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Damien Jurado
 by Martin Williams

It's not tragedy that stalks the melancholic songs of Damien Jurado as much as it is a sense of helplessness. The person asking 'is this the last time baby' in Honey Baby or the man who 'waited by the phone' in Letters and Drawings or the girl abducted by her father in Ohio all lack control over circumstance, with a sense that events are happening to them rather than them holding the reigns. It's articulated poignantly by the brief ramble that follows the song Eyes for Windows: "I ask myself why, why, why?"

I write songs about people, about everyday life, Jurado explains when I ask him about the nature of his songwriting. That's what folk music is: a story about somebody that you can relate with. I feel proud to wear the label folk singer, because there aren't many out there my age who do folk music.

Prior to being picked up by Seattle's Sub Pop records in 1995 Jurado's initial recorded forays were made on his own label.
I had a lot of good friends who were turning out great songs all the time, he tells me. But nobody would ever sign them, because they don't look good or they don't sing right.

His response to this impasse was to establish his own cassette-only label, Casa Recordings, on which he released three of his own tapes: Leaded, Trailer Park Radio and Gasoline. Having been "brought up on a steady diet of punk rock" his music of the time can be best described as acoustic punk, somewhere in the realm of early Jonathan Richman. From stroppy punker to placid strummer isn't a unique metamorphosis these days, with a directness that begs an easy parallel between the two forms, but what signaled Jurado's shift in style?
I guess because I grew up on that stuff and I wanted to mature. Speaking of Jonathan Richman, I think the guy's great, but when you do the same thing for 30-odd years, that must get boring. Can you imagine if Ian MacKaye had stayed in Minor Threat? Or the Beatles, what if they had just kept doing I Want to Hold your Hand for twenty years? You've got to move on, it wasn't so much a choice as something that just naturally happened. You grow older and you start listening to different things.

His list of current listening contains traces that survive in his own music: early Dylan, Neil Young, Simon and Garfunkel, Phil Ochs.
It's all I really listen to he adds. I would have loved to have been around in the sixties, been a part of the whole folk craze.

But it's further back in time that the real genesis of Jurado's music lies, back to the porch balladeers and spooky hillbilly troubadours who were the antecedents of the 1960's folk revival, especially as collected in Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. He's been known to include the song Butcher Boy in his live set, and it was on the Harry Smith Anthology that Jurado first heard the song, as sung by Kentucky Baptist minister Buell Kazee.
The great thing about that box set is that it shows people that these are real people who don't have the greatest voices, but so what, they have balls, they believe it and sing it, and that to me was important.

It's this belief, this conviction in the song, that provides another punk-folk parallel.
I feel that I'm writing about things that the mainstream is totally ignoring. I mean, if you want to go and listen to a record about some guy fucking this girl or you want to buy a record with some guy talking about himself and all this money that he has or how much beer he can drink, you know, that's bullshit. I don't want to sing about that, I don't even care about that crap. In America every song comes with a commercial, you're being advertised to 24-7, and I think my writing- to me anyway- is a rebellion. I want to sing about the human condition, I want to sing about things that people can relate to. I never really write about personal things. Except Curbside, and I never play that live. When we recorded it we did just one take of it and that was it, because it was too emotional, I just couldn't do it, it was too much of a personal thing.

And really, who needs to pick the bones from the personal life of yet another boy-with-guitar?
I just prefer to leave myself out of it.

CWAS #5 - Summer 2000

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