Playing haunting and stark urban folk music in the 1990s, Seattle-based singer-songwriter Damien Jurado became known as a quiet storm and an inspiration to thousands of kids with guitars and spiral notebooks full of songs. Recording for the influential indie label Sub Pop Records, he also was championed as a lo-fi trailblazer.
Such musical settings were perfect for his thoughtful, literate songs about despair and darkness, alleviated by the occasional silver lining. His narratives drew comparisons to the masters of short fiction.
Then he took a few artistic detours and became semi-retired more than a couple of times. His career is surging again, thanks to his last couple of albums and the more richly arranged songs on them.
And even though he has often performed with a full band lately, Jurado will play a solo concert — just him and his guitar — Thursday night, May 16, at Club Congress.
Publicity at Jurado's current label, Secretly Canadian Records, would have us think that he underwent a career transformation with the last two albums - Saint Bartlett in 2010 and last year's remarkable Maraqopa.
The label posits that Jurado "radically changed his tune mid-career," citing the more expansive and elaborate rock arrangements of those two albums, both of which showed Jurado collaborating with producer and longtime friend Richard Swift, who also plays with The Shins.
"Richard's a good friend, and a great influence on the songs, and he's a big source of inspiration."
But Jurado doesn't see those recent recordings as representative of a drastic turnaround.
"For me, it was just growing in a different way. Like a child that grew up to a teenager or even an adult. I think my new music shows a pattern of growing and learning."
So does he think the music he's making today is more mature than the minimalist folk-pop for which became popular in the 1990s?
"I think so, sure. It's more grown-up. But in a growing process, you are usually happy with the progress that you make. I can safely say I've been happy at each stage of my career with whatever new music I was making."
However you interpret it, Jurado's 11th studio album, Maraqopa, is a beautiful song cycle about life in the fictional town of the title. The gorgeous songs recall the work of David Crosby, Bob Welch and Leonard Cohen, maybe even a little Nick Drake.
But Jurado also wanted to surprise his listeners. So he and Swift chose the guitar-rocking tune "Nothing Is the News," with its goose-bump-inducing melodies and atonal climactic yowling, as the opening track.
"Richard actually said to me, 'You have to put this as the first track.' I was like, 'OK, that's a bold move.' And we held back the obvious catchy songs, 'Museum of Flight' and 'Mountains Still Asleep,' to be the last two tracks."
This clearly demonstrates Jurado's trust in his listeners to stick with the album from start to finish. He acknowledged that not all listeners in this day and age have the patience to do that. "For me, I like challenging preconceptions. Not all the way, but a little bit. There are some times when it's useful to challenge what people think of you."
Although he first became known as a folk-oriented artist and was dubbed "Seattle's folk-boom godfather" by the Seattle Times, Jurado grew up listening to a wide variety of music — from punk to psychedelic rock — all of which informed his tastes and the music he would eventually create.
"It really all depended on the era of my life. As a teenager, I was really inspired by people like Henry Rollins during the Black Flag years. I liked Billy Bragg a lot for a stint there. I was especially into the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Country Joe & the Fish. And there were the folk resources, such as Richard & Mimi Farina."
Music is only a small of part of what influences him, says this former schoolteacher.
"I took a lot from Rod Serling, the creator of The Twilight Zone, Allen Ginsberg, the noisy guitar of Thurston Moore. And landscapes from Arizona to Northern Wyoming. The list goes on."
Jurado says he never meant to be a lo-fi pioneer. Part of his inspiration during the mid-1990s came as a result of the recording limitations he faced.
"I think a lot of us who were making so-called lo-fi music back then — such as my friend John Darnielle from The Mountain Goats — aren't doing that sort of thing anymore. We've grown past it."
He's also grown past exhausting himself in the name of his career. "I stopped playing several times," he says. "I ran myself into the ground. Lots of times, I quit and came back, although maybe not a lot of people really knew. But I sort of quit music in 1998, 2000, 2002 and, um, 2009."
His keeping a healthier pace nowadays, for himself and for his family. "I don't want to burn myself out again."
And although Jurado often sings in the first-person, not everything he writes is personal or confessional. He says simply that writing autobiographical material has never seemed important or relevant to him. "It just doesn't feel necessary" to write about himself, he says.
Many of his characters, however, face doubts, fears, joy, spiritual questions and life-changing decisions. What the songs mean is always up to the listener's interpretation, he says.
The album title Maraqopa, by the way, is pronounced exactly the way you pronounce the Arizona county Maricopa. Jurado was well aware of his, but his title came to him in a dream, and he built a cast of characters around it.
And although it may still seem fresh in our minds, his latest album is a year old. Already, Jurado has a new album in the can, which he hopes will be released later this year or earlier next. "I think it's sort of a continuation of Maraqopa, but maybe the songs are simpler and more to the point."
And he'll perform some tunes from the new album at his forthcoming Tucson show.
Asked whether he's worried about performing solo after becoming so used to his band, the ever-modest and even-tempered Jurado says, "I haven't really thought about it. This is my first real tour as a solo artist in a long time. I guess I'll find out when I do it."