Despite the many journeys and experiences that Seattle folk-rock singer/songwriter Damien Jurado has gone through -- including a youth invested in punk music that transitioned to folk and later several label changes over 10 full-length albums (including Sub Pop and his current label, Secretly Canadian) and trying different methods of writing -- the one thing that's fully escaped his grasp until recently is an understanding of what being a songwriter truly means. That changed with the recording of his latest album, his tenth since 1997, "Saint Bartlett."
"The whole thing I would say is a growing process," Jurado said. "When I started out in the beginning I had not a clue what I was doing. I think I knew what I wanted to do, but at the end of the day I was really unsure of myself. I would say I've been unsure of who I am as a songwriter until recently. It's taken me 10 records to finally figure out what I want to do and who I am as a songwriter, what it means and what my voice is."
The path to that point found the singer doing some soul-searching, looking for hope amid troubling times and expanding his horizons. Some of the writing for the album came at his family's cottage that overlooked Vashon and the Puget Sound during the hottest Seattle summers on record. As he watched the Fauntleroy ferry chug below and sometimes saw storms approach from above, he sat on the porch with guitar and would write and sing.
It wasn't a perfect period of his life, however, as several of his closest friends went through troubling times. Jurado used what he was feeling, the hopes and troubles surrounding him, and, like a bird flying overhead, crafted floating-in-the-clouds folk ballads that painted a very personal portrait of that time.
"The entire record is about the time I was going through that was a very turbulent time for a close friend of mine," Jurado said. "In some ways it's like a concept album. It's very personal."
To help him figure out how to make this portrait work, Jurado turned to singer and fellow label-mate Richard Swift. It wasn't something that came out of thin air, though, as Jurado has admired Swift's work for some time, so when he was asked to do a new album his name came up.
"I was a little bit hesitant about doing that because he lived out of state (Swift's studio in small town of Cottage Grove, Ore.) and that was not something I had done before, I've never left Seattle to do a record," Jurado said. "But it turned out to be the best thing for me."
Quickly finding a special musical bond, the two recorded the album in just one week. Many of the songs were first takes cut live in the studio (two songs even written on the spot), creating a powerfully organic atmosphere. Working with Swift also turned out to be Jurado's key in finding a way to tap into the voice he sought.
"I think he was able to help bring out a side of me that I've wanted to tap into for a long time now," said Jurado. "Richard is very open to trying new things and that was really good for me. I think the reason that this record sounds so different from my other records is that I was able to open up and try new things and sort of be spontaneous."
The recording opened Jurado to looking at the wide possibilities of things he could do with songs. It also translated off into his personal life, discovering who he was and getting a greater sense of appreciation for who he was.
"That's the funny thing about art -- it'll show you things and that you learn things from it," he said. "As I began to see myself as so open to the possibilities of so many things while recording the record then I started applying the same vision to my everyday living. If you can learn from art, that's big, especially from your own."
When it comes to pinpointing where exactly his music lies in the folk spectrum, Jurado will likely tell you that he's just a songwriter that's not restricted.
"I'm a songwriter, meaning that you can't nail me down to one specific genre," says Jurado. "I've been called everything from a folk singer to rock. I think that gives me a lot of freedom and sort of live outside the box."
But even so, folk music is something he treasures as it's an outlet to tell stories. Jurado provides honest and heart-felt music and lyrics that don't get overly sappy grabs the listener and throws them on cloud nine as they witness and get moved the swirling introspective grand yet honest/ modest eddies of hope, love, despair and the rest of life's mysteries unearthed by Jurado (Jurado in fact starts off the album with the powerful "Cloudy Shoes" which he sings "I wish that I could float up from the ground / I will never know what that's like").
"I think it was the storytelling and that it was simple," Jurado said. "Folk music was like punk in that anybody could play. All you needed was a guitar. And I just have a knack for storytelling."
Each record for Jurado is like a document of that time and place and is excited each chance he has to discover the songwriter in himself that he's been long searching for, one day at a time.
"I got into music at a really young age, just listening to my parents' records we had at our house," he said. "(I listened to) a lot of country records and my dad was a big Frank Zappa fan. I liked bands like Kiss growing up and at the age of 12 I discovered punk. I was into punk music for a long time and around '91 I got into folk music just from going to thrift stores, looking through obscure folk records of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Most of it was people you've never heard of before and then I got into more known folk artists. I started playing at a young age, just in punk bands. I didn't start songwriting until I was 21.
"For me a song is a song, it just depends what you do with it. I think being open to the possibilities of everything is a good idea. You know, the Beatles did it and a lot of great people did it. I think there are lots of different possibilities and ways of doing songs. I don't think anybody should limit themselves."