Alejandro Escovedo ‘won’t write a song just to write a song – I really want to have something to say’

One of the most highly regarded musicians in the Lone Star State revisits his catalog in “Echo Dancing.”

By Leah ScarpelliMarch 29, 2024 4:23 pm, ,

Alejandro Escovedo has long been one of the most eclectic and highly regarded musicians in Texas – and in the U.S. But stardom has never been his thing.

The son of San Antonio and de facto ambassador of the Lone Star State has shared the stage with friends like Bruce Springsteen and performed at the Kennedy Center. Now, he’s releasing his latest collection, “Echo Dancing,” revisiting and revising some deep but beloved tracks from his catalog of songs.

He joined the Standard to share more about his new album, the state of music in Texas and more.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: I understand you originally wanted to record an album of new material but decided to rerecord some songs from previous albums. Why was that? 

Alejandro Escovedo: It’s funny – it just kind of struck me as I was boarding the plane, actually. And, you know, I wanted to go into the studio. I work with Don Antonio, Antonio Gramentieri and Nicola Peruch and his group of musicians in a little village in Italy called Modigliana in Romagna. And I was going out there and we said, let’s just go out there with zero – you know, ideas, a lot of sketches, maybe a chorus. 

Sort of see how it all falls together in the studio. 

Exactly. I wanted to create it from scratch in the studio. And then suddenly it dawned on me that it’d be a good time to do a retrospective, you know? Let’s see how we can recreate these songs, find new voices throughout these songs in order to create something new and different. 

So, instead of having a band, it was just Nicola, who plays keyboards. He’s a phenomenal keyboard player. He plays with a gentleman by the name of Zucchero in Italy who fills soccer stadiums and stuff and has made records with Rick Rubin and people like that. 

And then Antonio, who’s a phenomenal guitar player – you know, they’re both musical explorers, musical astronauts; they’re out there to find new sounds. And they loved the idea. 

We stayed on this beautiful villa. The studio was this 15th century grain mill of some kind. All stone, gorgeous. Just a big, big room. And overlooking a valley which had vineyards and olive orchards and whatnot. 

What a sight to record. That’s amazing.

It was amazing. And so, the inspiration came very easily. Like, every morning I would wake up and I’d say, I want these three songs. And so we would go in, I’d play them the songs in their original form. Nicola would start to make a loop, a drum loop of some kind, or maybe we’d just scratch on guitars and make a loop, whatever it was.

And we’d just go in, and I would sing the songs – they would send me kind of a new schematic for the whole thing, and so then I would have to respond to that in a very, you know, vocally in a different way. 

I’m curious because – and you’ve heard this a million times, I know, in your course of your career – you’re impossible to put in a box. I mean, the styles of music that you have been very much a part of, from punk rock to glam rock, to the Americana scene.

How do you consider yourself as a musician? I would imagine you resist those labels, but when you talk to other people, how do you kind of describe where you are musically?

It’s really hard to describe because I’ve always told everyone, look, my music is based on an expansive record collection. I grew up with my dad, who loved rancheras and he loved country music. We grew up in San Antonio, right? 51, rock and roll radio.

I had a cousin who was a big rock and roll freak, you know, and so, she would babysit me, and the walls were just plastered with Elvis and Jerry Lee and the Big Bopper, you know, and all those – Little Richard. And she would play on her little turntable all these records all day long, 45’s. She’d dance, show me how to do dances and stuff. So, I grew up with that.

Photo by Nancy Rankin Escovedo

My mother loved big band music, so I remember we would take a train from San Antonio to Austin to buy records. And we had relatives here, too.

They were kind of an odd couple: My dad coming from the mountains of northern Mexico in Saltillo, and my mother being born in San Marcos – having graduated from the college there in San Marcos, a teacher’s college – and she went to Washington, D.C., worked in the Pentagon. So, she got to go out and see like, all this boho, bohemian stuff. And the two of them created this really wonderful kind of, like, library of different tastes and approaches to art and life and music.

And then all my older brothers were phenomenal musicians and still are. My brother Pete, he’s still touring. He’s in his late 80s, but he’s still touring. My brother Coke, too, who passed away, but, you know, they had great bands. They played with Chico Hamilton, they played with Mongo Santamaría, Willie Bobo, they were in Cal Tjader’s band, you know.

And so I’d get all these cool records, you know, like Paul Kelly, and my mom would have these jazz records. My dad would have his rancheras and country records. And then my cousin had all rock and roll records.

So you’re just mentally blending all these things. You’re absorbing and taking it in from all over.

Exactly. And when we moved to California, it was 1957 – Huntington Beach, California. There was a great club there called the Golden Bear. It was like high school, college, university all rolled into one. I saw everything from Jimmy Reed, Lightnin’ Hopkins to Big Brother and the Holding Company to, you know, Steve Martin and Cheech and Chong, Hugh Masekela. You know, like, everything.

What a musical education to have. What I find rather fascinating is that – well, I was at a recent show that you did here at the Moody Theater, and you’re sort of continuing with that musical education of your own.

You have these birthday celebrations – happy birthday, belatedly – and you bring together all of these voices from Texas, singing songs that influenced them and some of their own material. It’s almost a celebration of not just Texas music, but music more broadly, in a way.

I think, you know, one thing I’ve really absorbed by being in Austin – when I moved to Austin, was a community of songwriters, you know, and the song was the Holy Grail, you know. And so, through living here and being around Townes and being around Joe Ely, Terry Allen, Jimmie Dale, Butch, Jubal Clark, you know, all these crazy guys who were here, I realized that what I knew of music, there was still a lot more to absorb and learn.

And like, when I went solo for the first time, Joe Ely took me with him on his tour of Texas. I got to sit and watch him solo every night just from the side of the stage. And there were nights that we’d go to a party or something, and Joe would still bring out the guitar and, like, entertain 40 or 50 punk rockers who were at the party. But they were just mesmerized by this storyteller, by this guy.

And I think the thing that I loved the most about coming to Texas and coming back to Texas and learning from these guys was how it was such a real expression of their lives, you know? The truth was their lives, and the stories that they told were things that really happened to them.

I remember once, when I was living here, a guy who ended up being the musical director for the movie “Shrek” – he was a big DJ out in L.A – and he wanted me to coach a songwriter, a young girl that went on to become very famous. But she was young. She had not lived a life yet. She wasn’t very literary, you know, she hadn’t read a lot of books yet or seen a lot of movies. So, my only advice to her was go out and live a life, you know?

It’s like Townes Van Zandt used to – he sort of threw himself into that troubadour mode, living that bohemian lifestyle because he knew he couldn’t fake it.

Exactly. And he learned from Lightnin’ and all those guys, you know? So, that’s where that comes from. And I think that that’s the most important thing, and I still to this day – I mean, I won’t write a song, just to write a song. I really want to have something to say.

Michael Minasi / KUTX

Alejandro Escovdeo performs in Studio 1A at the KUT Public Media Studios on Jan. 13, 2023.

I was watching your performance at the Kennedy Center last year. And, you know, Texas Standard is heard statewide, and a lot of our listeners know you as kind of an iconic Austin musician, certainly. But you said something on that stage that caught my ear.

You said that a lot of folks think of Austin as the big music center, but really, Denton has become the big place for music in Texas; people in the know, know that Denton has really sort of taken over that mantle. Could you say more about that – do you really believe that?

Well, you know, it wasn’t until I moved to Dallas – my wife, Nancy, and I moved to Dallas, I guess it was about 10 years ago. And I never thought I’d leave Austin, really, for any purpose whatsoever; I didn’t have my sights on any other city or anything like that. But she got a job in Dallas.

And it was after our honeymoon hurricane experience. So, it was kind of time to just go somewhere and think about things. So we went together. We lived at the Belmont Hotel in Oak Cliff, and it was really a wonderful experience. I learned a lot more. I didn’t know that much about Dallas, you know, so I learned a lot about the music scene, the musicians, the type of music that was really prominent there.

But all these cool bands would start coming from Denton – cool musicians, songwriters, performers, you know? And so I started to check out Denton more and play in Denton more.

And they’ve got a tremendous scene, you know, there is a band called Midlake. [They] were really cool to me because they’d been signed by a label called Bella Union, which is one of the guys from the Cocteau Twins from England. And they became huge in Europe. But they came back to Denton and invested their money in the old downtown center.

You know, one guy had a restaurant. They had a cool bar and record stores and rehearsal places. And it was just a really cool, small community, and they were drawing from all those great musicians that were coming out of North Texas, you know, the college.

But this sort of speaks to a larger thing, it seems to me, because I think some people have wondered whether Austin’s just gotten too big for its music scene, in a sense. I mean, the huge irony there is that music drew a lot of folks in. And now, well, you see the skyscraper profile alone, and the value of property’s driven out a lot of clubs.

 You look at a place like Denton, where you have a university, so you’ve got a lot of young people there, and it’s also a smaller place, so you can afford to live. Is Austin a victim of its own success, do you think?

I got back here in 1980 … I think I paid $135 for a little house down over by the intramural fields. And food was great, the beer was cold, Barton Springs was great. The girls were beautiful. It was just a great vibe, you know?

And a lot of us started going out telling people how great Austin was. I feel partly responsible for all of that. And then people just started coming in, you know, and I think for the wrong reasons. They saw, real estate opportunities and started knocking down Liberty Lunch and … beautiful places, man, you know? And that’s where it was all happening. That was the vibe: backyard parties – and I’m sure it still happens to a certain extent, but not as, I don’t know – it was pure back then, it seemed to me.

Renee Dominguez / KUTX

Alejandro Escovedo and his band before their Studio 1A performance at the KUT Public Media Studios on March 28, 2024.

Well, clearly Texas music holds a special place in your heart, and you’ve become one of the ambassadors of Texas music. And you have embraced over the years a lot of under-sung talents. Are you concerned about the state of Texas music right now, or do you feel like it’s in a good place?

I feel there’s a lot of great musicians here and younger songwriters.

And I think part of it here in Austin that we had was, I could hang out with Townes Van Zandt. He was approachable. Joe Ely was approachable. Jimmy, Butch, all those guys, Terry Allen, they’re iconic guys, but you could go up and talk to them.

In the glitter rock scene and all that, when you tried to talk to Bowie – I mean, he was great and I got to talk to him, but you had to go through people to kind of get there. But not these guys. It was a totally different scene. And to me it was more punk rock than punk rock was actually, in itself, you know?

So, I’m concerned and yet at the same time, like putting on the party that we put on the other night at the Moody and showing some younger guys paying tribute to – David Ramirez doing “Amarillo Highway,” and then singing his new song that’s going to be on his new record, was beautiful.

Will Johnson, you know, same thing. Shakey Graves, same thing. So I have faith in those guys, and there’s a lot of wonderful female singers and people of all types making music. Gary Clark was a great ambassador of the blues and trying to keep it alive and keeping Antone’s alive, you know, so it’s happening in that way. I’m just afraid that the money has become more important than the art.

Alejandro Escovedo’s “Echo Dancing” is out now. He opens his tour Friday at Antone’s in Austin and is playing other dates in Texas in May and June.

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