It’s not the money. I have enough to get by and support my family. People like what I do and to me that is success.
story by John Moss
photo by Jeremy Dybash
Damien Jurado is a large, husky man that sings about his feelings. He is a defensive lineman with a poet’s pen and a smoker’s voice. I get the feeling most people who don’t know him wouldn’t think he is the singer/songwriter that has penned tunes so important that he gets mail from fans with stories about their lives and how he is helping. But the lives he sings about are real and it seems inevitable that his songs will affect people in real ways.
Jurado began his career in Seattle in the mid-1990s. He played folk music in a city emerging as an alternative music scene. Although it would appear difficult to establish oneself playing against the current trend, Jurado made it work and was helped by having a huge fan in Sunny Day Real Estate’s Jeremy Enigk. He brought Jurado to the attention of the famed Seattle label Sub Pop and was signed.
Jurado had been on Sub Pop his entire career until his last record, Where Shall You Take Me?, which was released on Bloomington, Indiana-based Secretly Canadian. He doesn’t like to be a part of the mainstream, so slightly off the map is where he prefers to be. There is too much pressure to conform and do what other people want when you give over to mainstream success, he has said, and his career is an example of staying true to yourself. He has taught kindergarten to help support himself and his family, and I think Jurado’s songs show that he is interested in people and helping them.
Listening to a Damien Jurado recording offers the full gambit of emotions, including laughter, sadness, and disbelief. He is an important lyricist and his songs break down the essence of the human experience. His recordings alternate between Jurado playing solo and performing with a band called Gathered in a Song.
Recently Chicago Innerview got a chance to ask him questions while he was touring in Europe about being a folksinger in today’s fast-paced society, why he is not a fan of touring, and the frequent comparisons to Raymond Carver.
Chicago Innerview: You began your career in Seattle in the 1990’s right when grunge rock was getting out of control. Was it hard finding an audience and places to play folk music at that time? Did that particular music (grunge) have any influence on you since you resided basically at the center of it?
Damien Jurado: It was a bit wierd at first for me. At the time bands like 764-Hero and Modest Mouse were also appearing on the scene and since I unplugged, I found that I didn’t have much in common with other bands in the Seattle music scene. Others seemed to just continue on with other rock bands and I just played solo. Grunge didn’t have any real effects on me really because at the time when it was big, I just had no interest in rock anymore. It was dead. I’d seen Nirvana in 1989, so by 1991 it was old news. Grunge to me wasn’t the offspring of punk, but the evil twin of bad hair metal.
Chicago Innerview: You have said in interviews that you don’t enjoy touring. It seems like playing music to a receptive audience would be the greatest thrill for a musician. I’m sure it gets tiring, but what about touring do you dislike so much? Have you changed your mind at all?
Damien Jurado: I like performing, I just don’t enjoy being away from home. It’s even harder now than before. I have a 3-year old son and a wife. Leaving them behind is awful. The only reason I do tour is because I feel I owe it the people who buy my music and enjoy what I do.
CI: Your songs and lyrics have been compared to a (Raymond) Carver-esque country and landscape and definitely exhibit literary tendencies. Would you say certain writers have had an influence on your lyrics and storytelling? Carver perhaps or other writers associated with the Pacific Northwest?
DJ: Not really. I read books on music for the most part. I didn’t read a book by Carver until someone compared my writing to his.
CI: I read somewhere that you think people don’t pay any attention to the lyrics. Do you really think that is the case with folk music? It is not like there are any heavy sounds, effects, or treatments that are able to captivate an audience. One of the folk singer’s greatest assets and appeals is lyrics. Would you agree with this or not?
DJ: Well, with folk music it’s different. There are stories being told. So yes, for folk the lyrics would be important. For rock, I think the opposite. I don’t know any good rock lyricists.
CI: All of your releases have been critically praised and accepted by audiences except Postcards and Audio Letters. It is not a typical music release, but more of a spoken word collection. How did you decide on making this record? Did you just want to get away from the traditional song structure and writing process and do something different, or was it something else?
DJ: That release was important for me to do. Postcards and Audio Letters is the bridge that gaps Rehearsals for Departure and Ghost of David. I don’t care what critics thought. The same people most likely don’t like Neil Young’s Trans or the last few Lou Reed records.
CI: Being in the mainstream bothers you from what you have said in the past. Why don’t you feel an artist can maintain his/her integrity in the spotlight? Aren’t musicians like Bruce Springsteen or Neil Young examples of the way to handle publicity? Do you feel the pressure to give in to money and the press would be too great?
DJ: It’s not the money. I have enough to get by and support my family. People like what I do and to me that is success.
Damien Jurado will play with Rosie Thomas at Schubas Nov. 8 and 9.