Damien Jurado on tuning out, slowing down and living with the ghost of Richard Swift
Before a tour date in Nelsonville this weekend, the songwriter opens up about the loss of a longtime collaborator, living without a smartphone and taking his time
For several years and four albums, Damien Jurado worked closely with producer and solo artist Richard Swift, who died in the summer of 2018. Swift’s fingerprints are all over Jurado records such as 2014’s Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son and 2016’s Visions of Us on the Land, which veered into psychedelic, sonically experimental territory that contrasted with Jurado’s starker singer-songwriter material from the late ’90s and early to mid-2000s.
"I miss Richard. I think about him all the time, every day,” said Jurado, who lives in the Washington State countryside, surrounded by farmland in a town of about 6,000 people. Sometimes, when something goes missing or a light turns on unprompted, Jurado and his wife joke that Swift is haunting their house. “I feel his presence constantly,” he said.
Though Jurado is still grappling with the loss of his friend, he’s not wallowing. In fact, he sees his recent collaborations with producer and multi-instrumentalist Josh Gordon, including 2021 album The Monster Who Hated Pennsylvania, as a continuation of his work with Swift.
“There is a trio element to it, and that's Richard's spirit in all of this. ... It feels like Richard left me in very, very good hands,” Jurado said. “It’s like if your grandmother had a husband, and he was great. Your grandpa was great. But then she marries someone new, and this person is just as awesome. Actually, he may be even more awesome in some ways. … I feel Richard has his blessing on what I'm doing now with Josh.”
That’s not to say The Monster Who Hated Pennsylvania or 2020 album What’s New Tomboy resemble those Swift-produced records at all. Recent releases from Jurado actually fall at the other end of the spectrum, supplanting epic narratives, big guitars and distant, reverb-drenched vocals with intimate character sketches, acoustic guitars and dry, up-front vocals.
“When Richard and I were doing Visions of Us on the Land, we had this conversation when I was in the studio with him,” Jurado said. “He said to me, ‘It would be so great to do a record that's completely opposite of this, where it's super dry.’ And I thought, man, that would be kind of wild, especially coming after this. He started talking about these records he loved that were very dry in sound. We’d listen to them … like Pink Flag from Wire, for instance.”
Gordon, who knew Swift since 1996, was game for the new approach, and his presence can now be similarly felt in Jurado’s music, particularly in the prominent, melodic basslines of The Monster songs like “Helena,” “Tom” and “Song for Langston Birch.”
Jurado and Gordon just recently transitioned from the studio to the road, including a co-headlining show with Okkervil River at Stuart’s Opera House in Nelsonville, Ohio, on Sunday, Sept. 26. Going from isolation to touring would be a shock to the system for most people, but it’s particularly jarring for Jurado, who, beginning with Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, made a conscious decision to tune out 24-7 media coverage and the constant barrage of digital voices vying for his attention.
"There's no smartphone usage. I’m talking to you right now on a flip phone. I'm not, like, surfing the web,” said Jurado, who, as a result, didn’t internalize pandemic-induced anxieties and stressors. “I honestly wasn't really feeling it because I don't watch the news, ever. So I had no idea what the hell was even going on.”
Speaking by phone from Chicago, Jurado said his recent arrival at O’Hare International Airport for the current tour felt like landing in a foreign country or “some weird, dystopian ‘Logan's Run’ or ‘Blade Runner’ movie.” In contrast, Jurado’s time at home perfectly suited his creative process, so much so that he wrote seven full albums in two months.
“I don't write on the road, ever, [but] I'm also not a songwriter who wakes up in the morning and grabs his cup of joe and sits down at his computer or notebook,” he said. "I have to be taking things to the recycling place or rolling up a hose in the yard or making my grocery list and going to the grocery store, driving back and forth, doing errands. That’s how songs show up for me. And since I was home doing everyday things, the songs were showing up left and right.”
About the same time Jurado shut off the noise of the outside world, he also began re-watching some of his favorite old TV shows, like “Alice,” “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” and “WKRP in Cincinnati.” It became almost an obsession, and soon characters from the shows started showing up in Jurado’s songs, beginning with The Horizon Just Laughed (2018) track “Marvin Kaplan,” named after the actor who had a recurring role on “Alice.” The trend continues on The Monster Who Hated Pennsylvania, which again name-drops characters from “Alice” (“Song for Langston Birch”) and “WKRP” (“Johnny Caravella,” a reference to the show’s DJ Dr. Johnny Fever).
"It was just a natural thing where I started feeling a connection with characters within the shows I'm watching,” Jurado said, noting that some of his forthcoming albums will dive even further into that world, with one record taking inspiration from TV extra and stuntman Eddie Smith, who co-founded the Black Stuntmen's Association in the 1960s.
“I first started seeing Eddie Smith in episodes of ‘Gomer Pyle,’” Jurado said. “He's the only African American on the show, for the most part, until the later episodes. But he has no talking parts. He's just a background actor. In one scene he’s in the platoon with Gomer, and in the next scene you see him as a cab driver or as a ticket taker in a movie theater. So I became hyper-focused on background actors. And there's not a lot of information on these guys, either. It leaves a lot to the imagination, which is great for me because, as a songwriter, that's kind of what we do.”
Don’t expect the seven albums Jurado recorded over the pandemic (five of which go together as a pentalogy) to trickle out over the next seven years. After releasing music on record labels such as Sub Pop, Secretly Canadian and Mama Bird, Jurado set out on his own with The Monster, establishing Maraqopa Records as a boutique label for small runs of physical releases (and merchandise) for fans who want to hold the music in their hands, in addition to streaming.
The self-release model gives Jurado financial freedom, but just as important, it gives him the flexibility to distribute music at a quicker pace. “If I want to be able to put out two records a year or three records a year or two records and an EP or a single, I wasn't able to do that with labels that I had been on,” he said. “Secretly Canadian was very, very hard for me to leave, because I love that record label. They're great guys, super supportive. … But they weren't able to meet my needs as an artist as far as wanting to put out as much as I wanted to.”
Just last week, Jurado released a new single, “Take Your Time,” a different type of song from the material on The Monster. Originally released as a collab with British electronic act Faithless, Jurado stripped the song down to fit the serene vibe of the track, which begins with the words, “Don’t be in such a hurry,” then hitting on the theme again in the recurring chorus: “Just take your time/And I’ll take mine.”
“It’s one of my mantras. It’s kind of how I live my life,” Jurado said. “I’m pretty much driving 50 miles an hour in a 60. I’m not in a hurry to do anything at all.”
The lyrics feel particularly applicable these days as Jurado performs to masked audiences while the pandemic rages on. “It's been hard for everybody. It’s been a change for everybody. It's been interrupting,” he said. “You just have to remember that. You just have to be kind to people. And, to use my own song, take your time. And try to be forgiving.”