Alejandro Escovedo - how the British invasion influenced an Americana legend
For the man who is headlining the final night of the American roots music celebration that is Glasgow Americana this year, Alejandro Escovedo can’t half talk up British pop and rock history. In rapid succession he reels off favourites starting, perhaps inevitably, with The Beatles and including the Moody Blues, the Yardbirds, Pretty Things, Them, David Bowie and T.Rex as the people who helped set him on the road to becoming a musician.
Influences from closer to home had an impact, too – as a boy in San Antonio he liked the Mexican singers that his parents listened to and country music – but he somehow missed out on the latin jazz gene that enabled his older brothers, percussionists Pete and Coke, to fly the Escovedo family flag with Santana in the early 1970s, and his niece, Pete’s daughter Sheila E to launch a spectacular career as Prince’s drumming powerhouse and a musician in her own right.
“Pete and Coke were a bit older than me, almost a generation older,” he says. “And they got into the salsa thing when we moved from Texas to California, or maybe even before that. They were schooled by Tito Puente, the great percussionist and band leader, who was actually Sheila’s godfather, and I liked to go and listen to them. But around the same time as we relocated a cousin of ours came to stay with us for a while and he played me some Elvis and Chuck Berry records, and that took me off in a different direction from Latin American music.”
As a teenage budding guitarist Escovedo caught The Beatles’ famous appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964 and fell in love with the whole British invasion that followed. It wasn’t just the bands and the music that fascinated him; he looked out especially for records that were produced by Denny Cordell and Tony Visconti, who was born in New York but made his name in London as a producer with Bowie and T.Rex.
“I loved the sound on those records,” says Escovedo. “There was a warmth to them that made them feel familiar very quickly and they were always very concise, with really interesting arrangements when they used string sections.”
Visconti would come to play an important role in Escovedo’s own music later and in fact, when we spoke, Escovedo had just returned to his home in Austin from Los Angeles where he’d been working on some new tracks with his hero producer. Before that, though, Escovedo got caught up in California’s North Beach garage punk scene of the mid 1970s, playing with the Nuns. Then, in the late 1970s he moved to New York and lived in the Chelsea Hotel, its atmosphere flavoured by the legion of artists, writers and musicians who have made it their home since the days of Mark Twain and O Henry.
“It’s definitely haunted and there’s a very serious, spiritual feeling about the place,” he says. “I was very aware of all those people who’d lived there: Tennessee Williams, Dylan Thomas, the beat poets and Andy Warhol’s crew, and when I lived there Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen were my neighbours and it still had quite a clientele. So there was a lot of history and inspiration to draw on, and some of that came out on my song Chelsea Hotel 78, but I didn’t really appreciate the effect it had on me until later when I was able to look back at that experience from a distance and use it in my songwriting.”
Back in his native Texas, Escovedo combined his boyhood love for “real country music” (he liked it best if there were jail terms or heroic drinking on the singers’ CVs) with the punk ethos in Rank & File and then hooked up with another of his musician brothers, Javier in the band that first brought him to wider attention, the True Believers. Their merging of various styles of American vernacular music gathered the audience that was waiting and expanded, although he’s still essentially a cult artist, when Escovedo found his own voice and the confidence to launch his solo career in 1992.
A quietly spoken, essentially private man whose answerphone message tells you that he’s “not real good at getting back to people”, if Escovedo wanted confirmation of his songwriting ability and the respect he’s held in by his peers, it came in 2003 after he collapsed on stage and almost died through contracting hepatitis C. Steve Earle, John Cale, Jennifer Warnes and another British hero, Ian Hunter of Mott the Hoople were among the cast who put together a tribute album whose sales helped Escovedo pay his medical bills and slowly get back on his feet.
His recovery, musically speaking, was nothing short of a triumph. Playing Glasgow Americana’s predecessor, Big Big Country in 2006 with a string quartet, he was spellbinding and the albums he’s produced since then, Real Animal and Street Songs of Love, both with Tony Visconti in the producer’s chair, have signalled a songwriter at the top of his craft.
“I feel blessed to have gotten through that illness,” he says. “The experience changed my life and changed the way I look at things, things I’d maybe taken for granted. It’s made me want to work because I realised there was so much I wanted to accomplish and then getting to work with Tony Visconti has been amazing because he brings all that history with him but he also has a great talent as a writer and arranger and he really cuts to the essential ingredients of a song.”
The string quartet has faded from the Escovedo story for the time being as he concentrates more on his rockier side, certainly on disc (he’s bringing just his very talented, long-term guitarist David Pulkingham to Glasgow). But it could return and now that his niece, Sheila E has won the American reality TV show Gone Country, he might even persuade her to join his band, too.
“I loved that gig at the Arches with the string quartet and I love the emotional quality that strings can give you because they’re very close to the human voice sound-wise,” he says. “So I’m not finished with that setting yet, I don’t think. As for Sheila, she’s an incredible musician and we’ve actually been writing together quite recently, so I’m hoping that she’ll come and help her uncle out on drums, at least on the new album.”
From The Herald, October