That's Not Me

Damien Jurado may feel like a winner, but the people in his songs rarely do.
Jennifer Patrick

"It's like my mind is this constant movie," Damien Jurado says on the phone from his home in Seattle, a few hours before he heads to work at a local daycare. "My mind is always developing certain characters. It's just like any other writer; you get these ideas, like little mini-movies, you know? But my songs are more like the previews before you see a movie."

Though the shy humility fits his unassuming work, Jurado's songs are nothing like those fluffy Hollywood teasers. Ghost of David, his new album, makes that clear from the get-go: "Lord, do me a favor/It's wrong, but I ask you/Take my brother's life," he sings over bare-bones acoustic guitar in "Medication," the record's cutting first track. It crosscuts, Scorcese-style, between accounts of a man's relationships with his mentally ill brother and his lover, who just happens to be married to a cop "with a keen sense of trouble." Like all of Jurado's stuff, it's a startling thing, ringing truer than is comfortable, telling more than it should. So, too, is David, an album full of razor-sharp stories about the people you passed on your way home last night and their tragically average histories--the missed phone calls, the misunderstandings, the letters never sent. Yet despite the songs' gritty, cinema-verite integrity, Jurado's quick to point out his role as a storyteller.

"I'll be the first to tell you, I'm definitely not the songs," he says. "I mean, believe it or not, I'm very much a happy person. I lead a pretty normal life. I think I just sing about the opposite of what I go through." He credits a childhood spent moving constantly, living in "small towns where everyone knew each other," as his muse. "You don't really get to know yourself much," he says of the migratory lifestyle, "because your attention is more on everybody else and their lives."

That attention has honed his ability to sketch lifelike characters in a few quick strokes to a fine point. If he's right about the movie-preview thing, it's because his songs do in three minutes what most couldn't in an hour. "Ohio," from last year's excellent Rehearsals for Departure, introduces in a few lines a girl standing on a street corner, looking east toward the home she left years ago. It's simple, but devastating. True to form, though, Jurado downplays his imaginative prowess. "You know, we live among these people," he says, "we see them everyday. It's just a matter of noticing the people. That's kind of what I'm doing, is bringing these people to light."

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There's no better illustration of that than Postcards and Audio Letters, the other CD Jurado released this year. It contains no music; instead it's filled with excerpts from answering-machine tapes and other found sounds rescued from thrift-store bargain bins. Though its appeal is necessarily limited--sometimes truth is lamer than fiction--it goes a long way in connecting the dots between Jurado's characters and their real-life antecedents.

"To me it was the perfect bridge," he says of the project. "Because I'm dealing with people's lives and the frailty of it, and how we're all really alike, and we all have this common bond, which is desperation, loneliness, and whatever." That bond is crucial to Jurado, who sees all of his work as points on the same line. "It's an ongoing thought," he says. "All my records are just ongoing thoughts. An interviewer asked me one time if the phone ringing at the end of Ghost of David had to do with 'Letters & Drawings,' a song on Rehearsals about a man waiting for a phone call that, of course, never comes. I said, 'No, but that's a really good point.' Subconsciously, I wouldn't be surprised."

If that focus on experiential quicksand has been constant throughout Jurado's work, Ghost of David does represent a change, most markedly from the baroque arrangements and layered production ex-Posie Ken Stringfellow brought to Rehearsals for Departure. Ghost of David is a drastically stripped-down record, mostly highlighting Jurado's voice and acoustic guitar, but never pulling in much more than a piano or some fuzzy, lo-fi drums.

"The only reason that the new record sounds a lot different than Rehearsals is because I had more of a part in the choosing of songs and production and stuff like that," Jurado explains. "With Rehearsals, I didn't really have a say in much of anything. Sub Pop were pretty much choosing the songs that were gonna be on the record. More something that I really wanted to do was make a record that was more along the lines of what I usually do live. 'Cause the whole time I just felt like I was cheating people."

He says the label trusted him this time to do what he wanted, but not before he gave them a bold heads-up. "They wanted me to put out, you know, pop records, and I just said, 'Look, to be honest with you, I can't stand pop music. It's not my thing. I'm not really into it." Still, he's not comfortable sitting in the folk chair, either. "I wouldn't call it folk music. I mean, it's definitely derived from folk. Folk music just means for the people," he says, considering with a chuckle, "and my music is more about the people."

It's not an easy job, he admits. "I definitely feel alone. I feel like a total freak sometimes, as far as music goes, and as far as even my own musical community, because I'm flipping through the magazines and I'm just not understanding where I'm fitting in. People have clumped me in with, say, Elliott Smith or whatever. And I don't even like Elliott Smith; I don't listen to his music. I'm sure he's a nice guy, but I don't really feel a connection with anybody else." He pauses for a second, worried that he sounds like another indie-rock malcontent. "It's not something that I purposely do. I feel I just don't."

Community or no, Jurado's dedicated himself to drawing lines where they exist invisibly, telling the stories that fill the world with or without him. "This is just something that I do," he offers. "It's just like if you're thirsty, you can then go get a drink. Well, I have these thoughts, so I'm just gonna let them out on paper or in music. It's something I do."

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