Singer-songwriter Joe Pug makes folk-rock music—the same sort that’s recently seen a resurgence on the mainstream pop charts. His first full-length album, Messenger, came out in 2010, the same year as the American release of Mumford and Sons’ three-times platinum Sigh No More. But while Pug has built up a devoted fanbase through energetic word-of-mouth and an active email newsletter, he has yet to become a household name. So, what happens after you don’t break through?
These are the questions Pug explores—with the help of rootsy guitar and literary lyrics—on his latest full-length album, Windfall, out March 10 from Lightning Rod Records.
“Bright beginnings often fade” is the dark truth Pug sings on the album’s first track. One way to fight against dying of that light is to tour as much as possible. And Pug, for one, has embraced the reality of music piracy, calling the road “the only place revenue is anymore.” After his debut EP Nation of Heat dropped in 2008, Pug spent the next five years touring pretty much continuously, slowly building up a base of devoted fans who came to show after show. He has long offered a free sampler of his music on his website, which allows anyone curious to get a taste of what to expect at a live concert.
Pug calls his listeners “a close-knit, small group that are very devoted.” And not just devoted to his music: “Now we have a lot of people come back and say ‘hey, we met at one of your concerts, and now we’re engaged,’” he tells EW. “It’s cool. In my music, I think there’s a sort of throughline to the values and considerations I’m talking about. The people who agree with those values tend to show up at shows.”
Despite the joys of live performance, though, Pug says the road lifestyle started to become unsustainable towards the end of his 2013 tour.
“Touring is great for the 45 minutes you get to be on stage delivering your music to people. It would be hard to think of anything that’s more fulfilling than that,” Pug says. “The problem is, there’s another 22 hours left in the day. At that point, you’re scuttling from airport motel to airport motel, you’re eating terrible food, and you’re driving from one Guitar Center to the next to buy more strings. I mean, it’s just a very alienating existence, offstage. I had to take some time off.”
That time off turned into most of 2014, which allowed Pug time to meditate—and resulted in a new appreciation of his life and work. Pug calls this epiphany “a windfall, a receiving of great treasure and value.” It’s no surprise, then, that he chose to name the resulting album Windfall—a work filled with hard-won appreciation of life’s obstacles and epiphanies. See, for example, the almost-title track “Windfallen”: “If you’re in it for the long haul / if you’re in it to survive / there’s not a trench you can’t be be found, there’s not a drought could drag you down.”
Pug’s lyrics are replete with specific details and characters, such as the silver-bearded horseback traveler from that track, or the namesake of fan-favorite “Speak Plainly Diana,” who are both precisely drawn and broad enough to remind listeners of struggles in their own lives.
“I want people to put their own personalities into the songs,” Pug says. “You don’t want to scrub all the details and specificity from something, but I do want listeners to come to like the skeleton of a song and be able to hang their own details on it.”
Windfall’s music bucks a trend in Pug’s earlier releases, which tended to be bigger and poppier. By contrast, the music here is stripped back to a few instruments. Even the album art looks startlingly different: In lieu of the illustrations that have adorned all of his previous albums, Windfall’s cover features a simple portrait of Pug’s face.
“There was something so simple about that,” Pug says of the new look. “I think in earlier times, I was racing away from the idea that I was a singer-songwriter, and now I felt comfortable enough with that simplicity of just a portrait on the cover.”
Those aren’t the only elements separating Windfall from Pug’s earlier work. It’s the first album he’s recorded with his road band, which means they also come road-tested—and ready for the proper Windfall tour, which kicks off this month.
“We’ve played almost all the songs in concerts at this point, before we recorded the album to get a handle on which ones worked and which ones didn’t,” Pug says. “So we will be very comfortable delivering those songs, whereas in the past, when we did the tour for The Great Despiser, we almost didn’t know how we were going to get the songs across.”
Pug may have been frustrated with life on the road, but on Windfall he once again recognizes it as a place of solace, endurance and even hope. The album’s final song, “If Still It Can’t Be Found,” is filled with optimistic messages: “If it’s not around this corner, it’s around the next … so I’ll keep walking on and on.” So, as “Bright Beginnings” asks: What do you do after a bright start fades, and there’s no happy ending in sight? After 10 songs, we finally get the answer: You endure.