Joe Purdy

Arkansas’ most successful unknown songwriter

[podcast][/podcast]   “Miss Me”


By Free Weekly Staff

Imagine this: The Who’s Pete Townshend singing back up for you with the likes of Meg Ryan and Jack Black in the audience. Your original songs played on “Lost” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” You’re tapped by Townshend to be one of the featured artists—along with Lou Reed and Ben Harper—for the new “In the Attic” CD/DVD.

Can all this happen to a guy from Arkansas? A guy who went to Los Angeles, and “made it” by handing out CDs he’d burned on his computer? Can all this happen without a label, a producer, major distribution and a PR team?

Yes, it can. Just ask Northwest Arkansas’ Joe Purdy. 

Winging it on his own explains why most people don’t know the name Joe Purdy, but they do know his music. Purdy may be Arkansas,’ and one of the nation’s, most successful unknown and prolific songwriters. Purdy is the ultimate DIY machine and he’s doing what he’s doing for the right reasons … not to get rich or to be in the spotlight, but to simply get his music out there. 

Some might call Purdy lucky, but after talking with him, you realize that there’s probably some sort of karmic payback going on because of the way he has approached his art. 

Purdy is not a pushy guy. He likes to talk, but he’d rather talk about Ozark history and the old timers around here than performing for movie stars and his music reflects that. Some of his songs sound a bit like early songs by The Band. Others like “Can’t Get It Right Today” — which is featured in a KIA TV commercial and on “Grey’s Anatomy” — is a bit poppy.

After a living in L.A., Purdy is back where he wants to be, at home in Northwest Arkansas. He loves the simple life that the Natural State has to offer, but he’s still writing and performing. He’ll be playing Wakarusa today and Friday and then he’ll be headed to New York to play City Winery in July.

Purdy says that making and promoting an album is “surprisingly simple”: “Write some songs, record them, make a CD cover.” That is just what he’s done to the tune of 10 albums in less than 10 years. His newest album “Last Clock on the Wall,” came out in March.

The Free Weekly talked to Purdy recently by phone. He was out of breath from manhandling a chainsaw and minding fires to clean up storm debris at his home near Beaver Lake.

Here’s his story.

Purdy’s dad loved hot rods and bluegrass, so the younger Purdy played with his dad on the front porch and was often ferried to school in a ’37 Pontiac. 

He graduated from Springdale High School (class of ’98), did a semester at NorthWest Arkansas Community College, but decided it wasn’t for him. He was a member of the NWA band Just Off Turner (now based in Los Angeles, and also having some success in Tinseltown) during his high school days. 

Purdy is a local history buff and grew up listening to his dad’s vinyl collection. He likes the sound that the reel-to-reel two-inch tape recordings produce because it reminds him of the old records.

“It sounds ratty, that’s what I relate to,” Purdy said. He eventually carried a bit of that sound with him to L.A. 

After high school, Purdy made a trip to L.A. to visit a friend. He came home and “holed up” in his old room and decided that he could write a song. The next week he wrote 10 songs. “I got this little recorder and made a record and packed up the U-Haul,” Purdy said. At 19, he was headed back to L.A.

He didn’t hit the club circuit immediately. He landed a summer job as a counselor at the Idyllwild Arts Academy in the San Jacinto Mountains and played music in his downtime. He played the L.A. open mic circuit for two or three years and in addition to his solo gigs, he also played with a band. In “probably 2003” the band performed at South By Southwest.

Purdy entered the arena in an honest — in what some may say naive — way. The affable songwriter just wanted to have his music heard and along the way he made it big. Here’s how he did it: He played open mikes — “who ever would have me” — and burned CDs of his music on his home computer. He took the CDs to his shows and sold them for 5 bucks. If fans couldn’t afford them, Purdy would insist that they take one for free. 

What is most revolutionary about Purdy’s way of doing things is that he has done the opposite of what the music industry has been doing for decades. The music industry spends millions to prevent duplication and works to ensure they get a cut every time a song is played. But when Purdy handed out his CDs he hoped that his fans would burn copies and give them to their friends. 

“I really think the main thing is people try and protect their art. They may never get their art heard if they hold it so close, too tight,” Purdy said. “I get it, but I’m not programmed that way. If they really love it (the music) and can’t afford it, they should have it. They’ll thank you later.”

In L.A., Purdy became a regular performer at Molly Malone’s Irish Pub on Fairfax Avenue. It was a good proving ground.

“It was like a New York bar, long and skinny, noisy,” Purdy said. “If you could manage to get people to shut up for long, you knew you had a keeper.” He gave away quite a few CDs at Molly’s because most people didn’t have the money or preferred to spend their cash on libations.

“It’s not about the money period,” Purdy said. “I always believed that would come if you were doing it for the right reasons. It can never be a bad thing if you believe in your art.”

Purdy eventually landed a spot at Hollywood’s Hotel Cafe. At that time it was not the hot spot that it is today. He was still burning, selling and giving away CDs, but decided to step it up a notch. He spent $250 — “that I didn’t have” — to print his first professionally pressed CDs. It was his third album and the $250 got him 100 copies.

One night after a Hotel Café show, a guy approached Purdy and said he had enjoyed the show, said he’d bought a CD and asked for Purdy’s contact information. Purdy tried to give the guy his money back for the CD, but the deal had already gone down. Subsequently a deal with this man was the deal that skyrocketed Purdy into the world as a professional musician.

The man was Bryan Burk, the executive vice president of Bad Robot Productions and the executive producer of “Lost.” 

About a year after the meeting at Hotel Cafe, Purdy got a call from Burk. Burk was working on a new TV series and heard Purdy’s CD playing in a restaurant. Although Burk had lost Purdy’s phone number, he was able to get it from a waitress. Burk left a message for Purdy saying that he was looking for a song about being stuck on an island. Strangely enough Purdy was staying on an island in the St. Lawrence River where he’d played a benefit show and was writing songs about being on an island. 

The island that Burk was talking about was a mythical island that would be the setting for “Lost.”

Purdy returned Burks’ call and played “Wash Away” on Burks’ voice mail. Burk played it over the speakerphone in the production room of “Lost.”

“It was very low-fi, which is what I love,” Purdy said. 

Purdy and some of his friends went into the studio to polish the song a bit, working from 10 p.m. to 10 a.m. and then took it to Burk. 

“I called Burk, and we drove over to the studio where they were working on the (“Lost”) pilot. There were all these people on computers and a movie screen. He puts it (the music) in and says ‘perfect.’” A week and a half later it aired. 

“It wasn’t something I called in favors on,” Purdy said. “It was priceless.”

It was also a game changer for Purdy.

“I started selling on the Internet and managed to get on iTunes. I financially become a full-time musician. No more (working as) personal assistant, picking up (someone else’s) dry cleaning.”

Next came tours of Europe. Purdy made records in Paris, New York, London and Scotland. They were his records, made his way. The labels were chasing him, but he was running. He was pioneering a new way of doing things.

Purdy has an attorney who handles his contracts and a manager who helps coordinate his affairs. It was his attorney who helped get Purdy’s songs on “Grey’s Anatomy.” Once again it was the story of passing along a CD. Purdy’s attorney gave a CD to the music supervisor for Grey’s and a week later Purdy had his first placement on Grey’s. Five more Purdy songs also made it to the popular TV series.

The KIA TV commercial, dropped in from nowhere. The ad agency that produced the spot sent the commercial with the song laid in to Purdy, e-mailed him and asked what he thought. He thought it was “hilarious” and gave them the go-ahead.

“I’ve been really lucky all across the board,” Purdy said. “I’m not good at asking for things.”

And the association with Pete Townshend? Townshend and musician Rachel Fuller were doing acoustic shows and heard Purdy during his European tour in 2006. Townshend and Fuller invited Purdy to perform with them at some of their shows. One of the shows was at Hotel Cafe. With an audience that included Meg Ryan, Jack Black and Laura Dern, Townshend stepped back and let Purdy and his dad Dave take center stage. The clip is featured in its entirety on the “In the Attic” DVD.

After moving back to NWA about a year ago, Purdy has been working on songs that are inspired by local history gleaned from stories from “a bunch of old timers.” He has already finished one that he’s calling “Mudtown Crier.” He said the songs are about “lovin’ this place.” “I love Arkansas,” he said.

At the time of the interview, Purdy was unsure if he would be performing solo or with backup at Wakarusa, saying that he might grab a couple of local players to perform with him.

What advice does he have for emerging songwriters?

“You take these slow steps up. The more you put out there, the more fans you have. Not being greedy with stuff, but giving it away. Honestly having the balls to do it. Putting it out there.

“If you’re not giving money away to a major label, you can make an honest working man’s living by selling out of the trunk of your car. You can be famous (if you go with a label), but be one of the poorest people in the world.”

Purdy says he doesn’t need much. 

“Pay my mortgage, take my girl to dinner once and awhile. It’s a long road, but a gratifying road.”

Listen to Joe Purdy’s music and find his CDs at “In the Attic” is available only at Best Buy.

Categories: Features, Music