Joe Pug knew changing his last name from Pugliese would not go over well with his Italian grandfather, a first-generation immigrant to the U.S.
“I got the big speech from him on that but I think he got over it,” said Pug. “He said ‘I did fine with that name, my father did fine with that name …’ But I kind of have to go off and do my own thing.”
So far, so good. Since relocating to Chicago from Greenbelt, Md. in 2006, he has gone from playing open mics at local bars to getting booked to play Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo this summer. The transition is unusual for a songwriter whose music is stripped bare to just vocal, harmonica and guitar, a strict homage to early Bob Dylan, but no less affecting.
On “Nation of Heat,” a seven-song EP, Pug sings with the weight and anger of someone half his 24 years, spinning words with cryptic phrasings (“If I didn’t own boots/I wouldn’t neef feet”) but when sung, resonate with emotional clarity. Unlike the finely-coiffed sensitives who populate the NPR-style folk world today (Josh Ritter, Andrew Bird), Pug’s songs are tough, but have the immediacy of melody and delivery.
For these reasons, he has long preferred playing rock clubs than coffeehouses, even if it meant not getting bookings or playing early on the bill. “I think my music is a little bit different than other acoustic stuff going on,” he said. “I would compare it to high energy rock.”
His life in Chicago has meant juggling carpentry work with music, but last year was the first he made a living on the latter. His continual touring, college radio support and free music giveaways on his website have together stoked a growing fanbase. But anyone coming to his music early shouldn’t expect his forthcoming music to suddenly feature hip-hop beats or layers of synthesizers.
Pug added additional instruments to a new album he’s in the midst of recording but at the end of each day, they were always filtered out until there was just guitar and vocals.
“What makes (my music) unique is the voice loud in the mix and stripping back everything else,” he said. “That was definitely a learning curve for me.”