Not all of Damien Jurado's work has been low-key, introspective, moody, reducible to lyrics and guitar. But at the same time, one doesn't get the sense that he's ever paid as much attention to the arrangements as he and his producer Richard Swift did on his latest record, Saint Bartlett, released this May on Secretly Canadian.
The northwest Washington-based singer-songwriter's work has always been insightful, well-crafted and rather diverse, encompassing both short stories in song and more seemingly personal and reflective work. But the new record uniquely resonates, achieving a weightlessness (Jurado's unadorned voice sounding true and untethered) and timelessness ('60s pop flourishes, fuzzy and echoing like early Phil Spector, adorning more straightforward rhythm tracks).
That's not to mention that the songs that make up Saint Bartlett are just as emotionally raw as his prior work, cloistered in a mental hospital beside and within a character nearing psychological disintegration, then roaming the country from "Arkansas" (a number that Jurado says approaches "doo-wop) to "Wallingford," "Kansas City" to "Beacon Hill." Jurado often starts with a location for his songs — consistent with his visual imagination, as he explained to NUVO during the following interview — and then builds a story around that place, making his albums something of a satisfying road trip, even if only accomplished via memory.
NUVO: You did some things differently on this record, right? Using first takes and working without a female vocalist?
Jurado: It was [producer] Richard [Swift]'s idea. He said, "I want you to come down here on your own. Don't bring anybody with you."...It was actually really refreshing to work with the mentality of — "We're just going to record you. I'm going to set up some microphones, and I want you to just perform the song, and we'll just build around that. I'm not worried about flubs, mistakes or any of that shit, as long as we capture something. That's the most important thing." And they ended up being the first takes.
NUVO: And the rest of the song took form after that.
Jurado: That's the thing about the songs. When you're just working with a skeleton of a song, just vocal and guitar, you have so much room to build around that song...We talked on the phone a lot before going down there. And we talked mostly about records we liked. He knew that I liked a lot of obscure singer-songwriter records from the '70s. And he said, "You have these influences that don't really appear on your record much. And it'd be cool to tap into them." And that's what happened.
"Arkansas" from Saint Bartlett (via Secretly Canadian):
NUVO: Who are the singer-songwriters you tried to channel?
Jurado: They're pretty obscure people. There's an artist by the name of Larry Norman who I'm really into. He passed away recently. Larry was a Christian singer from the '60s, and was very experimental with sound and melody. I definitely consider him a huge influence on me.
NUVO: You wrote these songs while living in what your wife Sarah, writing a blog post on your website, called your dream house. How did that setting influence these songs?
Jurado: The songs came kind of easy because I wrote them during a time that I was becoming a caregiver to one of my best friends who went through really intense mental and emotional breakdowns. 95 percent of the record is about going through those times with my friend. It's written from my perspective, but also her perspective as well.
NUVO: How do you approach writing about something so personal, both on your last record, which was about your divorce, and on this newer one?
Jurado: My first problem is how am I going to relive this every night. And my second is how is it going to feel seeing it from my point of view. That's something I had never done. I had always written from someone else's perspective, from a fictional viewpoint. So when the songs become about you, it's a different game, man, and you definitely feel vulnerable. To perform those songs, especially during that time, was really rough. Even the songs from the newer record are really tough for me to perform live. But as an artist, you have to keep visiting those places; you have to put yourself back where they all come from. It makes for a good show and it makes for a good performance, but in the end, it's kind of emotionally draining.
"Cloudy Shoes" from Saint Bartlett (via Secretly Canadian):
NUVO: What has it been like working with Secretly Canadian, after starting your career with other labels like Sub Pop?
Jurado: It's different because with Secretly Canadian there's more of a family vibe. Before they were a label, they were huge music fans and they know a lot about music, everything from the obscure to the popular. They have a really strong work ethic; that's not to say that Sub Pop doesn't, and I love Sub Pop. But Secretly Canadian is very hands-on. The owners, instead of being out of the office all the time, they're multi-tasking. And that's something I really appreciate.
NUVO: And they had a sub-label at the ready to put out the Hoquiam record, which was released on St. Ives earlier this year.
Jurado: Hoquiam was a project I started during the recording of Caught in the Trees, as an outlet. What's funny is that I've been doing it for so long, I do it with every record. That is, I start writing songs that are a little bit different than what I'm normally used to writing, just so I can have an outlet, just so I don't go crazy. This time it was different because I finally decided, OK, I'm going to give this a name, what I'm doing. Not only that, I'm going to have my brother play with me. Instead of doing a lot of records, lots of press, we're going to keep everything low-key, we're going to play lots of house shows and for the time being, we're just going to be a regional band, with no plans of touring, no plans of going outside of our state. It was a reflection of how it was when I started out.
NUVO: And your brother's not a musician, so how does that change things?
Jurado: The reason I chose my brother was I wanted someone who had no preconceived ideas as to what it should be like, as to what a band is supposed to be. And I think when you have someone like that, they are open to everything, and there is an excitement that they have that you don't even see in normal musicians. Because everything is brand new. And that was something that I really fed off of. The other thing is that his voice sounds just like mine. Our talking voices are exactly the same. And I thought, wouldn't it be cool if I sung in my register, and I had someone who sounds just like me sing in the low register?
NUVO: Your songs refer specifically to film culture — watching movies, editing techniques — quite a bit. How does film inform your work?
Jurado: I love movies. I've always compared the songs that I do to films, but I've always been too lazy to write novels, or even write a poem, for that matter. I just get frustrated. So I thought, how can I shove all these ideas that I would make into movies into song form? And that's how the story songs ended up coming about, with songs like "Ohio" and "Medication." After [the video for the song] "Caskets" by Matt Daniels was done, he approached me and said, "You should seriously consider writing a screenplay." And I said, "I've never done that before." And he said, "Well, you may want to consider it, because I think you'd be great." And so I've started a screenplay now, and I've been working on it for the past, maybe, six months. And when it's done, I'll hand it into him, and I think he wants to shoot it.
NUVO: Your recent wedding was featured in a bridal magazine.
Jurado: That happened by accident, actually. That was not something that I was gunning for. I'm a pretty private person, and a person that keeps music to one side, and my other life to the other side. And I don't mix them at all. That was kind of a weird thing when that happened. A friend of ours who shot the wedding was asked to do a piece about Seattle artistic types and their weddings. And they chose one of our photos that she submitted.
NUVO: In another interview you did, Allen Ginsberg came up quite a bit — as someone who you'd like to invite to an imaginary dinner, someone whose work has inspired you.
Jurado: There's a book called Ginsberg written by Barry Miles. The book was pretty life-changing for me, because I learned a lot from his life. And I also learned it again recording with Richard. And that is, you need to be open to everything. Guard yourself in certain situations, but be open to everything. Love, God — and God is in all things. How writing can be holy and sacred. Allen lived his life so that everyday seemed like it was his last. I think that's incredible. His spirit was amazing.