On a new album, Alejandro Escovedo recounts his musical journey, which has spanned four decades.
This past April, Bruce Springsteen did something unprecedented. During the encore of an arena show in Houston, Texas, he brought up cult Americana artist Alejandro Escovedo to perform. True, guest stars in Springsteen’s shows are not unusual. But the remarkable thing was that the song “the Boss” and his E Street Band chose to play wasn’t one of theirs but one of Escovedo’s. And it was from an album that was then still months away from release.
Such is the devotion that Escovedo -- who’s just released his eighth solo album, Real Animal-- inspires in his fellow artists. Springsteen is just one of his fans.When Escovedo was sidelined by a nearly fatal battle with hepatitis C earlier this decade, some 31 musicians united to cover his songs on a fund-raising 2004 tribute album called Por Vida: A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo. That kind of devotion has recently spurred film director Jonathan Demme to begin work on a documentary film about Escovedo.
But while Escovedo’s following among musicians is solid, general audiences may still be catching on to him and his story. That’s where Real Animal will come in handy. The album is something of a sonic autobiography. Its songs tell Escovedo’s tale, beginning with his birth in San Antonio, moving on to his musical coming-of-age as a teen in California (where his family moved to when he was six), and then going into his adventures with a series of wild, colorful bands throughout the ’70s and ’80s. Escovedo’s remarkable journey included a run with the shambolic punk outfit the Nuns, who opened the Sex Pistols’ final show in 1978 and later moved into New York City’s infamous Hotel Chelsea. (Escovedo was living there when notorious punk icon Sid Vicious killed his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen.) Escovedo eventually returned to his Texas roots, playing with cow-punk combo Rank and File and, later, with the True Believers.
We asked the 57-year-old singer-songwriter to talk about Real Animal, literally the album of a lifetime.
The album recounts your four decades of playing rock music. Does it feel strange to have been playing that kind of music for so long? Keith Richards always said he wanted to learn how to grow up in rock and roll. And I think once you get past the glamour and money and all that stuff, once you really get into the music, there’s no way you can not grow up in rock and roll. If you’re a musician, that’s what you are --as well as Duke Ellington was, as Count Basie was. It’s silly to think of rock and roll as just a young man’s game. I don’t believe that to be the truth.
I am older; I’m not 20 years old, and I don’t sing songs for kids. But I do feel that I do every aspect of my craft better now than I’ve ever done before. So I feel lucky.
Did you have the concept for Real Animal from the outset, or did the songs come first? I decided early on that I wanted to make a record about my musical journey. Immediately, I knew I wanted to chronicle the life of the bands I’d been in -- the Nuns, Rank and File, the True Believers -- and the people that I had met along the way. In a way, I know I’ll never bein a rock-and-roll band like those again. And I think that was part of it for me -- to look back and try to understand that whole experience.
You wrote the songs with Chuck Prophet, a fellow rock-and-roll traveler. How did the two of you come up with material? We would just get together and hang out, really. We would talk and I would tell stories of the people in the bands I’d been in, and we’d tape all of that stuff. That would inspire an idea, and then we’d just kind of start riffing together on a certain lyric or phrase or character. When we’d get stuck, we’d go back and listen to a lot of the records that had influenced us -- David Bowie, Mott the Hoople, and T.Rex. So it was a great process, a great way to write.
Why did you enlist producer Tony Visconti, who has worked with David Bowie and T.Rex, to helm the project? Part of this record and this story was about going back to the source of what it was that inspired me. We spent a lot of time listening to those great ’70s records and drawing from their influence. And Tony actually produced a lot of those records. So, in a way, having him work on this brought the whole thing full circle.
Working on something so autobiographical, did you develop a different perspective on your experiences? I learned a lot about these characters and the people I hadn’t thought about for a long time. I ended up having a lot more respect for the sheer act of wanting to be in a band, playing in a band, and the work that it takes.
What was it like to debut “Always a Friend” onstage with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band? Oh, man! It was like driving a Ferrari. It was unbelievable. I broke the land-speed limit. I told my managers afterward: “Those four minutes were more important than the 33 years I’ve been playing music.” It was like everything focused into that one thing, that one moment. Bruce was very generous and genuine about enjoying the song; the whole band was. That night, I had the best band in the world. It was really great.
You’ve earned a lot of critical praise, and you’ve never seemed to crave pop success in your career. Is there anything you’re still missing at this point? I don’t want a lot more. I want for us to play as well as we can, to stay healthy, to be able to make more records. That’s what I want. I’d love to be able to pay my bandmates better; they’ve been with me for so long. My drummer’s been with me for 25 years, and there has been some drought during those years. I’d love to be able to take care of them. But whatever happens, I have to tell you that, for me, the success has been that we’ve stuck to what we believe in and we’ve always played hard. I think that’s enough in itself.