No Slowing Down for Alejandro Escovedo
Browse through Alejandro Escovedo’s considerable body of work, notably his group efforts with the pioneering bands Rank and File and The True Believers as well as his solo discs beginning in the early 1990s, and you’ll find only a handful of collaborations, a song written jointly with Chris Stamey here, with Stephen Bruton there.
That changed five years ago. Escovedo was traveling through Michigan doing solo gigs with Chuck Prophet. He had new management – Bruce Springsteen’s honcho, Jon Landau, and a desire to write an album about the story of his life in bands, but he wasn’t getting anywhere. So he asked Prophet to come down to Texas and see if they could work together.
The two old hands from San Francisco soon found they played well off each other. Their first effort, “Slow Down,” set the bar for the dozen more that flowed and became 2008′s “Real Animal,” a disc that garnered critical acclaim and found Escovedo sharing a stage with Springsteen to play “Always a Friend,” his catchiest rocker in years.
“Let me take your hand. There’s something I want to show you,” they write in “Slow Down.” “Close your eyes and you can hear the music in the wind.”
It was a sort of manifesto to slow down, enjoy life, enjoy relationships, and acknowledge the past while living in the moment. From that song with Prophet, nearly three dozen others have flowed over the years.
“He’s very adept at writing hooks and clever lines,” Escovedo says in a phone interview from his home. “He has a very journalistic eye for details whereas I’m more of an emotional writer. I go for images. He fine tunes those images into things you see every day. It’s become more and more fun and more and more interesting and more creatively lucrative.”
So creatively fulfilling that Escovedo and Prophet, who first shot to notoriety with San Francisco’s Green on Red, have produced two more albums in quick succession, “Street Songs of Love” and “Big Station,” each filled with their collaborations.
“We just hang out. We riff back and forth together for hours and hours until we come back with stuff,” he says. “We jump around the room, make each other laugh, make each other cry.”
The songs on those albums rock harder and more consistently. Escovedo has been something of a musical chameleon, successfully modeling one new skin after another. In liner notes to his 1993 album, “Gravity,” Joe Nick Patoski described him as cast in a number of roles: “wayward son of America’s first family of rhythm, nihilist San Francisco neo-bohemian, leather-clad New York punk rocker, denim-clad L.A. neo-cowboy, tough but sensitive captain of a guitar army from Texas, and, most recently, conductor of an ensemble large enough, eclectic enough, and professional enough to call itself an orchestra.”
Escovedo adds to that considerable resume when he comes to the Sandler Center on Sept. 25 for a show with Shelby Lynne. He will be joined by violinist Susan Voelz. “It’ll get noisy, but in an acoustic way,” Escovedo says.
Prophet isn’t the only partner on those three albums. Each was produced by Tony Visconti, best known for his work with David Bowie, T. Rex, Iggy Pop, The Moody Blues, and others. Escovedo has moved through cowpunk and string-fueled ballads as well as Southwestern folk. (No Depression magazine named him the artist of the 1990s). He’s always rocked, but the sound is often harder on the newest records.
“I think Tony saw the rock and roll side of me and really wanted to draw that out,” Escovedo says. He recently played a folk festival in Halifax and hung out with Robyn Hitchcock, Willie Nile and David Lowery and they were talking about how British songwriters seem to have a different sense of melody, sense of structure.
“Bowie and Ian Hunter and Robyn Hitchcock and Brian Eno, Ray Davies, too, there’s just a different sense of language,” he explains. “Tony brought that kind of thing to our records, like those T. Rex and Bowie records that experimented with the shapes and sounds of the words and music and how it can be rock and roll, but somewhat literary.”
Rock and roll and literary apply to Escovedo’s work, though it’s also cinematic and deeply personal.
In fact, Escovedo early on had ambitions to become a filmmaker. He’s written the story of his family in song and on stage in “By the Hand of the Father,” and he’s working on a show for January that will trace the history of Austin’s music scene from 1950s gospel group The Bells of Joy on through Lucinda Williams, Joe Ely, and the Butthole Surfers. He’s always been ambitious. Even now, the most recent collaboration with Prophet, “Big Station,” was an attempt to get away from writing about himself.
“I was talking about that recently with Robyn. No matter how many skeletons there are in the closet, they eventually run out,” he says. “But there’s so much else that ‘s not about you. When i was young and I wanted to be a filmmaker one of the first teacher I had emphasized telling your own story, the story of your family, the universal story everyone understands. Adolescence is messy and strange, but so is adulthood. It’s always interesting in my opinion.”
“Thematically with ‘Big Station’ we were trying to get away from writing just my story and seeing world through the eyes of someone else,” Escovedo adds. “This person was getting older and maybe worked really hard all their lives and had come up for air to see how different world has become and how they can relate to it or not. Looking for what their purpose is in life.”
When I suggest that is also his story in a way, Escovedo pauses, then agrees. After a strong start to this solo career, he ended up critically ill with Hepatitis C from 2003 to 2006. Musicians including Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, The Jayhawks, The Cowboy Junkies, Son Volt, Peter Case, Los Lonely Boys, Jennifer Warnes and others recorded “Por Vida,” a collection of his songs to help pay his substantial medical bills. For Escovedo, it was a time to take stock and make changes.
“There was a sudden shift in perspective,” he says, “and it allowed me to be more focused on my music, my friends. I eliminated a lot of things in my life that weren’t helping me, things that were harming me, and so I tried to clean up a bit. As a result, I think my music has gotten better, as a performer and a bandleader.”
Escovedo has also lost some friends in recent years, notably Stephen Bruton, a guy he says he could talk to like a brother, a father, and an uncle, and who was a supportive critic.
He’s back in Texas, has been for a while, but his perspective is shaped by time in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York as well. How has shuttling between those cultural poles influenced his writing? “It’s had a huge effect,” he says. “Living in San Francisco and New York City, both hardcore urban experiences, and then to live back in Texas, to come back to Austin. Just waking up this morning and seeing all these trees. It’s such a different thing. When I started doing solo records, that drive from Austin to Los Angeles through west Texas was so inspiring. I wrote so many songs along the way.”
Writing the songs is one thing, but he says learning how to sing them well is another. What they start as on a record, is just the first draft. “It can take a long time to learn how to sing you own songs,” he says. ” ‘ I Don’t Need You’ on “Man Under the Influence” is an example. I felt it was a good song, but I never felt I had a handle on how to sing it, but now I feel like I’ve finally gotten there.”
He and Prophet are starting work on a new batch of songs. Lately, they’ve been into the post-punk electronic band, Suicide. Though he is in his early 60s, Escovedo says he’s not concerned about running out of material.
“Life is just so fucking interesting and complicated and beautiful,” he says. “Every day, every interaction is different. There’s so much floating around that I would find it really hard to get bored. I’m interested in creating in some way or another, whether it’s photography or writing or just walking through the world.”
Alejandro Escovedo & Shelby Lynne