His brilliant new album weaves a tale of immigration in America.
Alejandro Escovedo‘s trailblazing life has always been one of movement, of challenges, of beating the odds. All amidst a scintillating tapestry of brilliant and memorable music.
Certainly his Mexican-American upbringing in South Texas made an impact on him, which included carving out his own path in an already musically gifted family that includes his niece, percussionist Sheila E(scovedo), and brothers Pete and Coke Escovedo who played with Santana for years. Through his relentless hard work, his growth into an exceptional songwriter and his constant touring, he became one of Americana music’s most respected and gifted musicians, even deemed the 90’s Musician Of The Decade by No Depression magazine. But the illness that almost killed him, and the struggle and eventual triumph to regroup musically after his sickness, also had a deep-seated effect on his journey.
And after over 40 years of singing and playing rock and roll, Escovedo’s music continues to be rich and full and evocative and brave, and often a direct extension of his life experiences.
“We talk about living in the moment. Every moment was important,” the thoughtful and kind Escovedo told me as he prepared for the next leg of his current “The Crossing” tour which stops at City Winery on January 15th. “And every moment led to the next. And if I hadn’t become as sick as I became, as hard as that was, as difficult as it was, as frightening as it was, I wouldn’t have made the records that I made post that illness. It was a great lesson.”
Escovedo’s struggle with Hepatitis C was a tremendously challenging time for this humble and gifted man, as he tried desperately to bounce back from death’s door and recover the soul of what was so important to him before he fell ill.
“When I got sick, man, I blamed the music for my illness for a while,” Escovedo, 68, said with a tinge of emotion in his voice. “And I didn’t play my guitar for a while. You go through all these different kind of levels of grief. You go through the ‘why me?’ period, you’re angry, you’re ashamed. You feel marked in some way. And then you find out it’s just part of life, man. And I was so grateful for all the people who came to my aid, all the musicians, everyone who played on Por Vida. And then all the fans who had over 50-something benefits on my behalf. So I must have done something right, you know? I wasn’t aware of it. The love that people had for me and my songs…maybe I took my music for granted at times, and I eventually realized that.”
And nowhere have Escovedo’s beliefs and emotions been more evident than on his brilliant latest record The Crossing, which weaves a telling and honest tale of immigration in America through the eyes of two young immigrants, a Mexican named Diego and an Italian named Salvo. It’s a mixture of both Escovedo’s previous history, the current debacle surrounding immigration reform and the American story of migration that all combined to inspire him.
“Obviously current events had a play in it,” he said. “It’s been something that I’ve been concerned with and interested in for many years, but the current events have really sparked another kind of level of intensity as far as racism and immigration law are concerned. So I can’t say that it wasn’t an impetus for the story.”
But it definitely wasn’t just the current climate in America that motivated Escovedo. For one, it was a trip overseas that inspired him throughout The Crossing‘s creative process, a trip that also led to him discovering his new band, one he relishes playing with and whose homeland lent even more inspiration.
“A lot of it had to do with fact that when I went to Europe to tour, I chose Don Antonio, the Italian band, to play with me, we made a really kind of different kind of music that was really compatible with my lyrics, I fell in love with them as a band. When I returned two months later and we toured southern Italy, it really dawned on me that there was this strong connection between Latin American and Italian culture. And southern Italy especially kind of brought out this … I had a sense that I was kind of in Mexico again. So I suddenly started to come up with this story about these two young boys. I had had this title in my head for a while, it was ‘Teenage Luggage’ which represented a lot of things. It was not only young people packing to go on this journey, but it was also the kind of teenage luggage that we as older people carry with us. You know, I think Neil Young was the one who said that the messiness of adulthood was just as intense as the messiness of adolescence.”
And his protagonists Diego and Salvo were culled from a blend of different people across Escovedo’s life, another example of his inclination to reflect his own experiences in his music.
“Diego is my son’s name, and Salvo is a relative of Antonio’s. And Salvo comes from Calabria, and Diego comes from Saltillo, where my father was born. My father made a journey, which I’ve spoken about in earlier records, from Mexico when he was 12 years old. It was 1919 that he crossed this invisible line called the border. It’s like a combination of myself, my son, my father.”
Escovedo’s evocative and timely musical message in The Crossing is a clear one: reminding people that the history of America does not reflect the current state of affairs, and that we must remember the reality of the past to help better understand and rationally and fairly deal with the present and ultimately, the future.
“I hope that (The Crossing) gives [people] a message that your dreams are worth pursuing, that’s number one. And also, that this story of immigration is everyone’s story. It’s a story about how people in the beginning, centuries and centuries ago at the beginning of man, migrated for reasons that were essential. They migrated for better weather, for crops, for hunting reasons, water, whatever the essentials were. Greener pastures, whatever it was. And then borders of course caused these lines to be drawn, and suddenly people claimed territories and land and defended it with a sense that nobody else belonged there but them. And that’s when we really ran into trouble in my opinion. But there are no rightful owners to this land, and if we were to think of it in those historical terms, Native Americans and Mexican Indians would be the sole bearers of that land. They were here before us.”
Escovedo’s deep sensitivity and thoughtfulness is what drives him, with a recent profound chance encounter becoming the basis of a song on The Crossing. It further illustrates the way Escovedo weaves personal experience into his memorable musical tales.
“I met a young boy who told me the story which became ‘Texas is My Mother.’ He had crossed the river carrying his sister on his shoulders, and his aunt was trailing behind him. And she didn’t make it. And he’s a guy who I think got sent back a couple times already. He’s a beautiful guy, man. He’s a young boy who was a clothes designer, artist, and one of the sweetest kids I’ve ever met. And there’s a lot of kids in the restaurants and shops that we frequent in Dallas that would fall under that category.”
As well as life experiences driving his motivation, when it all comes down to it, it’s Escovedo’s heritage, and the resiliency of his family, that is indicative of who he is today, and has been the example for him to follow as he continues to navigate the ever-winding road that life presents.
“You know, there’s this Mexican saying about Mexican boxers that you have to kill them because they’ll never stop, they’ll always keep coming back at you. And it’s that kind of resilience you’re talking about that my father had. I was always proud of the way he was. And I think that my brothers, and Sheila to a certain extent, all have this kind of character that they just kind of do what they do. I don’t think they beat on their chest a lot to draw attention. And that’s always been part of my thing. Pete and Coke really exemplified that, and it’s always been impressive to me and that’s been my example to follow, to follow in their footsteps.”
Alejandro Escovedo with Don Antonio performs Tuesday January 15th at City Winery, 1350 Okie St NW, Washington , DC, 20002. For tickets, click here.