“It was a really, really long run. It was nonstop. And then August came and things went south.”
Looking back on 2014, Damien Jurado can see highs and lows, but he mostly remembers everything in between: a slow and insatiable grind.
The year started strongly for the Secretly Canadian mainstay. In January, he released Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Sun, his thirteenth record and perhaps best to date. At the very least, the album continued the trajectory of the previous five years: It showed an artist continuing to push himself to new places thematically and sonically, and, remarkably, two decades into his career, more listeners than ever looking to meet him there.
But after eight months largely spent traveling across the U.S. and over to Europe, and a promotional cycle that started well before that, the wheels started to come off.
“I ended up having, like, a near…” he explains, trailing off for a moment. “Well, it wasn’t really a ‘near’ anything. I ended up having a nervous breakdown.”
He doesn’t elaborate on what exactly triggered it or what it looked like, and I don’t pry. Jurado has always come off as a strong personality – onstage his banter is punchy and self-deprecating, and his appearance almost jockish – but coming from someone who says that he never wanted to be famous, you get some idea of what effect prolonged stretches away from his family might have.
Further complicating matters was his physical health: “I ended up injuring my right foot. I had tendonitis. I wasn’t even able to walk. I was off my feet for close to a month.”
As a result, Jurado made the tough call to cancel some concerts in the fall. “I must take my health seriously,” he wrote on Facebook in August. “During this time, I hope to get into full recovery, so that I can get back to doing what I love most – sharing my songs with you in a live setting.”
Speaking with Jurado last month from his home in Seattle’s Discovery Park, it sounded like that was exactly what he did. “I’m better. I had to change and get healthy,” he shared. “I stayed busy, though. I produced some stuff. I did some small recordings.”
One of those projects was the soundtrack and score to a forthcoming starring “Rebekah Hall and Jason Sedakis and Gwentyh Paltrow’s mom – I don’t remember her name.” (Jurado is reluctant to talk about the film, which is currently being shopped around the festival circuit.)
The singer-songwriter starts this year in a place similar to the previous one: Back on the road, playing solo shows, albeit only for the month of February. For the man often referred to as the father of Seattle’s folk scene, it’s right where he belongs.
Damien Jurado plays DC’s Rock & Roll Hotel tonight. He’ll also support Jason Isbell tomorrow at DC’s Lincoln Theatre, and Saturday at NYC’s Beacon Theatre. Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Sun is out now on Secretly Canadian.
Are you working on new music?
Not really. I sort of put music on the backburner for a little while. I’m still writing, but I haven’t started the new record yet. I probably won’t start recording it until March or April. But I’ve been doing art; selling art online. I’ve just been painting a lot, man.
Does painting provide an outlet away from music?
It’s just two completely different worlds. I started out doing fine art – way before music. Fine art was my first interest. Music came up from behind, out of the blue.
Music started out as a hobby. And then when Sub Pop heard the demos that I was making, they signed me to a recording contract, and that was the start of my career. But I didn’t go looking for it. I didn’t set out to be a musician from any standpoint. I wanted to paint.
When you signed to Sub Pop, had you been performing live?
No, I wasn’t. I only made those demos for me. And then in ’94 or ‘95, I put out two cassettes on my own, and passed them around to different friends of mine. One of the cassettes ended up in the hands of Jonathan Poneman, who runs Sub Pop Records. That’s kind of how the whole thing started.
It wasn’t a joke, but it was a hobby. I took it seriously, but it was a hobby.
At what point did you realize that music was something that could be your livelihood?
Well, I don’t know about “livelihood.” Livelihood means making a living off of something.
I think that I knew it was serious the day that my first album came out, and the press started coming in. That was when I realized, “Oh my gosh, this is for real.” Sub Pop’s initial plan was to put out a single, which they did, and the single sold really well, so they said, “OK, let’s go full-length album.”
But as far as making a living, I didn’t start making living really until 2010. You can add those years up yourself: 1995 to 2010. That’s a long time to keep doing something that’s not really paying.
In 2006, I quit my part-time job as a preschool teacher to pursue music. I thought, “Maybe I can do this. Let’s see how this goes.” But 2006 through 2010 were some of the hardest years of my life. I would go on these endless tours and come back with nothing. I had a kid. It was really hard.
But then I made Saint Bartlett in 2010, and that was the beginning of everything for me. That was my tenth record. It took me ten records to be somewhat successfully recognized – to be more than just a name that you had heard of.
That’s an unusual trajectory. More often than not these days, you see artists come out with a bang and then fizzle.
It’s a funny thing. There are so many bands – especially in Seattle – that come out and they’re huge, and they’ve only played three shows. And the next week they’re being written up by Pitchfork, and they’re ginormous. They release their first fill-length and sell 500,000 copies or whatever, and then the second album comes out and sells a little bit less, and by the third album, no one really cares. They’re already starting side-projects and different bands.
But I didn’t do that. I stuck with it and kept going. Why did I stick with it? I honestly don’t know. I didn’t know what else to do. I knew that I didn’t want to teach my whole life. So thought, “Well, I need to keep at it.”
I knew that I wasn’t better than anyone else, but I did see myself as just as good as the songwriters around me that were making music and becoming successful. It’s a tough game, because I was like, “I’m just as good as they are, but I don’t want to be as famous as they are.” What does being famous mean? Touring ten or eleven months at a time? I’m not going to do that. It’s more demand. You have to spend more money. It’s not something that I was ever into.
I was always in this weird bind of trying to maintain my independence and a certain undergroundness, and yet also trying to be known and successful in a modest way. It’s a really weird line to ride, man.
How would you describe Seattle in the mid-90s? You’re often given credit for putting its folk scene on the map.
You have to realize that in ’95, we were still living in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s death. Seattle took a real blow from that. We took it really hard. It was like, “Where do we go from here? What does the post-grunge world sound like? What does that mean?”
At the same time, I had sort of abandoned punk rock. I wasn’t into really loud, aggressive music anymore. I didn’t know where that left me.
I remember getting really into the stuff that was coming out of Olympia at the time – K Records and Beat Happening and bands like Lync. I was digging my heals into that music. Out of that spawned the Microphones and Modest Mouse. The landscape was really changing. Also, around that same time, you had people like Elliot Smith release his debut album. So, it just felt like the right time to branch out and try something new.
The weird thing was that there weren’t any acoustic artists. There wasn’t any “indie folk,” especially here in Seattle. As much as I was into playing with just my guitar, I felt pressure to form a band with backing musicians. I was like, “Well, these songs are mellow, but I have to make them loud and mulch-instrumental.” That’s what my first and second records were trying to do.
It was a very strange time. I was releasing records on Sub Pop, and none of them got good reviews. I’ve often wondered if those records were released for the first time today and no one had heard them, would they have been more accepted? In some ways, I think yes, because it’s a different climate. It was a different time back then. Seattle and the world were still living in a very rock-centered landscape. It was not at all interested in acoustic music.
By the time that I left Sub Pop and had signed with Secretly Canadian, things had just started changing. Iron & Wine released his first album, which was basically just a collection of 4-track demos. Elliot Smith made XO. There seemed to be a turn of the tide. Acoustic music seemed to be becoming acceptable.
But I’ve always said that the beginning of all of this was Nirvana’s Unplugged. That was what really changed everything. Around the time that XO and [The Creek Drank the Cradle] and my first record for Secretly Canadian came out, you started hearing Nirvana’s unplugged covers on the radio. That record had been out for almost a decade, but you hadn’t heard it on the radio until then.
Sadly for me, by the time that people wanted to hear more mellow and acoustic music, I was over it. I was already done with it. Having gone through some personal garbage in my own life, I started releasing records that were just really dark. I was releasing records that people couldn’t connect to. The stories were there – I think that the stories were pretty good – but it was somber.
I still think that I’m having trouble keeping up with it all. I had one writer tell me that I’m ahead of everything. But I’m like, “Really? Because I feel like I’m way behind everything.” [Laughs]
With your trilogy of records with [producer] Richard Swift, it feels like you started pulling from across all the stages of your career for the first time. What clicked?
It was Richard saying, “You have the ability to take the influences that you love so much and use them to your advantage.”
I spent years making records where I was trying to please other people instead of me. I’ve often wondered if most artists or musicians paint the paintings that they would want to see in galleries, or if they paint the kind of pictures that they think other people want to see in galleries. I don’t know the answer. I was making records that I would personally never listen to, which is so strange.
One thing that jumped out about the making of Brothers and Sisters is how all the songs were written in just a few days [after a record’s worth of songs were scrapped]. What does that sort of concentrated creative spurt feel like?
You gotta remember that I was scheduled to go down to the studio. When I did Brothers and Sisters, I had a set date, like, “OK, Richard, I’ll be down there next Monday.” That only gave me a period of two or three days to write an entirely different album. So, that’s what I did.
But there wasn’t a point where I said to myself, “This is really wild. I just wrote an entire record in a couple of days.” There still hasn’t been a point like that. It just sort of happened. I don’t mean to sound like I’m bragging, but it was kind of effortless.
You also have to remember that I had a template to work from, you know? I was going off of my last album, Maraqopa. It was easy in some ways. The car was already built; I just had to get in and drive it and take it to a new destination.
Do you plan to reunite with Richard Swift?
We’ve talked about it, but the reality is that he’s in a different space. He’s touring with the Black Keys. He’s actually in the studio right now, producing an album, but it’s the first time that he’s recorded with someone in way over a year.
I also like the idea of going somewhere else. I’ll work with him one way or another eventually, but it’s kind of up in the air.
You’ve gone back to performing solo in recent years. How does the act of performance change when it’s just you up there?
It’s two different animals. When you tour with a band, it’s so easy to hide behind the noise. I’ll tell you, though, I really do like playing with a band. It’s one of my favorite things.
The group that I toured with for Maraqopa was one of my favorite backing bands that I’ver ever put together. They were all just really great musicians. But the audience didn’t like it. They weren’t into it. It made no sense to me. I was like, “We are playing the album. This sounds like the album. You bought the album. You own the album. This sounds exactly like it, but yet you want to hear the acoustic versions of the songs.” It really doesn’t make any sense to me.
But then I realized that I’m just not going to win. I did these tours with an acoustic guitar, and what did I hear? “Do you think you’ll do this with a band?” It’s like, “Nope.”
You can’t win.