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 tomorrow, June 18. The collaboration between the two songwriters began during quarantine – they digitally sent music back and forth as they created the 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.
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 Stringfellow. Inspired by track and field national champion Gabriele Gruenwald and her battle with, and ultimate passing from, cancer in 2019, Puleo 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,” Puleo said. “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.”
Puleo 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, N.J., and later, the Philadelphia Running Co. He resides in Spring City following 40 years in Phoenixville.
A fixture on the music landscape, indie and otherwise, since the debut of his band The Posies in 1988, Stringfellow has over a quarter century of experience as a performer, composer, producer, arranger, programmer and more. In addition to his eight albums with the Posies and four solo albums, he 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.
PW recently caught up with Puleo and Stringfellow to talk about their collaboration.
How did this collaboration come about? What was it like working on this project together?
Ken Stringfellow: A mutual friend put us in touch – I had put the word out last spring about wanting to get more studio work, as my touring year had ended abruptly in March, like for everyone else. So, our friend responded to that, and that led to us doing the song “Not Today.” Of course, everything I worked on in mid-2020 was done remotely. So, Joe sent me lyrics, and I composed, and subsequently created, the music. I performed and sang all the sounds you hear except for the drums, which I had the Posies’ drummer Frankie Siragusa do at his studio in LA, again, remotely. I still have yet to meet Joe in the flesh!
Joe Puleo: Serendipity! As Ken mentioned, a mutual friend mentioned Ken was available to collaborate, produce, and/or play on outside projects since his spring 2020 tour had been cancelled due to COVID-19. I was looking for a musician to work with to complete the song, “Not Today” I had written in memory of Gabriele Gruenwald.
Gabriele was a national champion runner (2014 USA Indoor 3000m) and by all accounts, a beautiful person. I’m a track and field coach, and the valor and dignity she exhibited facing her cancer and ultimate death resonated deeply. I heard the band The National dedicate their song “Light Years” to her at a concert after her death. I was motivated to write a song in her memory.
Ken agreed, and he created a beautiful song. The first time I heard “Not Today,” I cried after listening to the soaring final chorus. I sent the song to Turtle Studios for mastering, and that was that…until it wasn’t.
Ken Stringfellow: As for how it was – Joe gave me a great gift – total freedom. I was free to follow whatever inspiration came to me to turn these words on a page into fully realized songs. So, it was marvelous. I know they say great art is made out of constraints, but I have to say I do my best work in an environment of total creative liberation. Indeed, in mid-2020, the world had “plenty” of limitations already in place. So that mental/emotional liberty had even greater currency than ever.
Joe Puleo: Hearing my lyrics married to incredible power pop sound was intoxicating. I loved the Posies when I first listened to “Frosting on the Beater” and I consider local power pop artists like John Faye and Cliff Hillis to be exceptional. To hear my words so beautifully articulated by Ken is a blessing, and I truly believe the songs can resonate with a large audience that will find them meaningful in their life. Sort of making the personal become universal.
Talk a little about how “Ten Years To Home: Ken Stringfellow Imagines Puleo” came together. What was the production process like? Did the EP turn out the way you hoped?
Ken Stringfellow: Once we did “Not Today” in the manner described above, Joe was inspired to send me more lyrics to convert into songs, this time the subject matter was closer to home, as opposed to “Not Today” which was a tribute to Gabriele Gruenwald, and not shall we say as deeply intimate as the next songs which were taken from Joe’s personal life directly. But the working method was the same – I read the lyrics on the page, which moved my hands on the piano or guitar, and … started singing. It’s pretty astonishing how quickly – instantly – the melodies and chords came to life. I made some basic piano/voice or guitar/voice demos to send to Frankie (except for “Measured In Threes” which didn’t feel like it needed drums) to add drums to, then I played and sang everything over the top of those drums, then mixed the results.
As for my expectations – I had none, really – it was a total mystery what would come from this experiment, and since Joe had left it totally up to me, there wasn’t pressure to go in any particular direction. I felt the responsibility of Joe’s extension of trusting me with these very personal words, but that’s different from pressure, in my mind. It’s more…I wanted to live up to the seriousness – the “gravity,” if you will – of the moment. And I think what came out of me was very powerful. I totally believe that I transferred a lot of the general anxiety of 2020 – when my professional world as I knew it came crashing down around me, and everyone I knew, when people I knew had died and tens of thousands of others died with them, plus the social unrest sparked by police brutality in the U.S. and beyond – it was all in me with nowhere to go. I know that’s not related to Joe’s lyrics, but the depth and intensity we feel in songs and singing is sometimes from another source, coupled with the lyrical subject matter in a mysterious non-linear alchemy.
Joe Puleo: I played around with some titles for the EP (“Sundry Songs”) and publishing company, “Odd-Lot” Music and Ken talked me out of “Sundry Songs”: His comment, “part of the definition of ‘Sundry’ are ‘things of little value’ … careful w the feng shui!”
Ultimately, I settled on “Ten Years to Home” to connect with the “My Odyssey” theme.
I try not to have expectations. I study Buddhism, so I’m aware of the pitfalls of “clinging” to outcomes. Also, not being a musician is incredibly liberating when writing lyrics. Like Ken mentioned, it’s freeing to work outside of your normal constraints. I coach and track and field and work in the technology/human performance space, so I view writing as an avocation. I have no expectations about how my lyrics will be received. I believe this allows me to eliminate self-consciousness and excessive self-editing. That being said, I do have objectives for the song “Not Today” and the EP. Ultimately, I hope to donate all the profits from the song “Not Today” and 20 percent of the profits from the EP to the “Brave Like Gabe” foundation in Gabriele Gruenwald’s honor. Also, secretly, I’d love to have Ken play a few shows in the Philadelphia area with some of the local artists I know and/or worked with, Eli Wenger, Ross Bellenoit, Jon Colman, Dawn Hiatt (who did a voiceover on “Not Today”) or in Seattle with some of his musician friends.
For Joe: Talk a little about how Gabriele Gruenwald inspired you to write “Not Today” and about your involvement in the Brave Like Gabe foundation.
Joe Puleo: In June 2019, Gabriele Gruenwald died of cancer. She was a track and field national champion in the 3000m indoor (her time was 9:23. The CD artwork, specifically the CD itself, looks like the hands of a clock. They point to 9:23. It’s a little nugget I hid in the design to make it more meaningful/personal). She had battled cancer in 2009 before winning her National Championship in 2014. A high-profile coach attempted to get her win nullified on some nonsense protest. She prevailed. The cancer came back a few years later, but she continued to run. I watched her run at the 2017 Outdoor National Championships in Sacramento, Ca. Brooks, her sponsor, the running shoe company, was creating a documentary on her called “Brave Like Gabe.” A friendly acquaintance was doing the photography. He told me she was an incredible human. She raced, slowly that night, a long arcing scar on her abdomen. She finished last. Clearly, she was brave.
The following year, I read a story about her death that included an 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.”
The quote resonates with me, so I decided to make something beautiful out of a bad situation and write “Not Today.”
I’m not involved with the “Brave Like Gabe” foundation. This project is meant to raise money for the foundation and the song has been offered for free to the foundation for licensing. We’re releasing the EP on June 18, the opening day of the USA Track and Field Olympic Trials. The single “Not Today” was released on June 11 the second anniversary of Gabriele Gruenwald’s death.
I often wonder why her life and death connected with me so deeply. My son’s name is Gabe. My son runs the mile, Gabriele ran the mile. Gabriele and I both loved track and field and worked at it with integrity, but is this enough to explain why I would want to write a song about her? I don’t have an answer other than, kismet. It just felt like the right thing to do, and having Ken involved makes it even more valuable, in my estimation.
What’s ahead for both of you? Can you see yourselves collaborating on another project?
Ken Stringfellow: We’ve just wrapped the Posies album that we started working on in 2019, so it’s about preparing the release and the return to the stage for me. I’d gladly do more songs with Joe, anytime!
Joe Puleo: I have an LP, “A Life I knew” being released this fall in collaboration with Eli Wenger from Los Halos. We created a band, Bannister Effect, seven years ago and have been working on and off since then on getting it right. Sonically, it’s very different in sound than “Ken Stringfellow Imagines Puleo,” with tens to hundreds of tracks on each song, lots of interesting/quirky sounds. It’s essentially a concept album about one person’s journey through life. It does share an earnest appraisal of one’s actions with “Ten Years to Home.” One which I think lends my lyrics a powerful voice. I’m really excited for its release.
Without a doubt I would like to work with Ken in the future. Full disclosure, I didn’t know the full extent of his music career when I contacted him. After agreeing to work with him, I googled his name and read his Wiki page and a bunch of interviews. I was blown away. Besides co-founding The Posies, he played in REM, Big Star, and was an original member of Sky Cries Mary and the Minus Five!
The next time I messaged him, I thanked him profusely for working with me and explained how amazed I was at his career achievements. He humbly sidestepped my obsequious behavior, and just kept the ball rolling! Ken is incredibly professional and loves to work at his craft. Again, I’m blessed to have worked with him on this project.
What are the best ways for fans to both get the EP and stay current with what you’re doing?
Ken Stringfellow: For me, the best is to follow my Instagram & Twitter, @kenstringfellow. I always welcome new production/mixing/session playing/session singing projects as well, either remotely or in person at my studios in Seattle and France. Best to message me on Instagram if interested. I don’t read Twitter DMs.
Joe Puleo: All our music will be available on the popular platforms, Apple Music, iTunes, Spotify, Soundcloud, etc. The first single, “Overcoming Gravity” was released on June 4. The full EP will be released on July 18.
There is a limited amount of CD’s available which can be purchased for $9.99 (includes shipping). Just hit me up on the Facebook site.