When it comes to new releases, Ten Years To Home: Ken Stringfellow Imagines Puleo is one of the more unique ones you’ll find this year. It’s an epic collaboration between non-fiction author, lyricist, and track and field coach Joe Puleo, and producer/multi-instrumentalist Ken Stringfellow. Stringfellow has had nothing short of a remarkable musical career, producing hit songs for dozens of artists, and becoming renowned for his work as guitarist, keyboardist, and vocalist for the classic American power-pop group The Posies. He is also well known for his time as a contributor and tour member of R.E.M. through the late 1990s and early 2000s. On the other hand, Puleo is a lifelong writer, releasing numerous books, and helping as a songwriter for Philadelphia musician Eli Wenger and his band Bannister Effect.
Released last month, Ten Years To Home: Ken Stringfellow Imagines Puleo is a collaboration that came about during the quarantine months of the last year when they started sending musical ideas back and forth online. The Posies drummer Frankie Siragusa also became involved, laying down drum tracks for four of the five songs from his home studio in Los Angeles. The writing of the EP was inspired by national track and field champion Gabriele Gruenwald and her fight with cancer. Unfortunately, she passed away in 2019, but Puleo was so inspired by her courage that he wanted to write about her bravery and honour the legacy she left behind.
We recently caught up with both Puleo and Stringfellow for a special track-by-track rundown of all five songs on Ten Years To Home: Ken Stringfellow Imagines Puleo. They discuss their motivations, what went on behind the scenes, and how these tracks ultimately came together.
1. “Overcoming Gravity”
Ken Stringfellow: “I felt like this should be an up-tempo song, the lyrics are bittersweet but ultimately hopeful, so I really wanted the chorus to be uplifting. The feel is reminiscent of The Lemonheads, to me.”
Joe Puleo: “I wrote this song in response to a writing challenge with our house painter/friend/musician. 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. I ultimately completed the song (he didn’t). Ultimately, it’s about owning your own mess. I really like the up-tempo sound that Ken created. It meshes perfectly with the equanimous insouciance of the chorus. My favourite line is “So, keep it simple and one day you’ll be free/Free to make your life a different misery.’”
2. “Strongest Man In Town”
Stringfellow: “The lyrical concept reminded me a bit of Elvis Costello, a bit of Joe Jackson… so I channeled that in the music to some degree. This was the easiest song to mix, it just came together so quickly (quite a relief after the more challenging ‘Measured in Threes’). Frankie’s drums are so fat on this. I am quite proud of the bridge Hammond organ part, it really dances around the rest of the instruments in a pleasing way, in my honest opinion!”
Puleo: “This is my courtship song. My soon-to-be-wife had been recently separated and struggling through a divorce and was reluctant 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. Although I wasn’t her physical type I was the ‘strongest man around, and I could hold my own.’ She loves the song (who doesn’t love a song written about them in a positive way!). Ken picked up on my homage to Lupe Fiasco’s ‘Kick Push’ (the song starts, ‘Push, pull, run fast, jump high/Do I dare to touch the sky’) and created music that had matched the bravado of the words. Frankie’s drumming enhances that message.”
3. “Measured In Threes”
Stringfellow: “This one from the first second I read the lyrics I knew it would be a piano ballad. I’m really proud of the vocals in the chorus… channeling my inner Adele for sure! These songs are harder to mix than the complicated songs with dozens of tracks. It took me a lot of effort to get the piano and vocal EQs to be in balance. Kind of drove me crazy for a while. But when I finally got it… yessssss! I think there’s only like six elements in the song, two voices, piano, synth bass, cymbal swells, and guitar that you barely notice.”
Puleo: “Alternately titled ‘Where Love Is’ in my writing notebook. It’s about my divorce and choosing my kids (three) over my marriage. Definitely the correct choice, my kid’s love saved me from slipping into depression. I think this could be a Christian rock (or Adele) song. Its chorus is big! I think Ken got it perfect with the piano and the soaring chorus.”
4. “My Odyssey”
Stringfellow: “Can’t really think of a musical reference point for my composition here… maybe late period Camper Van Beethoven? The vocals in the chorus get pretty huge, they take priority over the guitar riffs, but if you zero in on those it’s kind of got a Built to Spill vibe. Not to toot my own horn too much here, but that bass riff right at the end is so weird and funky, that’s some grownup muso shit right there!”
Puleo: “Essentially, the title track. References the ten-year trek Odysseys took home from war. It’s been ten years since the end of my marriage. Also, I read The Odyssey to my son (Gabriel/Gabito) when he was an infant (he’s named after Gabriel Garcia Marquez). What I realized is that The Odyssey is actually a story about father/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. ‘Nobody’ is what Odysseus calls himself to trick the cyclops. I think, in total, this is the most complete song on the EP. The chorus truly evokes the longing for peace and wholeness I’ve strived for the past decade.”
5. “Not Today”
Stringfellow: “Kind of a mix of the Stones and Dylan for this one… with that in mind, I mixed the drums to be a little less modern, and made the acoustic guitars really dirty, actually ran them thru a cassette deck a la ‘Street Fighting Man.’”
Puleo: “The first song we did together. I was motivated to write a song about Gabriele Gruenwald, a U.S.A. track and field national champion in the 3000 meter indoor. She had battled cancer before winning her National Championship. 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, California. 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, a long arcing scar on her abdomen. She finished last. Clearly, she was brave.
When she died, two years later, I was motivated to write a song in her memory. The story I read was that when the doctor told her husband that Gabe’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 her performed by Dawn Hiatt). I wrote the lyrics, and they sat for a year until I met Ken through a mutual friend/acquaintance.
The first time I heard Ken sing the final chorus I cried. Ken nailed the pathos of the lyrics. Everyone who listens to the song immediately references the Dylan vibe. We’re donating proceeds from ‘Not Today’ to the Brave Like Gabe Foundation.”