The Musical Troubadour

Alejandro Escovedo has been surrounded by music from an early age. His father, Pedro, played as a mariachi to scrape up a living, his older brothers Pete and Coke played percussion for such bands as Santana and Azteca, and his younger brothers Javier and Mario write songs and play guitar. All of this has contributed to Alejandro loves music.

He was reared in southern California, and grew up on the sound of mid-1960's garage bands. He began the band The Nuns, which was an essential part of the Bay Area Punk Movement. After that he joined up with some friends to form Rank & File, which spearheaded the early country-punk sound that would later come to be called alternative country. Later, he relocated to Austin, Texas, and began writing songs on his own, and he ended up joining with his brother Javier and Jon Dee Graham to form the True Believers, one of the biggest acts of the Austin scene at the time. After their label EMI dropped them, Escovedo continued working on his songwriting skills and pursued a successful solo career.

But in 2003, Escovedo collapsed from a serious illness, Hepatitis C. He literally had a brush with death that day, and many didn't know if he would survive. Since then, it been a long, difficult, and painful journey for Escovedo to fully recover from his illness, and his experience was one that altered his life in every aspect, including his music. However in 2009, Escovedo was invited to contribute to a tribute record to the late Doug Sahm. And in 2016, Escovedo released the album Burn Something Beautiful, which was recorded with the group Minus Five. During the past year Escovedo toured in support of his recent album.

Robert Martinez: How did your battle with Hepatitis C affect your songwriting process?
Alejandro Escovedo: Well, first of all, when I was ill, I wasn't really concerned with writing songs or music in general really because I was more concerned with just trying to survive. As I became stronger, though, it gave me a lot of time to contemplate a lot of things. Of course, when you have an experience like that, it changes you in a way that is somewhat indescribable, but every aspect of your life is changed; you learn to let go of certain things that possibly aren't healthy for you, relationships aren't the same, whatever I may be. So, it brings a little weight to the songwriting I think, and also because I collaborated with my wife on three songs. She's a poet, her name is Kim Christoff, and I think that her writing influenced me quite a bit as to what is possible as far as songwriting.

How do you think personal culture should be reflected in music?
Well I think it's definitely a part of my songwriting, and it was never anything intentional, but it seems to definitely pop up in certain themes that I write about like my father's life and journey and, you know he was born in Mexico, so I'm first generation, in the States, anyway. It's definitely a part of my songwriting and I think it helps to draw from certain things that I remember hearing in the past from my parents, and my brothers, they were musicians also. So the culture has a lot to do with what I do, even though I consider myself more of a rock 'n' roll musician than anything.

Do you think that personal songs are more powerful than politically motivated songs?
Not necessarily, if you look at a writer like Bob Marley, his songs were both political and personal, because he was so invested in what he was singing about, so I think it just depends. But, you have to have that personal perspective to make a political song powerful.

Did your recent spiritual journey affect your music, or did your music affect your spiritual journey?
I think that my spiritual journey really affected my life, I've found that there was obviously a new way to approach music, and a more communal way with my band mates, and my wife, and the people that we work with. So I think that it affected it quite a bit, it sort of bettered it, too. I think it made it even deeper than it was, broader than it was. It helps to have a richer well when you include other people.

What are some main musical influences for you?
I’d have to say bands like The Stooges, Mott the Hoople, Bowie, T-Rex, The Band, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Townes Van Zandt, Hank Williams. There's a lot of them.

How does being a father affect your music?
In a sense, I think it affects it on several levels. I became more serious as a songwriter when my daughter Maya was born. And it gave me a broader picture of the world, as a father.

Seeing that this battle with illness has changed your life in many ways, and helped you to slow down and have more family time, if you could take back this entire journey and all the pain you've been through, would you?
No. I wouldn't at all, actually. I wouldn't take any of it back. I think that it was really important, what I went through, and I think that without having gone thorough that I wouldn't be the person that I am right now. The person that I am now at this point, trying to make this music and such is very important. I think that I honestly do believe that I wouldn't change anything.

Could you expand on your songwriting approach now, as opposed to before your illness?
It’s just that I'm writing more with my band members, whereas before I rarely collaborated with anyone.

Can you tell us if you have any new musical ideas that you are exploring right now?
Well, nothing other than refining. I think what I am planning on doing now in this next record that I am going to make is to really include the strings even more than I have before, and to make kind of an acoustic record almost, but as a band.

by Robert Martinez

Editor’s note: This interview first ran in September 2006, but it has been updated to reflect some of the recent work this artist has completed.