MOST SINGER-SONGWRITERS are dodgy. They've gotta be. Otherwise, they'd spend half their time talking about how Bob Dylan is an influence and the girl in

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True believer

Damien Jurado faces critics of his music and his faith with a blunt weapon—honesty.

MOST SINGER-SONGWRITERS are dodgy. They've gotta be. Otherwise, they'd spend half their time talking about how Bob Dylan is an influence and the girl in such and such a song really did break their heart. After a few weeks of interviews and club conversations with drunken fans, they'd go insane. So they lie. They say they've never heard of Dylan. They say the narrator in the songs is an amalgam of a combination of a pastiche of people they knew in college, or some crap like that.

Not Damien Jurado. He's honest. When we go into a downtown Tully's on a recent afternoon, he doesn't order a latte or a macchiatto. He goes for a hot chocolate—a nice, honest beverage. He's dressed in an earth-tone flannel coat and a green button-down shirt, and he's got sparse stubble trying to pass for facial hair. He should be making up crafty fibs about his fresh-brewed second album, Rehearsals for Departure (Sub Pop), but instead he tells the jarringly graphic, at times discomforting, truth.

"With any record, there's an influence," he says in the same earnest near-whine that singles out his singing voice. "Two of my all-time favorite folk albums as far as instrumentation were Bryter Layter by Nick Drake and Bookends by Simon & Garfunkel." There you have it. Jurado knowingly admits to trying to sound like the artists he admires. He'd practically testify with his right hand on the book he's carrying around—a biography of the bad-ass forefather of folk, Phil Ochs.

But why the heck would a guy in his twenties emulate such geezers (the ones that aren't dead, at least)?

"I'm sort of a freak," he says with a shrug.

Jurado wasn't always so out of step with subcultural fashion. As a musically curious teen growing up in Ocean Shores, he had a fateful run-in with a soon-to-be-famous rock star. Kurt Cobain, then a janitor at a resort hotel, made the young Damien a mixed tape that turned him on to punk faves like Black Flag. Jurado would play in hardcore bands, but his love of punk and heavy metal dissipated rapidly, and he soon took to reading books on the history of more placid forms such as blues, country, and folk. By his early twenties, he'd become another one of those contemplative singer-songwriters (albeit one with a backing band) who proliferated after grunge's reverberations died down.

"I wanted to go in a folk direction, but I didn't have the guts to go strictly acoustic yet," he explains. "I didn't think I was good enough. I was already getting horrible reviews on my voice. You read stuff like that, you don't have any confidence. So I hired a band, and it was a complete disaster."

THE CRITICs WHO weren't maligning Jurado's vocal timbre took him to task for his admitted Christianity, even though it didn't surface in his songs. ("My spirituality is personal," he says sternly.) Combined, these elements helped keep his 1997 full-length debut, Waters Ave. S., from gaining much notice. A sharply constructed album that hinted at his potential as a songwriter who can somehow find fertile ground in the washed-out soil of sensitive-boy love songs, the record's slick production (by Steve Fisk), and electronic instrumentation seemed at odds with his personal, uninhibited writing.

A recent EP, Gathered in Song (on Seattle's Made in Mexico label), hinted that Jurado had grown more confident, and Rehearsals firmly suggests that he's become a self-assured artist. Those who can't get past his voice or religious affiliation may still dismiss him, but Jurado now moves comfortably between barebones folky ramblers and full-band arrangements—featuring guest players such as the Posies' Ken Stringfellow, Los Lobos' Steve Berlin, and Pedro the Lion's David Bazan. The album opens with Dylanesque harmonica and finger-picking set in a sorrowful tale about a young woman heading home to see a mother she'd been taken away from as a child ("Ohio"), skirts through a few more plaintive songs, then drops a pop bombshell in the form of "Honey Baby." The single sounds like something you'd hear on the radio in the '70s, with a breezy singsong melody and a torrent of guitar hooks that recall Joe Walsh's catchy riffs both in and out of the Eagles.

"I wanted to make a record that sounded like it didn't come from this era," Jurado says.

"Honey Baby" and a few other tracks tease an upbeat outlook from the typically introspective singer. This would seem a logical progression; Jurado's gotten married and bought a house since releasing his debut. But the solid-framed musician suddenly looks vulnerable when asked how he can relate to perpetually troubled heroes like Ochs and Woody Guthrie. He stares out the window absently and takes a deep breath. Here again, he could brush off the question, but Jurado's a straight shooter.

"The thing is," he says, choking on the words, "I may look comfortable or seem comfortable because I have a house and a wife, but that doesn't mean I'm OK. I suffered a nervous breakdown this summer, while recording [Rehearsals]."

With this cat out of the bag, Jurado details the difficulties of assembling an album in the midst of doctor visits, prescription doses, and repeated panic attacks. He admits that the guitar parts for "Honey Baby" had to be played by Blake Wescott, who co-produced the record with Stringfellow. He confesses that his scratch tracks—the original takes—had to suffice for another of the pop songs, "Letters & Drawings."

But Jurado is determined to achieve his goal of becoming a timeless songwriter and performer; his dream is to headline at the Paramount.

"My music," he says, "is like a medication in itself."

 
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