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Alejandro Escovedo: Not "alt-country" 

click to enlarge Alejandro Escovedo - TODD WOLFSON
  • Alejandro Escovedo
  • Todd Wolfson

Singer, songwriter, band leader, guitar player - Alejandro Escovedo's career reads like a How To book on succeeding in the music industry. From the beginning of his musical career with his punk band The Nuns, to his tex-mex rock band Rank and File, to his now-fifteen full-length album run, Escovedo has provided a rich bounty of music for fans of almost every genre to enjoy. NUVO spoke to him in Iowa during the first week of his tour. He'll perform at the White Rabbit Cabaret this Saturday.

NUVO: Where are you right now?

Alejandro Escovedo: I'm in Sioux City, Iowa. Yesterday, we passed through Rockville and played the Daytrotter session there. It was really good, really beautiful. We ate lunch and moved on to Sioux City. It's pretty strange little place. I don't know what to think of it yet.

NUVO: I hope it goes well for you in Sioux City. You just released Big Station. What can new listeners and old fans expect from your new record?

Escovedo: I think it's my best album ever. It's a collection of really strong songs. There's good rhythm in this album that I love. We wanted to focus on that, more rhythmic tunes and different kinds of rhythms. The material, in terms of subject matter, is really interesting. Even a song in Spanish that's kind of trance-like ("Sabor a mí").
NUVO: Have you recorded a song in Spanish before? If not, why now?

Escovedo: I never have. This is my first. I've wanted to for quite a while. I think for me, it was a matter of getting the confidence to actually sing in Spanish. In Spanish music, Spanish lyrics and Mexican songs, you really have to get the emotion down, the articulation down, the pronunciation down, to be convincing, you know. In our version, we kept the feeling of melancholy in the songs and the sense of romanticism that I love about Spanish music. I think we did a good job.

NUVO: Singing in another language is so different than speaking it, because of the emotional component.

Escovedo: It's funny because my brothers sang in Spanish, but they didn't speak in Spanish that much. But they were very convincing and it sounded very beautiful. I think that you have to have that sense of where the music comes from, and the lineage of the music and the emotional intensity. I don't know if you can teach someone that, I think you have to be born with that, you have to feel it.

But I feel it when I sing in English too; a song like "Rosalie" draws very much from the Mexican tradition of songwriting. And that's a very emotional song.

NUVO: Continuing with our discussion of Mexico — could you tell me a bit about the track "Sally Was a Cop?"

Escovedo: Chuck Prophet and I wrote that together. We wrote ten of the songs on the album together. We spent some time in Mexico, in Baja, surfing and stuff. I remember the first time we were there, we were really taken by the presence of the militia and the police and the armed guards that seemed to be everywhere.

And that was a result of the fear that has been caused by the terrorism of the cartels. The song is about someone who really wants to be part of her community and help her community and see it foster, grow and become stronger. But she's faced with a situation in which she has to defend her community and become a soldier in order to do that. It's one of those songs in which you could live a very normal everyday life, but sometimes you're forced to become something much more than you ever dreamed about.

NUVO: You performed with Bruce Springsteen at South by Southwest. Did you catch his keynote address? It highlighted the different points of musical influence in his career. Could you trace your biggest musical influences?

Escovedo: You know my brothers and my father first of all, they were pivotal in the way that I approach my music. I don't play the same style as my brothers, but there's a lot about my music that's been influenced by them. The way we present ourselves and arrange our music and the way they relate to their bandmates [is alike].

There's always been people. When I was a kid, I used to love Fats Domino, Chuck Berry. The Everly Brothers were huge for me. The soul singers that I grew up with — I went to the Ike and Tina Turner revue when I was twelve, the James Brown revue, Solomon Burke, Sam Cooke of course. When I started playing, guys like David Bowie and Ian Hunter. Iggy Pop, very major influence for me. The MC5 and the Velvet Underground. Those guys, that was the template for everything I did [after I heard them]. My first band, The Nuns — we were just trying to be a combination of The Stooges and The Velvet Underground, you know.

As I developed as a guitar player and started to write songs, people like Townes Van Zandt and Neil Young and Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Joe Ely and all the awesome songwriters, all the great Texas songwriters, those were the ones who were really there when I started to write songs. I didn't start to write songs until I was 30, when I moved to Austin.

NUVO: I read an interesting interview with Slate where you spoke briefly about the curse of the "alt-country" tag.

Escovedo: I only say that because I've been making this music for a long time. When I was in Rank and File they called us country-punk. That was just a term journalists invented. It's just such a broad term, if you really think about it. It's so much more than Son Volt and Wilco; all those bands that are great bands. Even they don't like that tag any more.

NUVO: What would you offer as a substitution for a journalist [like me!].

Escovedo: I think of myself as a rock and roll songwriter. That's all I've really been interested in was rock and roll and how to create something new within that. It's very old and tried and true, but there's so much expression within that you're capable of doing. It's hard to pinpoint my music in the first place I think. Certainly when I was associated with No Depression and Bloodshot Records, those were good years and I made good records. It did help me a lot and I'm not turning my back on it. I'm just not there anymore.

Big Station will be released June 5.

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