THE MIRROR OF TRUTH
On his new album The Crossing, Alejandro Escovedo takes an unflinching and poetic look at America and the immigrant experience.
By Chris Familton
Alejandro Escovedo has been surrounded by music his entire life. His father played and listened to Mexican music, his mother loved big band jazz music and his rocker cousin, who raised him, introduced him to Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis and instilled a love for The Everly Brothers. Music has been a constant through a life that has been bookmarked by hard times but also seen him recognised and celebrated as one of the finest American songwriters of his generation.
From early years playing punk music in the Nuns and opening for Sex Pistols at their final show to cow-punk pioneers Rank and File and alt-country/ragged rock architects True Believers, Escovedo has always embraced collaboration, even across a storied solo career that has seen him work with iconic musicians and producers such as John Cale, Peter Buck, Tony Visconti, Bruce Springsteen and Los Lobos.
“I think it’s really important and I’ve always embraced it. I love working with people,” stresses Escovedo, down the line from his home in Dallas, TX. “As a bandleader I don’t dictate what other people should play, I give them lots of freedom and it’s about choosing the right people for the job. Once you get a strong band of people then things happen in a positive way.”
That desire to work with others has led to one of his most accomplished projects to date. The Crossing is a loose concept album, written and recorded with Italian group Don Antonio who he met when they toured together through Europe. The album traces the journey of two immigrants to America, Salvo and Diego, an Italian and a Mexican, and features guests such as Wayne Kramer (MC5), James Williamson (The Stooges), Willy Vlautin (Richmond Fontaine) and Joe Ely.
“The project took two years from the first time we played together touring Europe. My wife and I went back to southern Italy a few months later and I began to develop the story of Salvo and Diego,” explains Escovedo. “I think it was at least six or seven months before Antonio came to Dallas and we spent a month writing and travelling around the countryside in Texas, following the back roads and seeing where they ended up, talking to a lot of people around Dallas who were Dreamers – Mexican kids who had made their way across the border – to get a sense of what it was like for them. The we went back to Italy and started to nail everything down. It was an amazing experience making the record!” he enthuses.
In the current political climate, The Crossing is an undeniably political album yet its strength lies in the way the characters’ stories are told through their personal experience, as Escovedo explains.
“We really didn’t have a choice because the characters are crossing the border and that immediately draws attention to the problems that immigrants have in this country. The whole story is based around their journey but more importantly it’s about the journey of these young boys becoming men and following the dreams they believed in and finding that their dreams aren’t reality and that the reality is a lot harder than they anticipated. It’s also about their character and how they deal with what they’re faced with.”
When it comes to songwriting, Escovedo happily admits that it’s the lyrics that are most important part of his songs and “getting to a place where the story is emotional and has impact, drama and dynamics.” That focus on the story has become increasingly important to Escovedo as he’s gotten older. “It’s always about the story, it’s more about the story than it’s ever been. I grew up in a period of time when Mexicans weren’t pushed to become doctors and lawyers and artists. We were guided towards the more labour-driven subjects like metal class or typing. You were alway geared towards being a worker. l think a lot of that has been suppressed in me and now it’s starting to expose itself more than it ever has. It’s important to me to prove people wrong who said I couldn’t do things,” he says resolutely.
Escovedo has been the recipient of a number of awards and recognition from his peers over the years but two in particular have special significance for him. In 2004 he was struggling under the weight of medical bills for treatment of Hepatitis C when fans and musicians came together to organise benefit gigs and the 2CD compilation Por Vida: A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo which featured Lucinda Williams, John Cale, Son Volt, Calexico, Lenny Kaye, Cowboy Junkies, The Jayhawks and others covering Escovedo’s songs.
“It was so humbling to have that record made for me. I was always a guy who, in punk rock, we did a lot of benefits for people. One of the first gig I ever played was a benefit for striking coalminers in Kentucky. Over the years I’ve done hundreds and never wanted to be the recipient of one. It was hard for me to accept help from other people,” he admits. “I think it’s a really beautiful record, some of the versions of those songs are very eye-opening for me, to hear that music done in ways I’d never imagined. John Cale and Ian Hunter’s versions – they’re both people I’ve been trying to rip off all my life! I was still very sick when that record came out and I was weak emotionally and physically and there were definitely tears.”
In 2019 Escovedo will be the recipient of the Townes Van Zandt Songwriting Award at the Austin Music Awards and his initial reaction was “when they first told me I was going to receive it I asked them if they were sure they wanted to give it to me, I didn’t feel like I deserved it,” he laughs. “I love Townes and Texas, he’s like Shakespeare to us. When I first moved back to Texas he was still around and I got to tour a lot with him, he was important figure. Those guys were all incredibly generous with their knowledge, it was like going to school, we were very lucky to have them around and that they were very supportive and not stingy with their knowledge. It was pretty amazing.”
For Escovedo it all comes back to songwriting and I ask whether the art and craft of it has become easier over the years. “When you examine yourself and your life and hold yourself up to a mirror of truth it’s not always easy and it can be very uncomfortable and it draws regret and pain and a sense that it was a lot harder than it seemed at the time,” he says, before revealing. “I’m writing a book that we’re calling a mythical memoir because it’s really about this life that I created in order to survive the reality of life in a family where you’re not always appreciated. Writing requires a lot of time and discipline and I’d often rather put on a Stooges album, but I’ve been working hard at it.”