There are times when I mention Alejandro Escovedo's name that I still have to explain who he is (though not to many serious music people), and not only do I struggle to do his music justice by telling someone what it's like, but I also experience that feeling of chagrin that I even have to try. He should be on a par in popular consciousness with the likes of Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, and Neil Young, but while Escovedo has seemed to escape a certain kind of fame up until now, he has also escaped some much worse things, including critical illness in 2003. And so, we can all be thankful that he is still around to write beautiful songs and put out one masterful record after another. His most recent album, Street Songs of Love, was recorded at St. Claire Studio in Lexington , where he also recorded Real Animal in 2008.
I spoke to Escovedo recently about the writing and recording of Street Songs, and we revisited a few other points in his remarkable career. One thing is for certain, he hasn't run out of energy or ideas, and there are still some creative challenges – even some outside of music – that he has yet to pursue.
Escovedo on Street Songs of Love
"The idea came when I wrote Real Animal, the previous record. I had co-wrote that with Chuck Prophet, and we pretty much wrote it as if we were writing a screenplay for a movie, you know? We had storyboards and characters and timeframes -- we had to fill in the spaces; we had it pretty much laid out. And so, when I went in to write this record, Street Songs of Love, I was really intent on it not being about anything at all really, just a collection of cool rock and roll songs.
"And then I went through this break-up and went to Mexico to write...The first song I wrote was "Anchor" and it had that chorus, 'I'm in love with love,' and that kind of spoke to me. And suddenly there was a theme to everything. What we found was that they weren't necessarily love songs but songs about love...and the many kinds of different expressions of love.
"And after I left Mexico after being there for a month writing, I came back to Texas, and I set up a two-month residency on Tuesdays at the Continental Club here in Austin. And so every Tuesday night we would present three new songs -- first acoustically with Chuck, David [Pulkingham], and I on guitars -- showing the audience where they began, and see if they were worth working on and recording. Sometimes we would just have a riff or sometimes just a chorus or a line, and maybe just a song title.
"They were witnesses to the whole creative process of writing, and then we would bring the band out and present the three songs electrically and show them how we come up with stuff just off the top of our heads on the spot. And during the week, we would rehearse three or four times and the next Tuesday we would present two or three new songs and also try to integrate the songs that we had worked on in the prior week into the set.
"The audience was really watching these songs evolve. And while we were writing, because of the community feel that we got not only from being in our hometown, but in that club, which is my home base, and from the people who were coming, those Tuesday nights became quite an event. They were packed -- there would be lines down the street."
On St. Claire Studio in Lexington, KY
"We had made Real Animal there at St. Clair Studio in Lexington....we felt comfortable there, but not so much that it was a distraction. St. Clair turned out to be more than just a studio; it became a home for us, and we lived there, and made a record there, and when it came time to make the next one, I really wanted to go back because I'd had such a great experience making Real Animal. Tony [Producer Tony Visconti] considers it as one of his five favorite studios in the world, and he's worked all over the place."
By the Hand of the Father
One of my favorite projects of Escovedo's was the theatrical presentation of By the Hand of the Father, which I first saw on PBS's Austin City Limits sometime after it had its stage premiere in Los Angeles in 2000. Escovedo's music, including the lovely, "Rosalie," was interwoven with stories written by Theresa Chavez, Oscar Garza, Eric Gutierrez and Rose Portillo, and produced by the LA-based theater company, About Productions and Paula Batson (Batson was Escovedo's publicist). I asked Escovedo to tell me how it all came about.
"I was making a record called With These Hands in a studio in California [produced by Stephen Bruton]. One of the engineers came by and said do you have a brother, Pete? He was recording an album upstairs and I was recording mine downstairs."
In addition to his brother, Pete's wife Juanita and their children, Sheila E., Zina, Peter Michael, and Juan – all members of the sprawling, musical Escovedo family – were also in the studio. "Stephen decided he wanted them to play on this particular song, 'With These Hands,' which was written about my father crossing the border. And so they did this amazing percussion track on it and when it was all said and done, we were sitting there listening to it and Sheila said to both my brother and me, 'Why did it take so long for you guys to work together?' What I had spoken to my brother about that day was a song-cycle based on my father's life (Pedro) and we were going to present it to him as a 90th birthday present."
This was the seed of the project that eventually wound up as the play, after Batson brought Escovedo and About Productions together in LA. On the CD that was later released, Pete Escovedo contributed as a guest artist, along with Rosie Flores, Reuben Ramos, and Cesar Rosas.
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