Sunday, April 3, 2011

Alejandro Escovedo Reflects On His Work While Looking Ahead


Alejandro Escovedo is a songwriter's songwriter. His output ranges from looking deep himself, revealing his most introspective thoughts and emotions, as well as opening himself up to express the universal themes of love, loss, truth, and desire.

Mr. Escovedo is an artist who is as prolific and inspiring as they come. He has recorded thirteen solo albums since his Gravity album in 1992, and when he was diagnosed with Hepatitus C in 2003, he conquered his illness and has been continually writing, recording and touring ever since. Last year, Mr. Escovedo released his tenth studio album, Street Songs of Love. He will be hitting the road at the end of the month for a string of live dates before beginning work on a new record.

I recently had the wonderful opportunity to speak with this generous, friendly, and charismatic Austinite about his development as a songwriter over the years. Mr Escovedo passionately discussed his earlier work and how he got started, as well as his most recent collaborations with Chuck Prophet on his Real Animal and Street Songs of Love albums, providing an inside look into his creative processes.


What was your songwriting process like early on in your career?

Alejandro Escovedo: Well, you know that old saying "You have your whole life to write your first record, and the second one you have to write it in about 6 months or so". You know, that kind of holds true. My first two albums had happened after such a significant event in my life and a tragic event in my life with my wife dying. Those albums just kind of poured out of me, and in a way I had been writing them for a couple of years. It really was not just about what had happened, but it was also about the things that had happened prior to that, and the things that were happening to us as we were spreading apart. So those albums just really poured out. I didn't really start writing until I was 30 years old. I started playing guitar at 24 and I wrote my first song around the age of 30.

What was that like, listening to music all through your life up to that point, and all of a sudden feeling compelled to pick up a guitar yourself? What made you begin to start playing? How did that happen?

AE: Well, a few things happened. First, there were the things that really caught my ear when I was a listener of records before I began playing. I'm talking about The Dolls, Roxy Music, and Brian Eno's concept of "Music For Non-Musicians". I really got into all of that. And I was really into The Stooges because I thought that animalism was really important in rock and roll.

But at the same time, as a 30 year-old man who had been listening to music and loved music as much as I did, and still do, and as someone who read Lester Bangs and all of the great rock writers, like Dave Marsh, Lenny Kaye, and all of those guys, I took it seriously.

In a way, it was a bit more difficult because I had higher standards to reach for. I mean, if I had totally sucked, and maybe I did suck, but wasn't smart enough to realize it, I felt like I had something. I felt like I could do this. I thought that if I could write a riff, I could write a song. So I'll tell you that the hardest part for me was learning to play the guitar and then writing songs.

Did you try to make a point of departure from the stuff you were listening to at the time, or were you trying to write like what you were listening to? And how did you set the course for yourself?

AE: I saw it almost as a blueprint or a sketch to work with. I was listening to stuff like Blonde on Blonde, and I would take the song or take the same chords basically, and rip off the chords (laughing) and then tell my own stories. And the more I did that, the more I began to understand how songs were written. Like how phrasing was in singing, how to tell a story, how minimalism worked, and what kind of lyrics I wanted to sing about. That's kind of how I did it. It works for me.


What has changed most for you as a writer since then? How do you write now?

AE: Well, what happened was I grew into a songwriter. I grew into that person. The songs became me, and I became the songs. There was no separation anymore. That's what happens now. I pick up a guitar and write a song. So once that started to happen and I got more confident as a songwriter along the way, it became a little more natural sounding, more real, and it became more of my voice. Suddenly I didn't sound like some "Lou Reed rip-off" (laughs), and I started to develop my own thing. It was also being inspired by all of those people. There's a great Salvador Dali saying that "If you steal from genius you become genius". So I followed the same view.

Can you describe your working relationship with Chuck Prophet on Real Animal and Street Songs of Love?

AE: I first met Chuck when he was in Green On Red. He claims I was in True Believers then, but I am almost positive that I was in Rank And File when I first met him. I first saw him playing at a club in Hollywood California, and here was this beautiful blonde boy playing a Telecaster like it was nobody's business, and they called him "Billy The Kid Prophet" (laughs). I've always had good instincts about people and when I first saw him I thought "This kid's got a lot going on. He's the real deal. He could do something".

I always felt that Chuck had something really different. And when he made his first solo album, Brother Aldo, I was working at Waterloo Records in Austin. And I was always pushing and selling his record. It was funny. He used to tell me that suddenly there would be a spike in his record sales in Austin, and he couldn't figure out if it was because the record company was really pushing it in Austin, or because I was selling so many of his records in Austin (laughs).


So after I got sick, we were booked by the same agent for a while, and we did a lot of tours together.  So I remember that when I made the Boxing Mirror, which was was a very difficult record for me to make because it came at a very fragile and vulnerable part of my life. That was right after I got sick with Hepatitis C., and it was an intense record to make. And I'll be quite honest, we hardly have ever played any of those songs live. There's a couple that we still play, maybe. But we hardly ever played that album at all. It was almost like some sort of exorcism. We had to get rid of that stuff out of our system.

So anyway, we made that record, and then went out on tour with Susan Voelz and David Pulkingham and I was traveling with Chuck and I told him that I had this idea that I wanted to make an album about my life in bands. And our careers had been running parallel to each other this whole time. So when I told him that I really wanted to do this album, Chuck was intrigued by the idea. And I said "Maybe we should go back to Texas together when we're done with this tour", and we spent a couple of days together.

On the fist day when Chuck came out, he was not used to the way I worked, because I am a lazy human being that takes his time about everything (laughs). I live in Texas, where the weather's hot, and we're a little slower down here. So, he was getting a little freaked out that he had been there for about four or five hours and nothing had been written and a guitar hadn't even been picked up. So, he was going to the feed store with me so I could get stuff for my horse and animals, and we were going by the antiques store to say hi to the lady there, and we're also going to get some tacos too.

And all of that is part of your process? (laughing)

AE: I could feel him getting nervous in the truck. And I reached over and put my hand on his shoulder and said "Bro, this is all part of it" (laughing).

So we went back to the studio, and the first tune we wrote was "Slow Down". That was the very first song. And we knew that we had something special with that song, and it ended up being the song that ended the record. We felt it was a really powerful song and we had a great time doing it, so we said "Let's do it again". And then we really got into the idea of doing it like as if we were creating a storyboard for a film. So we had all of these characters and all of these different people we wanted to include in this, and we spent a lot of time on it.


He would come to Austin and then I would go to San Francisco, and we did this thing where every time we would write a song we would record it immediately. So we have these beautiful set of recordings. And if everything works, one day, I would love to go out on the road with him and really tell the story, because it is a really beautiful story of how we wrote the album.

And he's such an interesting character. When we get together in a room, it's like sparks are flying. It's like each guy is trying to "out show-off" the other guy.

So what's the pace like when you're working together?

AE: The thing that's beautiful about it is that Chuck has this determination and discipline to get the songs done. Once we start we get it done. We work really hard on it, and when I came home from those writing sessions I was exhausted. He didn't want to leave until we got the songs done.

Do you guys work tune for tune or do you work on a bunch of songs at the same time?

AE: We work tune for tune. We really try to refine it and get it right.

And then with Street Songs of Love, I went to Baja for a month and took my kids with me and they stayed for about a week. And Chuck stayed for a few days and we were all hanging out down there and we started writing the album there. So when we started to work on Street Songs of Love, I had already decided that I didn't want it to be about me. I wanted to just write songs like Talk Talk and like "Should I Stay Or Should I Go". Like those kinds of straight rock songs.

But life has a funny way of kind of just kind of taking hold of you and leading you in a direction after you're even being aware of it. And once again, I went through a break up, and the songs became not love songs, but songs about love. The many facets of love. Everything from desire, lust, and passion to spiritual love, parental love, compassionate love, everlasting love, failure of love. To me it's one of the great mysteries in life.

So we just started writing about that. Like if you take a song like "Tender Heart". I think that is a cool rock and roll song. And it just charges. But for me, it really has this tender side to it. It has humor in it, "You make your bed/ Baby I'll clean your nose/ Why don't you roll over and slip out of those pretty clothes/ I got a tender heart/ Do you want my tender heart". It's a nice way to present a rock and roll love song. I love working with Chuck and I just think he's great.


You and your band wrote and worked out the songs that would end up becoming Street Songs of Love live at the Continental Club in Austin, over a two-month residency. Can you describe that experience?

AE: We actually had already started to write part of the record when it began. "Anchor" was the first thing we started working on. So when we had the next show, I think we had "This Bed Is Getting Crowded", then "Fall Apart With You" and "Tula".  But the hardest part was when I came back after that month in Mexico with Chuck, I had a batch of songs. So we decided to set up a two-month residency at the Continental Club in south Austin where we would play every Tuesday night.

We would bring three new songs each night and we would play them just acoustically, just David Pulkingham and I. And then we would bring the band out immediately and we showed the audience that we could do a real quick arrangement and then play a little bit of it. But we were bringing everything from a chorus, a verse, complete songs, ideas, and riffs. We were bringing everything to the table and showing them how we developed that into songs.

So the audience watched the whole thing happen and as the tunes were evolving, it became this very special event on a Tuesday night here in Austin and there were lines down the street here to see the show. And the community that surrounds south Austin became part of what the album was about. That's why I called it Street Songs of Love because it's all about South Congress.

Now that these songs have been out there since the record was released last summer, how are you putting together your sets for the live shows?

AE: Well, the live show is made up a lot of Real Animal and Street Songs of Love. We have been throwing in some older songs, and we've been working on some new material so you'll hear some of those too. So there may be two or three new tunes that you might hear on any given night. There's also some new covers that we do too.

We're always thinking about what is going to happen creatively next. We're always trying to set up how we can make things different. And how the songwriting can evolve. I love that band Carbon/ Silicon. It's Mick Jones' band, from the Clash. And Tony James from Sigue Sigue Sputnick. It's got some of the great soft harmonies that The Clash had along with some really cool guitars. And it's dancable. And yet the lyrics are intriguing enough to be interesting. I really love that kind of stuff. I've really gotten into that.

I like when people are moving at my shows. We've been talking a lot about that and how that happens, and why hasn't it happened so much for us in the past. And I think it's because that the lyrics to the songs so far have been so introspective.


Do you have any plans to do some recording soon? How far off is a recording session or the next record?

AE:
I'm going to go do some writing with Tony Visconti in April for about a week I think. And then I'm going to go off by myself for about a month. I'm going to go out to West Texas, out in the desert. When I come back from that trip then we'll start recording.

What's your own personal attitude towards playing, writing and performing?

AE: I think because of where I live and where I come from the attitude is just to do what makes you happy. To create the music that makes you happy, and that you want to. And that's always been kind of an ethic here in Austin. It's like how punk rock has always been about about following your heart and soul and expressing yourself. And everything else I could care less about.

It sounds like your own personal experiences bleed into the work in so many ways.

AE: Yeah, when you get there, it becomes like the air that you breathe. And it's funny with songs. A lot of people think that songs come from the cosmos or the atmosphere. And then there's the belief that songs come from the earth, that they come from underneath you and come through you. That's a large part of living in Texas: the landscape. I know how much it's influenced my writing over the years. Lately I've been spending more time back east, so songs from Real Animal really kind of take me back to when New York was the place where I wanted to be and the place I wanted to live and experience. But the earlier records I think are more about living out here, in the open space. And space has always been really important to songwriting. I believe in it.


What have you been listening to lately?

AE: Raphael Saadiq- I love that guy. I listen to a lot of older records. A lot of soul music. I love Donny Hathaway because there is a simplicity and beauty in his songs with the acoustic guitar playing. I really love that rhythmic, soul playing. Like Bobby Womack and guys like that. So I listen to a lot of that kind of stuff. I also really like electronic music and LCD Soundsystem. I love that band. He's really talented. There's a lot of artists around here that I love too, like my band the Sensitive Boys. They are awesome.

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