Damien Jurado

Damien Jurado
Damien Jurado is as much a storyteller as he is a songwriter. Over the last decade, the folk-leaning Seattle artist has penned literally hundreds of tales, touching on everything from schizophrenic family members, to desolate Midwestern towns, to teen runaways, to serial killers stalking the Pacific Northwest. Many of them have found their way onto his albums, of which he has roughly nine. But until now, the eclectic Jurado has been a man of fiction, preferring to spin tales inspired by the lives of others than touch on anything remotely personal or confessional. And because of this, his latest album, Caught in the Trees, may be his biggest departure yet. For the first time in the songwriter’s career, the lyrics shine the spotlight on Jurado himself, as he digs deep into his private realm to deliver a more pop-oriented but nonetheless darkly personal album. Exclaim! recently spoke with Jurado to discuss this recent journey into the unknown, his new band and how it feels to be the one you sing about.

It took you a whole year to wrap up Caught in the Trees. Is this usual for you?
The writing process actually happened in only a week. Writing never takes that long for me. The recording is what took a year because this time we approached the recording much differently, so it just took a lot longer.

How did you approach it differently?
Well, on many levels. One level is having complete and total participation from [band-mates] Eric [Fisher] and Jenna [Conrad], and having them come up with different parts for the record. For me, it was like, "Here is the songs. Here is how they go. What do you think?” And then they would help me take the song in a certain direction. I was much more open to that sort of thing than I have been in the past with other people. So that’s one level, because it’s more of a band thing now. The other reason that it took so long was that we were working with an actual producer [Kory Kruckenberg] and in a real studio, which is something I’m not used to doing either. I had a really horrible experience when I did that with the first two records.

Why? What happened with those first two records?
Well, I liked working with Steve Fisk on the first one [1997’s Waters Ave S. ] and Ken Stringfellow on the second one [1999’s Rehearsals for Departure], but it was the complete and total lack of control I hated. I knew what I wanted the records to sound like, the direction I wanted to go, but I think the producer’s job is to steer you down a certain path. And that’s for people who don’t know what they want, but I did know what I wanted. However, when you have Sub Pop throwing down all this money for a producer, you just let them do their job. So from the third record up to the last one, And Now That I’m in Your Shadow, I always worked in home studios or places like that, just because I didn’t want to deal with producers and studio settings, which I always think are just stale.

So why did you decide to have a producer again?
Well, Kory had been doing soundtracks and working on movie scores, so we thought he would be essential because we were doing a lot of bigger arrangements with Caught in the Trees, especially with the strings. And with Kory, he’s a really amazing engineer and I’m under the belief that producers don’t really do anything but tell you what they think sounds good. I think, the best records have the best engineers. So having Kory work on this record was really crucial to how it sounded.

This record is very different than your last one, And Now That I’m in Your Shadow. What made you switch directions so drastically?
Well, a lot has to do with adding Jenna to the mix. She played on the last one, but she wasn’t a big part of the writing process and the arrangements. And this time she was. She’s very, very multi-instrumental and very talented when it comes to musical ideas, so I think she is a big part of why this record sounds the way it does. Plus, she was a really key element for Eric and I, because she was able to push us into doing things we didn’t think we were very capable of. And really, the big reason the record sounds different is that the music is now coming from such a collaborative place.

So because you are now working more as a band, did you change your lyrical approach for this new record?
This was actually the first time I had ever written from a personal standpoint, and Caught in the Trees centres around a time of my life that Eric and Jenna were both around for. I mean, they are like my brother and sister, they are like my best friends. And it made sense to have them be a part of the songs because they were as much a part of my life during this time that I was writing about in the record as I was. So they understood the mood and everything. And except for the first track, "Gillian Was a Horse,” everything is written from my standpoint.

After spending so many years writing fictional, story-based songs, why did you decide to now go autobiographical on this one?
I don’t think it was a decision I made consciously. It was something I had to do, because sometimes you go into experiences that force you into that, and you don’t really have any choice but to write about those experiences. Your personal life will somehow, good or bad, end up in your songs. For me, the earlier songs in my career were written during a time where everything was going really great in my personal life, but I was writing a lot about darker things. And that sort of just came natural because when your life is filled with so much joy all the time, you don’t need an escape. It’s no different than if you worked in a kindergarden all day and your outlet was, say, rifle shooting. Or if you were a back-up band for John Tesh or Yanni, you would probably want to listen to Metallica or Slayer at the end of the day. So that was how the earlier songs were for me, sort of an outlet to my normal, average everyday life. But when things took a turn in my personal life, I started to really relate to the songs I wrote and I became the focus. In my new song, "Coats of Ice,” where I say "How does it feel to be the one you sing about?” that is a key line because that line is speaking of me there.

Can you elaborate on what in your life took a turn for the worse in the lead-up to the new album?
It was just a lot of loss. I had been with someone for over 17 years and married to her 13 of those, and then it ended. And it sucked — divorce is horrible. You think at the alter that your marriage is going to be forever, but it doesn’t always work out that way. And I wrote about all that stuff. I wrote about people leaving people and death and stuff like that. And then to have it one day happen to me, it sort of takes you by surprise, you know? But whether I like it or not, that is where this record is stemming from.

Do you feel your older songs then somehow foreshadowed this bad turn?
No, because no one really foresees their life taking a turn like that. I didn’t plan for it to happen. I wanted to grow old with my ex-wife, but plans change and things happened, so it wasn’t like anything I wanted to see happen or I could foresee.

So with all the changes, do you think this new record is going to catch people off guard?
I don’t know. That is up to the listener. I don’t sit down and say, "I’m going to write this kind of record,” or "This next record I want to be like this.” I think everything I’ve done has caught people, especially the press, off guard, which is a good thing because I want to keep my audience guessing. I think there are so many bands out there that will just put out the same record their entire career, and they’ve been writing the same song and doing the same sound over and over again, and it just gets old.

How do you think you fit into that Seattle scene right now?
Well according to the Seattle Weekly, I’m apparently an institution. It was a good compliment, but it also makes me feel really old. I think it’s really cool, though, and I think I do fit in. I think I have influenced other people that are in our scene; Fleet Foxes are a good example. They are friends of mine and they did an interview where they mention my name and things like that. And it feels good. There is this whole new back-to-nature folk-revival thing happening right now in Seattle, with groups like the Fleet Foxes, Grand Archives, Tiny Vipers and Cave Singers coming out. But as easy as it would be to sit down and write a record like that to go with the popular in sound, I don’t want to do it. That doesn’t interest me at all. I need to sit down and write whatever I feel comfortable with. But there are great songs being written in the city right now, and that’s what I think separates it from most in-at-the-moment, fad things. All these bands are just doing some really great songwriting.

Do you think living in the Pacific Northwest has an impact on your songwriting?
As far as writing and subject material, it doesn’t affect me at all. Most of my songs are based on small towns from anywhere. I’ve written a lot about Texas and Ohio and places like that. I don’t write songs about Seattle ever, nor about the Pacific Northwest. And I think that’s a good thing because I don’t ever want to alienate anyone lyrically.

Do you think that playing this new set of more personal songs live is going to be a strange shift for you?
Oh, it already is. Now I’m in a better place than when I was writing those songs, so knowing that I have to revisit those feelings over and over again is going to suck, but I just sort of have to remove myself from them. If I don’t, I think I’m just going to have a nervous breakdown or something like that, hopefully not on stage. It’s happened already, though. I was playing a festival in Spain where I played a few new songs live, and I just lost my shit on stage and had to leave. It’s really hard, you know, because now it’s all so personal.

On the other hand, did you have troubles "feelin’ it” with your older songs when they were fictional?
I did actually have a hard time connecting with my older songs, but in the past I compared my music to acting. When you are on a stage and the room lights go dark and the stage light goes on, it’s almost like someone saying, "Action.” Now I have to put myself in these characters and take on that role, expect this time around the character is me. It’s way more personal, more confessional, and so it’s going to be a lot heavier.

I read that you used to get a lot of letters from fans telling you about how your songs have in certain ways helped them to overcome various problems in their lives. Is that something that still happens often?
Yeah, and that is one of the really cool things about doing music. If you have written a song that has affected someone’s life like that, that’s really, really big. For me, it’s definitely foreign, because I don’t have songs like that in my life. To have someone come up to me and tell me that, it’s a great compliment and a great honour, but it’s definitely not something I relate to. Growing up I can never say a certain song really affected or touched my life. There still aren’t really. I’ve never had a song that made me cry, or at least I haven’t found one yet.

How you respond to these people who tell how much your songs have meant to them?
It’s tough to know how to respond. I mean, what do you say? But actually, one of those guys was the turning point in my musical career. There was a guy who came up to me after a show I played in Texas and he said, "Your songs got me through a really tough time in my life.” And he goes on to tell me how his wife committed suicide three months before and left him alone with his two-year-old son. And he just didn’t know what he was going to do. But the songs on certain albums were really getting him though some really tough times. People ask a lot about that song "Medication” from the Ghost of David record. I’ve had people write me letters or talk to me after shows and tell me: "That song is about me. I have a brother who is mentally insane and he’s locked up in a hospital. It’s really painful for me, and I just want to you know that song really gets me through those rough times.” I take that stuff really seriously, I do take it to heart. For me, so many times during the last ten years I’ve been doing this I go, "What am I doing? I have no idea why I write these songs. I have no idea why I am even doing this.” There were many times where I just felt like giving it up, in fact, but then I meet people who tell me these sorts of things and I’m like, "Right, this is why I do it. This is exactly why I do it.”

So where do you get the story ideas for the more fictional songs?
It’s just sort of random. I never seek out a story, the story finds me. I never really sit down and say I’m going to write a song about this. I could be anywhere like doing grocery shopping or talking to a friend or watching TV, and a story will just come to me. And that is sort of how those songs happen.

So with the new "fact-based” record was it any different?
No, it was sort of the same thing. Those songs happened because I happened to have a guitar in my hands during this really horrible time in my life. I didn’t sit down and say, "Okay after many years of not writing about me, I’m going to do it.” But here’s the weird thing about it, I didn’t realize I was writing most of these songs about me until we were actually recording the record. I had no idea. And I’ll tell you, the first time I laid down vocals for a song, in fact it was "Dimes,” it hit me: "Oh my God, this song is about me.” And I couldn’t even go through with the take. We had to keep stopping because I kept breaking down. That’s when it hit me that the person I was in fact singing about was me.

At one point the press seemed to focus a lot on your Christian faith and its role in your music. Do you still field a lot of questions about this?
Some people do still ask me about it. Religion is not something I talk about much. For me, my faith and my politics are such personal things, and they don’t have anything to do with my music so I never get into it. There are just some things that have to be private and some things that are just for you. And my faith and my politics are two of those things. I never really talk about them in my music because they don’t have anything to do with me as a musician, they have to do with me as a person.

You’ve been releasing records for a long time now. Do you think you will ever give it up?
I think there are definitely times when I think to myself, "I’m done. There are enough musicians in the world that I’m not going to be missed.” But if I did quit, I wouldn’t make an announcement, there wouldn’t be a press release. People would just eventually wonder, "What ever happened to Damien?” And then they will realize, I’m gone.

So what keeps you going?
For me, songs are almost like that annoying family member you can’t get rid of — they just keep showing up and I keep having to entertain them.

Overall, what do you hope people take away from Caught in the Trees that they might not have found in your older material?
I don’t think I am hoping anything, to be honest, and I think that’s a good thing. If you have these pre-conceived notions and wants, it’s dangerous. Because I think if you expect people to like it, if you expect people to be into it, and they aren’t, that can be a real bummer, so I don’t. It’s nothing I think about, ever.