"Questions That Lead to More Questions": An Interview with Damien Jurado
Singer/songwriter Damien Jurado talks with PopMatters about new album The Horizon Just Laughed, his complex perception of time, and avoiding cynicism.
The Horizon Just Laughed
May 4, 2018
Damien Jurado's album releases are often promoted with accounts of visions, dreams and fictions. The Horizon Just Laughed, Jurado's first album following his Maraqopa trilogy, as well as an album he self-produced, is no exception. The singer/songwriter's new official biography points out that the album "started with a dream", then adds, "you'll have to ask him if you want the truth". Yet talking with him about the album and his songwriting makes "the truth" more elusive. As the Maraqopa (2012) song "Working Titles" suggests, questions lead to more questions.
Beyond the dreams and visions, there's another theme that yields a clearer picture of the artist and his work. For the past decade, the character in his songs is (or wants to be) flying, floating, and going out of body. The vehicles for these flights vary. There are shoes, spaceships, and airplanes. The lead single for The Horizon Just Laughed transports the character and his audience "Over Rainbows and Rainier". Jurado's lyrics create such vivid images of leave-taking that having listened to his songs feels like having seen a movie. However, Jurado, also a visual artist, describes his songwriting and painting as "two different worlds".
Of the two types of artistic expression, he explains, "I started out, ever since I've gotten into my adult life until I was 21 years old, wanting to be a visual artist. And then it wasn't until after I was 21 or 22 that I got signed to Sub Pop. And that was kind of it. But visual art… it's a bigger passion, believe it or not. It's a bigger passion than the music is. It's just that music is my career, but it's not the one I would have dreamed of doing. I wanted to be a visual artist. I wanted to be a painter, with galleries and the whole nine yards. But I didn't do that. I ended up doing music instead."
While Jurado distinguishes music as his career and art as the bigger passion, he says the relative freedom is largely the same. "Musically, I pretty much do whatever the hell I want to do, anyway. There are expectations that come with the musical career, so yeah, that's different. Visually, I can do whatever the hell I want there as well, but I'm not getting into any galleries or dealers, so I have no one to answer to, as far as that goes, but myself. Music, I do have people to answer to or people that answer to me, so that's where it is different. The freedom is exactly the same."
Given this freedom to go where his music takes him, Jurado's decision to leave behind the fictional Maraqopa seems to signal the arrival of some new inspiration. The way he explains ending the trilogy, there was no plan or process in place for bringing that story to a close, or at any other point in its creation. "You've got to keep in mind," he says, "when I did Maraqopa, the original album, the first of the trilogy, I was asked, 'will there be another one?' And I said no, I was very adamant about saying, 'no there won't be a second one.' But the songs had another idea.
"They had a different opinion, I guess if you will. When I started writing songs for Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son (2014), that album, I made the correlation halfway through. The first few songs, I was like, 'oh, I think this is a continuation. Alright, well it looks like I'm going to do a continuation,' even though I hadn't planned on it. Then with Visions of Us on the Land (2016), it was kind of the same thing. By the time I did Visions, I was honestly open to there being a fourth or a fifth or a six or seventh or whatever. I was open to it because at that point I realized that it's not really me that decides. It's the song that appears, you know? When I did Visions, I sort of had this feeling that this may be my last. Okay, and it was. I moved on. I moved on, and this is how this next record begins."
Thus The Horizon Just Laughed plays like a new chapter or a new reel, but at certain moments there are echoes of Maraqopa. One of the more immediate connections is the song "The Last Great Washington State", which revives the phrase about questions from "Working Titles". I ask Jurado if that repetition is necessarily a link to the story world of Maraqopa. He says, "Well, it's very complex, it's kind of a multi-layered answer, so bear with me here. The song you're talking about, 'The Last Great Washington State,' I said, 'to the question mark, protagonist,' meaning is it me? Is it someone else?
"So I'm referencing the character in Maraqopa, who was pretty much me, and this person on this album, who is pretty much me, and I'm singing from my point of view, about a character who may or may not be me from an album that may or may not have been about me or my life. If that makes any sense. So the 'questions that lead to more questions,' that's referencing 'Working Titles'. But I'm talking about me, I'm saying, to all the questions that lead to more questions, but yeah, that's a reference to 'Working Titles'."
He continues, "This is where it gets kind of weird. My ongoing question, my internal dialogue is this: Is this person in Maraqopa, who I had this dream about, is this me? Am I having flashbacks of my previous life? And not only that. Is this person I'm talking about on this album, the protagonist on this album, The Horizon Just Laughed, is he, in fact, the previous life to the Maraqopa protagonist? And, am I, now, the living embodiment of those two lives?
"How confusing is that?" he asks.
But this exposition is not so much confusing as it is another reminder that Jurado's musical storytelling shares qualities that audiences might normally encounter in visual storytelling. In this case, the fragmented and/or nested lives bring to mind the plot of Synecdoche, New York. I ask if that movie's narrative might be a good comparison.
He points out a key difference: "I'm not familiar with the lives I've led if that makes any sense. He's (Philip Seymour Hoffman's 'Caden Cotard') staging the plays and knows the details. I don't know the details of my lives. They just sort of come, show up. I could be eating dinner. Or I could be with a friend or watching TV, and those memories will come to me.
"But then it gets worked into this really weird narrative where it's like singing to me, about me, about a life that I don't really know about, you know? While being here with me, but I can't see me, in present time. It's really strange. It's hard to explain. It's like the beginning of the track, the first song, 'Allocate,' is basically me, but it is the past me, it is the future me, and it is the present me, talking to the present me. But that future, present, and past me, it's three people in one body but I don't see that body."
When viewed that way, 'Allocate' and The Horizon Just Laughed share temporal qualities with science-fiction works like La Jetée, Cloud Atlas, Interstellar, and Arrival. I ask, perhaps a good way to describe the character and his framework is "extra-dimensional"? Jurado agrees, "It's very dimensional, it's so dimensional that it confuses the shit out of me."
Another reading of the album's dimensions is from a spiritual perspective. Many listeners have commented, some quite eloquently, about a spiritual reality that underpins or runs alongside Jurado's fictional storytelling. Here, Jurado's description of "three people in one body" as well as lyrical content, like "Over Rainbows and Rainier's" references to the Angel Moroni, Lucifer, and Jesus, could be evidence of some spiritual or religious undercurrent within his music. Of that observation, Jurado says, "It's not anything that I can say that I give much thought to. I don't know if it's as much spiritual as it is dimensional. Obviously, we're talking spirits, because it's the same soul. It's just being in different bodies and living chapters of this soul's journey, right?
"But at the same time," he says, "we're also talking about dimensional living. So if I am the past me who is able to be in the present now, with me in this room, currently as I'm talking to you, that past me's aware of the present me and also of the future me. The future me's also aware of both the past and present me, but I can't see what me I'm talking about. But it's all the same me. I don't know. See I'm even talking, I'm even confusing myself here. It's very confusing. But to me, it seems like a truth."
Photo: Lindsey Barnes / Courtesy of Secretly Canadian
We could parse the difference between a truth and the truth, but Jurado's next statement drives us further into existentialism. "I don't know who I am. You know what I'm saying? I don't know who I am, I guess is what I'm trying to tell you. I mean, my name? But I'm not my name. ...This kind of all goes back to the character, the protagonist in The Horizon Just Laughed, constantly feels, he has the continuation of feeling that he doesn't know his place. He is on a plane that doesn't land. Or he does land, but every area that he's landing in, he's not familiar with the present time, but he is familiar, but he just doesn't connect with it."
The statement "I don't know who I am" can mean many different things, and it's also something familiar from movies, for example, the works of David Lynch. It's the exact phrase the amnesiac Rita says in Mulholland Dr. A more recent version appears in Twin Peaks: The Return when Audrey says "I'm not sure who I am, but I'm not me." Jurado, however, doesn't appear to be talking about amnesia or dissociation. His is a heightened awareness of multiple selves.
He offers an example: "I could eat something, I can go somewhere, and… I'll give an analogy, okay? The analogy is this: I am kissing somebody I love. Or I wake up next to this person I love. But I am remembering it as I am living it. Does that make any sense? I am aware, I am fully aware that what's happening at this moment, I am remembering it. But I'm very much aware that I am also living it at that moment." I say this sounds like a godlike dimensionality that humans cannot understand because we don't experience time that way. "Right," he says. "But that's how I experience time, which is very strange. That's, like, my daily existence, which is honestly very exhausting. Because I'm always aware of it."
One aspect of The Horizon Just Laughed that anchors the songs to a recognizable reality is the use of several real musicians' names within the song lyrics. Their function within the album's concept relates to the character's (mis)perception of time. Jurado explains, "The people I'm talking about in this album, for the most part, are no longer living. But he is talking about them and to them as if they are. But he's not even aware that- he doesn't know if they're alive or dead.
"Look, if you're a fan or an admirer of, let's say, Allan Sherman, and you're familiar with him in 1963 or '62, and then all of a sudden you are aboard a plane, thinking you're going to go St. Louis, and then you land in Kansas City, or Houston, or Seattle, in 1987, you have no idea if Allan Sherman's still alive or not. You're definitely aware that he's not as popular, they're not playing him on the radio anymore, but you don't know if he's alive or dead. You have no idea what the hell the Internet is."
Does Jurado see himself within that tradition of songwriters whose work outlives them? He answers by pointing to more such artists, before contrasting them with the current state of music. "Well, I think there's something that's very timeless about a Ray Conniff record. There is something very timeless about a Henry Mancini record, or a Frank Sinatra record, or Judy Garland. These are very timeless records. There's something very timeless about a Fleetwood Mac record. I don't know where along the line this happened, but this did happen, where we are in a time where not only does everything -- EVERYTHING -- this is not an exaggeration, I'm talking, in my opinion, everything, in every genre, this all sounds exactly the same. Exactly the same."
Once again, Jurado offers an analogy, this one more entertaining than the last: "It's like seeing a bunch of bagged potato chips. You open up a bag of potato chips, and you pull out a Dorito. And the next one you pull out, the next bag, is a Pringles -- well that comes in a can, nevermind. You open up the can of Pringles, and that's a can. And then you open up a Lay's potato chips. And you open a Ruffles. And then a Cheeto. They all look different, but they taste exactly the same. That is music today, I think, for the most part. And that really upsets me. So for me, I want to make records not that emulate, but I guess pay homage to these albums.
"Look, I know the way these records are being made today. I have no desire to be that way. None. Because I think, no offense to these people, they all sound shit to me. Honestly. And I don't want to make those kinds of records. I also don't think it's rocket science. I think a lot of producers and arrangers and whatever, are spending so much….time trying to perfect something that doesn't need perfecting. Just do it. Just capture it. That's a whole different story, but you asked, so I'm telling you."
I refer to modern country music's homogeneous production values, and Jurado says, "Honest to God man, I honestly cannot tell the difference between, sound-wise, the production of a new country record versus the production of a Pharrell record. Or the production of whatever it is -- name a popular indie rock band. You know what I mean? It all sounds the same to me."
On The Horizon Just Laughed, Jurado served as producer, which was a shift away from his long-running collaboration with Richard Swift. I ask about transitioning away from that collaboration, saying that this album certainly sounds distinctive from the Maraqopa trilogy.
"When you work with Richard Swift, you're basically getting a Richard Swift record, production. It's no different, again, not to name drop, but Pharrell. If you work with Pharrell, you're going to get a Pharrell-sounding, I guess, record. Which, then again, sounds like everybody else. But when you work with Richard, you're going to get a Richard Swift record. There are a lot of similarities between my albums and the new Nathaniel Rateliff record, or the Foxygen record, or whatever he's worked on. Because you're getting his signature sound."
As for whether he enjoyed going it alone this time, Jurado says, "Very much so, I loved it. That's not to say I don't like working with Richard. I very, very much love working with Richard and it's so much fun. And I've learned a great deal from Richard. But Richard and I are two very different producers. For me, it was just really about capturing me. Not capturing me through the lens of someone else. So that's what you're getting. The sound you hear in this record is basically me. That's what you're hearing. It's my production, my sounds, my arrangements, the whole nine yards. One hundred percent me."
One aspect of Jurado's songwriting that increasingly distinguishes him from other artists in the general area of folk/rock is his seeming commitment to hopefulness. Even when exploring downbeat and unfortunate human experiences, his songs aren't nihilistic or cynical. I ask if that quality is important to him. After pausing for a moment to think, he says, "Nothing's pre-planned, so I don't know. It's funny, I was talking about this yesterday, how much I hate sarcasm. I hate it. I loathe it. And I don't really care for cynicism, either. And since I loathe those things, I'm naturally not going to go in that direction.
"Do I notice? Look, I'm not going to lie to you, it's in a lot of people's… We'll take Father John Misty, for instance, not to name drop him here in this interview, but I'm going to. You know, I've known Josh (Tillman) for so long.... I love him like a brother, I've known him for so long. But to me, there is an element of sarcasm and cynicism, that I can't get down with. I am a realist, which can be mistaken for being a pessimist. Pessimism and realism are not the same things. I take things, look for things, at face value. The good and the negative. If I see something that's negative, I'll call it out as negative, something that's positive, I'll call it positive. To continually dig and cut away and jab and add onto the pile of cynicism and sarcasm, yeah, I don't see the point to that."
He continues, "Not only do I not see a point, I don't think it's very productive. And I think eventually people will just grow old and tired of it. I just feel like for me, personally, it's not something I am interested in. I also am not singing about the state of affairs and the world. I'm a very… oh, man, I'm not a pessimist. I'm not trying to purposefully shy myself away from the world. Look, I know the realities of this world. I've lived in it for 45 years. I can go outside and look at the realities of the world. I'm not shying away from it. But my dialogue and my world are so internal, the dialogue is so internal, that that's what I am sitting there talking about. I'm singing about more of the things that are going on in my mind. It's not that I'm avoiding anything. I just don't see the point of it, I guess. I'm tired of it, honestly, of cynicism. It's growing old for me."
Since he mentioned Father John Misty, I bring up the divisive essay Father John Misty wrote as a promotion for Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son. Like many listeners, I struggled to connect the content of the album with the the heterodox spirit of the essay (which contrasts an "American folk Jesus, ugh" with a "freaky space Jesus"). But Jurado explains the situation thus: "He's writing from his standpoint. Josh is a fan of mine. He's been a fan of mine for a long time. I've been a fan of his for a long time. He asked me, 'who's writing the piece for you?' And I said, 'nobody. I don't have anybody.' And he said, 'I want to write this.' I said, 'okay, go for it.'"
Jurado continues to react favorably to Father John Misty's contribution, saying, "I think his point of view is actually quite interesting. I would say- it's funny, you know, that piece actually upset a lot of my fans. And for me, it didn't upset me at all. In some ways, I think it was very accurate in the way that he sees it. It's not accurate to the way I see it. But I'm not writing from my point of view. He was hired, I hired him on, to give me his point of view of it all. And I think there's something actually that's very beautiful about the way he sees it. It is cynical, it is sarcastic, yeah, definitely, for sure.
"But you've got to think about what I'm singing about. I'm not going to be taken very seriously anyway if I'm singing about the Second Coming happening by way of spaceship and cult members in a desert, I don't know what other direction you could go or look at it other than humor itself. I know very [few] people who take it seriously, at all. So I think that in some ways, he didn't upset me at all. I found myself very fortunate to have him write for me, in that way, because I did want his point of view… And nothing was edited. I basically just let him go for it and I told him, I said, 'I'm going to print this, we're going to put this out as is.' And even the label was like, 'are you sure?' I was like 'yeah, yeah, we're going to do it as is' because I want his point of view in this, not mine."
The negative reaction, then, seems like the effect of an audience that feels threatened by a statement that contradicts what it assumes to be the perspective of the artist. Jurado confirms this, pointing out "But that's the thing, that they don't know my perspective. They assume they do. And then to me, that actually is more offensive (laughs), to assume that they know what my perspective is than to be offended by something that he's writing."
The story about this particular essay and album bring up questions even deeper than listeners' assumed ownership of the artist's perspective. Jurado says this involves, "Not only my perspective, but what I believe," which he agrees is "way deeper" than assuming they know his perspective. "Yeah, it's way deeper. Or how I see the world. I'm not really very vocal about that stuff sometimes."
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