Damien Jurado: Empathetic Outsider

Music Features Damien Jurado

The influential yet overlooked songwriter continues nurturing outré characters on Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son

On Sept. 30, 2013, the polymath producer Moby performed two songs from his new album Innocents on Conan. Wearing an iconic Black Flag tee, the slight, bespectacled musician was flanked by a coterie of men and women dressed entirely in white, among them a taller, stockier male sporting closely cropped brown hair. For the second song, “Almost Home,” the man stepped forward to sing a beatific lead without the sunburst acoustic he’d used on “The Perfect Life.” A soft television glow settled around him as the man sang gently in a high register.

Nearly a million viewers watched from home or online in subsequent days, most unconcerned with the singer’s identity outside the context of Moby’s band. That he was the journeyed songwriter Damien Jurado perhaps only meant something to his core audience, which is fervent. But his presence on such a visible stage still felt like a coup, a subtle validation of Jurado’s gift and the Best Kept Secret status he’s embodied like few others since debuting on Sub Pop in 1997.

“I’ve never been on television before,” Jurado says with a laugh when I speak with him a couple of weeks prior to the release of his twelfth album, Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son. “So it’s kind of funny that my TV debut would be with him, you know what I mean? I think it surprised a lot of people. It surprised even me.”

To fully appreciate his sentiment, it’s instructive to survey the roads that Jurado has traveled to get here. (Not that he’s “arrived” in the way we most commonly wield that word in critical jargon. But, still, Conan’s Conan. And Moby’s Moby.) A proud resident of Seattle since 1986, Jurado has perpetually existed outside the illusory, hype-addled critical conversation since Sunny Day Real Estate’s Jeremy Enigk introduced him to Sub Pop in 1996. Perhaps that’s because there’s no seductive narrative to accompany his work—other than, well, the one about him making solid-to-outstanding records every two years for nearly two decades. So music journalists give Jurado records an obligatory nod without ever blessing them with the sort of career-altering buzz that’s more often gone to acts that he’s directly or indirectly influenced.

To wit: Long before befriending Jurado, joining Fleet Foxes or finding solo success as Father John Misty, Josh Tillman allegedly moved from Maryland to Seattle because Damien lived there. One can also spot Jurado’s mark in the work of Grizzly Bear, Lord Huron and even arena-players like The Avett Brothers.

But the 41-year-old relishes his outsider status.

“I’m thankful that I’m not in their position,” Jurado says. “I’d rather be an influence than in the spotlight. You just see artists who burn out and disappear…I’m in it for the long haul.”

The freedom enabled by being untethered to anything other than individual curiosity has, for the most part, been a boon to Jurado’s creativity. He’s perhaps best known as a singer/songwriter in the spare and haunted tradition of Nick Drake and Elliott Smith—listen to Rehearsals for Departure, Ghost of David and Where Shall You Take Me? if those names hit home—but Jurado is equally confident making adventurous rock, psychedelic and dub-infused records.

He’s increasingly toyed with these sounds since hooking up with the artist and producer Richard Swift, who Jurado credits with revitalizing his career. Operating from his National Freedom Studios in quiet Cottage Grove, Ore., Swift produces records that wouldn’t sound out of place in the storied FAME, Stax or Brill Building scenes of the mid-20th century: They are roomy and elegant, perhaps the truest simulacrums of a sound that has been endlessly referenced in recent years. But Swift’s fine aesthetic impulses only partly explain why he’s been so key to Jurado’s radical mid-career evolution.

“He was the first person who told me flat out, ‘You write great songs, but you’re not writing to your full potential,’” Jurado says. “‘You make great records, but they’re not you.’ He said, ‘Look man, you like easy listening music from the ‘50s and ‘60s, but you also like psychedelic music and Latin music. You like reggae. Just use all of it.’”

The two have now made three records together: 2010’s Saint Bartlett, which hews closest to Jurado’s earlier work, 2012’s Maraqopa and Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son, which arrives this week. If Saint Bartlett was the bridge into Swift-dom, Maraqopa and, to a far greater extent, Brothers and Sisters, are the collective shuttle ride into a nether-sphere that can only be reached with the proper codes, glances across galaxies or altered states of mind. The rules, if they existed, have flown out the window. This is especially true of Brothers and Sisters, which prompted a none-too-reserved Father John Misty to write “Damien is out of his goddamn mind” (meant as a compliment) at the top of an essay about the record that should be required reading for anyone drafting artist bios from here on out.

In part, Misty is likely referring to the music of Brothers and Sisters, which confidently spans the aforementioned dub and psych-rock freak outs, as well as dirge-y blues, Latin treatments and Jurado’s trademark folk. But if you’ve read the essay you know that Misty’s more focused on the Silvers and the “freaky space Jesus” of the record’s lyrics—characters in the fictional community of Maraqopa that comfort a man who left behind his life in search of an elusive Purpose. After a devastating car crash, that purpose is revealed: He’ll serve as a beacon between heaven and earth, decoding messages received with his brain and witnessed in the sky for the hippie-like people of Maraqopa, who are waiting for a savior to whisk them off to the pearly gates. Despite the man’s important station, however, he’s unsure if he’ll be included in the rapture-like event. But, as Jurado told me, the man’s new brothers and sisters assure him that he’ll be OK.

“While you’re here, you’re in the perfect place,” they tell him. “You won’t grow old here. You won’t be hungry here.”

“It’s basically like heaven on earth,” Jurado says. “Maraqopa’s like heaven on earth.”

Listeners, especially longtime ones, can be forgiven if on first blush they perceive that Jurado read one too many cult stories before writing Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son—the album title itself has a Kool Aid-drinking panache to it. But on subsequent listens, a beautiful truth emerges: That Jurado exhibits just as much empathy for the stargazing outliers of Maraqopa as he does the more conventional vessels of American dreaming and losing who populate his previous work. He even sees a little of himself in them—after all, both Maraqopa and Brothers and Sisters were inspired by a dream Jurado had amid turmoil in his personal life.

“I was definitely an artist who was unhappy with where I was going,” Jurado says. “There were times when I felt like disappearing and not making records ever again, just becoming the sort of normal everyday stocker guy in a grocery store, or a flower delivery guy, or a hearse driver or whatever.”

“I wasn’t living to my full potential as a father or as a friend or as a brother,” he continues. “It wasn’t a death scare—it was a dream that made it into a reality for me. It was basically like, look, ‘this is you in some ways.’ You can really identify with the person in this dream.”

Jurado’s focus on the man’s ability to decode messages from heaven also becomes more grounded when you hear him discuss how God speaks in terms that A Love Supreme-era John Coltrane would adhere to.

“I think God speaks through his creation,” Jurado says. “I think God speaks through music, whether it be a Can record or a John Coltrane record or a woman on the street corner singing a song. I think that God is speaking through everything. It’s his. Why wouldn’t he be communicating through it? But the best part to me is that most people don’t even know it.”

Perhaps it’s worth noting here that Coltrane is the namesake of Jurado’s youngest son. And his oldest is named Miles.

Through the years, Jurado’s work has appealed to believers and non-believers alike because, among other things, he’s not delivering or promoting a message. There’s nothing didactic about his flawed characters—he’s telling stories with universal connection points, even when the subjects are countercultural hippies living outside the time and space most of us inhabit.

That Jurado feels free to turn the lyrical and musical dial as far left as his heart desires is indicative of a hard-won confidence, as well as the awakening he says he experienced when making Saint Bartlett with Swift. Together the two are creating the most ambitious and best-sounding records of Jurado’s career, and an end point for the relationship appears to be non-existent.

“I don’t see myself working with anybody else but Richard ever again,” Jurado says.

This is a blessing for those of us who admire Jurado’s work. For the rest, well, just keep flipping the channels. Another Jurado acolyte is invariably coming to a late-night show near you.

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