Alejandro Escovedo is a songwriter’s songwriter – people like Elvis Costello, Lucinda Williams and Bob Dylan reference him among their favourites – not only that, he has backstory that would make you want to get on board anyway. Maybe even if his own music wasn’t super-great, which it is and has been across the last quarter-century. His enviable talent was nurtured early. The son of Mexican migrants to Texas, he is part of a musical dynasty that includes his brothers Coke and Pete (percussionists for Santana) and niece Sheila E. He played in a punk band that opened for The Sex Pistols. And in 2003, having lived with Hepatitis C for many years already, he collapsed on stage. An all-star tribute album (featuring John Cale, Son Volt, Steve Earle, The Jayhawks, Jennifer Warnes and many others) helped raise awareness and money – when Alejandro returned to the stage and to the recording studio it was with, perhaps miraculously, a renewed focus. A sharper pen. Even better songs. He already had a fearsome catalogue of albums. In recent years he’s newly married and has finally got his health back in check, working hard once again and feeling great.
Somebody make a movie about this man already!
His parents ate up music, and encouraged their children. He looked to his older brothers not just for musical ideas and influence but for philosophy, guidance.
When it was time for Alejandro to make his mark he chose the guitar and – most crucially – words. His focus has always been on storytelling. He wasn’t the only one in the family to ignore the primal call of the drum. Brothers Mario (The Dragons) and Javier (The Zeros) were punk-rockers too…
Well, in fact Alejandro wanted to be a filmmaker. And he brings that eye and thought process to his work, never more so than on his recent collection, the phenomenal late-2018 record, The Crossing. It tells his immigrant story in a proud middle-finger to the National Emergency-toting wall-wanting Trump administration. It’s the Tex-Mex version of Ry Cooder’s mid-00s “LA Trilogy” of concept records. It’s like some imaginary collaboration between Elvis Costello and Los Lobos. It’s very nearly career-best. Which is surely saying something.
So I talked to Alejandro Escovedo over the phone, talked about his musical upbringing, the famous siblings and the passion of his parents. We talked Trump, The Crossing and the power of ‘The Song’.
We dive right into the new album and the American tour Escovedo is currently running, playing many of the songs from The Crossing.
“The response has been overwhelming. Everyone has great appreciation for the story and for the musicians who backed me on the album, they’re touring with me right now. That’s a special treat, to see a band from Italy come over and play this music so well. It’s been a great response all around”.
He then clarifies that all six band-members are with him in America to push this record – but his Australian and New Zealand shows will see him solo and while he’ll be playing some of the songs from The Crossing he’ll be trying “to focus on…” he pauses, he baulks, “I’ll really try to lend a…ah, whatever you call it…” and as I can almost feel him blushing I offer the term ‘career-survey’ then clarify, ‘A Greatest Hits?’ He chuckles. Then adds that he will try to get through the significant highlights, songwriting-wise. “I’ll probably start at the beginning and then work my way towards this album and, yeah, mostly a Greatest Hits show”.
From there it’s to Europe to reconnect with his Italian band and to work the new record a little harder. One last shot. They’re already finding new ideas for future songs in the soundcheck-spaces and Escovedo can’t rave enough about the connection with this band – saying that there was ultimately something freeing about leaving America and working with outsiders to commit to recording his most personal album, his most political work, his most seething stories about the stupidity of Trump’s administration and the way it’s creating an evil friction that is damaging, counter-productive and downright embarrassing.
Getting rid of one disease is what lit the fire under Escovedo once again – he never refers to the Hep-C by any name other than “that disease” but says he went from living with it for almost 20 years and being run-down, debilitated, to trying new medicine and feeling great within six months. He attributes his marriage to wife Nancy as being a big part of the new groove too, a new lease on life, extra energy and a newfound “sense of being”. His performances are now “more energetic and enthusiastic” and he says he also fell in love, once again, with “the art of making music”.
It’s been about coming to terms with many things.
“A lot of my friends have passed away but I’m still here, so in their honour and in their name and in their love I keep going.”.
There is another disease to wrestle with however. Donald Trump.
“We’ve had a few walkouts, you’re bound to get walkouts – if you mention Trump”, Alejandro starts, before cutting himself off to point out that it’s – mostly – been very receptive.
“I’ll mention him – that song Fury and Fire, I’ll say, ‘We didn’t want to allow the current administration into our album but they bullied their way onto our album and it’s hard to ignore the administration and their policies towards imigration’ and obviously when you say that some people get up and they leave because they don’t want to hear it, that’s their prerogative. We don’t really need that kind of closed-minded audience anyway”.
Interlude: a brief conversation around how ‘bully’ is the distillation of Trump’s entire existence, his business focus, his celebrity aim and now his political career. Escovedo footnotes the sad comic incredulity of “the first lady taking on that anti-bullying project” being “ridiculous and absurd – but that’s the world we live in these days”.
But Alejandro is happiest when talking about music and so he walks back to the fact that The Crossing has paired him with a band that makes him feel relaxed.
He says travelling to Italy was liberating and “this record says more about not just this current state of affairs but also the current state that I’m in – more than any record I’ve ever made”. He notes the “perspective you get from other people, outside of America” and explains “when we first started touring with this band in Europe Trump had just taken office and the feeling we were getting was one of disappointment, Europe had looked to America as symbol of democracy and a great experiment in unity and we had failed them…” He adds that he hadn’t ever seen it that way, but then, in Europe it was very easy “to get 5000 people to chant ‘Fuck Trump’ in a song”.
Fuck Trump indeed. So I ask about the function of the singer/songwriter, and specifically how we so often praise the role of backing musicians to be adaptable but not so much the writer. We don’t point to how clever and adaptive the frontperson or singer/songwriter is. But in his case he’s every bit as adaptive as any musician he’s worked with.
Cue instantly self-effacing and then incredibly thoughtful response: “That’s a testament to the songs – I think that if the song can take the abuse that I’ve given them over the years, whether it be a string-quartet, or big-band with horn section and percussion section – a combination of Van Morrison’s band and Springsteen’s band, or you can play it with two loud Marshall amps and bass and drums then that’s about the song. And if I can just come before you, as I will be in New Zealand, then it’s a naked performance, and I’m not a great guitar player but I can make the song work, I can express the meaning and the story and entertain without being technical…and I don’t come from that world anyway, it wasn’t about that, I can present the song by myself or with a band or orchestra. After a certain point I felt I was good in any situation – so that if the band didn’t show up I could stand up and deliver my song. Or whatever pieces there were to work with I could make something of it.”
He says it’s about trying to say something that makes a statement. Adding, “I remember saying’ ‘I want to write timeless songs’ and that was when we were riding in the van you know, that is the greatest gift for a songwriter, when someone tells you a song has helped them or made them feel good about a situation. I wrote a song called Wedding Day and a fan told me through generations of marriages that song is played in their family – that’s a lovely thing”.
I tell Alejandro that he has major currency and legacy due to this attitude exactly; that he has a catalogue now that is an embarrassment of riches, and you can’t plan that, but it must come in handy…
He chuckles (“That’s funny”) as I carry on, telling him that though no one could plan for this it is, at the least ‘helpful’… and then he cuts in, “that’s the thing, all the hard work we went through, miles of touring, thousands of nights of gigs, all of that, and then when you meet the person that says ‘I’m sorry I didn’t know before now but I went out and bought all the albums’ or, you know, whatever the story is, that’s special, I’m not sure everyone can say that happens to them. I’m not sure everyone can say that has happened to them”.
But there was some mild disgruntlement. At least at one point.
In the 1980s Escovedo was in a band called Rank and File – eventually dubbed ‘Cowpunk’ – and then he teamed with his brother Javier to play in True Believers. It was in the early 1990s that Alejandro would begin releasing solo material. And though he’s flattered at being deemed any sort of alt-country pioneer, the labelling did tend to be rather annoying. Escovedo laughs heartily when I say that the best country singers from the 1930s through to the 1960s were punk-as-fuck long before there was such a thing.
“That’s entirely my point. When I was in Rank and File we were labelled country-punk and we were really something outside of anything, we obviously listened to country records and had made punk-rock but we listened to dub-reggae and everything from Stockhausen to Bob Dylan; all of that is thrown into it. Especially once I went out on my own, people would ask what my music is like and, ‘it’s like: Well – it’s the result of having a very vast record collection’ and it really all began with my father loving Mexican music, country music, and he loved the crooners like Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and those guys. And my mother loved big-band music. My older brothers were into Latin-jazz and I was raised, basically, by my cousin who loved rock’n’roll – Elvis, The Big Bopper, Jerry Lee and The Everly Brothers. That mixture of music was where it all began for me, an incredible bunch of records to draw from”.
In terms of his famous musical family he says his older brothers were his biggest influence – not just musically, but says their musical influence and approach to music was subliminal.
“I love The Stooges and The New York Dolls and The Velvet Underground, but when I started making my own music I found myself creating these large ensembles, sometimes up to 15 musicians, and paying more attention to the architecture of the song – which is something I got from them. And the other thing I got from them, which is also very Mexican, is this attitude of being humble when presenting the music; arrogance is not necessary, you are given a gift to present this music and when you think you’re above that you are committing an artistic suicide. There was”, he stresses, “something really subtle about learning how to work really hard and being very persistent about the work. That was the sole purpose of everything and it was all about the work. And that was all through my brothers”.
Escovedo says when he left Rank and File and called his brother Javier to start The True Believers their inspiration was to create “the Mott The Hoople of the Southwest. We wanted”, he continues, “to be a real hard-rocking band, not metal or any of that stuff, but hard-rock, and we also wanted to tell stories, the lyrics to be more literate and for there to be messages and stories inside and behind those messages. Ian Hunter was a big influence in that respect. In a way, I guess what I carry is if you married Towns van Zandt with The Stooges”.
A conversation around his storytelling, not just with his lyrics but in the musical painting of lasting pictures triggers the memory that his aim was always towards filmmaking in the early days. Never songwriting as such.
“I wanted to be a filmmaker, not a songwriter. So, when I eventually started making music the idea was to create these little movies within these little songs – that the songs were something you could see, in a way. Obviously, a soundtrack can make or break a film. Anything musical that we found interesting that lent itself to the drama or the humour or the plainspoken everyday observation was important.”
Escovedo, no stranger to concept albums and song-story threads, goes on to reference the Bernard Herrmann soundtrack to Taxi Driver, and the scores to films from Truffaut and Bertolucci as starting points for a discussion around how “essential the score is to telling the story of a film”.
Cue discussion of The Crossing as an audiobook of sorts.
“The idea we had actually”, Escovedo clarifies, “is to write a soundtrack to a movie that doesn’t exist yet”.
He adds “the great success for us, artistically, was listening to the record beginning-to-end and we felt like we’d been on a journey. And that was the idea”.
When it comes to the deep-dive and heading down into the back-catalogue, Escovedo believes that “it takes a while to understand songs, and years of listening to them, or singing them has given me a completely different perspective – some make much more sense, some not as much, but I tend to approach them with a clearer understanding of what the songs are – at least most of the time. That’s a matter of time and experience”.
And for his upcoming New Zealand and Australian shows he says “it’ll be an intimate show with a lot of storytelling, a lot of talking about where I come from and what inspired the songs and it’ll be a nice evening. I like doing it”.
Here are Alejandro Escovedo’s NZ Tour Dates