When fans of former Chicago singer-songwriter Joe Pug catch him at Golden Dagger on Friday, they shouldn’t expect to hear songs about his pandemic experiences.
Pug, the Maryland native who cultivated his modern-day folk playing around the Chicago area post-college, said he aims to write more generally in his music, lending a timelessness to his songs.
“It takes me a long time to process things,” he said. “I don’t really tend to respond to external stimuli, kind of like an A to B type deal. Like, ‘I just went through a breakup, so we’re gonna write the breakup album.’ Or ‘We just went through a pandemic, so I’m gonna write the album about finding domestic bliss with my family again off the road.'”
Through his releases — from his 2008 debut “Nation of Heat” through last year’s “The Diving Sun” EP — Pug said he eschews the hyperspecific tone of today’s of-the-moment, reference-packed pop culture, opting for a more generalized vibe. It’s less about how he as an artist experienced a particular event and more about how things might have affected listeners or society as a whole.
“I try to write in an opposite way where I start from a very specific place, and then I try to generalize as much as possible,” he explained. “I’d really like to be able to write a song that you can listen to 100 years from now, 200 years from now … or you could listen to it 100 years ago, and it would still communicate with you. That’s my goal.”
While he did play in bands in high school, Pug’s musical pursuits began in earnest when he left the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill the day before his senior year was to begin. Then a theater major, he said the classroom wasn’t affording him the creative experiences he was looking for.
“I knew I wanted to be a working artist of some kind,” he said. “And I felt like for me school wasn’t the place to get that started, that I should go out and meet the real world on its terms as soon as possible.”
Moving to Chicago where he had friends in the theater and comedy scenes, Pug quickly found that music was an even more versatile and independent creative outlet for someone getting started.
“I knew I wanted to express myself, and music was the most direct way to be able to do that,” Pug said.
His days were for building houses, and his nights were for his music, writing away in a room he rented in Logan Square. His folksy ballads drew from his life, not the glamorized version of artists bathed in the spotlights of posh clubs, but the dusty, weathered vocals of a man grinding away at open mics and fighting for featured slots at Chicago outposts like Schubas and Bottom Lounge.
Building up a following in Chicago as a solo performer allowed him to eventually travel the road with bigger artists like Steve Earle, he said, solidifying his decision to focus on music and dispelling lingering thoughts of making a living in theater.
“One of the things (Steve Earle) would always tell me is the great part about being a musician is me and you, we can get dropped by management, we can get dropped by a label, anything could happen. And he was like, ‘I can go down to the subways in New York and make 250 bucks today just playing this guitar,'” Pug said. “And it’s like, yeah, I could do the same thing. I’ve always really liked the amount of independence that music has afforded in that way.”
Pug (now creeping along the far side of his mid-30s), his wife and their three children have settled back in Maryland near his family’s home base. He created a space for streaming his Sunday Songs performances during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and from there he kept in touch with fans through his regular The Working Songwriter podcast and The Enthusiast Digest newsletter, in which he shared poetry, recipes and behind-the-scenes explorations of his music. And of course, upcoming tour dates.
“I’m so grateful to be able to have a core group of people who are interested in this music, that find meaning in it, that are willing to get the babysitter, go find parking in downtown Chicago and come hear a show at 9:30 at night,” he said. “It’s so much different than what I thought being a musician was going to be when I first started out. In some ways it feels much more like I own a small neighborhood restaurant that I want to, after people have come and eaten the veal parm, I want to shake their hands and make sure everything’s good as it came out of the kitchen. It feels much more like that. I didn’t expect it to be like that, but it does. And that is a great place to be.”
• • •
Golden Dagger One-Year Anniversary show with Joe Pug, Dead Horses
When: 7 p.m. Friday, April 15
Where: Golden Dagger, 2447 N. Halsted St., Chicago, (773) 857-0166, goldendagger.com