Having blazed a defiant musical path to become one of the most dynamic and lauded musicians of our time, in 2003 Alejandro Escovedo’s life took a dramatic turn. The Texan collapsed while on stage in Arizona and fell critically ill as a result of the medication that was meant to be saving his life. Not only did Escovedo battle his way back to health with grace and humility, he did so with a renewed lust for life. He recently channeled his darkest hour into an illuminating recording-the profoundly beautiful The Boxing Mirror. On Saturday night Escovedo returns to Santa Barbara to headline Sings Like Hell. Heaven might not have been quite ready for Alejandro Escovedo, but it seems that hell certainly is.
How does a guitarist in a punk band evolve into a singer/songwriter who prefers to surround himself with violins and cellos? I was in a band called the True Believers and we were a three-guitar rock band who very much wanted to be the Mott the Hoople of the West. When the band broke up I was faced with what I was going to do next. I had always been a rhythm guitarist and only just started writing, so I was kind of adrift for a while : [My friend, J.D. Foster and I] started a little, loosely knit workshop where we would invite people to come and play and it turned into this seventeen-piece ensemble.
Were there outside musical influences that also sparked your curiosity? There were two records that really shaped where I wanted to take my music, Street Hassle by Lou Reed and Paris 1919 by John Cale. So when it came time for me to finally do my own thing, I choose to go with cello and violin instead of : a bass player and guitarist.
You alluded to John Cale, who also produced your most recent album. How did that connection come about? Aside from always being a fan, when I became ill, he was one of the first who said he would jump on board for the tribute record of my songs called Por Vida. He did a song of mine called “She Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” and his was one of the first songs I heard : After that I did a show with him and Ian Hunter and that for me was a dream come true; these were my musical heroes.
The Boxing Mirror explores a very hard period of your life-your illness as well as the passing of your father. What kept you going through such a dark period? I think more than anything else it was family, and sometimes fear : Once you come out of an experience like that, your vision becomes so sharp that you’re able to pinpoint the things that are important from the things you don’t really need. Music then became essential.
You’re an artist who is consistently labeled as someone worthy of far greater attention. What is your measure of success? I never wanted to be Sting or David Bowie. I honestly never wanted to be a pop star and I think that’s a messy business that I don’t want any part of. There is a certain part of you that wants to survive doing what you love and I feel very blessed for what I do have. There are not that many people who get to make a living from playing music : The illness really set me back, and I now feel strong again and comfortable and really good things are happening. At the end of this musical journey, I think I will feel good about what I’ve done.
The Alejandro Escovedo Band plays the Lobero Theatre with A.J. Roach as part of the Sings Like Hell concert series on Saturday, August 18. Call 963-0761, or visit singslikehell.com for more info. For a longer version of this interview, check out independent.com.