Damien Jurado is often referred to as Pacific Northwest’s best-kept secret. Quietly releasing 12 largely critically acclaimed over the past 15 years, including a full album of found sound recordings found on thrift store tape players and answering machines, he has compiled a wide body of work that strays from the easy indie folk label he is often given. Having moved from solo work to a full band setting over his last two albums, his work with Richard Swift has slowly opened his work into a fuller, layered sound.
Jurado took the time to talk to us from his Seattle home before starting the second leg of his tour in support of his most recent album, Maraqopa. He delved into his feelings about concerts these days, his recent return to visual art and the disconnect he feels from his own music.
Paste: Well you’re about to start a new tour, but you’ve had a few months off. What have you been doing with them?
Damien Jurado: I’ve been painting during the summer. I’ve just been doing that pretty much. Hanging out with my son, seeing friends.
Paste: I saw some of your paintings online, and I hadn’t come across much about them. How long have you been doing visual art?
Jurado: I started visual art when I was in middle school, and then I took it pretty seriously until I got signed to Sub Pop back in ’96, and then I kinda dropped it. I don’t know, music just kind of took over everything. It wasn’t until this year I decided, “Oh yeah, I should get back into it.” I was a little scared at first because it’s been so long, but it worked out fine. It’s nice having another creative outlet besides music, especially when because music becomes your job.
Paste: I’ve talked to a lot of musicians that started in visual art first, people who wanted to go to art school, and then stumbled into music. Do you think the two come from the same impulse?
Jurado: I don’t know. It’s hard to say. I came into music completely accidentally. For me it really was just a hobby and nothing else. When I first got signed, it was sort of surprised by it and I then had to put painting on the back burner until I could get around to it again. It took me a really long time to finally get around to it. But yeah, it’s nice to have another creative outlet.
Paste: I know you were looking to shed the singer-songwriter cloak you’ve had, and your sound has expanded a lot over your past two albums. Were you trying to change, or was it something that just happened? Has it been a conscious effort?
Jurado: You know, it’s not that I don’t like this whole singer-songwriter vibe, it’s just that I don’t listen to that music. It’s funny, I think I sort of felt like I was… I don’t mean to sound like I don’t take what I do seriously, I definitely do, but I’ve often made that comparison: if you were a vegan, but you were the world’s most famous barbeque chef. I don’t eat barbeque, or meat or whatever, but that’s your profession. And that’s kind of what it was like for me. I listen to so many different kinds of music, and the folky, singer-songwriter genre is definitely the lowest on the totem pole as far as that goes. I don’t know, it was just something I was good at, and I stuck with it, and I take very seriously. But Richard Swift, when we did Saint Bartlett and then this one, he was just like, “You know, you don’t use your influences that much. You just tend to stay in this box and you should feel free to expand.” And I agreed. I definitely should, because I wasn’t happy with what I was doing. And that doesn’t mean I don’t still play solo shows, because I do, but I prefer playing with a band.
Paste: I feel like so many artists, even if they do really listen to the music they make, there’s always so many other influences at play that you can’t necessarily hear. Who would you say your most unseen, or surprising, influence is?
Jurado: I listen to a lot of ‘60s psychedelic garage music, so that’s probably the most surprising element that comes into it. I think that would surprise most people. That’s pretty much all I listen to as of late, that and a lot of free-form jazz music as well.
Paste: So often when you talk about your music, you seem to have a little bit of a disconnect from it, almost like you write it and wash your hands of it. But listening to the music, the lyrics seem to personal, and they’re all in first person. How does this work? Is there a line you walk?
Jurado: Well first I’ll address what you first said, and that’s very true. At the end of the day, if I’m not on stage or working on new material, I don’t entertain the whole idea of being a singer-songwriter or an artist or whatever. I don’t entertain that at all. For me, it really is a job. There is a real fine line that I walk. Not to mention the songs are so deep and melancholy and at times a little sad, it’s not who I am, so it’s a lot like if you were an actor. If you played the part of a vampire or a werewolf, it doesn’t make you a vampire or a werewolf. At the end of the day you’re just a guy in a costume. It’s kind of how I see it: at the end of every performance, I’m just a normal guy in a costume. So from speaking from first person, that kind of comes easy because it’s not me. I can sort of delve into any character I want to be.
Paste: It’s interesting, because there are songs that can’t be from your point of view. The first thing I noticed was in “Working Titles” when you say you’ve never been to Washington. Do you see yourself as a storyteller?
Jurado: Yeah, I’ve always seen myself as more of a storyteller than a songwriter. I guess songwriters are storytellers to some degree, but I think I consider myself more of a storyteller than a songwriter. Just because I’m not that good at guitar, I don’t own a lot of guitars. I own one guitar and I can barely put a string on it. It’s kind of funny. It’s a little intimidating to go to festivals or to meet other musicians, and even other friends I have here in town, they are big into equipment and gear, and I don’t know anything about that shit, you know? So it’s kind of weird.
Paste: You’re songs seem very literary. They’re always filled with interesting sensory merges. Is a literary sensibility in your songwriting something you strive for?
Jurado: I don’t think I strive to, I think it just comes natural. I do this thing where I move out of the way and let the song take over, because I think if I had any say in it I think it’d be a lot different. But I don’t, I just let the song happen, and sort of entertain it. I’m just writing down whatever’s coming to my mind, or my mouth, pretty much. I don’t really second guess anything, ever. Which is weird, because I’ve written lyrics in the past, and I’ll go back and sing it while I’m on stage and be like, “That’s so weird. What does that mean?” It’s pretty wild.
Paste: There’s a lot more religious imagery on Maraqopa than we’ve seen from you before. Was this just a personal transition in your life then? Is it something you ever work to keep out, or work to put in?
Jurado: I’m definitely a spiritual person, and there’s always been an element of it in my music since day one. I can’t deny that, because it’s just a part of me. But I think there was an awakening that happened with Maraqopa, and I think I’m continually going through awakenings all the time. I’m going through one right now actually that’s kind of weird. So yeah, I’m just continually in this awakening state where I’m discovering new things all the time about me, about the world around me, about the spiritual realm, about the physical realm. So it’s got to play a role, but again, I don’t really question it. I just let it happen. It becomes what it will become. It just sort of happened, so I had to play it out.
Paste: If you don’t mind me asking, what kind of awakening are you going through now?
Jurado: My awakening right now is really about honesty. It’s been a really difficult thing, because I think for me personally I’ve done a lot of denying when it comes to many things in my life. So you just have to realize: “Man, I am not being honest with myself. I haven’t been honest with myself about anything. I’m not being true to myself. Who the hell am I? Who is this body, this shell, that I’m walking around in made of skin?” I’ve been thinking that for a long time, but this year especially. I think it started around Maraqopa, when I started on the record, but now it’s started coming full color—Technicolor, if you will, right now. It’s interesting. It’s all good. It’s painful, but it is good because I get to be a better person because of it.
Paste: Well I’m also very curious about your interest in found sound. I know Postcards and Audio Letters came out some time ago now, but I see a fascination with found objects in your art, and—maybe it’s just me—but I hear it in the layered production of Maraqopa. Where does this come from?
Jurado: I moved around a lot when I was a child. I came from a big family with seven children and I think the longest place we ever stayed in was two years, so it was all just glimpses. I found myself kind of hanging on to every word that was happening around me, to photographs and newspaper clippings and things like that. I spent a lot of time in yard sales and antique malls, and even now I still do. I’m fascinated by them, that people can give away parts of their life. Life is always on display, you know? So for me, it was a matter of taking that, and, not in a bad way, but exploiting that. Saying: “This is real. This is life.” Sort of playing a mirror back to people.
Paste: Tell me about the name Maraqopa. It doesn’t even appear in the lyrics of the title track. What does it mean, or where does it come from?
Jurado: Maraqopa is a setting for a fictional place. It doesn’t exist… Well I can’t say that, because to me Maraqopa is a very real place, but it only exists inside me. It’s a place where I go to, sort of retreat to. It’s a place I visit every time I got through some weird awakening. Just a setting, you know? It could have been Cleveland, or Cincinnati.
Paste: I was reading an interview with you from a couple years back where you said you missed being a spectator to the music world, which struck me as a really interesting comment to make. Do you still feel this way?
Jurado: I do. I still feel that way. But, you know, playing with a band actually gives me that opportunity because I let my band do what they want. I’m not a typical lead dude who forces his band to play parts—like guitar player play this part, and bass player do this and the drums will do this. I don’t do that. I let them take control of it. I’m just giving them the song, and what they do with it is up to them. I don’t have an opinion. So for me, I get to play the role of a spectator, as an audience member as well, just on stage. I’m just watching them perform or interpret something I’ve given them to start with. So being in a band has allowed me to do that.
I like going to concerts, but on a side note, I think most concerts are boring. To be honest with you I really do. Most bands play their sets like their records, and don’t want to hear them. I already own the record. Give me something different! Give me something that’s weird and will make me go, “What the hell was that? What the hell is going on?” Good or bad, I want that. When I was a kid, or a young teenager, I went to punk rock shows, and a lot of them—if I could go every night I would. And I did, for the most part. It was about being close to the lead singer. And there was an element of danger that exists, which I really loved because you did not know what was going to happen. It was like being in a haunted house when you were a kid: you didn’t know what was going to jump out at you. I think there’s an element of rock ‘n’ roll that’s missing. Now it’s like we’re the audience, here’s the band, and you’re just going to play these songs that sound exactly the same as the CD, and why the hell would I want that? I didn’t grow up with that music, I didn’t grow up on that experience. So I don’t want to give the audience that experience, I want to give them something completely different. Whether I’m with a band, or whether I’m on my own, it’s got to be different. It’s really important to me that it stays like that.