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Not Your Average Joe

Off The Cuff with Joe Wray

Dec. 20, 2012
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Few guitarist-singers explode onto the scene as quietly and swiftly as Joe Wray. The 33-year-old Milwaukeean traveled the world as a Marine, spent time on the East Coast, and then found his passion as a musician, literally, by accident.  The guy who’d get the jitters and pretend to be too drunk to perform at D.C. open mic nights is now a one-man band playing at least five nights a week at Milwaukee’s Downtown and East Side hot spots.

You said music wasn’t originally part of the plan?

I started playing bass guitar when I was 25, but not seriously.  When I left the military in 2008, I got into a car accident in North Carolina and was hospitalized.  I listened to a song, Glory Bound by Martin Sexton, that was basically telling my story, and that’s when it dawned on me to do something that I really wanted to do. I felt like my life was on hold in North Carolina, but it actually helped me because I had hours and hours to play the guitar.

Describe your style.

I play everything: hip-hop, folk, rock. I’ve found that owners treat you the way you present yourself.  You want to guide them towards a certain image that you want for yourself. I try to dress according to where I’m playing, but personally I’d wear the same thing everyday if I could.

Your instruments of choice seem to be the acoustic guitar and a beat machine.

It’s a looper [software music program]. Anything I put in my guitar or microphone repeats itself and becomes a song. I don’t use it all the time, but it’s another thing that helps me separate myself from others. People want to dance and move around sometimes when it gets late, so an acoustic guitar just isn’t enough.

Do you also have a day job?

I was originally planning to get a day job with the military.  I didn’t know you could actually make money doing this.  Now I’ve been playing in Milwaukee for about two and a half years. My first gig was at Bremen Café—it wasn’t paid, I was the open mic host.  Then a friend that played at Nuovo Centanni would let me play during his breaks—that was funny because I only knew two songs. Then I moved on to Fuzion, which is now INdustri Café.

And now you play at Bad Genie, Hi Hat Lounge, Distil, Blu, McGillycuddy’s Bar and Grill… when did things pick up for you?

A manager from Mo’s Irish Pub was at Fuzion one night when I was playing and said he needed someone to play Sundays. I was never the kind of person to go knocking on doors. A lot of it was being in the right place at the right time. I didn’t have a lot to show people back then.

Having been in the Marines for eight years before returning to Milwaukee in 2009, what are your thoughts on the city now?

I have a better appreciation for Milwaukee than I used to. When you’re young, you want to be anywhere that you’re not from. I love it because it’s a town that knows how to have fun.  It’s not too pretentious.


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