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Matson on Music

Music news, concert reviews, analysis and opinion by music writer Andrew Matson.

March 1, 2011 at 3:39 PM

Damien Jurado: Seattle's folk-boom godfather

Posted by Andrew Matson

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Damien Jurado in White Center; photo by Alan Berner / The Seattle Times

"Cloudy Shoes" by Damien Jurado


There's a recurring character in Seattle singer-songwriter Damien Jurado's songs, a person who's supposed to be at a social function but can't leave the house, or can't leave the car, and sends an emissary to explain: "Tell them I'm not the social kind."

Who is that character?

"That's me," says Jurado at the cafe attached to Easy Street Records in West Seattle. "For sure. You just won't find me at Bumbershoot or Sasquatch! festival unless I'm playing. And it's not that I'm afraid of people or I don't like people. It's just that I have a lot of social phobias that I'm still trying to overcome."

Indeed, the first track on Jurado's outstanding 2010 album "Saint Bartlett" includes the refrain, "trying to work it out / I'm still trying to fix my mind."

You'd expect a singer-songwriter who has spent a 15-year career singing mostly about mental illness, personal anxiety and existentialism to have some issues. But if he does, they aren't evident in one-on-one conversation. And while that lead "Saint Bartlett" track ("Cloudy Shoes") is about struggling, Jurado sounds strong and graceful doing it, the first drumbeat like bay windows thrown open, string section streaming out, Jurado's half-swallowed tenor voice rising above it all. It's a confident start to the best album of his career, Americana touched with Motown atmosphere. Jurado should play it Saturday when he headlines The Crocodile in Seattle's Belltown.

Jurado is the godfather of Seattle's indie-Americana movement. He went to Rainier Beach High School and has songs named "Wallingford" and "Beacon Hill." Plucked from obscurity by downtown independent label Sub Pop in the late '90s, he released a few albums there before leaving to work with Indiana label Secretly Canadian. When he started playing acoustic music in Seattle in 1996, nobody else was doing it here. Now it's a full-blown scene, represented to the outside world by Fleet Foxes. There are plenty of other young, local heavy hitters, too, and local blog soundonthesound.com does a fine job keeping up with the action.

It's all post-Neil Young music, freely alternating between unplugged and plugged-in, with an emphasis on vocal performance and storytelling. The geographic focal points include the South End (Columbia City Theater) and Ballard (Tractor Tavern and Conor Byrne).

"For me, what's going on now with the popularity of Seattle acoustic music — the Moondoggies, The Maldives, The Head and the Heart — it's exciting because I got to see the beginning. And in some ways, I was the beginning," he says.

The Maldives' frontman Jason Dodson remembers: "In 1999, I saw Damien play upstairs in the old U-District Tower Records. I came up here from Portland, where Elliott Smith was king, and here was Mr. Jurado, holding a quiet court of his own. He blew me away."

Jurado is content to blow minds on a smallish level.

"I'm not going to sell a lot of records," he says. "I'd rather be known as a cult figure."

Unpretentious, Jurado uses his status as a Seattle folk godfather to encourage others. He remembers one time when he approached a female performer after she played and told her she did a good job: "She said, 'I'm just trying so hard not to freak out that Damien Jurado is telling me he likes my song.' When she said she recognized me, it was like, forget about who I am, let's talk about you."

But with "Saint Bartlett" being as great as it is, and another "much weirder" follow-up almost finished, it's time to talk about Jurado. "Saint Bartlett" is his most fully realized album since "Ghost of David" (2000), which was coproduced by Jurado to feel like multiple personalities happening in one brain. "Saint Bartlett" is open and majestic, with engineering and production handled by Oregonian Richard Swift (he's doing the next record, too). Jurado says Swift made "Bartlett" sound the way it does by carefully placing microphones in a small house.

"Sound is the most important part of a record," Jurado says. "It's something I wish bands would pay more attention to. If you have a good-sounding record, to me that's all that matters."

It's a message he might pass along to some musician directly someday, should he brave the social interaction. Because he's the godfather, they might heed his words.

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