The narrative surrounding the new album by Damien Jurado is a juicy one: A well-regarded singer-songwriter whose last three dense, psychedelic studio albums were created with the help of producer Richard Swift reverses course with his next LP. He decides to make an acoustic album—just guitar and vocals—and record it quickly, using all first takes. In the studio, he knocks them out, one right after the other, in about two hours.
“I think there was a trip to 7-Eleven somewhere in there,” Jurado says.
The subtext of the creation of In the Shape of a Storm, this spare, engrossing new album, is the sheer confidence it takes to pull off a move like that. Jurado already had some of that spirit in him; most folks couldn’t get onstage and pour their art out for all to see without some measure of self-assurance. But over the course of his two-decade career, Jurado’s faith in his abilities has continued to grow, bolstered by the fan base he’s accumulated along the way and the support of figures like Swift.
“When we were doing [his 2016 album] Visions of Us on the Land,” Jurado remembers, “Richard had me do these percussive tracks. I said, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing,’ and... I’ll never forget this, he looked at me and said, ‘Yeah you do.’ I was, like, ‘Whoa, I do know what I’m doing.’ That moment changed me forever as a performer and as a writer. I do know what I’m doing.”
In the Shape of a Storm amplifies that feeling for anyone who comes in contact with it. The album is short, clocking in at less than half an hour, but it carries the weight of an epic-length drama complete with gentle swings in tone. The doe-eyed romance of “Newspaper Gown” is nestled between the more pensive and broken sentiments of “Lincoln” and “Oh Weather” (“Hurry back home,” Jurado sings on the latter tune, “I can no longer be in the storm/Hurry home, babe”). The occasional rasp of his voice or the squeak of his fingers on the strings of his guitar lends every moment an almost blushing level of intimacy.
Jurado’s decision to record Storm this way is not without precedent. When he worked with Swift for the first time, for the 2010 album Saint Bartlett, the basic vocal and guitar tracks for that record were laid down in the same fashion.
“I walked into his studio and he only had a chair and a microphone,” Jurado says. “There was no headphones. No nothing. He just asked me to sit in the chair and play one song after the other, as if it were a show. And then in 40 minutes, we were done. He stops the tape and said, ‘Cool, man. Is there more?’ I said, ‘That’s it.’ And he goes, ‘Cool. Let’s go get a burrito.’”
Storm is, then, a kind of tribute to Swift, who passed away in July 2018, even if it wasn’t intended to be one. Jurado wrote all the songs and recorded them months before his friend’s death. But the album might not have been made had it not been for the imprint that their creative partnership left behind.
“For Richard, it was always about capturing the performance,” Jurado says, “not about recording. He didn’t really care about that.”
The minimalist aesthetic of the record is also a reflection of Jurado’s relationship with the modern world. He has given control of his social-media accounts over to his new label, Mama Bird Recording Co., and his mobile phone is one that can’t send or receive text messages. Those are luxuries he can afford, considering the position his career is in. He’s well-known enough that he doesn’t need to play the game of constantly promoting himself online.
Signing to a new, much smaller label is part of that mind-set as well. Before, Jurado had been involved with some of the bigger indies around, Sub Pop and Secretly Canadian. As great as his relationship was with both labels and the people who work there, he was finding himself bristling against the constrictive qualities that came with recording for two very industry-minded companies.
“I like to think of myself more like a visual artist,” Jurado says. “You can’t really tell a visual artist, ‘Hey, don’t make that painting. Don’t have that show. Wait two to four years.’ For a long time, I’ve been wanting to release records on my own time. That’s not what Secretly and Sub Pop are about. They run on the timing of an industry. Our principles and ideals are just not the same anymore. I had to go and find a label that allowed me to fly the way I wanted to.”