Lyricist, track and field coach and non-fiction author Joe Puleo has joined forces with singer, multi-instrumentalist and producer Ken Stringfellow (The Posies, Big Star, R.E.M) for a five-song EP, Ten Years To Home: Ken Stringfellow Imagines Puleo to be released June 18th. The collaboration between the two songwriters began during quarantine — they digitally sent music back and forth as they created the smart, melodic, pop songs that would become the EP. The Posies drummer Frankie Siragusa sent his contributions from his studio in LA, adding percussion to four of the songs.
Joe Puleo has been a writer all of his life. While Ten Years To Home is his first sonic release, he’s been working on crafting songs with local Philadelphia musician, Eli Wenger (Los Halos) for the past seven years for their band’s (Bannister Effect) debut release this September. However, none of the songs have come together as quickly and easily as the material he’s written with Ken Stringfellow. Inspired by track and field national champion Gabriele Gruenwald and her battle with and ultimate passing from cancer in 2019, Joe was moved to write about her courageous memory.
“Our first and initially the only song I planned to work together with Ken on was the song I wrote in honor of Gabriele Gruenwald, ‘Not Today,” says Joe. I had read a story about her death that included the anecdote regarding when the doctor told her husband that Gabriele’s vitals were poor and she was probably going to die soon, he relayed the message to her. She responded, ‘Not today.’ The voiceover before the song is a quote from Gabriele, ‘I hope people see that you can still make something beautiful and powerful out of a bad situation.”
“With ‘Not Today’ I just heard the guitar, like it is now, as soon as I opened the text file from Joe for the first time,” remembers Ken. “Same key, same tempo. Kind of a Dylan vibe which was a great way to get those unorthodox and inconsistently sized lines to flow. I swear as soon as I opened Joe’s mail with the lyrics on the day I was scheduled to work on that song for the first time, the music was there… as fast as I could read his words for the first time I heard the melodies, chords… everything. A bolt from the blue. It was all I could do to find the chords on the guitar as fast I could hear them. But it’s like I knew the songs already.”
“After hearing how well Ken handled ‘Not Today’ (I cried the first time I heard the final chorus), I asked him if he would collaborate on some more songs, Joe recalls. “Maybe we could do an EP using the same working template we did for ‘Not Today’? Ken asked, “more songs like we just did, producing them from the ground up?” My answer was, “Yes. You can create them anywhere the lyrics lead you.” His reply, “incredible.” Ken was on board and the EP, Ten Years To Home, became a reality. I sent him six lyrics to review. He selected four and he had carte blanche to change the song’s lyrics and only made a few small edits.”
And thus, an official collaboration between the two writers was born. “There’s a lot of freedom in just letting a lyric be what it is,” muses Ken. “I edit myself quite a bit, and there are so many turns and phrases here in Joe’s lyrics I probably would not have been brave enough — especially some of the busier lines — to keep if it were me as the author. The speed with which everything came together is a great example of how to not overthink. And I love the results.”
The EP opens with the jangle pop “Overcoming Gravity.” “I wrote this song in response to a writing challenge with our house painter/friend/musician,” says Joe. “I thought it would be cool to write an EP called the House Painting Chronicles, so we agreed to finish a song each by the time he finished painting the kitchen. Ultimately, I completed the song (he didn’t.) At the time the song was finished, I wasn’t sure what it was about or where the idea came from. Ultimately, it’s about owning your own shit and maturing. I still have little understanding of why I wrote the lyrics at the time I did.”
“To actually overcome gravity you need velocity, so it seemed like an up-tempo song, and it’s easier for me to write up-tempo songs on the guitar rather than piano,” enthuses Ken.
Piano-driven “The Strongest Man in Town,” “came after ruminating on the future of the relationship I was in at the time (and still am),” Joe recollected. “I met my current fiancée and we started dating. She was recently separated and struggling through a divorce. I respected her deeply and really cared for her and her children’s well-being once I got to know her. She was reticent to jump into a relationship with someone who wasn’t necessarily her type. Her friends asked, ‘how did your type work out the first time?’ This song is my rebuttal to her ‘type-casting.’ By the way, I have lots of tattoos, just not barbed-wire ones.”
“Measured in Threes’ read like a ballad, for which piano is well suited; I heard the melody for the first line in my head before I even started playing… so it was a matter of trying to keep my fingers up with my head,” enthuses Ken.
“It’s about my divorce and choosing my kids (three) over my marriage, says Joe. “Definitely the correct choice, my kids’ love saved me from slipping into depression. I think Ken got it perfect with the piano and the soaring chorus.”
“My Odyssey’ could be the title track and references the ten-year trek Odysseus took home from war,” recalls Joe. “It’s been ten years since the end of my marriage. What I realized is that the Odyssey is actually a story about father and son, so I kept that in the back of my mind until I was ready to write the song. I used some direct bits from Homer’s Odyssey.”
The EP closes with the first track written and recorded for the project, “Not Today,” Puleo’s moving tribute to Gabriele Gruenwald.
“To create the music,” Ken says, “I sent basic demos to Frankie, and when the drums were finished, I could build on top of that. Just making things as full as possible. It has a kind of band/classic feel, once I heard that Dylan thing for ‘Not Today’ I was kind of set in an organic, as opposed to electronic, world. And I think the traditional instruments give everything a warmth that suits the emotional intimacy of the lyrics quite well.”
“I think Joe’s freshness and openness made it a very easy project to work on. It was brave of him to put these deeply personal words in the hands of essentially a stranger, so I will say I felt that responsibility, and raised the bar as high as possible for the results. I think the lyrics have an unorthodoxy about them that really works — it makes them a bit more mysterious than the average lyric I’ve been sent. And it was just that moment – I truly believe the ‘high anxiety’ of 2020 when I made this music was definitely feeding the intensity level of what came out.”
“Once Ken agreed to do an EP, and selected the songs that resonated with him, the direction of the project was obvious to me,” recalls Joe. “Like Odysseus took ten years to return to home from the Trojan war, it’s been ten years since I was divorced. A wise friend told me it would take ten years to fully regain my equilibrium. I would agree. I’m getting remarried a week after the EP is released (the first day of the US Olympic Track and Field Trials.) Also, like Gabriele Gruenwald, my son, Gabriel, is nick-named Gabe. This project seems to be destined.”
Joe Puleo is an athlete. He grew up wrestling, running, swimming, cycling, and competing in triathlons. After his competition career, he opened the Haddonfield Running Company, a running specialty store in Haddonfield, NJ and later, the Philadelphia Running Co., which offers coaching services to clients ranging from the United States Marine Corps’ All-Marine Running Team to the El Salvadoran national record-holder in the marathon. He is the co-author of Running Anatomy books (Human Kinetics 2010 and 2018) and is currently working on a book of fiction. He resides in Spring City, PA following forty years in Phoenixville, PA – both suburbs of Philadelphia.
A fixture on the music landscape, indie and otherwise, since the debut of his band The Posies in 1988, Ken Stringfellow has over a quarter century of experience as a performer, composer, producer, arranger, programmer and more. In addition to his 8 albums with the Posies and four solo albums, Ken spent a decade touring and recording with R.E.M.; he was also involved in the rebirth of Memphis cult band Big Star, playing with Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens from the band’s first reunion shows in 1993 until Chilton’s death in 2010. Ken has played onstage or in studio with such artists as Neil Young, Neuman, the Afghan Whigs, Mercury Rev, Thom Yorke, John Paul Jones, Patti Smith, Robyn Hitchcock, Ringo Starr, Damien Jurado, Nada Surf, Brendan Benson, Mudhoney, the Long Winters…a very long list indeed. In fact, Ken has appeared on over 300 albums (totaling 9 million sales) and performed in 95 countries. He currently splits time between France and Seattle.
“My number one goal is to help the Brave Like Gabe foundation and to honor Gabriele Gruenwald’s memory, says Joe. “She embodied what’s so great about track and field and the competitive spirit. The project was done with integrity.”
Connect with Puleo Music and Ken Stringfellow: