Personal Playlist: Damien Jurado Gives The Stories Behind Five Of His Songs

On April 11th 2019 » By Josh Terry

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Welcome to “Personal Playlist,” a recurring interview series at Vinyl Me, Please, where one artist picks one song from each of their albums to talk about (or one song from every band that they’ve been in). Here are the five songs Damien Jurado chose, from “Cloudy Shoes” to “The Last Great Washington State.”

Over 14 albums and almost 25 years of making music, Damien Jurado’s career has been one of quiet reinvention. Following his first efforts in the late ’90s as a Sub Pop-signed folk singer (his 1999 LP Rehearsals for Departure features one of his most enduring songs in “Ohio”), Jurado was staggeringly prolific into the aughts, putting out a total of eight albums that decade. Highlights included the avant-garde Ghost of David from 2000 and 2008’s personal collection Caught In The Trees.

But while many of the songs on Caught In The Trees hold up, Jurado was creatively drained and in a personal rut. That changed with 2010’s Saint Bartlett, the first album he recorded with the late producer and musician’s musician Richard Swift. That collaboration, which Jurado says allowed him to finally sound like himself, sparked one of the best musical tandems of the 2010s, specifically with Jurado’s ambitious and affecting Maraqopa album trilogy: 2012’s Maraqopa, 2014’s Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son and 2016’s Visions of Us on the Land. Inspired by a dream Jurado had of a fictional town, the narrative he tells over the three LPs is heady, full of spiritual and sci-themes and full of emotional gut-punches. But most of all, they all sound fucking great and adventurous.

Richard Swift passed away in the summer of 2018, just after Jurado released his excellent LP The Horizon Just Laughed. Though Jurado self-produced the LP and wrote the songs a year before his death, his friendship and bond with Swift still weigh heavily throughout its tracks. The same goes for Jurado’s stark and affecting new album, In The Shape of a Storm, out April 12. Recorded over the course of an afternoon and also tracked months before Swift’s passing, many of the songs feel like a return to Jurado’s folk roots. It’s mostly his voice, his lyrics and his guitar. Like most Damien Jurado albums, it’s a stunner and meditates heavily on death.

Jurado credits Swift with changing his life and giving him a rejuvenating spark in both his outlook and his songs. That’s why he decided to give the stories behind these five songs, all but one from his albums with the late producer. He says, “I wanted to choose five songs that I knew had significant stories to them. It’s usually the recording process [with Swift] that most of the stories about the material will take place that really have nothing to do with the song itself. That’s where it’s fun for me.”

“Cloudy Shoes,” off Saint Bartlett (2010)

VMP: This was your first album with Richard Swift and in terms of where you were in your career at that point, it felt like a creative reinvention. Did it feel like that at the time?

Damien Jurado: It did. I remember my previous album Caught in the Trees was not a very fun record to make. In all honesty, most of my records before Richard came into my life were not fun to make. So this being my first with Richard was a lot of fun. The recording process was different because Richard didn’t want me to use headphones. His whole thing was about performing the song versus just, like, recording the song. He didn’t really want to hear demos, he just want me to show up and play it. Everything was different: I was just used to producers having a hand in what the record’s going to be like and this wasn’t like that at all. There was no preconceived ideas or expectations about Saint Bartlett at all. So working with Richard from the get-go was going to be very different. We started that record in 2009, and the first day of tracking the record was my first time really getting to hang out with Richard.

I’ve interviewed artists who’ve worked with Richard before and they always bring up the first day, where he’d just play records and get a sense of who he’s working with. What was your first impression of him?

That’s basically what we did right away. I loved him. I immediately fell in love with him. We probably spoke on the phone once or twice before I went to his studio. He was such a great and funny guy. That is true though: The first day of tracking usually just consists of listening to records and you don’t really do anything. With Richard and I, it wasn’t entirely like that. We hung for less than an hour listening to records and when I walked into the studio I just saw a chair and a microphone. It was in the back of his house. I also saw a tape machine and a piano and some guitars. I was surprised at how minimal the setup was. He just said to me, “If you want to track now, we can do that.” I said sure and in less than an hour after meeting him we started recording the record. It took only 45 minutes to do my parts tops. We tracked the first song, which was “Beacon Hill,” and he sat right in front me the entire time watching me play. He was basically recording me playing for him.

It must’ve felt like you were playing a set.

It did! After I first played “Beacon Hill,” he stops the tape machine and says, “Wow, dude. That was great. Want to do another one?” I felt fine about the take and we just kept going. That was it. One song after another and then we were done. He then asked, “Is there more?” And it was all I had, and he replied, “Well, congratulations. That’s your record. How do you feel about Mexican food? There’s this great record store called House of Records by this spot. Let’s get a burrito.” We then just got to know each other over the course of the day, and I remember he played me the Grateful Dead for the first time. By the next day, he tracked bass and drums and backing vocals. We had a complete record by the end of day two. On day three, we mixed the record and that was it. That’s unheard of.

How did “Cloudy Shoes” come about?

Where “Cloudy Shoes” fits into this story is that on the second day when we were tracking organ, piano and backing vocals, he took a phone call. I remember he said to me, “I have this call. It might take a bit. I hope you don’t get bored.” He leaves, and I’m still messing around in the studio. The call took close to a half hour and he comes back and says, “OK, dude. What did you do while I was gone?” I said, “I think I wrote a song. I just grabbed a pen and wrote these lyrics real fast.” And it was “Cloudy Shoes.” I showed it to him, and he said, “We should add this to the record.” I hadn’t played it all the way through yet, but I just saw the look of excitement in his face just saying, “Let’s capture this now.” I sat on the piano bench and he moved the microphone in front of me and I played it for the first time and that take is what made the album. He stopped the tape and was like, “That was awesome.” I had no idea what to think because it was so new to me, but what you hear on the album is me playing it for the very first time. It was really weird. When we were figuring out the sequence, he suggested we open the album with that song because it really captured the spirit of the album. That song changed my life. I was never the same after that recording session. It plays such a significant role and symbolizes how I’d approach songwriting and recording from there on out. There was no time to edit or second guess and it was all about living in the moment. That song is very special for that reason.

“Nothing Is The News,” off Maraqopa (2012)

When I first heard this song I thought it was such a cool way to open up a record, especially because of how fun it sounds like it was to record.

Yeah, it really was. Fun was Richard’s number one rule: If you’re not going to have fun, why the hell are we doing this? It becomes a job, you know? He hated jobs. I mean, nobody likes their job. But with “Nothing Is The News,” that was a really interesting one. With this, you should keep in mind, depending on how much you know about recording, is that most people play to something called a click track. It’s called “Fixed Time.” I had never heard that term until I met Richard and he was against it. He thought it was bullshit. I was like, “How is any drummer going to know when the changes are in the song? What if my timing is off?” I’m terrible at keeping time. With this song in particular, it’s a long and weird song with only two parts in the song. There’s a change, or a turnaround if you will, but it’s the same chords over and over again. With this song, he was like, “Don’t worry about me. Just play the song and I’ll figure out the drum parts.” After I tracked it and it came time to track drums, I had a pen and paper and looked at the tape machine to figure when these turnarounds [were] in the song. Most turnarounds [happen] after four bars or whatever, and this was not like that. It’s really complicated. When Richard did drums, he just had me point at him when a turnaround was coming up. I had never done an album like that before. I basically just had to cue him before every fill. Every fill that you hear is me pointing at him and telling [him] to go for it. If you really listen, some are late and some are even misses. But it was still one take and we kept it all in. Even the lead guitar stuff that you hear is my friend Dan [Hindmann] playing along to the song as he heard it for the first time.

That’s incredible.

It was amazing! And when it came time for the sequence order, Richard said we had to make this song first. I thought there was no way that would happen. It’s too out there. It’s too different. You can’t make Saint Bartlett and drop this on people. But Richard said those reasons were exactly why we should do it. It’s a statement. I remember fighting him on it thinking it should be the last song on the album but I’m really glad I took his advice.

It’s funny how improvisation and the live performance is relatively unconventional now, so many of the most canonical records from the Band or Bob Dylan were recorded that same way.

Yeah, Richard even brought up those records like John Wesley Harding, the first Band album, and Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night. I remember he said to me, “Every fucking musician loves these albums but they’re not willing to record them this way but I am.” He didn’t give a shit about fixed time or mistakes. If you miss a turnaround, so fucking what.

I remember reading an interview where you remembered a conversation with Richard Swift where he said that you never nodded to the artists that really inspired you and you never allowed your music to sound like you. Did you feel that the songs on Maraqopa were a better reflection of yourself?

Prior to Saint Bartlett, I have lived and attempted a career being known as the artist who is, as my fans put it, underrated. My entire career up until that point was me trying to change that and because of that, I wasn’t authentic to who I really was. I’ll give an example of this. When I did I Break Chairs, for instance. I think that’s a very dated sounding record to me, because it was done in this time of like Seattle’s Indie Rock explosion of Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie, etc. This is also the era of Elliott Smith. I just tried to sound like that. My record Ghost of David is the exception because that one is actually a record that was out there and I was myself. That’s the only record in my catalog prior to Saint Bartlett I was comfortable. No one gave a shit when Ghost of David came out so I lived most of my career being inauthentic and trying to make it. I found out that no matter what I did, it wasn’t going to happen. Richard told me to say fuck it and just be myself. If you like Sérgio Mendes and Brasil ’66, Sandy Bull, Jandek and Captain Beefheart, then bring those elements to your album. Stop trying to be like everybody else. He really challenged me.

“Silver Timothy,” off Brothers and Sisters Of The Eternal Son (2014)

I read that you had apparently scrapped an entire album about a week or two before you recorded what would become Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son. Can you tell me about that time period and why you decided to return to the story that Maraqopa left off?

I had an entire record written and ready to record. And I remember sitting in my room at the house I was living at a time, and it was after going through literally one of the darkest periods of my life. Months prior to writing the first song that would actually be on Brothers and Sisters, which was written after the new year in January 2013, I had an album in summer and fall of 2012 with 13 songs or so. We were supposed to record that in mid-January. We pushed it back to late-January, mid-February. That fall, September of 2012, was my last suicide attempt. Then I went on tour a week after that. I was in a really dark place.

To avoid another attempt or even start drinking or using drugs again, I did a tour with Sharon Van Etten that turned out to be life-saving. In November after the tour was over, I was trying to clean up my life. I remember sitting in my room, and I was thinking to myself that I can’t record these songs. They didn’t feel like me anymore. These songs were so dark and reflecting that time in my life. It wasn’t me anymore. My plan was to tell my label, Secretly Canadian, and Richard that we had to postpone but that night, this lyric came into my head. The line was, “Now that you’re home, you can finally lay down.” I didn’t know what it meant or where it came from but I meditated on it for a while. For whatever reason, I felt that whoever the protagonist was in Maraqopa was showing up in my life again.

I describe songs to be this way where they’re all like spirits that show up in my life. I don’t chase it. I just sort of sit there and let it happen. It’s almost like watching a plant grow where I just want to see what happens with this thing. So I had that lyric and the next day, I had “Little has changed with the weight of the rain,” and I realized I was onto something. Before I even called Richard and the label, I started writing this song and I called it “Return to Maraqopa” because that’s what I was doing. I gave myself some time to sit with the song and the next thing I know it was one after the other: “Jericho Road,” “Silver Donna, “Silver Timothy,” and a few more all within a couple of days.

I’m really fascinated by the, and I can’t really think of a better term for this, but the “sci-fi spirituality” that envelops the record. Your lyrics have always been described as pretty straightforward, almost like a short story. How was adding a little bit of myth and mystery to the actual writing?

It came naturally. Nothing was planned. I’m sort of a mediator between my song and the audience, so I just wait and see what happens. The sci-fi elements were already there because of the Maraqopa narrative. I’m not directing my pen left or right, I’m just writing whatever comes to me and not forcing. I’m basically letting go of the wheel and letting the car drive itself.

Going to the studio, I knew “Silver Timothy” was the one where it’d be the main part of this story. It’s about the main protagonist of the Maraqopa narrative being met by himself on this road. “Jericho Road,” which is also on the record, is about the same thing as “Silver Timothy,” just told from different perspectives or camera angles, if you will. They’re the same story. “Silver Timothy” is such a very important part of the album because of what’s happening in it. There’s the car crash that takes place [in the closing song on Maraqopa] and now he’s meeting himself or a spirit of himself on this highway and also this dark force, or Satan. That’s basically what that song is about. The lyrics on that song are also some of the most favorite I’ve ever written because they’re so weird: “Spots on the irises bleed where the numbers were born.”

Lyrically it’s so out there, like, what the fuck does it mean? That record was such a reflection of the journey I was on. I didn’t know who or where I was. And honestly, it really started with Richard. Before Saint Bartlett, I had no idea who the hell I was. I had no fucking idea. Here was this guy who I had barely met challenging me to ask myself, “Who are you?” The trilogy plays and every album ever since Saint Bartlett has played at me finding myself. That’s why I chose this song. Also because it sounds fucking awesome. Those drum fills on that song are probably my favorite drum fills on any album ever.

“On the Land Blues,” off Visions Of Us On The Land (2016)

This album completes the Maraqopa trilogy, and I love the almost post-apocalyptic Adam and Eve narrative on this LP.

That’s what Visions Of Us On The Land is really about. It’s more about me on that journey but setting out on that journey without anybody else but my “Eve” protagonist, I guess. In the album, she will eventually leave me so I can find my own self. I love that song, by the way, because to me, it really sums up the entire album or even the entire trilogy.

How so?

It says everything I was trying to say in three albums on one song. I mean, “Tried my hand as a brother / Failed as a man and a friend / I know who I was then / I know who I am now.” It’s a realization song. There’s also that lyric at the very end of it where I say, “Far out to where we were then.” I am now a part of this land I’m walking on. There’s no difference between the dirt I’m walking on than the skin on my body and the blood in my veins. I am in all things. It’s really a God thing, you know? If God is in us, we are a part of him or she. We are a part of it all and it really all makes sense to me. Visions of Us on the Land is such a great title to me because it really encompasses it all.

How did it feel to conclude the trilogy? You never set out to make it a trilogy in the first place.

No, it never was supposed to be a trilogy. I’ll say this: When I finished Visions Of Us On The Land I can tell you it was yet over. It still isn’t over. It’s still with me every single day honestly. It’s my go-to place. It’s always there for me. I can’t tell you how many songs I’ve written since then that have to deal with it. I’m writing them, not recording them. It’s an interesting question. I don’t know if I can say never any more. I’ve told the press this is the end of the trilogy but I can always go back and build on it if I wanted to. But right now I don’t feel like I’m in a place to do that.

“The Last Great Washington State,” off The Horizon Just Laughed (2018)

This is my first album I recorded without Richard. I recorded it on my own. It’s about leaving. That entire song is about death and leaving. It’s not too far away from Maraqopa in meaning and message. It’s a very prophetic album, and there are lyrics in “The Last Great Washington State” that are about Richard before he even died. That album was written and recorded a year before he passed away, and I have lyrics in that song that deal with it: “They missed when you died / So they’re hitting rewind / What good is living if you can’t write your ending?” He wrote his ending. He knew he was going to die. He planned it, just listen to his album [2018’s The Hex].

“And the building was on fire When I saw you step out Afraid of your ghosts, and highly in doubt When you knew along Not even your cloud Would ever withstand the song from your mouth So they took all your scripts And the rain from your eyes They’re cashing it in for the next passing ride”

That’s all about Richard, and I didn’t know it. I mean, I kind of knew it all along that this was not going to be forever. “The Last Great Washington,” to be very open with you, that song was written in Cottage Grove. I went to Oregon for a week to hang out with him, and I only saw him for three out of those seven days. I spent those three days in a hotel room, which was crazy because I always stayed with him. I didn’t. He had me stay in a hotel for the first time. I remember the second day he texted me he wasn’t feeling well, but I knew he was on a bender. I remember thinking, “Why the fuck am I here then?” There’s a lyric in the song, “Your suitcase fits well in the room you are living in / Quick to leave town / Is it how you imagined it?” I left Seattle. I’m talking to myself there. “Alone with your ghosts, and the question mark protagonist” meaning me, I’m the protagonist of Maraqopa, and now I’m living out this weird life and song with my best friend, who’s going to die. I knew this was going to end very badly. I would see him days later. It was fine and we took walks but that was the last time I would go to Cottage Grove to hang out with him. That song and a lot of the album is really eerie because it’s very foretelling. Not only did he die, but I left Washington after living there for 36 years for California. Something I thought I’d never do. I didn’t know I’d do that at the time either.

Josh Terry

Josh Terry

Chicago-based music journalist Josh Terry has been covered music and culture for a number of publications since 2012. His writing has been featured in Noisey, Rolling Stone, Complex, Vice, Chicago Magazine, The A.V. Club and others. At Vinyl Me, Please, he interviews artists for his monthly Personal Playlist series.

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