INTERVIEW: Damien Jurado, Part 1

Damien Jurado’s Caught In The Trees was one of hidden gems of 2008. Though Jurado’s a seasoned songwriter, the album covered new ground in terms of style, subject matter and composition. Late last year, I caught up with Damien to talk about his songwriting.

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Damien Jurado’s Caught In The Trees was one of hidden gems of 2008. Though Jurado’s a seasoned songwriter, the album covered new ground in terms of style, subject matter and composition. Late last year, I caught up with Damien to talk about his songwriting.

In much of your songwriting you are a storyteller, a steady balance it seems between fiction and non-fiction. I want to begin with asking in what ways do you go about this song process?

Usually how it starts for the most part is just… I just sort of am doing my normal any day thing: waking up from a sleep, cooking, or driving somewhere. Usually when I’m driving somewhere, I’ll get some sort of vision, a visual thing will happen, and it doesn’t really make sense. It’s really out of context with my normal everyday life. For example, maybe it will be a vision of a woman and a man in a car and an argument, and it goes from there. You know what I mean?

Yes, I understand that.
It really is like it just comes from out of nowhere.

On your previous albums, there were a number of songs about small towns. For instance, in the song “Shannon Rhodes” (from 2006’s And Now I’m In Your Shadow), you mention places such as Aberdeen, Pacific Beach. When you’re driving through these towns, are you thinking of the mystique of these places? Is it that you come up with some kind of story there that fits the setting and then build from there?
I used to live in some of these places, so there’s that influence.

Right. I’ve driven through some of these towns; they definitely have their own feel and I think you’re pretty good about capturing that feel-that overcast, Northwest feel.
Right. Seriously though, there seems to be this connection, and I don’t know. I can’t even explain it, I wish I had some kind of a psychiatrist that could explain it, a shrink [laughs], but I seem to have this weird connection to those places. Most of my aforementioned visions happen on the far coast of Washington… This would be Pacific Beach or Montesano or Hoquiam. Or they happen in like, north Texas for some weird reason.

You do have a number a Texas songs.
Yeah, and I’m not really sure why that is. I moved to Seattle when I was 12, from Texas, but I was living in Houston at the time. I wasn’t living in a small town… but I’ve played Denton and places like that and I have made some friends in such towns. There’s this feeling of not being able to get out. I mean I think the state of Texas kinda has that whole thing going on. It’s really weird, cause like Grey’s Harbor and Washington is a lot like that. The whole county sits on the coast of Washington and you miss trends, you know what I mean? Trends, and fashion magazines, and popular culture-indie rock and Pitchfork. All that sh@t just sort of misses you, and I think that’s why I sort of write outside of that box. Even songs, style wise-particularly song styles-which is probably why I’m not as popular as whoever. The list can go on and on of songwriters I’m clumped in with. Maybe that’s why? I don’t really know. That might be it.

Driving through those towns in Washington, and spending much of my childhood in Texas, I can understand that overwhelming sense of a spatial state that might be hard to escape. When I was driving through Aberdeen and Hoquiam, there’s something industrial, run down, lonely…
It’s really weird. I once had an interviewer ask me if I was trying to give voice to the people that live in those towns, but I don’t think I am necessarily. I’m just sort of writing and trying to come from their sort of perspective. Fictional storytelling, but how it would be told in those towns perhaps.

Well, aside from places, is there anything else you draw from? Other artists will take elements from stories or literature, art, photographs. What about you?
Well, I’m actually influenced a lot by movies and especially by television. I’m not sure if you’ve ever seen the show, and I heard it might be cancelled (though there’s been debating stories), but there was this show that was based on that movie Friday Night Lights. Did you ever see this show?

Oh yes, I remember the previews.
Well, I thought it was one of the greatest television shows ever.

It wasn’t on that long, right?
Yeah, I think it was only on for two seasons. I just watched the last episode last night, and I don’t know, I had this strange feeling. As I’m watching it, I’m like, “Wow, this really crazy.” I think shows like that, ones with stories and visions that I relate to, they really have an influence on my writing. Even movies like The Last Picture Show.

Oh, I can definitely see that.
I depend on things like that because I don’t really read ever and when I do read, it seems it’s always about bands or other musicians.

Well, the reason I ask is because I feel like a lot of the imagery you use is reminiscent to that of Hemingway; The Grapes of Wrath, screen door, depression, the human condition. I first recognized it in your song “Ohio”, from Rehearsals from Departure. I thought that your descriptives made that simple storyline achingly timeless.
Right, right. And that was an early song. Seems a long time ago.

When you’re writing the song, do you conceive the idea first? Or is it intermixed? Do you come up with the technical music first? How does that work?
Again, it’s like a vision. Before I even write lyrics, I’m writing the tune. It never sounds like guitar in my head; it always sounds like a soundtrack. It’s something larger and more complex, so I have this difficult job of figuring out how to make it sound like this soundtrack, but only on guitar. I think that comes with using weird guitar techniques, picking patterns, or whatever.

I’m sure there’s a difference between the birth of a song and what eventually winds up on the record. Do you play it for your band and maybe they contribute? Or are there things that are added in the recording process?
Well, how it happens with the band is that I always record a demo, just guitar and voice. They’ll get it, and they’ll just sort of build on it. I never have to tell Eric and Jenna what to play, because they know already what to do. You know what I mean? They have that same sort of feel that I have.

Right, it’s good that you have bandmates like that.
Exactly, it comes natural to them. I think its because we’re on the same wave length. This is also the reason I play with them and no one else.

And that doesn’t happen a lot.

It really doesn’t. The past years it’s been Eric and I, but when I met Jenna, it was like, “My god, she’s the missing piece of the puzzle!”

The trifecta!

Do you ever write with collaboration in mind? On the new album, didn’t Jenna write “Best Dress?”
She did, she wrote “Best Dress” and she also wrote half of “Gillian was a Horse.”

When you’re writing, do you think “this will be good?” maybe as a double vocal, or for someone else? I guess an example would be from Ghost of David, where you had Rosie Thomas sing “Parking Lot.”
Yea, “Parking Lot” is a perfect example of what we’re talking about. As a songwriter, if I could, I wouldn’t sing anything. If I could, I would just write the songs and let others sing.

Really! Because for me, I always picture my songs just as stories, you know what I mean? Like short films, but in audio or song?

Sure, that’s a good way to describe them.
Here’s the deal. It’s like if Jack Nicholson wrote the script to a movie, then directed it and then starred in it, and then did that for every movie he was in. It would be kind of boring after a while. It would be like, “Oh , it’s another Jack Nicholson movie that HE stars in, HE directed, HE wrote the score for.” So somehow, I feel in every record of mine, at some point I would like to stop singing and just write the songs. ‘Cause here’s the thing, when we were in the studio, I just kept thinking the entire time that Jenna could sing this entire record and the record would be huge. I guess for the most part, I’m not a great singer. I think that there are better singers out there than me, and I think to myself, “Man, if I could just have so-and-so sing this entire record, it’d be great. Why not?” Then I think people would be confused and upset and then start thinking, “What in the hell is Damien Jurado doing?”

It makes sense.
Which kind of bums me out [laughs]. I want to be able to do that. I’d love to do an entire record, maybe the next record, and just have it called Damien Jurado, but I don’t sing on it at all. I’ll let Jenna sing the entire album.

Click here to read Part 2.


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