During the past year, Joe Purdy has basically started his life anew. It began with a move from his longtime home of Los Angeles to Taos, New Mexico eight months ago. Then he signed with a new management team. In March, he released Coyote, his first studio album in six years. Why all these major changes?
“I just decided to start following my gut again.”
It’s a comeback that seems to surprise even Purdy himself. After putting out more than a dozen albums in a 15-year span, he was so burned out that he stopped recording and releasing music entirely. His most recent studio album came out in 2016, but Purdy never quit writing songs.
“It’s the only thing I’ve ever done that is that effortless, so I know it’s the best thing I can do,” he says.
Right before the pandemic started, Purdy took a few trips out to Joshua Tree National Park. He brought a tape machine and his beloved dog, Charlie. During those trips, he recorded about 40 songs. From these, he picked the tracks that appear on Coyote, choosing the ones that best fit his “breakup-ish” narrative.
“I love what I consider to be real songwriting,” Purdy says. “I don’t mean to be a snob about it, and I don’t think I’ve always done a good job at it, either, for that matter. But I’ve always tried to be honest in the writing, to pretty much a brutal degree. I found out early that within reason, no matter how badly you’ve behaved, if you can make it rhyme, you can be forgiven. It’s been my own therapy — a way for me to forgive myself or explain to myself how I feel about things.”
Purdy first discovered this emotional connection with music while he was growing up in rural Arkansas. As a pre-teen, he began exploring his father’s record collection, discovering James Taylor, Simon & Garfunkel, Blood Sweat & Tears, The Beatles, and a lot of bluegrass. He taught himself how to pick out their songs on his guitar and later formed a band with friends. Still, it never occurred to him to try writing anything of his own. That changed when a 20-year-old Purdy moved to Southern California to take a summer job at the Idyllwild Arts Academy.
“I met this group of people that were the first real group of artists that I’ve ever met,” he says. “I fell in love with a girl from a different walk of life, who was unlike any other I’d ever met.”
Inspired, Purdy sequestered himself in the academy’s rehearsal rooms, teaching himself to play the piano.
“I had a few lines pop out, and in about four minutes I had written a song,” Purdy recalls. “And I was like, ‘Whoa, what just happened?’ And then I wrote nine more that week.”
When that summer ended, Purdy returned to Arkansas, where he transformed his bedroom into a makeshift studio so he could record those 10 songs. As soon as he was done, he packed up a U-Haul and moved to Los Angeles, where he performed at every open mic night he could find. He made enough of a name for himself that he was able to release those bedroom-recorded songs as his self-titled debut album in 2001.
“I thought it was the best thing that had ever been done by anybody,” Purdy laughs. “Then [after listening to Bob Dylan] I had that realization ‘No, you’re definitely not the best that’s ever been.’ But I knew that it’s the best that I am at anything, so it’s still worth me doing, and I’ve never stopped being a student of that.”
Purdy went on to release 14 increasingly acclaimed albums, sometimes at the rate of two per year. By the time he put out 2016’s Who Will Be Next? he was desperate to take a break.
“I needed some peace, and I didn’t have it,” he says. “I needed to find another phase of life that wasn’t just doing the same exact grind that I’d been doing.”
Fortunately, moving to New Mexico rejuvenated Purdy. After less than a year, he’s already deeply embedded in the mountain town’s tight-knit artistic community.
“It’s just perfect for what I want and what I need right now,” he says. “You wake up and you want to go outside and enjoy the big sky and beautiful mountains. You can just see clearly. I made one gut decision, I went to a place, and I started waking up smiling again. I started really, fully having a reawakening. Before I knew it, I went from having kind of a dead career to all of a sudden, we’ve got all this stuff planned.”
To help with that revitalization, Joe Purdy signed with a management team and started booking out his year — including a headlining tour this spring and plans to release more of the songs he wrote in Joshua Tree.
“I’m excited to get back in a position where I can get out of my own way and start releasing music with the veracity that I used to,” Purdy says. “It’s nice to be back in a place where I can have some perspective. I was built for this.”