NATE HERTWRECK/GRAMMYS/May 2018 – On the brink of his May residency in NYC’s East Village, Escovedo talks songwriting, future plans, and how “Velvet Underground stole my whole consciousness”

 In  New York’s East Village, acclaimed songwriter Alejandro Escovedo begins his May residency with the first of five shows in the neighborhood. The gritty, vibrant streets exploding with character and nuance suit his music perfectly. I tracked him down during rehearsal at the Bowery Electric, just a few doors down from where CBGB once stood, to ask him about his New York heroes, the making of his latest masterpiece Burn Something Beautiful, and what surprises he’s got in store for his May residency.

“I lived right around the corner,” says Escovedo, reflecting on the East Village vibe. “I used to watch the Cramps cross the street every day to go to breakfast, which was at two in the afternoon, and they were amazing, it was just like this movie that opened up in front of you that was incredible. I just have so many memories here, and every time I come back I gravitate to the Lower East Side.”

On this particular return to NYC, Escovedo has mapped out an ambitious month-long residency exploring a variety of formats and incorporating a fascinating list of guests such as singer/songwriter and musical historian Richard Barone, Nuggets collection compiler and Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye, and New York Dolls guitarist Sylvain Sylvain. The residency kicks off with a show at Coney Island Baby on May 2 and closes with a special all-star band at Bowery Electric on May 30.

“Back in Austin at the Continental Club, I would do residencies. I would always do something different, whether it was acoustic or feedback with strings,” says Escovedo. “The idea came to do one here when Jesse [Malin] and I were playing a lot of gigs together … I love the intimacy of these places, and I thought this would be a great place to do something like that. … I thought, ‘Well, let’s make every week a little different.'”

“We’re going to pick the songs together,” says Barone, who works and performs with Escovedo often. “We’ll be using our own songs with songs by artists we admire to tell our stories. It’s a biographical show … I’m going to do one of Alejandro’s songs that I always loved because I think it talks about both of us … it really tells our story.”

Alejandro Escovedo and Richard Barone
Photo: Nancy Rankin Escovedo

“Richard and I have always had that connection,” Escovedo says, talking about his mutual admiration for Barone, his long history with each special guest and teasing the residency’s finale with a knowing smile. His ambition harkens back to how the city of New York originally grabbed his heart.

“When I was a kid in high school and that first Velvet Underground album came out, in our little town, Huntington Beach, California, you could go to any party amongst our group of friends and that record was playing, and we’d listen to it from the very beginning to the very end,” says Escovedo. “Growing up, my friends all wanted to travel to Europe … [but] I wanted to go to New York because the Velvet Underground was from New York.”

Lou Reed‘s influence on Escovedo’s work is clear, yet never feels imitative. As Barone puts it, “There’s a Lou Reed song for every emotion.” He and Escovedo produced a remarkable tribute to Reed during SXSW 2014 following his death.

“There’s something about the way Lou Reed wrote about New York and what I was feeling at the time that made me want to experience that more than I wanted to experience the hippie thing that was happening in California,” says Escovedo. “That’s not to say I didn’t have interest in Buffalo Springfield and Love and all those bands. I did, but the Velvet Underground totally stole my whole consciousness.”

Escovedo finally made it to New York in 1978 with his band the Nuns after they opened for the Sex Pistols’ historic last show at Winterland in San Francisco. His arrival in New York was, well, epic.

“We had the consummate New York experience. We lived in the Chelsea hotel,” he says. “One of the first nights we were here I sat at a table with Deborah Harry, all of Blondie, the Nuns, Andy Warhol, [photographer] Francesco Scavullo, and George Clinton. We watched the Heartbreakers play at Max’s Kansas City. And that was kind of the beginning. Our first gig was at CBGBs — there’s David Byrne, there’s David Johansen. Everybody was there.”

This punk-rock sentiment manifests itself in Escovedo’s songs even today — however, in a way that feels fresh as opposed to nostalgic. Case in point, his song “Johnny Volume” has a foot firmly planted in East Village legacy, but the other kicks forward with lyrics like, “I’m going down to Max’s, Fender Twin on 10/ I’m going back to St. Mark’s Place, start all over again.”

“I wrote it in Portland,” says Escovedo. “It was actually Scott’s initial song idea, and then we completed it. It’s about Johnny Thunders coming back and wanting to get it right this time — not that he got it wrong, but he wanted another shot at it. ‘I’m feeling so better/ It’s time to make amends,’ and ‘if you see me on the corner, I’m waiting on a friend’ was a reference to the Stones video we all saw [that was filmed] in the East Village.”

“Johnny Volume” is a live-wired cut from Escovedo’s latest album, 2016’s Burn Something Beautiful, which offers an exhibition in rock songwriting, production and arrangement. The album was produced by former R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and his Pacific Northwest-based partner in crime, bassist Scott McCaughey.

“When I made Burn Something Beautiful,” says Escovedo, “I think I got back to where my heart really was with rock and roll, and I think I needed Scott and Peter to do that, and all the musicians who played on that record. … It was liberating.”

Escovedo also talks with reverence and candor about his experience working with legendary producer Tony Visconti on his three albums prior to Burn Something Beautiful. Visconti is best known for his work with the incomparable David Bowie, one of Escovedo’s heroes.

“[Bowie] passed away on my birthday,” he says. “David had been a major, major influence on me. Not only did he teach me about music, he taught me about art, and books, and theatre, and cinema, and mime, and Buddhism, and [he] taught us how to dress, [and] also how to be a man in a different way. He suddenly opened a door to a world that made it okay to be flamboyant, to be an actor in a way.”

With equal parts imagination from Bowie and storytelling from Reed, Escovedo says his songwriting process is all about honesty and imagery.

“This last record that I just finished, which is a concept record, it’s telling a story and so people say, ‘Well, the verses don’t rhyme,’ and then I go back and I listen to Lou — he’s telling a story,” says Escovedo. “The images are more important than whether the meter is correct in a poetic sense or lyrical sense. It’s more about the impact of the words and the story and the images that he creates.

“I really don’t worry about the craft as much as I worry about making sure that I’m honest about what I’m trying to say and true to what I’m trying to say and not being pretentious in any way.”

“What sets [Escovedo] apart is how he continues to grow as an artist without losing track of his core musical identity,” says Barone. “He experiments … but it never loses that ethos of the punk era.”

Looking forward, Escovedo says he’s writing a book with San Antonio-based author John Phillip Santos, telling his story in what he calls a “mythical memoir.” But he isn’t done making music yet.

“I’m going to make another record with Peter and Scott, then I’m making a record of duets, and then I want to make one final record really encompassing the grandness of strings with distortion, almost like orchestrated metal machine music,” Escovedo says. “Then I think it’s time to put my feet up for a little bit. I travel hard and I’ve battled illnesses and whatnot, so it’s time to enjoy the fresh air.”

As he runs through a career-spanning set during rehearsal the day before the first show of his May residency in the East Village, Escovedo couldn’t be more relaxed. He stops a song here and there to point out a string line for the guitar player to cover or to lock in a harmony part with his background vocalists, but you get the sense Escovedo is very comfortable yielding to the energy of rock and roll and putting faith in the musicians around him. He asks the band what song is next, they all casually call him “Al,” and his wife Nancy hangs out close by with their pup, Suki. From California to New York, Austin, Texas, and back again — for all of Escovedo’s travels — rock and roll is his true home.

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