Damien Jurado’s Wordsmith Aesthetic

Damien Jurado recently finished a two-week run playing with Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit in the Northeast and Midwest. Playing massive venues like the Beacon Theatre in New York and the Peabody Opera House in St. Louis might shift any artist’s expectations, but Jurado admitted that he couldn’t wait to play a string of house shows scheduled to end his tour. Amplification was great, he said, but he was looking forward to getting back to a more natural environment.* For him, writing music takes place at home with only his guitar, and so house shows harken back to that moment of creation.

Jurado’s songs seem especially suited for the listening atmosphere a house show (or record store show) engenders. Getting to hear his music in such a serene, attentive setting is akin to putting on headphones and listening deep, except Jurado himself is sitting right there providing the sound.

Last night, amid 100 people gathered at the Champaign record store Exile on Main St., Jurado played his songs to a rapt crowd. A mix of lesser-played songs off his many albums and rarer gems, the show was meant to bury beneath the surface of what his larger live shows present. Plus, he admitted, he was sick of playing the same old stuff again and again. When he writes, he does so knowing that some songs will never be played live. The house shows were meant to open those songs up for business again, so to speak.

He opened with the quietly pleading “Diamond Sea” before moving on to “Halo and Ashes,” and then performing a handful of songs off of Saint Bartlett. With other specialties like “Newspaper Gown” and his classic “Sheets,” Jurado explored a range of material, including a new song about looking ahead to the past. Trippy, I know.

What was perhaps most surprising (and refreshing) about the show was the lack of technology it encouraged. At every show there are inevitably people using their camera to document the moment. (I’m guilty here, too, so don’t think I’m trying to get off on a plea deal.) If you think about why people feel the need to remove themselves from an experience and capture it, it has a lot to do with the feeling that something remarkable surrounds that moment. Perhaps a band plays a song they often don’t perform live, or perhaps they shift from full band mode to a quieter, acoustic moment. The specialness of such a moment warrants that someone in the audience (if not many people) capture it. Inevitably, though, that act removes the person from fully experiencing the moment, increasing the likelihood that they will forget it later on.

With Jurado’s house show, listeners certainly popped out their phones to capture a photo or video at times, but overall the technology remained in people’s pockets. Jurado effectively took quiet songs and quiet sounds and captured people’s attention with them. The entire show was a special moment worthy of recording, but one people wanted to do mentally rather through their phone.

One of the reasons for that has much to do with Jurado’s penchant for evocative lyrics that don’t just make you feel, they make you see. The audience is essentially exposed to a 90-minute movie directed by one of the more creative and productive singer-songwriters in the late twentieth century. While the lyrics strike a poetic sensibility, their visual prowess comes from Jurado’s interest in film. Picking up on their poetic nature, I approached him after the show and asked if he had any literary influences. Turns out, I was completely off. Jurado doesn’t read, he explained to me. He watches movies.

It makes sense then that Jurado approaches songwriting from such a visual perspective. The way he writes songs comes from an inspiration he gets from seeing something particularly striking. During the show, he paused between songs to delve deeper into this subject matter. He recalled being six or seven years old and coming across an 8-track of Santana’s Abraxas in his father’s car. The album cover struck him, and it became one of the reasons he listened so frequently to that album.

After the show, he told me about other ways visuals play into music. Before technology, music was the only indication of what a band looked like before you might have seen them live or come across their image in a magazine. What they looked like depended on your own interpretation of the music. Jurado recounted stories of Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, who had a similar effect on radio listeners. Was Presley black? Was Berry white? The songs they sang and the way they sang them confused listeners, who had not yet seen the musicians.

Standing among the small record store crowd, I closed my eyes and listened to his lyrics. Filled with yawning cash registers, coffin-like buildings, names stitched across smiles, and newspaper gowns, they encourage the imagination just as much as they evoke a strong emotional connection with the music. His lyrics generate a mental movie of sorts, one where the emotion strikes familiar but the scenery rings strange.

I tend to avoid the “Who are your musical influences?” question when interviewing musicians, because it’s old hat. Learning how a musician approaches songwriting thanks to a visual sensibility, however, changes that game. Listening becomes an entirely different activity, made all the more possible when live shows breed attentive ears, each experiencing the filmic atmosphere that exists with Jurado’s every word.


*I attribute no direct quotes to Mr. Jurado, as I only took notes of his Champaign performance. What he shared with the audience and myself, I here reproduce with as much veracity as the moment, a pen, and memory later allow.