Before his show on June 3rd I had the chance to talk to Damien Jurado about his craft as songwriter and the recent release of Saint Bartlett––out on May 25th on Secretly Canadian.
Damien Jurado writes songs like Robert Altman directs films. Like Altman, Jurado’s characters are victims of circumstance, sometimes environmental, sometimes of their own accord, who are forced to face down moral questions that they are unequipped to deal with. Unlike Hollywood films, however, in Jurado’s tales there is rarely any redemption or story arc. Instead Jurado takes us into the darker parts of the human experience and leaves us there. Jurado gives us little exposition and rarely a conclusion, each song is a vignette of some unfinished longing and desire. Given the cinematic quality of many of his narrative songs, it is no surprise then that these slice-of-life stories come to him in mental flashes, which he calls “little mind movies” that play out like a film.
In writing “I Had No Intentions Of Leaving” off his 2006 album And Now That I’m In Your Shadow, Jurado tells a story of a scorned husband shooting his wife’s lover told through the eyes of the murdered man’s brother. The last line of the song says, “Hotel Hospital, the tears burn my eyes/I slipped into nighttime and deep into dying.” He states, “When that lyric came to me, I literally pictured him sitting in the waiting room after hours, without any lights on in the waiting room, and all you can see is the glow of the vending machine catching his face. [The lyrics] “Deep into dying” is about facing the inevitable that his brother is dead. I picture him not even in the same room as him, like in a separate wing of the hospital, but he feels the death come upon him. ‘Slip into nighttime/and deep into dying’ is like, he died with him.”
“I Had No Intentions Of Leaving” is a coda to “Medication,” a song written 10 years ago which appeared on the 2000 album The Ghost of David. Jurado was quick to point out, however, that the thematic arc of this song doesn’t necessarily mean that his songs were meant to have an overarching theme, moral tale, or even endings, he stated, “Am I trying to convey some moral tale? I don’t think so. I am not into infidelity, I am not into murdering people, they are so separate from what I do and who I am as a person. I don’t know where they come from to be honest with you. I think a lot of them just leave people hanging ... I don’t like ending things. I’ve have had various fans ask me ‘what happens …’ and I don’t know.”
Jurado’s latest album Saint Bartlett, is similarly filled with proper nouns, citing names of cities and first names. Jurado confessed that Saint Bartlett as a whole is written for a real life person, and that references to locations such as “Wallingford,” “Beacon Hill” and “Kalama” are about real places, or at least take real significance in these tales, instead of serving as fictionalized backdrops for Jurado’s stories.
In more than 13 years releasing albums, Jurado sounds genuinely excited about Saint Bartlett. Recorded and mixed in only six days with producer Richard Swift, Saint Bartlett’s lush strings and wall-of-sound production is by far Jurado’s most cinematic sounding output, he said, “I make these story songs, but they aren’t cinematic.” Borrowing from albums like Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding and The Rolling Stone’s Exile On Mainstreet, which were recorded live, Jurado attributes the Saint Bartlett’s immediate and warm sound to Swift simply pushing the play/record button and improvising the accompaniment, Jurado stated: “It really isn’t that unconventional. It is unconventional now, it wasn’t unconventional in the 60s or 70s. If you listen to an album like John Wesley Harding you notice that Dylan starts every song and the drummer starts every song late. There are parts of the song where Dylan changes and the drummer comes back in, it sounds like the band he is playing with has no idea what he is playing. But that is the magic of those records. Richard was like, ‘we are just going to capture the performance and everything else is just going to be fun.’”
Saint Bartlett was released May, 25 on Secretly Canadian.