Damien Jurado. Photo by Cary Norton.

The Early Bird Cool Cat 

Seattle singer-songwriter Damien Jurado headlines wildfire benefit in Eugene

Since our phone call is scheduled bright and early, Seattle indie singer-songwriter Damien Jurado seems to be a morning person. This challenges my notion that touring musicians like Jurado must be night owls, especially ones who play the kind of moody, late-night music for which Jurado is known. 

When I ask him about being an early riser, he says, “Being a parent sort of forces you to be.” He also says life on the road necessitates that schedule more than I might expect: always up and off to play the next town over.

This pragmatic sensibility is in character for the musician. Since the 1990s, Jurado has built a career around simple, largely acoustic songs that are too unusual to be considered coffeeshop variety singer-songwriter material, but too based in storytelling to completely fit the mold of indie rock. 

In May, Jurado released What’s New, Tomboy. And on Oct. 9, he plays the first of a socially distant two-night benefit for those affected by recent wildfires in the McKenzie River area, presented by the Hult Center.

Throughout his career, Jurado has remained interested in subtle, understated character sketches. His guitar work, usually played fingerstyle, alternates between acoustic and electric, with chord voicings and harmonies that could be described as Beatlesque. 

Overall, he belongs among a handful of musicians who typify the quiet side of Pacific Northwest indie music. At heart, he’s a traditionalist: mellower than Jeremy Enigk or Doug Martsch, less avant-garde than Phil Elverum and without the bleeding-edge of Elliott Smith.

While none of these artists sound much like one another, they nevertheless share a community that defies easy description. After all, how do you put into words the feeling of breathing deeply into your lungs the marine air of Puget Sound? Imagine that, and you’ve come close.

There’s also a bit of mature Elvis Costello albums like All This Useless Beauty on Tomboy, especially with the relatively rocking album-opener “Birds Tricked into the Trees,” when the record’s only real percussion shows its face. 

Elsewhere, there’s some of the Davies brothers from The Kinks in the baroque-pop keyboard work in “When We Were Few,” and the autumnal tone of Nick Drake on songs like “Francine” and “The End of the Road.” 

Since Tomboy is Jurado’s fourth album in five years, I wonder about the creative process for such a prolific artist. Writing a song is like petting a cat, he replies.

“You can sit there and try and beckon your cat and it just sits there,” he explains. The cat may simply stare at you from across the room. “That’s kind of how my songs are,” Jurado says.

 “If you ignore your cat,” he continues, “they come to you. The best way for me to write songs is to just be going about living my life. I find, when that happens, songs really start showing up.”

To deal with the pandemic-related music-industry shutdown, Jurado has relied on mindfulness principles he learned as part of a 12-step program.

“People are in a very tough place right now,” he says. While he realizes there’s a lot of change going on in the world, he knows he can’t control much beyond his one block radius. To do his part, he’s been busy writing songs.

“I was just talking with my studio engineer,” Jurado says, “I said, ‘Hey, when people open back up here, we’ve got a lot of records to record. I’ve written seven albums.’”

Jurado didn’t expect to play a live show at all for at least a year, so he and his agent said, “Take that 2020!” when the request to play a show in Eugene came through his inbox. The fact it was a wildfire benefit only sealed the deal.

“The opportunity to play in the Pacific Northwest, I always jump at,” he adds. “I’d much rather play in our region than anywhere else. It’s home.”

Music for the McKenzie concert series, a Hult Presents production, kicks-off with an evening with Damien Jurado, 7 pm Friday, Oct. 9. The concert will feature pod-style seating outdoors at Wildcraft Cider Works, in full observance of all COVID-19 related health and safety guidelines. 

Tickets range from two-person pods for $72 up to $270 VIP 6-person pods. The Shook Twins headline the second night of the event, with a portion of proceeds going to benefit those affected by the Holiday Farm Fire along the McKenzie River. Tickets for each night sold separately; all-ages.

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