As a songwriter, Damien Jurado has always kept things close to the vest, so it's a little surprising when, after just a few minutes of small talk about touring — "I like performing ... traveling, being away from home is not my favorite thing to do" — he gets downright confessional.
"For years," he says, "I would make records that I didn't even like or enjoy, which I guess is kind of weird."
No small statement from someone who just released his 10th studio album, and who has built a strong following on his gentle, melancholy, story-oriented songwriting. But that approach, he now realizes, just isn't him.
He began making this discovery while recording 2010's St. Bartlett with producer (and Secretly Canadian label-mate) Richard Swift. Jurado recalls, "[Swift] sat me down, and was just like, ‘You don't make records that you like. You have all these influences and bands that you love, but you don't really emulate them ever.'"
Jurado, who has become a kind of elder statesman of the Seattle indie scene, realized Swift was right.
"It would be like if you were really good at barbequing, but you were a vegan," he says. "That's what it was like for many years for me. Like, ‘I'm a great barbeque chef, I win awards for my pork chops, but the thought of meat disgusts me.' I knew I was a good songwriter, I knew I could touch people on an emotional level, but ... it's almost like acting in some ways. It was like I was an actor playing a role that I wasn't really into, but I was good at playing."
Jurado's sound has shifted somewhat over the years. I Break Chairs, from 2002, is raucous and aggressive ... though only in comparison to 2005's On My Way to Absence, a subdued, self-described "tribute to jealousy." As for the new record, Maraqopa — on which Swift is a collaborator as well as producer — even a casual fan should have no trouble detecting a change in approach, right from opening track "Nothing Is the News."
"Turn it around, you found that you were all wrong," Jurado calmly and familiarly sings ... just before the song melts into an unfamiliar psychedelic free-for all.
Maraqopa is an ethereal and dreamy record: It is, in fact, a concept album inspired by a dream. A musician goes missing and finds himself in a mysterious town called Maraqopa, which is inhabited by strange hippie types with paranormal powers.
It all sounds a little far-out when described that literally, but the record is never in danger of floating away. While not as earth-bound a record as 2008's Through the Trees, the new effort remains tethered by the gravity of Jurado's voice.
Some inspiration for the record came from Jurado's interest in gospel music (particularly obvious on the song "Working Titles") and from the odd, obscure folk records that came out of the Jesus movement of the 1960s and '70s, A Tumblr page on Jurado's website — which he calls "kind of a clues page" — features uncaptioned photos of acoustic guitar-playing nuns, and protesting hippies with signs reading "Jesus Power" and "Smile, God Loves You."
Perhaps not surprisingly, Jurado is not attached to his past work. "I don't go back and listen to old records at all," he says. While on tour last year, a band-mate pointed out that one of his songs was playing in the venue. "I didn't even know it was me. That's kind of how far removed I am from it."
And while performing his new material in Europe and on the West Coast, Jurado starting doing something else new: Instead of performing while seated, as he has always done, he has taking to performing while standing up — and sometimes even dancing . Although audiences eventually catch on, Jurado says, some find it unsettling. "Some of them want to hear older songs, they don't want to see me stand up or even look happy, because I've been living so long in that sad singer-songwriter box."
Not that he's unsympathetic to fans who might feel some disappointment. "I had to figure out who I was. And when you get to that point, when it happens, that's a pretty intense thing. It doesn't just affect you, but it affects people around you — not necessarily in a positive way."
Still, he says, you've got to take that road, regardless of what it costs.
"When I was a kid, I wanted to be on stage smashing my guitar like Pete Townshend. I'm not smashing guitars now or anything, but I'm definitely at a level where standing is my new smashing guitars. It's all just symbols of what I've been wanting to do for so long. It's great."