He was named No Depression’s Artist of the Decade, he’s had people like Steve Earle, John Cale, Bruce Springsteen and Tony Visconti either work with him, sing with him or cover his songs AND he has enough great song to fill a double Best of record (which happens to be out now!)
So why the hell does Alejandro Escovedo still struggle with a lack of confidence, even despite the fact that he was on George W Bush’s personal playlist? Well, strike the last one and read on as Americana UK speaks to one of alt.country’s biggest stars about famous friends, the Presidential iPod and ripping off Mott The Hoople. Enjoy
Interview by Soren McGuire
Releasing a career-spanning collection of your songs must feel like being in a plane crash, seeing your entire life flash by your eyes, however morbid that might sound?
I really love the record in the way that I know a lot of people haven’t heard some of the older songs. If anyone knows me at all, it’s probably through recent records like Real Animal or Street Songs of Love, you know, ever since I’ve been with Jon Landau Management and the association with Bruce Springsteen (who sang on the song Faith on Street Songs of Love – ed.). But you know, I made ten albums before that on my own, and I’d play, maybe 280 or 300 shows a year, so there was a lot of hard work involved in all those records. It’s been nice to see that compiled into one. I really love it. I’m glad it’s there.
How do you know it’s the right time to release a best of? Isn’t it normally something the label decides for you?
I think it was time to give people an overview of what it is that I do, and see if I could connect with them in that way. It doesn’t seem like a retrospective in the sense that my career is over, it’s more of an introduction, a calling card. I don’t get the feel from people that they consider me over.
Does this also give you the opportunity to wipe the slate clean and venture off in new directions?
Well, as I said, this is about re-introducing myself, give myself a little time before the new record comes out in May or June next year. We start recording it in December. But you know, it’s funny too, about the label, Demon. When I was in True Believers, that was the label I wanted to be on, but my brother had other ideas. So we signed with an American label, which turned out to be a real drag (the story of True Believers’ struggles with EMI-America is enough to keep most anyone from signing with a major label -ed.), but I had also wanted to be on Demon. I thought it was a great label.
Does looking back this way force you to re-asses some of your old work, you know, the stuff you did with Rank & File and The True Believers?
Even though I started the band with Tony & Chip (Kinman), I was just a member of Rank & File. That’s the way I look at it. Tony & Chip were really the core of that band. They sang all the songs and wrote all the songs, except for one song called Rank & File, which I wrote. It was our theme song! But as a whole, me as a songwriter didn’t exist back then, and also, that band was really an unpleasant experience. But with the True Believers, it was me, my brother Javier and Jon Dee Graham and it was based around a very gang-like mentality. It was a real rock n’roll band, and I loved that band. I didn’t start writing until I was in True Believers, but when I look at those songs, I really don’t play them very often, unless I’m playing with Jon who lives in the same town as me, in Austin. Some times he’ll get up on stage with me and we’ll do some old True Believes songs. But I’m not really attached to those songs anymore, like I am to Gravity (Alejandro’s 1992 solo debut -ed.) or my other solo records. I’m very connected to those records, but for some reason I see the older stuff as part of growing up. I grew up in public, musically, and those are great examples of what I was doing at the time. But I don’t feel the connection to them any more.
Over the years you’ve worked with a lot of very talented and famous people, like John Cale, Tony Visconti and Bruce Springsteen. How much has that affected you as an artist?
One thing I’ve learned over the years from working with people like John Cale and Tony Visconti, and pretty much pulling on Bruce’s shirtsleeves all the time and trying to get him to engage me in conversation about how he went about it, well, I think they’ve all given me a sense of confidence some how. And not only in the endorsement that they give me, but in the experience I’ve had with them. Working with John Cale is so much different from what I do with Tony, but yet I really learned something from working with John. He came at a time when I really needed an experience like that. I had been ill for quite some time, and I was just coming out of that. But I was very weak, emotionally, physically and psychologically, but it was him that … the two things that he wanted to do with me, was to dig deeper than anyone had ever done before, and for me to be more revealing that I had ever been before. And to also sound somewhat healthy on record, if you know what I mean. He wanted me to sound stronger, better and more there than I had ever sounded. I really loved that about him.
With Tony Visconti, we really got into the musicality and the stories that I was telling. That brought out a whole other aspect. You know, we were supposed to record with Glyhn Johns on Real Animal, but for some reason it just didn’t work out. But Tony completely understood what I wanted to do on that record. Each one has given me different advice, but I always walk away feeling like I’m in this for a reason. Maybe they’ve just given me that reason.
You mention the word confidence. Is that what you need in a producer? Someone to give you the confidence you might lack?
I need someone who not only gives me the confidence to move forward with my ideas, but someone who brings something out in me that I didn’t even know I had. Something deep inside. Maybe a producer will tell you “you are a singer, you sing great, and if we were to record something right now, you could do it a cappella”, well that gives me a whole new level of thought about how to approach a song, the album or what it could be. Or maybe a producer will say, “you should play more guitar on this record, cause you’re a great guitar player”, where as I’ve told myself all my life that I’m a shit guitar player! But I think that’s it, I think that’s what a good producer does. He instills confidence in you, but does it in such a subtle way that you don’t really know it’s happening. You’re just working.
Why is it that you lack this confidence? I mean, you’ve been doing this for years on end now, I mean, you’re Alejandro Escovedo!
To be honest, I think it’s just something inside me. We could really talk a long time about this, but I think it’s something that happened to me when I was a kid. Things would always come easy to me. When I chose to become a baseball player, it came easy to me. But music was different. I had older brothers who were just amazing musicians, and I come from an incredibly talented musical family. We were 13 kids and eight of us became professional musicians, but I guess I just got lost in the shuffle in a way. And maybe that’s why I watched everybody else, but never really thought I was being watched, if you know what I mean. And I think it’s something I still struggle with. But I guess it’s a weird thing for a 60 year old man to say.
I guess we all struggle with lack of confidence every now and then?
Well, let me say one more thing. In my family, we were raised not to be overly confident or … gloatfull. We were raised to be kind of quiet. My older brothers looked impeccably beautiful in their suits back in the 60’s, and their whole thing was Miles Davis and that kind of stuff. They had more of a quiet confidence, they learned that you don’t beat the audience on their heads with your music, you quietly draw them in. That’s how I was raised.
You’ve also worked with a lot of different labels over the years. How much do you let the label influence the way you approach your records, meaning – is the record that comes out on Bloodshot automatically different than the one that comes out on EMI?
When the True Believers were on EMI, it was a devastating yet typical record industry story. We made an album in five days, we were inexperienced, and it didn’t capture what people expected from us. It didn’t capture the ferocity of our live shows. So they dropped us right before our second record was to be released, and that was very devastating, it took a long time to get over. But it also lead to me putting out my first three solo records on an independent label called Watermelon Records. I was lucky to have a deal, but they never really helped us, they didn’t promote the records despite the fact that they were getting great reviews. And then I went with Bloodshot, and that was like finally finding people who were supportive, like finding a family. I think I did one of my best records, A Man Under The Influence, with them. But being on an independent label had its own problems, cause they didn’t really want my records to sell as I did. They didn’t push it, cause they liked their underground status. But I wanted more than that. So I went over to EMI again for Real Animal, but I was lucky in that I found that one person, Ian Ralfini, who was actually with Blue Note Records, but oversaw the project and introduced me to Tony Visconti. He was very supportive and still is to this day. But you know, you’re lucky some times. I ended up on Concorde for Street Songs Of Love, and the next record will come out on Concorde as well. They’re somewhere between an indie and a major label, and it’s the label which my brothers had been on when they were young. And you know, my A&R guy is great. He wants me to go out on a creative limb, he wants me to be more creative. And I guess that’s the thing with labels. They’re all good and they’re all bad. A necessary evil.
What was it like hearing all these great people such as Steve Earle, Ian Hunter, John Cale and Calexico cover your songs for the Por Vida – A Tribute To The Songs of Alejandro Escovedo record? (a tribute record to help Alejandro pay for the medical bills in the wake of him falling ill with Hepatitis C in 2003 -ed.)
I loved Steve Earle’s version of Paradise! We actually tried doing it like that afterwards. The same with One More Time by Ian Hunter. That’s how that song always was supposed to sound, cause it was always a Mott The Hoople rip-off anyway. I had never heard people do my songs before, nobody had ever covered them. So it was very nice hearing all these interpretations, especially because they were done so well. You can really hear the love and care each individual put into these songs. As a whole, it works as an album. A lot of tribute albums, to me, don’t sound so well, but this really opened up my creative mind to the possibilities of how my songs could be done. That album really was like medicine. It cured me.
A few years ago, it turned out that your song, Castanets was on George W Bush’s iPod. Any thoughts on being a part of the President’s soundtrack?
Oh man. At the time it was so embarrassing to me, you have no idea. I stopped playing the song for a while. But then we found out that it wasn’t even our version, it was the Los Lonely Boys’ version. But the fact that it was my song and that I became associated with it, was somewhat frightening and embarrassing. In the end, it just became a kind of a joke.
For a lot of years, people have seen you as one of the founding fathers of alternative country. Did you ever feel either bothered or limited by being put in that box?
It never bothered me, and I’ll tell you why. Whether it was my band The Nuns, which really wasn’t a punk band but got lumped in with punk rock, cause they didn’t know what else to call us, or whether it was Rank & File who was really just trying to play our record collections, all the songs we loved, it’s always been about taking all these beautiful elements of various forms of music. I’ve always loved country music, my dad listened to it a lot, I’ve always loved Mexican music, and I’ve always loved rock n’roll in its rawest form, but being labelled alt.country or Americana, it’s never been a problem for me. It’s a very loose term, and it encompasses so much. It’s everything from Appalachian bluegrass to Delta blues. From country music to Mexican music, from New Orleans jazz to New York Brill Building songwriting. Americana to me is a very broad statement, and I definitely live within that statement somehow. I remember that Tony and Chip used to get really bothered when someone called us country punk, and that’s a pretty corny statement, but people need these tags to put on you to identify you. I remember Jon Langford (Mekons, Waco Brothers) coming to see me play in Chicago, and him telling us afterwards that what he loved so much about us was that we weren’t just doing this Americana thing. We were up there, playing Stooges covers and Mott covers and Bowie covers. And those are the kind of songs we love to do.
Alejandro Escovedo’s The Best of Alejandro Escovedo double album is out now on Demon/Nascente Records. For more on this amazing legend, go straight to Alejandroescovedo.com