There’s a wolf on Joe Purdy’s property. The folk singer / songwriter’s back home in Arkansas after a lengthy globe-trotting touring and recording adventure that’s covered more than a few countries over the past few years, and he’s been working outside, clearing brush and building fences- in between storms, that is.
“The first time I saw him was at like 6:30 in the morning,” Joe told me over the phone from a swing on his back porch. “It was raining. Raining hard. And we’re just across from the water here at the end piece of this little stretch of road, but this wolf was sitting at the top of the hill in the middle of the road, right on the yellow line, just laying there in the rain like a king. It was fucking beautiful. That kind of stuff… having the time, slowing down a little bit, it does something for the soul that doesn’t translate in the city.”
That could possibly be the best description of Joe’s music you could ask for. Most of his material sounds raw and immediate, and that’s how it should be. The two-take spontaneity of the songs keep them fresh, allowing for a timeless sense gravity without nostalgia, an unpretentious sense of self-awareness that you don’t find too often these days.
The last four records Purdy’s done have been spontaneous events in London, Paris, Scotland and New York, documenting events virtually as they happened, much like one of his heroes, Bob Dylan, used to do. His appraoch is a rare delivery of honest immediacy, and it seems to be working. To date, he’s sold more than half a million single paid downloads, and his song Can’t Get It Right Today has likely been all over your TV in Kia ads and Grey’s Anatomy.
The reception has been huge, and the labels are foaming at the mouth to cash in on this would-be-could-be superstar, but Joe’s flatly turned down every offer that’s been made. He releases the records only the way he wants to, and has lucked out like a Vegas champion in the press. But the days of blind luck in the music industry are dead and gone, and now more than ever, people have all the tools they need to uncover the bullshit gristle before they’re tricked into parting with their money. To move the numbers Purdy does, the music’s got to be good, or at least meticulously designed for a particular demographic.
It also takes something more than a quality product to sell more than half a million paid single downloads without a label or any major promotion- it takes common sense. You can go to joepurdy.com and listen to all his records, anywhere you want. Try doing that at the website of any major label. Restrictions, restrictions, restrictions.
Joe took a break from trying to tame the wild beast to talk to us about everything from iTunes and the motivation of heartache, to the importance of finding truth in the music.
Antiquiet: Has the ‘Feist’ effect officially taken hold now? Are you the ‘Lost song guy’ or the ‘Kia commercial guy?’
Joe Purdy: I guess to my cable guy, yeah (laughs)… It’s not so much me that they recognize as the song. Most people still have no fucking clue, but I’ve got no complaints. It’s been really great for me, and I’ve gotten a lot of ‘wouldn’t have found it otherwise’ comments. It’s funny, usually you have to submit for these kinds things, but Kia actually emailed me the commercial and said ‘what do you think?’ And it’s fuckin’ hilarious, and since I really don’t get to be funny a lot with all my sad bastard music, I was like yeah, let’s do it. I don’t get a chance to get laughs very often.
Antiquiet: I read a quote of yours that said TV shows are the new reasons musicians don’t have to rely on major labels.
Joe Purdy: Did I say that? Well, I think it’s true, so I’ll cop to that. For me at least it’s been that way. I wasn’t always so anti-label, I was just anti-being told what to do. What comes along classically with that is being told to change stuff, or the label’s gonna bring somebody in to clean this or that up. And the ownership thing as well- I don’t think anybody should own an artist’s work and make their living off of something they didn’t create. I understand income participation, when you’re helping somebody to get a record out there or a piece of music out there, or like when Brian (Klein, manager) is working my stuff and keeping my entire being together with all the calls he takes and things he monitors and puts together. But when it comes to somebody having a say in what you can do even though they’re not the ones that made it, I have a large problem with that.
Antiquiet: The format’s so different compared to when we were kids. The convenience of access is just light years beyond when we were kids, bugging the guy at the record store every day to find out when the next whatever album was coming out…
Joe Purdy: Exactly, man. Even from just a few years ago, when Lost came out, that was the first placement I’d ever had, I knew about iTunes but not really. It’s not like it was something that everybody used. I had made that Julie Blue record as kind of a personal diary, I made it in 3 days and it was all about my time at the river. Then all of a sudden this thing came up and they want me to do this other version of the song for the show, so I did, and we got it up on iTunes. But people started writing all over these message boards making comparisons to like Nick Drake or John Mayer or whatever, and that was really the only way you could find out about what I was doing. And nobody could go to a store and get it, so people needed a place to find these kinds of things. Now everybody, including my folks, know how to use iTunes. And when a song comes on, you Google ‘Kia commercial’ or whatever, and it pops up a YouTube video, but you’ve also got the website where they give the name and with one click of a button you can sample it and buy it. That’s only been in the last few years, and it’s amazing to me how quickly things move.
Antiquiet: It only took iTunes five years to become the #1 music retailer in the US.
Joe Purdy: Somebody told me that iTunes is competitive not just on the internet level but in retail as well. I could be wrong, but I think it’s Wal-Mart, iTunes and Best Buy in the top three music retailers. They’ve definitely done their thing well.
Antiquiet: It comes down to convenience. There’s millions of people, particularly young people who have no qualms at all about downloading thousands and thousands of albums illegally. That’s everyone from an overzealous music junkie in every sense of the word, to a little kid in his bedroom who’s just heard Led Zeppelin for the first time. iTunes makes it legitimate with the smallest amount of effort. It’s just easy, affordable, and instead of spending $18 on a product that you don’t really know if you wanna commit to, you can buy one track at a time, sample things, it’s ideal.
Joe Purdy: Absolutely, man. It is.
Antiquiet: I think you’re a shining example of the best case scenario, in that you just fell into the slipstream of the new world. You’re suddenly all over the place.
Joe Purdy: Yeah, I have been really lucky and blessed. You know, overall, including iTunes, it’s gotta be a rough time for the label guys, trying to figure out ways to stay alive in this day and age. If they want to keep any integrity about what they’re signing at all, it makes it hard to feed their families. I get all that, and it’s a real bummer, but at the same time this new world has weeded out so much bullshit- it’s about weeding out the bullshit A&R guy that slipped by on some slimy shit. Weeding out and leaving the ones that truly know their shit with the music. The record company people that survive are the ones that, for the most part, I think really have had their heads and are true music lovers, still in the mix, wanting to find good stuff and wanting to put it out for people.
But a great example is what you were just talking about- being able to get one track instead of an entire record, that weeds out a lot of bullshit. It does make a difference. It would’ve made the difference for me in a lot of instances on whether I could own a piece of music or not. Because back in the day I didn’t have the money to own a CD that I wasn’t sure about. But now if you like tune, you can go get it, and you can get one at a time. It truly does weed out the bullshit.
There’s obviously a thick saturation of music, because everybody can do it with the new digital world. But at the same time, they can sit there and exist, but they’re not going to climb unless it’s good, unless it’s something worth having. People are a little more savvy then then used to be.
Antiquiet: Sure, there’s a quality filter, for sure. What do you say to somebody who thinks that the record company’s problems lie in the fact that they’re no getting behind the idea that the artist should release smaller, more focused bursts of music, like a series of EPs?
Joe Purdy: It’s hard to know because, for me… (laughs)
Antiquiet: You run with a totally different format, you’re just a songwriting juggernaut.
Joe Purdy: Yeah, I just write songs, man. That’s what I do. And I love records. I love concept records, I love a group of songs that sound like they belong together. Like Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger– that’s a story, through and through, how do you fuck with that? That’s the good stuff. And like Blood On The Tracks. That record’s the quintessential heartbreak record. When you’ve been through that thing that you thought was gonna kill you, that’s when you’re ready for Blood On The Tracks. And you listen to every one, you listen to Idiot Wind when he says “You’re an idiot, it’s a wonder you still know how to breathe,” all the way to “If you see her, say hello, she might be in Tangier.”
So that kind of stuff, I mean I’m a romantic at heart in those kinds of senses. I grew up listening to records, and I still listen to records, and it’s mostly older stuff. I’ve had my pop’s old record colleciton, and that’s what still plays in the house. That’s the stuff I love. Anytime somebody wants to put something out, more power to ’em. That’s great. But for me, I can’t stop every four songs to make up a cover. It’s not in my blood. If I’ve got a full, cohesive thought it’s gonna take a good ten songs.
Antiquiet: Speaking of, where do the songs come from? What’s your motivation?
Joe Purdy: I guess I really don’t know. But it’s the one thing that I realized I could just do. I guess I had a goal, where I wanted to make ten records before I turned 27. I was on a real race to do that, so every trip we took… we made one in Paris, one in London, one in New York, one in Scotland… that’s the one we’re mixing right now. New Mexico, LA… I don’t know. I didn’t figure out that I could write a song until I was like 21 and I was out in California. But once I figured that out, I wrote a record that week and recorded it like a week later, and that was my first record. It hurts my ears now, to hear my singing back then, beacuse I never sang in front of everybody, either. I’d do back-ups or play guitar in a band, but I’d never been a lead vocal guy or anythign like that. But ever since then, I mean… I had 21 years to write about during that time. I had a lot of hometown shit from way back to write about, a lot of stuff, and then I really started doing some major living in between then and now, and got to travel the world a little bit on it. Got caught up in lots of funny situations, lots of great situations and heartbreaking situations, and just tried not to be afraid to live, and do it every day.
That was a great thing about the way the guys were doing it back in the day. My feelings on even like Dylan, why he was so prolific… Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again– I mean, he took the time to write it down. However crazy his trip was, whatever happened in that single night, he took the time at the end of the night to write it down. He didn’t just pass it up and go to the next time. He didn’t just let it go and go play a bunch of shows and fuck off. He took the time to always make the art. I’ve always had a format like that, ever since I felt like I could write a little bit, that the art was what it’s all about. I enjoy making art, and I want to make as much good art as I can before I die. So that’s the main goal, and if that stays the main goal and I still enjoy it, then like, so far everything else has just fallen into place.
Antiquiet: I came across a YouTube clip of you playing Bye Bye Love with Pete Townshend in Chicago when, last year?
Joe Purdy: Yeah, that’s right, that’s right.
Antiquiet: That was fantastic, but Let My Love Open The Door was great. That blew me away.
Joe Purdy: Yeah, that was fun. That was a lot of fun to do.
Antiquiet: That’s just one of those performances that knocks you on your ass for a minute. It’s a perfect example of music that just reaches right to your core.
Joe Purdy: Thank you man, that’s great. I always loved that tune and that melody. And anyone who gets together with Pete wants to do the Who stuff, and it’s all love, but I was like man, what can we do to completely change it up? Cause he’s just this massive rock star, but also a great, sweet fella, and I was like, let’s just do something a little different, let’s slow it down to a blues folk number and see what happens. And it just happened to work out. The funny part about the bridge though, ’cause scientists have maintained for years that chords have never been found for that one. We were both playing a thousand different things, but then you make it through the bridge and it gets back to the easy part and you’re like “yeah!”
Antiquiet: Paris In The Morning is such a beautiful title for an album. How well does the title’s gorgeous melancholy represent what you were feeling when you were making it?
Joe Purdy: Oh thanks, man. It was a fine time. It was the best of times and the worst of times, but it was good. I ended up there after a record I made in London about the same girl. I had her come out, and we had this great time there. First time I’d ever seen it, and it was really special. And a few months later, I took the boys back there to make a record about it. So yeah, there’s a succession there. You Can Tell Georgia was kind of about the beginning of that, and, you know, not giving a shit what people thought. Just… that epic kind of love. And then moving on into the heart of the good stuff with Paris In The Morning and the, you know, the start of the demise. Once you get to Take My Blanket And Go, that’s about it all slipping away. But I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world.
Antiquiet: Being that the songs are so close to home, is there any kind of mindset you have to put yourself into to play those songs in front of people?
Joe Purdy: (long pause) …You know what? Something weird happens. If I have to play those songs just sitting in front of my folks or something, I’d be like ‘fuck this, no way.’ A personal audience, that gets hard for me. But when I get onstage, and even if my folks are in the crowd, it’s work time and you’ve got the mic and a guitar and people are there to see you. That’s my favorite. There’s nothing better than, as cheesy as it sounds, when people want to pay to see you play your songs. And however many cocktails it takes for me to get that out in front of them, that’s fine. That’s all a part of it.
I’m not Jack Johnson, by any means. I’m not the happiest dude ever. I’m as moody as they come, you know. We’ve all got our quirks, and I’m no exception. But overall, when I think about it as I’m swinging here on my front porch talkin’ to you, everything’s pretty great. Nothing’s been that bad. As long as I have the faith that things are gonna be alright, and making art for art’s sake. Doing things for the right reason kind of works out, even if it doesn’t seem so momentarily here and there. Overall, there’s worse things that could happen.
Antiquiet: What kind of advice could you give somebody who’s got a spark in them, can play a little bit, and is trying to put together a song or two but they’re just getting lost in the endless options?
Joe Purdy: That’s a great question. That’s a million dollar question. You know what it is… if you’ve got a start, find the closest thing you can, to the best of your ability, that is your voice. And even if it doesn’t show up exactly the right way, it will eventually. And if it takes a direction that sounds like shit, then don’t use that. Do something else. But once you find something that you like, and you put something with it that you also like, and when you like that team, that’s when you stick with it. When we’re recording with the band, I’m always like okay, does this sound like the records I grew up listening to? Does it sound real to me, or does it just sound like something somebody’s fucking around with. If it sounds like something you could hear on a record player, if you think it could hold water there, then stick with it. You’ll just get better each time. I kind of also think that if somebody’s got that spark, man, it doesn’t matter what I say, they’re gonna find a way. They’re gonna keep on keepin’ on, and that’s the beauty of it.
Antiquiet: How do you feel about protest songs?
Joe Purdy: I don’t have any problem with that. There was a time when people did it really well. I think the reason Dylan got away with it, even for people that didn’t believe the same things, it was just so good that you couldn’t not listen to it. And it made so much sense, and did it within a beautiful melody and a strong, confident song. There’s protest music that I don’t like, even if I agree with the message that they’re sending, because the music comes first. But if anybody’s telling the truth, if they’re saying what they really mean, I think you can tell. And if they’re just fishing to have a protest song, or they’re looking for a voice that isn’t theirs or are copying something, I think that shows too. But you can always tell when somebody means it, and it comes from them and it’s their thoughts about things. Do some thinking on you own, don’t take what you’ve read from other places and morph it into pretending that it’s yours. Do your own research, find out what you believe, and then find out how to tell it, how to say it. If that’s your direction. I’ve gotten into that occasionally, in very subtle ways. But until I’m feeling really bound by some words that I need to get out that are strongly against something, and they sound like they’re coming from me, even still I probably wouldn’t do something as extreme as, say, The Times They Are A’ Changin’. I’d love to, I’d love to have written that song, or Masters Of War... that shit’ll knock you on your ass.
Antiquiet: The very first song of yours I heard was San Jose… in the very first moment of that song, it just grabbed me. It’s one of those songs where, no matter what kind of mood you’re in, no matter what kind of fucked up day you’ve had or whatever’s happened to you, you can’t resist that kind of a groove. It’s fucking great, it just grabs you and takes you to a totally different time and place. Where did that song come from?
Joe Purdy: Alright, wow, thank you man. It came pretty much where it sounds like it came from. People have a lot of songs where they use heavy metaphors, or wrap a little bit of a fictional story around something that they’re feeling or whatever, and there’s a little of that going on there. That’s the beginning of a record called Take My Blanket And Go, and that was the first record where I started to allow myself not to be so true with the literal story that I wouldn’t allow myself to elaborate within the song. Even mixing situations, different situations and different things that have happened to me, piling them up in the same song, the emotions swirling around them- I used to be a real stickler with it, to the point where I’d be like ‘No, it didn’t happen exactly that way, I’m not going to take that liberty,’ but there was a point where I found that your emotions are that strong. Whether or not we were actually in her mother’s front yard when we were little, singing old songs… I mean I’ve done that, but it wasn’t with her. It was somebody else that I knew, but she gave me that feeling, you know? She gave me that feeling of being a little kid, having those kinds of experiences. And sometimes you find the perfect way to really get that aggression out, or that anger, or that sadness or whatever you may feel within a situation. How better could it be if you don’t put limits on the song, where you can take it? Because that’s how the song felt to me. And it’s mostly true. I mean it’s mostly literally true, it’s all true in feeling.
When you get a groove going, a repetitive groove with chords that just repeat themselves over and over again, it frees your mind up from having to make changes. You’ve got the groove and the band keeps it going whether you do or not, and my mind is just free to scream out whatever needs to come out. That was one of those songs that, by the end of playing it, you’ve written it.
Antiquiet: What’s the rest of the year have in store for you?
Joe Purdy: Well, I’d love to say that I’m not gonna be anywhere but this front porch, but I’ve got this for another month, and I’ve actually got this project right now. There’s this wolf named Pony that circles my house… we named him Pony, and I guess he’s kind of a hybrid, but he’s mostly wolf. He’s got a little shepherd in him, I think. But he’ll be behind you, and you won’t realize that he’s been five feet behind you. Freaks me out. He’s a beautiful, beautiful creature, man. Got orange eyes like a burning fire. I started to feed him, but he’s real skittish, he stays off on the edge of the property. But if I play banjo on the front porch for long enough, he’ll come circling around, and as long as I keep playing, he’ll eat maybe 30 feet out from the porch. Then he’ll just run back off into the woods. That’s the kind of shit, man, I don’t know if you’ve seen Jeremiah Johnson… it’s a Sunday morning film, Robert Redford…. there’s not a lot of words in the whole thing, but it’s just an amazing film. It’s so beautifully shot, man, if you’ve got a chance to pick it up, you really should. It’s one of those things where you don’t have anything to do but just sit there and experience the moment. Like for me right now, I don’t have anything better to do than to wait a wolf out, and slowly win him over.
He’s just across the field from me right now, I’m looking at him, and he’s just laying, looking at me. We just play that game. But I love it. And if you can’t tell from like, I mean, in the same way that I like to write music that makes me feel like it could’ve been written at any time… it’s just those little rules that you don’t talk about, like don’t ever mention a cell phone in a song, or computers, and don’t ever mention an automobile unless it’s in a classic sense… that timeless kind of thing is the goal.
To be in a place again where the evolution of nature, the natural habitat of animals and these kinds of relationships are still possible in the world. They’re still available. Every morning, if I go into town, there’s a real windy road, and every morning I get the same fox that crosses in front of me at this one point in the road. And a little further up, there’s always this one lone deer, and a little further than that is the rest of the deer’s family… to see that kind of pattern in nature, to see the two geese that fly over my house every morning on their way back to this one field from the lake, honking at each other real loud. That’s the kind of stuff that makes you feel like you’re out far enough where you can forget LA life, man. You can forget what time you’re in.