Joseph Huber has spent the past decade doing things his way. Unconcerned and unburdened about trends. Writing and saying something meaningful with each line. Huber was kind enough to spend some time answering questions with in-depth, informative responses that reveal so much about his songwriting process, thoughts on Americana, why full albums matter, and giving audiences the chance to let loose and dance. His answers defined, once again, why he is my choice for the greatest artist of the decade.
Joseph Huber’s run of excellence began in 2010 with the release of Bury Me Where I Fall followed by Tongues of Fire, The Hanging Road, The Suffering Stage, and his latest release Moondog. But it’s the run of albums from Tongues of Fire to The Suffering Stage that really standout as we look back upon this decade. Huber doesn’t set out to make concept records, but he does say that a coherent theme is “more than likely a natural outcome of a group of songs being written around the same two year period.”
On Tongues of Fire: “(It’s) a batch of songs that were leftover from what was going to be the next .357 String Band record before we split, so there is a number of songs on there that would’ve fit into that band, while other songs on that album showcase an obvious moving away from the dark, sneering punk sound that I wanted to balance with something else.”
On The Hanging Road: “(It) was the first album that I felt I was truly a solo artist and over and done with any need to have a ‘sound’ that was similar to .357 and I could just truly be myself and write for the sake of the song itself and not be concerned with how or whether it would fit into a hard-driving live performance.”
On The Suffering Stage: “After those records, I started playing shows as a band more often than not, so The Suffering Stage was the result of wanting to put out a record that at least showcased some sort of ‘filling out’ of the sound and having others involved a bit more. Also, while Tongues and The Hanging Road are musically more based on various old-time folk music in various way, The Suffering Stage was more inspired by those obvious pinnacle songwriters like Dylan, Neil Young, Van Morrison, and Jackson Browne — hence having a few songs of social conscience also and not just songs based on personal journeys or love and loss.”
Each of those three albums represents a specific type of sound Huber wanted at the time, and different elements make each album stand on its own as a pièce de résistance for country and roots music of the 2010s. The songwriting and jovial mood of Tongues of Fire is the rambling, good-time album. The narratives and independence of The Hanging Road allowed Huber to finally feel like a solo artist. And The Suffering Stage found Huber flexing the songwriting muscle and heft of the all-time greats with strong messages for the listener.
Huber cares deeply about making whole, complete albums for the listener and says, “ I think it counts to have a ‘ride’ for people to sit down and listen to from beginning to end.” Going a little further, Huber continued with, “ Folks have been saying, “The ‘album’ as an art-form is dead!” for a long time, which either means a) it is going through a long, dragged out slow agonizing death that still hasn’t fully happened, or b) that’s just something people say now without thinking about if it’s true, and actually it’s very much still here.” Championing the album is a risky yet rewarding prospect in today’s format; yet Huber knows his fanbase and understands that his listeners will spin a record front to back. The album as an art-form isn’t going anywhere.
“If you’re a songwriter-sorry-the melody kind of has to be there for people to give two shits about the words.” Of all the things Joseph Huber gave me, that line was near the top of what stuck out the most. In a pretentious, haughty music world that finds critics falling in love with stuffy, retro production, the importance of a melody is such a breath of fresh air. As Huber tells me, words without a melody are just a poem- which is fine- but as a songwriter, Huber wants to strive to craft a melody fitting of the words he’s writing.
Like most songwriters, Huber describes himself as “the epitome of undisciplined” (I made the comment that all of the best songwriters, Guy Clark aside, have found it hard to just sit down and write). Huber says, “If I died today, there would be no boxes of personal notebooks and journals filled to the brim. I go in phases with that sort of thing. Mostly I write when it hits. I don’t force myself to get up in the morning and write for at least an hour or something like that. My mind or body would physically reject that structure.”
But, Huber continues, the process of writing when the iron is hot makes the outcome even more rewarding. He says, “ When the mood strikes and the words are coming on their own time, I will go with it, and that notion of it striking when it wants to makes it more otherworldly. When it feels like it comes from somewhere else, that’s the song or line that works best.”
Like a true troubadour, Huber wishes he could devote more time to his writing while trying to “make a living in this world.” One area in which Huber is entirely self-taught is playing an instrument. He often plays the banjo, fiddle, and mandolin in open tunings and gave me an interesting perspective when he said, “ I don’t bend my mind to learn to play them. I usually bend them to my own capabilities.” That quote made me really think about expectations we all have as music fans. So often we expect production to be near perfect even if we want that dirtiness or spontaneity that a live studio feel can give us. Huber flips that idea on its head by using instruments as his tool instead of allowing the instrument to guide him.
One of the first songs that made me really feel the depth of Joseph Huber’s songwriting and artistry was “Drop In The Bucket” off Tongues of Fire. I wanted to get his thoughts on one line in particular, and he also expounded a bit on writing songs with single lines that can have such an impact on the whole story. I specifically asked him about the line which he sings, “I step out on the sidewalk/the concrete’s gettin’ cold. The red lights and the green lights all turn to flashin’ gold.” To me, that lines conjures up an image of an early fall evening as dusk falls on a city street while the stoplights start flashing yellow. It’s incredibly specific. Huber says, “ These lines both suggest a liminal zone where one way of living has now become another: a transition from a noisey bar to a silent open street corner; from a hot day to a cold night that is yet to reveal itself; from the streetlight whose method of giving structure during the daylight simply no longer makes sense at night.” Huber continued by touching on how transitioning from one stage to another suggests a “threshold of new rules, and of something new to come.”
The best songwriters are able to channel stories in small batches of songs; ebbs and flows of life are felt in just five minutes, and a couple of lines can completely change one’s perspective. Huber understands the importance of making sure the listener is invested. He says, “ Any engaging story involves stepping into that zone where the rules change and seeing how the protagonist deals with it. I think it could be that good writers probably live in the liminal zone in their heads- on some strange periphery. And in doing so, they know how to skillfully and poetically describe that journey.”
One of the more unexpected revelations I gained from talking to Joseph are his thoughts on Moondog, released in August 2019. Initially, Huber says, “I will probably always look sort of askance at Moondog with a bit of a side-eye. I think they are great songs (but) I was attempting too many new and different recording methods and never fully got the hang of them.” It was interesting that Huber mentioned the new recording methods because some of my first thoughts after listenening to Moondog were centered on the ‘coolness’ of the addition of some new sounds. Huber’s main frustrations with Moondog seem to be related to the album being “rushed.” The recording process dragged out during which Huber’s marriage was coming to an end which obviously don’t give him fond memories of the time. As more and more time went by, Huber was forced to say, “I have to be done.” He continued by saying, “The album was not completed out of a feeling of true artistic completion. It was completed out of a feeling of personally needing to move on with the next stage of my life as a whole.”
Even with all those negative memories of the recording process, Huber does say, “ Having said (all) that, I’m extremely proud of the writing on that album. I would say lyrically The Suffering Stage and Moondog are on fairly equal footing in my mind as far as my best writing.” I can’t say I disagree. The writing on Moondog touches on new love, the parting of ways, and interpersonal relationships. “After You,” “Centerline,” “Pale, Lonesome Rider,” “Where You Said You Would Be,” and “Another Man’s Shoes” are all serious, hefty contributions to Huber’s discography. But it’s “A Northwood Waltz” that really solidifies the whole album, and I’d go so far as to say it’s the best song of the decade.
One area in which Huber does not concern himself is being labeled Americana. He says, “ To be completely honest, I am usually pretty blind to most things Americana. I don’t have a lot of skin in the game to really care too much about whether someone wants to call my music that or not.” I mentioned to Huber that so much of Americana today seems too stuffy and melodramatic. He understood what I meant and said, “There is a segment of it that has a sort of feeling of upper-middle class, clean-cut, almost contemporary-Christian rock “hands in the air” vibe that I will never understand.”
I can’t think of a better way to describe the current state of Americana than that right there. In their efforts to remove themselves from the mainstream, most Americana artists ended up just creating another homogeneous genre that leaves little room for serious creativity. “I truly think there are very few “artists” out there in it when it comes to the content of their writing and music in that so-called genre,” Huber says. “You just have to seek out the ones who are doing something truly unique, and the ones doing that probably wouldn’t call their music Americana either.” Huber did make it clear that he wasn’t trying to be mean-spirited and dismissive. Rather, he cares about music as true *art* and would rather focus on the kinds of artists that feel the same.
Huber also touched on the importance of making an audience dance and let loose. It’s about an artist finding a balance between pouring his or her own emotions out on stage and then allowing the audience to let their own troubles slip away through a performance. “I’ve been to those shows where its all seated and folks are listening to songs about a songwriter’s struggles with depression and anxiety and their journey of overcoming those obstacles. There is absolutely a place for those songs in this world and I will not put them down. I do it too.” “But,” Huber continues, “that’s only one side of life. If you wanna convince people that you’ve truly overcome it, then what better way to prove it than by switching it up and playing a song that you can dance to? There’s the proof!”
I keep finding myself impressed with how self-aware Huber is as an artist. For instance, Huber knows that he has recorded quite a few “listen and absorb” songs. But he also does not want to be selfish with his live show; he wants the audience to leave with a little less trouble on their backs. He says, “If I play a set, and I didn’t make folks dance and let loose, than I feel like I’ve failed and would leave that show thinking, “What the hell did I do wrong? These folks came out to see a show, and I must have not followed through with my end of the deal.”” Huber attributes this attitude partially to coming of age in the Wisconsin music scene “where you kind of have to be an entertainer as well as a writer.” “There’s a good amount of this state that just expects a little joy, a little dancing, a little letting loose for a moment,” Huber says. “And even I, who is a bit of a recluse and more of an observer most of the time, absolutely agrees with that sentiment.”
The appreciation Huber feels for an audience is reciprocated when the crowd leaves one of his shows. “The crowd was nice enough to listen to your personal song of overcoming. They appreciated it. Now you should reciprocate by getting over yourself and rewarding them with a song that is about them expressing themselves on the dance floor. That’s just being a good human.”
I want to sincerely thank Joseph Huber for taking the time to answer some pretty specific questions. He could not have been more gracious and kind with the thoughtful and interesting answers. Artists like Joseph are the one’s that need our support the most. He and many others across the country are writing and recording music that is meaningful and significant on so many levels. It’s quite easy to just soak in music that we’re fed by critics without doing real work to find what each one of us will feel deep in our soul. As 2019 winds down and 2020 begins, I hope we all spend time seeking out and finding music that speaks to us in a deep, passionate way.