Alejandro Escovedo is one of Texas' most gifted and versatile singer-songwriters, with the soul and background of a punk rocker, the work ethic of a tradesman, and the undying faith in rock and roll of two of his closest contemporaries -- also men of uncommon emotional range and teeth-gritting tenacity -- Bruce Springsteen and Joe Ely. He is also a demigod in his adopted hometown of Austin. Some musicians are lucky to appear on one episode of Austin City Limits; Escovedo has three under his belt, including in the current season.
Last month he and his band the Sensitive Boys also took over ACL's new quarters in Austin's Moody Theater for "Recollections and Revelry," a four-hour career retrospective dating beyond his 1992 solo debut Gravity to his time in the True Believers, Rank & File and the Nuns. Joining him were many of his friends and admirers including Rosie Flores, Terry Allen, ex-True Believers bandmate Jon Dee Graham. (No doubt Springsteen, with whom Escovedo now shares management, sent his regards.)
In the last decade or so, Escovedo has recovered from a serious bout with Hepatitis C to reel off three excellent albums in a row all produced by his No. 1 collaborator these days, San Francisco-based alt-country stud Chuck Prophet: 2008's Real Animal, 2010's Street Songs of Love and last year's Big Station. Rocks Off was lucky to spend a few minutes with him on the phone one quiet morning earlier this week.
Rocks Off: How are you feeling these days?
Alejandro Escovedo: I'm feeling good. Hanging in there. Not bad. Getting older every day, but you know, I'm digging it. I'm having a good time.
RO: What do you or not do to stay healthy?
AE: I don't drink. I stay away from drugs. I do smoke marijuana, but I don't do anything else. I try to eat well. I try to get a lot of sleep now, is one thing. The one thing I do that harms my health more than anything is just the amount of work that I try to do. It's funny, because as you know, when you get sick, there's a certain urgency that comes with it after you survive something like that, right?
So now you have this kind of need to... I mean, I keep wanting to do more. Make another record, write more songs, and play more gigs, and maybe there's an idea for some sort of theatrical thing that I could do, a book, and photography and whatnot. I think that's where I become my own worst enemy.
RO: How long is a typical workday for you?
AE: I try to do nothing, actually, but think about songs. But I'm always on the phone with someone, either doing interviews, or we're setting up something, or we're rehearsing. We rehearse a lot, my band. Prior to this, I did this "Recollections and Revelry" show at the Moody Theatre. We were working eight hours a day on that, pretty hard.
RO: I heard it went off well. Were you nervous getting ready for that?
AE: I was a bit nervous, because there was a point where I had to reschedule because of illness. Even though it gave us a little bit more time, it wasn't good, and we lost a lot of people as a result of that. Joe Ely was supposed to be part of it, but once it got changed he couldn't be part of it.
But it went off well, man. Charlie did a beautiful job. Charlie Sexton was musical director. All the guests were great. They all learned my songs and did my material, so it was pretty cool. I was very happy.
RO: Are there any plans to do anything with that, like a DVD or something?
AE: We have it all filmed and recorded and we're about to go in and mix it. Brian Standifer, my cellist, has a studio, and he's going to mix it. They're making a documentary of it, and we just got told yesterday that they want to do it again next year. So we'll do another one.
RO: Besides all that, with three new albums in five years, would you say you're on a hot streak right now?
AE: (chuckles) I guess. You know, three albums in five years is a lot of work. The amount of work that goes into making a record, probably most people don't know about. They don't really experience what it's like to first of all write the songs.
It takes Chuck and I quite a bit of time to write all these songs, go through them and edit them, get them to a place to where my band starts to play them, and we start to kind of put our fingerprints on it, then we develop it. I like to play them out live as much as possible before we record. I really believe in pre-production. So we go out and play it.
The whole process is probably a good year just to get it together. And then to record it, and pick and album cover, and start to do all the press, you know - it's a pretty serious endeavor. So it's been a lot of work, and I've been telling everybody I'm just not in a hurry to make a record again. Though we are talking about it.
RO: When you write songs, would you say you approach it more as a reporter, a poet, or a novelist?
AE: You know, maybe more like a screenwriter, you know? When we wrote the album Real Animal, Chuck and I actually storyboarded the whole thing like we were making a movie. We had characters and a timeline, we just had to flesh out the characters and the story and the timeline to make sense. It's funny, because the first song that we wrote together was the very last song on the album, "Slow Down."
I think that once we got that song, we knew what we were onto [and] it became easier. I think it's harder when you just have a collection of songs, to put it together and make an album of it. But there's something instinctive that happens when you write that kind of leads you into the sort of area that somehow psychologically, physically, emotionally [that] you're trying to deal with, without even thinking about it sometimes.
I mean, there's been many times I've written songs I don't really know what they're about until I've written them. Something will happen that's significant, and suddenly the song makes sense.
RO: What attracted you to Chuck Prophet? This is what, your third record with him now, right?
AE: Yeah, we've done three records together. I think what I needed from Chuck and that he was very generous and giving to me was that I love his riffs that he comes up with. He's kind of like a pop artist, in the sense that he can take things that you've heard before and make it his own, and it's kind of blatant and yet it's not.
He's very clever in that way, and he's also got a great sense of humor. He's a very funny guy, whereas I tend to go to a very deep and dark place. He tends to go to kind of a lighter place. I think the combination is perfect for each other. I think we both needed that.
Also, let me say this. He also has a very journalistic eye towards detail. So whereas I'm kind of more emotional about it, he'll make me give everything color and shading and expression in a way that I probably would have let slide. I tend to be more abstract, I think.
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If you can stand it, come back for Part 2 of our interview in a couple of hours. Escovedo & the Sensitive Boys play the Continental Club Saturday night with Hot Club of Cowtown.