Fuse Interview: The Creative Faith of Damien Jurado
“With this new record, we said we were going to use every influence I have, we’re basically going to rip the brakes out of the car and just push this thing down the hill.”
By Robert Ribera
We are the beneficiaries of Damien Jurado’s dreams. The music on his new album, Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son, is unlike anything you have heard from the singer; it is a psychedelic trip into the depths of a dream. The premise: a man who does not understand if he is alive or dead has wandered into a town where they are awaiting the return of the messiah. There is talk of the resurrection, of UFOs, and signals from radio towers. As the description suggests, the music is challenging and complex, although the story is not new. Jurado’s last album, Maraqopa, kicked off the yarn, which is based on a dream he had about a man who wandered off in search of a new life. Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son is the second half of the dream, where the groundwork laid two years ago is now fleshed out in a startling collection of songs.
Jurado, considered by many to be something of a godfather figure for the Pacific Northwest and Seattle acoustic indie folk scene, is a precursor to acts such as Fleet Foxes and The Head and the Heart. Still, Jurado doesn’t seem particularly interested defining genres or shaping timelines. The safest thing to say is that he remains an influence in the Northwest, yet he has transformed himself so many times that labels have become meaningless. The powerful lyrics of his earlier work, songs like “Ohio,” “Sheets,” or “Rachel and Cali,” and the poetry that evoked landscapes of love and loss are evident in his new work, but it has moved in many ways light years away.
This is the third record in a row that Jurado has created with producer Richard Swift, and it is their most daring and rewarding by far. The work they began with Saint Bartlett has now flowered into an incredibly dense and layered work. This is not to say that Jurado’s music hasn’t always been different and rewarding. But after a dozen albums Jurado proves yet again that he is able to reinvent himself. His newest incarnation is no exception: Swift and Jurado’s work together makes their pairing one of the most exciting in music today.
I spoke with Jurado from home as he prepared to take the new album on tour. He is at Brighton Music Hall this Thursday, January 23rd. Don’t expect the concert to sound like the album because he will only have an acoustic guitar and perhaps some backup singers in tow. But chances are that it will be a great show anyway.
Arts Fuse: Maraqopa started as a dream. Was there a similar moment of inspiration for the new record?
Damien Jurado: This record is sort of a sequel. This is the second half of my dream. At the end of Maraqopa there is a song called “Mountains Still Asleep,” which is supposed to be about the lead character dying. And this record starts off with him outside, after the crash. He doesn’t know whether he is living or if he’s dead, and he’s not far from Maraqopa. So he goes back. Now that his car is totaled, he has nowhere to go. The rest of the record is about his time there. That’s what the new record is centered around. Which is why, if you look at the lyrics, there are so many quotations. Maraqopa was setting the scene. The new record is delving into what’s going on.
AF: Did you keep thinking about this dream or did you write it down immediately?
Jurado: It was kind of both. The dream itself, from what I could remember, was a few minutes long, the length of a movie trailer. Scenes happened at a rapid pace. All I was doing was trying to write a narrative around what I saw in my dream, and create a story around all of those images, piecing them together, like puzzle pieces. I didn’t intentionally set out to make this record. When I did Maraqopa, I said, “I’m going to leave it open ended, I’m not go into a lot of detail.” I’d written another record back in the first week of 2013. The second week I was supposed to go down to see Richard [Swift] and record this new music. I remember sitting on the porch with a friend at the time, who asked me if I was excited to go down that week and record this record. It was the first time I was ever really honest with myself out loud. I remember saying, ‘I’m not that excited about it.’ And it was hard for me to admit that, but it was true.
AF: Was it about the songs, or about getting back into the studio?
Jurado: It was the songs. I just was not into it, I wasn’t feeling it. And my friend turned to me and said, ‘You know, you could always finish the story.’ These were his words: ‘You can always go back to Maraqopa.’ And I remember that having a profound impact. It literally felt like someone had shocked me in the chest. I remember looking at him and saying, ‘You know, you are totally right.’ And I got up, went to my bedroom, and the first thing I wrote was, “Return to Maraqopa.” And I wrote the new record in a period of a few days. And then the next week I went down to the studio to record the record. It happened that fast. Because I knew what I wanted to write about it was just a matter of writing the songs themselves. I already had the story. But the songs just started coming one after the other. I remember spending days in my room not coming out. I barely even ate during those times, I barely slept. I was knocking out song after song after song. We recorded the record in two days, and then we mixed it the third day and that was it, it was done. It all happened really fast. The other record, it still exists. I never did anything with those songs at all.
AF: Do you plan to do something with them?
Jurado: No, probably not. I think they’re OK songs, but they’re not songs that I think are really me. It’s a combination of what my friend said to me on the porch that night and what Richard said to me back in 2010, which is, do not imitate your influences. He was basically saying I was not being true to myself. And that’s kind of what happened. I was about to make a record that I was not going to be proud of. Going into it, I knew it, and I said, I can’t do that.
AF: The last couple of albums, and some before, I don’t want to call them concept albums, but they’ve had through-lines. Is that becoming more important to you?
Jurado: On previous records the story was always the song. Each song had a life of its own. There was a little bit of that in Saint Bartlett. Although Saint Bartlett explored a theme, it did not provide a concrete story. With Maraqopa and the new record there is a story. Will I continue to do concept albums? I might. I’m a person who likes storytelling. I grew up with concept records like Quadrophenia, Dark Side of the Moon, The Wall. It’s become a kind of a lost art form. Why not bring it back? But that being said, I’m not an artist who makes plans either.
AF: Concept albums bring up the question about creating characters. Is there a challenge in finding voices other than your own and working with those?
Jurado: I like it. For me, my life is not like anything of my characters in these albums. Ironically, I don’t read fiction. The only books of fiction I own are these old Twilight Zone paperbacks from the ‘60s. The books I have in my house are non-fiction, dealing with an author, an artist, or a musician. I don’t read fiction, which is strange, I think. I just have no patience for it, I guess. I need something that is based in reality in some way. But my imagination wanders to other places.
AF: There’s a line in the Father John Misty mini-essay about the new album in which he states that “Damien Jurado is every character in every Damien Jurado song.” Do find some truth in that?
Jurado: It is an interesting point of view. I’ve known Josh for a long time, but I don’t know if I would agree with that. I lead a very separate life from my art, and what I mean by that is that I don’t think about my career. I don’t think about my art when I’m not on stage or holding a guitar in my hand. Maybe that’s a good thing, maybe that’s a bad thing. It might be a bad thing. But I’m excited to say that I am consumed with reality. And my reality is my two sons, my girlfriend, my car that is currently in the shop. My reality is not characters, or the guitar, or my next gig. Although it pays the bills, which I am very happy and blessed about, but it’s not what I think about.
AF: So this is the third time now you are working with Richard Swift. How has the process developed? You’ve talked about everything being game, everything is open. Is that just it? Are there certain things you do each time, or do you just open the door and see what happens?
Jurado: On Saint Bartlett we took some risks, which is good. With Maraqopa we got a little bit more tricky by adding some reverb, more of this, whatever. With this new record, we said we were going to use every influence I have, we’re basically going to rip the brakes out of the car and just push this thing down the hill. We’re going to be as dangerous as we can be. We’re going to put reverb on everything. Everything is going to have echo and reverb on it. And that’s what we did, and the label was a little bit cautious about it. The executives said, ‘Well, you want to be at least commercially accessible.’ I said, ‘You know what, I’ve done that. Screw that.’ Richard and I said, ‘This is us, this is me, this is what I do.’ This is the record I’ve wanted to make for a long time. And that’s what I did.
AF: Do you still have an interest in found sounds?
Jurado: Yeah. We did a little bit of that on “Silver Donna” and “Suns in our Mind.” All the sounds you hear there are from recordings I’ve done — I still work with found sounds.
AF: What are your thoughts about performing the songs on the road? Because you start off with these sketches, bring them in the studio and turn them into something completely different, and then bring them back on the road and transform them into something completely different again.
Jurado: This record does not need me. It does not need me. What I mean by that is that for the first time I’ve created something that does not need my assistance. This thing has a life of its own. The Beatles had this funny concept regarding Sgt. Pepper’s. It was that they’d send the record on tour. That’s sort of my same thought behind this whole thing. It’s almost like being Dr. Frankenstein. You’ve created this monster, and what’s funny about this monster is that people call it Frankenstein. That’s not Frankenstein, that’s the monster made by Frankenstein. The record for me is the same. That record is not me, at all, in any way shape or form. It’s something that I’ve created, there’s a lot of my subconscious in the music and the story, but that’s not me. The record is going to sell itself on its own. When people hear this record they are going to like it, because it’s different.
As far as going on tour, I’m not going to duplicate the record for you. There are some bands that will do that, but I’m not one of those people. So what version of this record will you see live? On the tour it’s going to be me, an acoustic guitar, and maybe some backing vocals. That’s it. I’d rather people hear the record as I wrote it. Because there’s no way, there’s no way in hell, no matter how much money I dumped into this tour, that we could recreate this record. There’s no way. So I don’t have any desire to recreate the record. That’s not my thing.
AF: Are you still painting?
Jurado: I just had an art show in the Netherlands.
AF: Are you still working with the same subject matter, like the Nixon paintings?
Jurado: It’s still very much Pop, yeah.
AF: How is that different for you, painting rather than songwriting?
Jurado: It’s slower. And my mindset is a lot different. Songwriting is a serious thing. Painting is sugar-coated, especially given my subject matter. It’s all very American. Pop trickery. It’s colorful. My songwriting is very different.
AF: I wanted to ask you about working with Moby. Those lyrics to “Almost Home,” those are yours, yes?
AF: That song seems as if it could have come out of Maraqopa or the new record. Did it?
Jurado: No, Moby approached me the year I did Maraqopa about doing a collaboration. The idea was already his. He just needed the lyrics and the melody, and that’s what I did. It was one of the easiest jobs I have ever done.
AF: Feel free to not answer this, but I’m really interested in the religious aspects of what you’ve been doing. In a part of his essay, Father John Misty talks about how you’ve almost created a religion. You’ve spoken about Maraqopa as a place of the mind. In the liner notes for the new album you write “All glory and praise be to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
Jurado:I’ve been a Christian since I was 17. For a long time it didn’t play a role in my music, though in some ways I can’t say that entirely because I’m under the belief that God is in everything I do, whether it is making dinner for my family, driving a car, or writing a song. God is in everything, as is creation. But where does it play in Maraqopa and the new album? It plays into the story in a big way only because the main character doesn’t know whether he’s dead or alive. When he goes back to Maraqopa there are certain things that are revealed to him that he didn’t know before. One is that they are awaiting the second coming of Christ, and it turns out that for them it’s by way of a spaceship. After his car accident the main character undergoes an inner change. He becomes a beacon, or radio tower, between heaven and earth, and the people of Maraqopa realize that they need him, which is why there’s so much talk of numbers and signals.
AF: There’s a great line in the new album: Are you a signal, where is your station?
Jurado: There’s lots of talk about resurrection. In the song “Silver Katherine,” there’s a line, “Pacing through the sky, silver raptured in flight.” Metallic cloud is my slang way of saying UFO. On a personal level, do I believe in the Son of God? For sure, I do. I believe that he will return. But whether or not he’ll come out of a spaceship or just out of the sky, I don’t know. I have no idea. The Bible isn’t clear on that. There has also been an impact on my life on a spiritual level. What’s funny about it too is, I think for me, the spiritual side of my faith opened up my music in a giant way. Looking back it’s not that strange. You have so many musical artists, from Johnny Cash to John Coltrane, who were immersed in spirituality. If you are in some ways open to letting God move through you, I guarantee you that you’re going to come up with some of the most creative music you’ve ever heard.
Still, there is a certain fear that goes into making records like this. People are used to hearing songs like “Ohio” and “Rachel and Cali” and “Museum of Flight,” and all of a sudden I drop this on them. That’s a surprise. Most people do not like change. But for me, I had to do this. It’s like Peter stepping out of the boat when Jesus is on the waves. It’s like, ‘Come out, the water is fine.’ And it’s like, ‘Are you kidding me, there’s a storm out there!’ That’s how I felt in some ways. It’s about putting your foot down in the water.
I had an interviewer ask me yesterday if I was on psychedelic drugs when I did this record. I wasn’t. I haven’t taken drugs in God knows when, a long, long time. And he asked, ‘Well then why does it sound that way?’ It sounds that way because I’m open, I’ve opened up. Being in touch with the creator of the universe is kind of a psychedelic experience in itself. If you can be in tune with the universe around you, when you’re just one sheet away from your subconscious mind, man, it’s quite a psychedelic experience on its own. My belief and my faith plays a huge part in what I do now. But it’s not about being in a church. It belongs outside of a church. It doesn’t have to do with proselytizing, it has zero to do with conversion. It as everything to do with expressing back what I’ve been given.
AF: So is it safe to say that you’re no longer afraid, if you ever were, about immersing yourself?
Jurado: Sure. I have no fear. For me, the sky is the limit. And beyond that. For me there is no limit.
Rob Ribera is a filmmaker and music video director in Boston. He is the co-creator of the music website Sleepovershows.com, and is currently working on his PhD.in American Studies at Boston University.