Indie folk-rocker Damien Jurado has made 14 compelling albums, yet he’s still criminally underexposed. acoustic meets the man to discuss his latest album Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son.
Meeting a musician for the very first time is often a delightful surprise. From a writer’s perspective, every musician possesses an utterly unique backstory that begs to be revealed.
Damien Jurado is no exception in this regard but, after interviewing musicians for a couple of decades, Jurado is the first I’ve encountered who is truly devoid of ego concerning his music and is decidedly unambitious in terms of fame. You can forget every cliché about the whole singer-songwriter paradigm when it comes to this enigmatic Seattle-dweller and alt-folk rocker. Like most who grace these pages, Jurado sings his own songs which are predominantly acoustic-based and richly atmospheric. But, in conversation, he confounds at every turn. He has an abiding love of old school hip-hop, Gordon Lightfoot, 70s British prog rock, bebop, country and Christian. How’s that for eclectic taste? Jurado’s had a prolific career with Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son being his 14th album since 1997. How has he evaded the spotlight? His songs are both memorable and gorgeously spectral yet he’s hardly touched the mainstream.
Jurado explains that Brothers and Sisters of The Eternal Son is a sequel to his last album Maricopa , “Where a guy leaves home and never comes back.” Intriguing – especially since Jurado loathes leaving his home and family to tour, but tour he must.
Damien is not only prodigious in the studio; he is an accomplished painter who, ironically, seems to have gotten sidetracked into the music world. Although he considers himself truly fortunate to make his living “strumming a guitar,” you can’t help thinking he’d rather be painting. Despite his protestations that music is not his passion, it’s difficult to believe that based strictly on his songs and performances. Furthermore, his lyrics are described as “melancholy and introspective.” Yet this warm-hearted bear of a man is a spirited conversationalist when Acoustic meets him in North London prior to a devoutly acoustic solo gig in a candlelit church.
We can’t help but wonder, after 14 years, why you’ve not hit the mainstream…
I don’t want to be bigger than I am because I like that I can play smaller, intimate venues and undertake short tours. I grew up moving around constantly so I always was an observer and I still am. I want to stay that way. I think that has helped me observe my peer group of musicians and I see some of them burning out, doing things that they shouldn’t do. I’m not judging them but I have a family and that comes first, and if I can keep this at this level it allows me to have a family life.
You and your producer/co-conspirator Richard Swift described Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son as a dub-reggae album. What does that mean?
I think it’s dub-reggae in how expansive it is all musically, the liberal use of reverb – there’s so much atmosphere and that comes from influences like King Tubby, Lee Scratch Perry and the Scientist. For me, reverb and echo on an album is what sugar is on the tongue. We used reverb on other albums but we were still safe with it (Saint Bartlett, Maricopa). For this album we just went for it.
Richard Swift [the Shins, collaborator with Wilco, Ryan Adams] has loomed large in your music since he produced Saint Bartlett (2010). What is it that he brings to the table?
I would say it’s his influences that have the biggest role in our relationship. He will ask me to try things differently. He takes the recording rulebook and tosses it to the side and that’s liberating and I think you can hear that on the record because it’s a very free record. He has lots of good ideas.
How do you work together?
I go to his studios in Oregon with my songs and play them on acoustic guitar. When I go in the studio he hasn’t heard them until that point. So he hears them there and then – I play them the best I possibly can and he records them as he hears them.
All first takes?
Yeah, and it took about 45 minutes to record it! We’d then go back and play it all and we have so many ideas at the same time as they just spill out like waterfalls – we’re so full of adrenaline that the ideas don’t stop.
So after releasing 14 albums, this must be a passion of yours?
I wouldn’t say it’s my passion; it’s my job. Music is not a passion, no more than a guy who makes pizza for a living.
Yet you clearly put love into the music.
Yes, because my only goal is to try to make the best record I possibly can so that I can take better care of my family. So it’s a means to an end. I have the most difficult time going on tour because of leaving my family.
Understandable given that you’ve got young children – a 13-year-old and an infant…
I’m here tonight [his London gig] for them, not for me. I’m a father, husband, lover, best friend and then a musician… However, growing up, drawing and painting were my passions and I still do those. I like creating; I love music and making records. Performing not so much. I’m more into visual art and always have been. A journalist asked me the other day why I didn’t want to be successful. I told him that I am successful because I get to strum a guitar and pay my rent and feed my two boys. If I can put gas in my car every week then I consider myself successful.
There is a spiritual vibe on Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son, and your lyrics seem intensely personal. Do you spend much effort devising them?
I don’t think about lyrics as they come to me. I go on autopilot when they appear. The music and lyrics tend to appear at the same time. I believe the song is a living thing, as though it has a spirit. For example ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ was meant for John Lennon. ‘Straight Outta’ Compton’ was meant for Dr Dre. Every song I’ve written was meant for me.
You do contribute to soundtracks, too?
Occasionally, yes. I recently did the music for the Italian move La Grande Bellezza [A Great Beauty]. I’ve also contributed a song for the Walking Dead. I’d do more of that in a heartbeat because it allows me to work near home.
What are your favoured guitars?
I’m currently playing a Takamine Jazz. My favourite guitar of all time is the Alvarez. They are my favourites because of the body of the guitar and I like and that the sound matches my voice. I believe the tone of the guitar must match my voice. If it’s too bright it’s no good for my singing. I look for a round, deep, warm guitar which compliments my voice. I’m not a complicated guitar player, I don’t play like Paul Simon. I’m a fingerpicker but I can’t do the pattern. I can play like Neil Young where my rhythm is on my thumb, sporadically using my index finger. I also don’t play a traditional G chord!
Josh Tillman [aka Father John Misty] is a big acolyte of yours and wrote the press release for Brothers and Sisters…
Josh actually said that he moved from Maryland to Seattle to be near me. He’s a successful artist both with Fleet Foxes and on his own, too.
I’ve read that you sell your paintings…
I do, but I’m not a good businessman. I guess I just accept reasonable offers.
One of your big musical influences is an enigmatic character named Larry Norman?
He is the godfather of Christian rock. He was part of a group called People and he had a beautiful voice and made great records. I also love prog rock like Yes and King Crimson. ‘Jericho Road’ off the new record was directly influenced by Crimson’s ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’. I also love Public Enemy and De La Soul very much. Ray Conniff to me was one of the most prolific engineers, producers, and singers ever. For me it’s not so much about the song itself, but the sound. Bruce Cockburn is one of my favourite singer-songwriters in history. He’s so minimalist, but a great guitarist and songwriter. My song ‘Silver Joy’ is very much influenced by Gordon Lightfoot.
Where do you want take this, seeing as though it’s not your passion?
I have no goals, as such. I just want to do stuff when I get around to it. I live in the here and now. When music does play a big role in my life, it’s as a listener.
You said you’re into sounds more than songs. What are your favourite sounds?
Women singing in unison is the best sound to me. Non-musical sounds I like are things such as the sound of rain falling. I live in the Pacific Northwest so I can’t get away from that one!
What do people incorrectly assume about you?
People assume I’m depressed due to my lyrics.
Yet you’re obviously chilled and seem so content…
I’m very content, yes.
If this all stopped tomorrow, then what?
I think I’d be ok with it. I’d just paint much more instead.
Images by Secretly Canadian
Damien Jurado’s latest album, Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son, is out now.