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Alejandro Escovedo: a man under the influence of his roots

By Nick A. Zaino III, June 2001

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In 1992, Escovedo released "Gravity," his first solo album, on Watermelon. That album and his follow-up, "Thirteen Years," did well enough to establish Escovedo's solo career and get him signed to Rykodisc.

With the backing of a bigger label, Escovedo's career was expected to flourish. Ryko released the two True Believers albums together, as well as Escovedo's work with garage rockers Buick MacKane. But when his first solo album for the label, "With These Hands," didn't sell as much as Ryko would like, the relationship soured, and Escovedo left.

Watermelon went under soon after that, leaving most of Escovedo's albums as still hard to find treasures.

"Those are just things that I just thought were the right thing to do," he says of those years. "But I'm not there any more. The only shame of it is is that, the Watermelon stuff, you can't get that stuff."

With no label and no band, there was little Escovedo could do but move on. "You just walk away from it," he says. "It's the only thing to do, is just to walk away and start over again. New batch of songs, new group of musicians, whatever. And just try not to make the same mistakes over again."

The third time was a charm for Escovedo. Shortly after leaving Ryko, he found himself on Bloodshot, the emerging standard bearer of the alt.-country scene. His first album for the label, "More Miles Than Money: Live 1994-96," captured Escovedo at his best, playing some of his best tunes from his previous albums. "Bourbonitis Blues" picked up where "Thirteen Years" had left off, blending ballads like "I Was Drunk" with rave-ups like "Everybody Loves Me," mixed with covers of Jimmie Rodgers and Lou Reed.

For the latest album, his third for Bloodshot, Escovedo is joined by Whiskeytown's Ryan Adams, former head Backslider Chip Robinson, Chris Phillips from the Squirrel Nut Zippers and Jon Wurster and Mac McCaughan from Superchunk. The album also reunites Escovedo with producer Stamey. "I did part of 'Bourbonitis Blues' with Chris Stamey and just really fell in love with him and his method of work. We hit it off, and I wanted to do another record."

"A Man Under the Influence" puts Escovedo's ballad writing and storytelling first, producing some of his most beautiful tunes. "It's just more melodic," says Escovedo. "I think the songs are better. I'm really happy. I think people will really like the songs. It's very warm."

Still, Escovedo's fascination with beauty and cacophony remains intact. He's not afraid to juxtapose a lilting acoustic guitar with earsplitting feedback, as he does on "Velvet Guitar."

"It's just about the love of a guitar," he says. "There's an album by Hank Garland called 'The Velvet Guitar.' I love the cover of that record, and the title, so I kind of ripped it off. The song's cool because it starts off with acoustic guitar and ends up with feedback. It covers the whole spectrum of what I love about guitars."

The album is a symphony of acoustic guitars, violins, percussion and electric feedback. The one constant is Escovedo's earthy, soulful voice. It's the perfect instrument to present his intimate lyrics, though he will never brag about it. "I never thought of myself as a singer," he says. "I think of myself as a storyteller."

For Escovedo, it all comes back to the songwriting. "I think that in its most magical moments, songwriting is channeling," he says. "But it doesn't happen often for me. I think for the most part I'm a songwriting that has a distinct idea of what he wants to say in a song, and kind of works through that. It's kind of like a process. I'll have a journal full of things, and I edit through them. The best songs really are, are just kind of...expressed, you know?"

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