If Damien Jurado's characters could meet their maker, they might ask why he gave them such a tough lot in life. For a decade now, they've endured hardship and heartache in the hands of Jurado, the Seattle singer-songwriter. Like an accidental peek behind closed doors, Jurado's songs offer an uncomfortably intimate glimpse at the messiness of human behavior. His characters are fictional, but their struggles feel all too real.
Jurado is currently touring behind last year's And Now That I'm in Your Shadow, an album that touches on adultery, abandonment, murder and grief. Similar to his other work, suffering is a central theme.
'I think it comes down to how frail life is and how the many choices that you make really affect people,' he says. 'My life is so different than what I write about, though.'
Which isn't to say Jurado is impervious to frailty, but his characters are condemned to repeat their mistakes every time the songs play.
'There's no striving to get better,' he explains. 'It's funny, I just got into this conversation with my girlfriend about the song 'What Are the Chances.' I told her how shitty I thought this guy was and how this character really upset me. One of the lines he says to this woman--which is a horrible thing to say--is, 'It's not like we're cheating; we're just meeting in hotels, not your home.''
Over the phone, the mild-mannered Jurado sounds perturbed about this fictional weasel. It makes you wonder why he--as their creator--doesn't offer the characters redemption.
'I don't know why I create these people and put them in horrible situations and leave them there with no hope. Maybe I do that because there are so many songwriters that sing about hopeful situations.'
He doesn't really listen to those other singer-songwriters, though. 'I think most of them are pretty boring. I like music that puts me in a good mood and that I can dance to.'
Jurado laughs at this last part, knowing full well that his moody, fragile acoustic numbers are hardly danceable. He grew up listening to Black Flag, Slayer and Crass and right now is digging Jamaican music and '60s soul. He can't really pinpoint how his personal style evolved.
'It's something that found me. This is the constant struggle I have with my music. It almost reminds me of an annoying relative who always comes over at the wrong time but you have to entertain them.'
Stripped-down songs seem the best backdrop for Jurado's writing. It's prose that doesn't hold up without music but shouldn't be overpowered by a big production. Jurado tried creative-writing classes when he was younger and didn't fare too well, but he still had a lot of stories to tell, which is why he started playing music.
The high-school dropout was an Air Force brat, shuffled from place to place with his six siblings before settling for good in Seattle at age 13.
'I hated it,' he says of the constant moving. 'When I started writing, that influence definitely was there. Most of the towns where I lived were relatively small. I didn't identify with big-city life. I guess that's why my writing is so focused on small-town situations. Not that it doesn't apply to big cities, but it's different.'
Another source of inspiration seems to be Jurado's spirituality, though he denies that he is a Christian singer.
'To me, it's like saying you're a truck-driving singer or a policeman singer. My own personal belief has nothing to do with my songwriting. My spiritual belief has about as much to do with my songwriting as what I eat for breakfast. It doesn't really apply. It's something that never plays into my music.'
It's not an overt presence, but it explains Jurado's noticeable empathy for his characters--even the liars, cheaters and scoundrels. It also might explain why he leaves them stranded in their sad situations. Humans are free to make their own choices, but they still have to live with the consequences for the rest of their lives.
Damien Jurado plays with Okkervil River at
The Casbah on Monday, Sept. 3. Doors open at 8:30 p.m. $14. 619-232-HELL.