Ken Stringfellow Imagines Joe Puleo: Ten Years To Home
Tales of musical collaboration are potentially very interesting since every human being brings their own set of experiences and assumptions to the table that can form unpredictable but intriguing interrelationships when it comes to creating songs, but the story of Joe Puleo and Ken Stringfellow’s collaboration on Ken Stringfellow Imagines Joe Puleo: Ten Years To Home is particularly surprising and inspiring.
Joe Puleo is a track coach, writer, and a former English major with a love for language and music, but otherwise has little background in the music world. Ken Stringfellow is a lifelong songwriter, musician, and producer who started out with his band The Posies, worked with R.E.M. and the re-formed Big Star, and continues to do band work and solo work. The two were brought together by a mutual writer friend to collaborate on a song about track and field star Gabe Grunewald and her battle with cancer, but the results were so immediately and interesting that this led to working on four more songs together to be released as an EP, which is out now.
Their mode of creation and communication was based on a fairly radical level of mutual trust set against the backdrop of the pandemic. Puleo had written all the song lyrics in question before the pandemic, many of them drawn from very personal life experiences. Stringfellow had a fortuitous experience of reacting to the lyrics as he received them with full-fledged compositions developing faster than he could write them down. The songs resulting from this experiment are musically fascinating and pack quite an emotional punch. I spoke with Joe Puleo and Ken Stringfellow about this journey and garnered some vignettes about their experiences.
Americana Highways: I was wondering what the learning curve has been like for you, Joe, coming from outside of music, to work on this EP. Has the process made you more interested in writing more music?
Joe Puleo: The really cool thing about all this for me is that I know nothing about the music world. I listen to music, and I’ve been in studios, because I was doing another album with a friend of mine who has a couple albums that came out years ago. Ken was introduced to me through a mutual friend who is a writer. She thought we might be able to do something cool together, and that was it. Ken has been wonderful in educating me.
One of Ken’s comments has been that Ken could never have written the lyrics to these songs because they are too personal. He self-edits. When he got my words, he realized that he didn’t have to edit them. The rhythm is wrong and everything is different, and the lyrics are not how he would do it, but it freed him to be able to do it. But I have no skin in the music game. So, for me, I was just writing. I wasn’t self-conscious. My process was to sit down and write the song, and I was done.
AH: Is it better to write not to know if anyone is going to read it or hear it?
Joe: I don’t know yet because I haven’t tried to write a song recently. But I love Loudon Wainwright III, who says, “When the music comes, I write. When the music doesn’t come, I don’t write.” If it doesn’t feel right, I don’t do it.
AH: Ken, with Joe’s lyrics being so different from what you usually work with, did that actually lead you to compose differently or venture into new territory musically?
Ken Stringfellow: I would say that the lyrics are not unusual in the grand spectrum of all lyrics because anything can happen and lyrics can go in a number of different directions, but yes, they were different from the way in which I would do things. In certain instances, in the same equivalent section, one line might have 18 syllables in one instance, and 7 in another. To get those longer, complicated things in was probably the biggest challenge, to make them musical. Over the years, after making some very complicated songs in my life, I’m more on the side of brevity these days. So, some of the more complicated lines I might have shied away from due to these imaginary restrictions.
One thing I have to point out about writing this music is something that I think had a lot to do with the times we were living in, in the Spring of 2020. These lyrics predate that whole scene, so that’s not reflected in the lyrics, and yet, musically, I had so much tension, anxiety, uncertainty, and raw emotion circulating around that they grabbed onto the first opportunity to do so. I had already written the songs for my band’s record and that record was in progress, so my own output as a songwriter had been exhausted, in a way. I wasn’t feeling the need to write a bunch of songs at that moment for myself.
I think the intensity of it all has to do with the subject matter but was also accelerated by all the other shit going down in the world. That meant that there was a lot in me to come out. For each of these songs, the day I opened up the text file to work on each one, the whole thing came crashing into my mind. It was as fast as I could get to the piano or guitar to hear it, the whole thing was already “playing,” melodically, structurally, everything.
It was fascinating, especially that first song, “Not Today.” We did that song separately, thinking there’d just be one, then it went well, and we did the other ones. At that time, I’d come off the road and things were changing, but I actually put out a call saying, “I’m here in France at my studio. I’m not touring. Now is the time for people to come forward with projects. I need things to do.” And it was that call that I posted on Facebook that caused our mutual friend to connect. But I actually got a lot of response to that so I was able to stay quite busy throughout the lockdown. I didn’t have a lot of time to premeditate, but just worked each day on a song.
On the day I was supposed to work on “Not Today,” I went to computer, opened the text file, and it was immediate. I heard every single aspect of all this music. I grabbed the guitar, put the capo on, and went from there. The song wrote itself faster than I could actually write it down. I have a feeling that had a lot to do with how much pent-up angst was in me, but also to do with the subject matter. Music works through its magical ways through the collective unconscious etc. and I’m just here to transcribe it.
AH: What was the next song that you two worked on?
Ken: Then we went from the one song to a batch, all at once. Joe sent me several more lyrics to choose from, and I zeroed in on the most personal ones. The other four songs seemed connected in some ways.
Joe: I’m doing an LP with a friend of mine who was in a band, and we had some songs that he hadn’t worked on yet, so I sent them to Ken. If I remember correctly, three or four resonated immediately and the others didn’t make the same impact. For one of them, Ken asked if I could explain it a little more and where I was at when I wrote the song. Then once I did that, he said, “I got it. I’ll be back in three weeks.” That was it! I went about my life and then he got ahold of me a few weeks later and sent them all to me.
Ken: Yes, that’s a lot of trust, I would say. Because the remaining songs were and are way more personal and delve into Joe’s life and relationships, including relationships that didn’t work out as hoped. It’s a lot to put out there.
AH: Was there an assumption, from the beginning, that this music would be released, or was it more of an experiment at the time?
Ken: I always assumed the stuff would be released. I think that’s just kind of what I’m wired for. I wouldn’t change anything either way. I would stand behind the work no matter what. It’s funny because sometimes when I work with people who aren’t really in the music world, and they pay me to do this, whether it’s playing on it, singing on it, or mixing it, ask, “Is it okay if I release this?” I say, “You can do whatever you want!” It’s like asking your car mechanic, “Is it okay if I drive over to see my mom next week in the car?” I say, “Yes, it’s all good! You take it from here.” I don’t remember what we discussed in those terms, Joe.
Joe: I don’t think we did! What I recognized in Ken was this incredible work ethic. It couldn’t be further from the slacker musician stereotype. But Ken didn’t know me. Once I had all the songs from Ken, I just contacted the people I know in the music industry and asked, “How do I do this?” I think in life you end up with the people you should be with. When I contacted those people, they sent me to all the right people. I just connected dots, and this is how we arrived at this moment. That’s kind of been the story of my life. In my mid-twenties, I actually listened to The Posies. When I found that Ken had some time, I thought, “Well, shit!” This is incredibly cool for me. It’s a blessing in my life. I fell in music in the 80s and I’ve loved it ever since.
When Ken sent me “Not Today,” I literally cried on the last chorus, it was so beautiful. When I write music, I don’t know what it’s going to sound like. When I heard the songs, they sounded exactly like what they were supposed to sound like. I thought, “My gosh! This is exactly what the songs sounded like the whole time!”
Ken: There’s the idea that the statue is already in the block of marble and that Michelangelo is just retrieving the statue that’s in the block of marble. Following your instincts and inspirations gets you a long way. Also trust, as in trusting yourself. Joe trusted himself to give me the lyrics. I wanted to mention that the other four songs, with me working steadily on songs every day without a lot of pre-thinking, were all essentially written in one afternoon. They just kept coming. What I think is cool about them is that they are each totally unique. They aren’t all variations on the same musical theme. Each set of lyrics triggered some other thing in me that made the EP quite diverse.
There’s “Overcoming Gravity,” which is a very fast, strummy song, there’s “Measured in Threes” which is a big piano ballad, and all things in between. They wrote themselves in certain ways. That’s how I feel.
AH: I could hear a lot of different musical traditions coming into play on these songs, and Ken, you have a very diverse musical background coming into play, so that didn’t surprise me too much. Do you see some points of continuity between the songs, though, in terms of composition? I noticed you previously spoke about taking a more “organic” approach to sound, rather than an electric approach, for instance.
Ken: That would be the biggest fork in the road. I’m definitely capable of doing stuff with beats and synths, though there’s not much evidence of it in my bands or solo work. However, I do stuff like that for other people all the time. But we got sent down a certain road, because when I opened up “Not Today,” it announced itself to me as a Bob Dylan-meets-the-Stones, Small Faces kind of thing. I think the Dylan reference is quite apt for “Not Today” because he’s known to write songs about inspiring characters, like “Hurricane.” It’s kind of in that world. It shines a light on someone that he feels needs to have a light shined on them. Though he’s also done immensely personal work over the years, too.
Once we did that, I had Frankie [Siragusa] record his drums kind of in a vintage way. It wasn’t a Blink 182 version of the drums, but it was more rounded off like you might hear on a Stones record. Once we were down that road, it didn’t seem like we’d start programming drum machines for the songs. We chose one of the major Kingdoms, for example, of Plants, Fungi, and Animals, since we had to pick one of those universes. But then, within each of those Kingdom, there’s a lot of variety, if I may continue with that metaphor to the bitter end.
AH: Joe, what do you think about the idea of writing intensely personal lyrics? Was that a goal?
Joe: These are universal concepts. I didn’t write about any ideas that Ken hasn’t written about, that other people haven’t written about, except maybe Gabe Grunewald. The story of cancer and fighting cancer is universal. But the idea that we can put our own spins and semantics on things is pretty cool. Then we can connect with people who see it the way that we see it. That duality between universality and singularity fascinates me, and how to balance those two. It’s a fascinating intersection to me.
AH: One thing I definitely want to call out is that people, on the whole, don’t talk a lot about divorce and the life that follows after that, in music, and this EP does. That subject is so universal to so many people, with a huge percentage of the population affected by it directly or indirectly that it surprises me. Maybe it’s considered a downer, but does it have to be? Maybe it’s a reflection, maybe it’s a journey, as these songs suggest. It could be all these things.
Ken: That’s so true. I will say something, to our credit, and maybe Joe didn’t know this. When our band The Posies began, and we were 19 year-olds, but especially on our second album, when we are all of 20 years old, it was all about divorce. My parents divorced and I can’t think of any parents from the generation that I grew up with who are together. Especially for my bandmate in The Posies, Jon Auer, his parents had divorced and remarried five times each. He grew up with a constant situation of a divorce every year and he was going from one step-mom, or step-dad to the other. We had that quite well established as a theme by album two, so I might be the perfect candidate for all of these songs. I’m apparently the “divorce guy.”
AH: What was the audience reaction like when you played those songs at such a young age?
Ken: I think people were really intrigued to hear these guys, who weren’t even old enough to go into a bar, singing about divorce issues. It was a prodigy for reporting on the downside of life, even though none of us had been married yet.
Joe: I wrote “Measured in Threes” for my children to honor them during my divorce and my youngest, who’s 14, said, “Dad, ‘Measured in Threes’ is my favorite song!” Everybody loves songs written about themselves. That’s easy. But Ken referred to that song as his “Adele moment” with that big chorus. Ken, that is beautiful. When I heard that the first time, again, I cried. You captured the feeling that I had about my children getting me through a really bad divorce. I appreciate you doing that.
Ken: I think you did it, Joe, in a way. It’s the catalyst effect.