to be enthused with yourself, or really pleased with yourself, I think it can really be the beginning of the end."

As you may already have inferred from the above, Pug is a task-master when it comes to his own songs. "The most important thing," he says, "is being your own ruthless editor and not letting yourself get away with anything, not being pleased with a cute line or a clever line, making sure everything is serving the whole. It's been a struggle for me to sort of maintain that same rigorous vetting of every line that goes into a song, and just kind of recognizing, 'Hey man, you're not special.'"

Pug, who has just released his second full-length album, The Great Despiser, has to work extra hard these days to stay oblivious to what critics and fans are saying about his music. He's being touted as one of the best new artists on the Americana/roots music scene, drawing deserved praise from the likes of NPR, Paste, and American Songwriter, who've cited sharply drawn, evocative lyrics and an inviting sound that draws from folk, pop and roots-rock.

That Pug has gained so much praise this early in his music career is a bit ironic, given that he went to the University of North Carolina to study playwriting. But as he got further into the theater program and continued writing plays, he felt he wasn't improving and decided that line of work wasn't for him. So he quit college and moved to Chicago where he found work as a carpenter.

There wasn't any grand plan behind the relocation. Pug simply liked Chicago and wanted to live there. Likewise, there wasn't any plan to start writing music. Having played guitar in cover bands in high school, he hadn't touched the instrument since.

But after being in Chicago for a short time, circumstances prompted Pug to think about music again.

"I would come home from work at five o'clock and I wouldn't have to be there until seven o'clock the next day. I'd just be sitting there," Pug recalls. "I was just bored and lonely. So I picked the guitar back up and started messing around with that, and that's when I started learning how to finger-pick. That's kind of what got me back into it."

Eventually he had enough material for 2008's seven-song debut, Nation of Heat, followed by 2010's critically acclaimed full-length The Messenger.

The Great Despiser, released late last month, is a departure from Pug's mostly solo acoustic approach. While it's still primarily ballad-driven, songs like "Stronger Than the World" and the title track genuinely rock.

Pug's current tour features a guitarist, bassist and drummer. But he's not completely abandoning his acoustic side.

"The full band sound is more the direction where we're heading, but the single voice with the acoustic guitar is still the kernel of the show," says Pug, whose songwriting obsession is intact. "No matter how wonderful the contributions are of all of the really talented musicians we have with us, what really matters is having a song that stands up on its own."

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