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Behind the Music

First things first: Damien Jurado is a big guy. He's wide and he's tall, and if he hadn't spent his teenage years listening to punk rock, he probably would have made someone a damn fine linebacker.

Second, Damien Jurado talks like someone in a hurry. Sentences escape his mouth at a high velocity, many of them with an amiable "You know?" tacked onto the end. He's confident and positive and excited, and you can't help nodding and smiling at what he says, even if it doesn't entirely make sense.

Strangely enough, this peppy, brawny fast talker is responsible for some of the saddest, most hurting songs ever unleashed on humankind. It's a jarring incongruity, one overlooked by devoted fans who assume Jurado is his music. He's not.

When Damien Jurado put out his stunning Rehearsals for Departure album in 1999, the indie nation's melancholic faction felt it had found a kindred spirit. Here was a man whose songs offered the folk notions of Bob Dylan and the slow-motion atmospherics of Galaxie 500, who sang in a high, tart voice worn down by restlessness and scrubbed raw by loss. Along with Rehearsal's beautiful arrangements of acoustic guitar, strings, mellotron, concertina, vibes and trumpet, Jurado's intimate lyrics and disarming voice made him seem like an accessible friend, one who kept fans updated on his disastrous personal life through missives from the front.

In short, Damien Jurado held the promise of being the American Nick Drake. But where Nick Drake kept his own claustrophobic company, singing autobiographical songs to ward off depression, Jurado used the stories of others to detail his own despair. Like the first track on Rehearsals, in which a chance meeting with a woman heading home to Ohio tints the world in shades of loss. Or another of that album's songs -- appropriately titled "Tragedy" -- in which the narrator looks at the seemingly full life of a friend and senses disaster ahead. With the grim satisfaction of a Cassandra, Jurado sings, "You got yourself a boyfriend who treats you like a lady and friend/No one sees the tragedy/Except for me."

Jurado wielded his powerful gray-dar with abandon on Rehearsals for Departure, divining the troubled currents below life's placid surface. Far from seeming like a whiner, the Seattle singer-songwriter became more attractive with each new torment revealed. Soon, Jurado found himself flooded with letters from like-minded fans: They wrote to reassure him that he wasn't alone; they wrote to ask him if he'd heard the new Elliott Smith record; they wrote to share some of their problems with him. They knew he could relate.

The problem was, he couldn't.

"My interests -- as far as everyday life -- are different than what people perceive [them] to be," Jurado says as his 7-month-old son Miles sleeps peacefully in a car seat beside him. "You hear the records and you think you're going to talk to some mopey, depressing guy who's all alone or whatever. Most of [my fans] are shocked to find out that I have a wife and a kid. And I'm happy."

Happy? What about all those sad folk songs?

"I don't even listen to folk music much," he says, shaking his head. "I feel like I'm cheating people sometimes. It's totally weird. . . . To me it's like when an actor hears the word 'Action!' That's the way it is for me with the songwriting. When I sit down with a guitar, I go into this mindset that's not an everyday mindset. It's something that you put on. It's creating art. And that's all that I really see it as, you know?"

Postcards and Audio Letters, Jurado's next release, didn't help the confusion over what was put-on and what was personality. Put out by the Seattle microlabel Made in Mexico, Postcards consisted of audio footage that Jurado collected from garbage cans and thrift store answering machine tapes. The heartbreaking conversations captured on the record (featuring titles like "Robert 1972" and "Hi Dawn, this is Phil") could have stepped directly out of a stage adaptation of Rehearsals. As fascinating as it was, Postcards only reinforced Jurado's image as a melancholy artist whose creative palette ranged from moderately hopeless to doomed.

Before Jurado started recording his third official album (counting his 1997 debut, Waters Ave. S., but not the found-sound collection Postcards), he previewed some demos for his label, Sub Pop. While the staff was highly enthusiastic about what they heard, when it came time to record, Jurado decided he needed to change directions. He wanted to drop the polish that brightened the edges of Rehearsals and make something that stretched across boundaries: something emotionally powerful but transparent enough to allow his characters to tell their stories relatively unencumbered by musical mediation.

The new plan wasn't well received by Sub Pop, Jurado recalls. "I told them that I had some different songs in mind, and they were getting defensive. . . . And I was like, 'Fine. Screw you.' This was midway through the record. Really, I set out to record a record that they wouldn't like."

Jurado also took the opportunity to vent some frustration at listeners who had incorrectly pegged him as a beautiful failure. "I was like, 'You want me to be this sensitive guitar-player guy? Screw you.'"

While he'd planned to make Ghost of David uncompromisingly difficult, his bile diluted as he began to write his new songs. What ended up emerging from the home recording sessions with fellow Pacific Northwest singer David Bazan was a gracefully stripped-down mix of personality and invention, a record in the powerful, simple vein of Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska. If Rehearsals was Jurado's sad screenplay set to music and Postcards was the candid sound of its actors at home, Ghost is something beyond both: a heavy-lidded score mixing the ambitions of Jurado-as-author with those of Jurado-as-actor.

While autobio-hungry fans will be happy that the real Jurado does indeed stand up (on "Paxil" and "Walk With Me"), the real stars of the record are the characters he creates. As with Springsteen's 1982 album, the big question on Ghost of David is one of manhood. But where Springsteen's men want to escape or burn up trying, Jurado writes a more nuanced manliness. The men on Ghost of David don't really want better lives; they just want to understand the ones they have.

They also want to understand each other. On "Medication," a man weighs an affair with a police officer's wife with the needs of his mentally ill brother. In "Johnny Go Riding," an agoraphobic teen tries to explain his shyness to an outgoing friend. On "Ghost of David," Jurado dreams David Bazan has died and goes hunting for his friend's ghost, calling out to it as he wanders through hazy dreamscapes.

Painfully honest dialogues -- brother-to-brother, friend-to-friend -- define the songs. And for someone who claims that only a tiny percentage of his material is autobiographical, Jurado admits he identifies with many of his larger questions about love, friendship and family. This is especially true now, as Jurado is trying to come to terms with parenthood and with accepting his own father into his life for the first time. It's a lot to take in, but the priorities are clear.

"I don't give a shit about pushing units," he says. "I don't really care about making a living from music. Even my attitude about working is different now that I have a child. 'Cause to me, he's my main priority; he's my life."

Both Jurado and his wife have full-time jobs in Seattle. Jurado works at a preschool teaching music; he brings Miles with him to work every day. Ask him about his new gig, and it's clear the peppy linebacker has found a place he belongs.

"A few weeks ago I taught them about Elvis," he says, laughing. "They're really, really into the traditional ska music from Kingston. . . . I put it on and they just dance. It's awesome."

Jurado is ready to go on with the list of preschool Top 40, but Miles interrupts him, fidgeting in his lap and trying to touch the cups and plates we've emptied during the interview.

"You have something you want to say, Miles?" Jurado asks, settling him more comfortably on his lap.

In response to the question, Miles lets out a thin stream of drool. Encouraged, Jurado picks up my microphone and puts it closer to his son's mouth.

"Tell me about your mother," he says. "Is she hot?"

More drool.

"Maybe he's just soft-spoken," I offer.

"Yeah, soft-spoken," he says, his face breaking into a grin. "Just like his dad."

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Chris Baty