Urban folk singer/songwriter Damien Jurado quietly built up one of the strongest catalogs on the indie scene, earning high critical praise yet somehow never quite getting his proper due.
Nick Drake had a definite impact on much of his work, but Jurado modeled his career on more idiosyncratic, unpredictable figures like Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, and Randy Newman — songwriters who followed their own muse wherever it took them, whether fans and critics enjoyed it or not. His independence was born at least in part from the influence of punk, and one of the results was a concern for emotional authenticity that led him to delve into other people’s lives instead of his own. Many of Jurado’s best songs spun concise, literate tales of quiet, everyday despair, which often earned him comparisons to short story writer Raymond Carver. But his storytelling bent — not to mention his ambivalence toward confessional material — arose from a stronger grounding in traditional folk than spiritual compatriots like Elliott Smith or Cat Power. And with detours into pop, roots rock, full-fledged electric indie rock, and even found-sound experiments, Jurado ensured that his body of work was impossible to accurately pin down.
A lifelong native of Seattle, Jurado started playing in a succession of local punk bands in 1989. One of them, the Christian-tinged Coolidge, also featured future Pedro the Lion mastermind David Bazan, and eventually had a track featured on the Tooth & Nail label’s Christian punk/emo compilation I’m Your Biggest Fan, Vol. 1. Meanwhile, Jurado began to explore the solo route during the mid-’90s, writing simple folk-based tunes and releasing them on his own cassette-only label, Casa Recordings. Leaded, Trailer Park Radio, and Gasoline all helped create a local cult following for Jurado, and he found an influential fan in fellow Christian and Sunny Day Real Estate singer Jeremy Enigk, who brought him to the attention of Sub Pop. After two 7″ releases on Sub Pop, “Motorbike” and “Trampoline,” Jurado issued his proper debut album, Waters Ave S., in 1997, and followed it with a spare, home-recorded EP for Made in Mexico, Gathered in Song, a year later.
Jurado’s sophomore effort was also his breakthrough; released in 1999, the excellent Rehearsals for Departure established him as a singer/songwriter of tremendous subtlety and skill, and won near-universal critical acclaim. Jurado’s rootsy, minimalist folk-pop and fragile vocals pulled listeners in close, and his knack for a memorable hook kept them there. For his next move, Jurado confounded fans and critics alike with 2000’s Postcards and Audio Letters, a compilation of conversation fragments found on the audio cassettes that Jurado collected obsessively (from sources like thrift-store boom boxes and answering machines) and often used for songwriting inspiration.
The proper follow-up to Rehearsals for Departure was Ghost of David, issued on Sub Pop later in 2000. While it hewed mostly to the style of Rehearsals, it also dabbled in some of the found-sound collage aspects of Postcards, and wound up somewhat darker and more alien. Jurado next turned to the Burnt Toast label to issue the one-off EP Four Songs in 2001, then formed a full band dubbed Gathered in Song for a change of pace from his typically mellow style. Featuring guitarist Eric Fisher, bassist Josh Golden, and drummer Andy Myers (all of whom played more than one instrument), Gathered in Song debuted on Jurado’s next album, 2002’s fully electrified I Break Chairs. Audiences expecting another moody, late-night, urban folk outing were thrown for a loop; some critics felt that Jurado was better off sticking to what he did best, while others found the transition not only convincing, but surprisingly varied and well-crafted.
Jurado subsequently parted ways with Sub Pop, looking to scale back his recording and touring activities in order to spend more time with his family and, to a lesser degree, his day job as a preschool teacher. He landed on the Indiana-based Secretly Canadian label, for whom he debuted in 2003 with Where Shall You Take Me?, a return to his trademark, low-key folk-ballad style. In typical fashion, he followed it with an EP for a smaller label (Acuarela), titled Holding His Breath. A year later, he returned to Secretly Canadian for another EP, Just in Time for Something; early in 2005 his next full-length, On My Way to Absence, arrived. Jurado continued to keep busy with And Now That I’m in Your Shadow, a spare, hushed collection of songs that arrived late in 2006; early the following year, Gathered in Song was reissued with bonus tracks. His eighth full-length, Caught in the Trees, arrived in 2008, followed by the Richard Swift-produced Saint Bartlett (2011) and Maraqopa (2012). In 2013, Jurado returned to the studio with Swift once again, to record his 11th studio album, 2014’s Brothers & Sisters of the Eternal Son. ~ Steve Huey