Damien Jurado wants to be more like Alice Cooper. Not by staging mock decapitations, nuzzling snakes, or improving his golf handicap. But from here on out, Damien Jurado is no mere individual: Damien Jurado is a band.
Since his 1997 Sub Pop debut, Waters Ave S., this avuncular local has accrued devoted fans via thoughtful, evocative songs and quirky vocals. Regardless of whether or not he recorded or toured with sidemen, he has been identified as a solo artist. But with the release of his seventh full-length, And Now That I'm in Your Shadow (on Secretly Canadian), that era has closed.
He told his fellow musicians—Jenna Conrad and longtime collaborator Eric Fisher—the news as they were making this album. "I said, 'Look, you need to know that I'm done doing solo work. If you want to continue playing with me, I'd really like that. This is a formula that works and I don't want to continue doing this anymore unless you guys are into it.'
"It was a bit of a hostage-taking situation," Jurado admits, "but that was the way I felt."
What pushed Jurado, a passionate but mild-mannered guy, to this breaking point? "I was sick of playing solo shows and fed up with being known as a singer-songwriter. Especially in this day and age."
But wait. Listen to a composition like the new "I Had No Intentions." A snapshot of the immediate aftermath of a violent crime, sung in a weary but focused voice and accompanied by acoustic guitar, it recalls Bruce Springsteen's stark 1982 masterpiece Nebraska. Can this be described as the handiwork of anyone but a singer-songwriter? Well, that specific term is rarely applied to the Boss. And therein lies Jurado's beef. If he is to move forward, he must dispel the limitations he feels being pigeonholed as a singer-songwriter has imposed upon him.
"That tag should give you the ability to do whatever you want," he opines. "However, most reviewers and some fans don't quite get that. If I wanted to make a reggae-inspired record, I couldn't do that. I would be lambasted." He cites his fourth album, 2002's uncharacteristically poppy and electrified I Break Chairs, as a prime example. "The press hated it, the fans didn't know what to make of it. They were all like, 'What is this?'"
"I want to be set apart," Jurado continues. "I don't want to be lumped in with Bright Eyes and Will Oldham, because the music I do is not that at all. It is very story oriented and cinematic." He would prefer to be branded a maverick, à la Antony and the Johnsons or Sufjan Stevens. "Artists that [industry] people have no idea what to do with. But at the same time audiences, the public, love them because what they do is so different."
Yet after nearly a decade of making records and touring under his birth name, Jurado knew better than to jettison the brand recognition. "I didn't want to go out and change the name completely, like Bonnie Prince Billy or Magnolia Electric Co. did. That's too confusing."
Jurado knows about confusing people. Signed to Sub Pop before similar acts like Rosie Thomas or Iron & Wine joined their roster, he was an anomaly, and found himself sharing bills almost exclusively with indie rock bands such as 764-HERO, rather than other troubadours. "To be playing acoustic, and look out in the audience and see people like Isaac Brock, right as Modest Mouse was fast up and coming, was very weird."
But by the time he released Audio Postcards and Letters in 2000, a song-free compilation of messages culled from anonymous answering-machine cassettes purchased in thrift stores, it was increasingly apparent that Jurado was not your typical coffeehouse crooner. With each release since Ghost of David (also 2000) he has integrated more atmospheric elements into his arrangements and refined his intimate musical tableaux peopled with believable, broken characters.
Which brings up another advantage to Damien Jurado, the guy, stepping aside for Damien Jurado, the group; listeners, he hopes, are less likely now to assume his songs are strictly autobiographical. Because they rarely are. "I don't want to write from my perspective," he concludes. "What would I write about? How I live in Shoreline and have a big backyard?" Good point. Even sober son-of-a-preacher-man Cooper might find that a bit firstname.lastname@example.org