URBANA — In 2007, Joe Pugliese dropped out of his study of collegiate playwriting and headed to Chicago. He arrived with little more than a few personal belongings, hoping to sleep on a friend’s couch until he got on his feet.
While walking to meet that friend, he passed by a construction site where he successfully begged a carpentry job from a passing general contractor. Later in the same day, he beat out several other tenants for the only small room he could possibly afford to rent, explaining to the property owner, “nobody needs this room like I need it.”
“So it was less than 24 hours since I arrived in Chicago, and somehow I had a job and a room,” said Pugliese, better known by his stage name, “Joe Pug.” “I don’t recommend it and I wouldn’t try it again, because it was about as lucky as you can get.”
The singer-songwriter performs Saturday at Urbana’s Canopy Club as a now-successful artist for whom carpentry is a still-fresh memory. He didn’t travel to Chicago specifically with a musical goal in mind, but he knew that his passion was for the arts. The music came along as he began to once again play the acoustic guitar he had carried, unused, since high school.
“I dropped out because I felt like I wasn’t learning the things I needed to learn to be a working artist,” he said. “So I decided to just go out and teach myself. I had been particularly frustrated in writing for the format of theater, and when I started to play guitar again, everything I couldn’t get out in a play immediately started coming out in song.”
As for the rest, Pugliese simply leaned on an innate ability to perform in front of people. He valued exposure of his music over any attempt to profit from it in the early going and gave away copies of his debut EP “Nation of Heat” to anyone he thought might spread them around. His second EP, “In the Meantime,” is still available for free on his website, www.
joepugmusic.com, with a request that downloaders continue to share the music with their friends. To date, it’s been downloaded over 30,000 times, exposing Pug’s literate, soulful songwriting to a new audience.
“The Internet really blew the doors wide open to broadcast music to the whole world,” Pugliese said. “It’s led to a lot of good things and a lot of mediocre things. I still believe that the absolute hardest jump that any artist has to make is the first one, from absolute obscurity to the first modicum of recognition whatsoever. I always thought that, so I didn’t want there to be any barrier at all to people getting my music if they found it. That’s why I gave so much of it away.”
That philosophy has worked out nicely for Joe Pug so far. He was signed to Nashville indie label Lightning Rod Records and has produced two full-length albums, most recently April’s “The Great Despiser.” He’s garnered all the right attention and all the hyperbolic comparisons. Paste Magazine wrote of his debut that “unless your surname is Dylan, Waits, Ritter or Prine, you could face-palm yourself to death trying to pen songs half as inspired” as Pug’s music.
But Pugliese takes nothing for granted. He remembers what it was like, being happy just to find that carpentry gig.
“To put it bluntly, I want my show to be the best live show any given audience has seen,” he said. “There are so many bands touring because it’s the only way to make money today, that you have to be great. You have to be consistent. My goal is to put on just as good a show on a Tuesday night in Tulsa as on a Saturday night in New York City.”