Ray Lamontagne: With a Little Help From My Friends

raylamontagneHaving experienced and generous friends comes in handy.

When Ray Lamontagne was unsatisfied with the batch of songs he’d written as the follow-up to his chart-topping, Grammy Winning “God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise,” he shot an email to a pal named Elvis Costello that helped get him on a new course.

“I was getting a lot of tunes as I always do, but they just weren’t’ demanding my attention enough. They all felt like good potential songs and songs that could make a good record, but somehow they just didn’t feel like the record I wanted to make,” he says during a rare interview from his Massachusetts home. “It was kind of a first for me. I hadn’t had that experience before so I was kind of at a loss.”

One missive to Costello got him on track. “I just thought I would ask someone who must have been through it,” he adds. “Elvis is just a really generous guy so I sent him an email explaining what I was going through and asked for advice. That helped.”

What was the advice? “That’s kind of personal,” he says. ”But after that I just felt a little less concerned about what was going on creatively.”

What resulted was the most sonically adventurous album of Lamontagne’s decade-long career, “Supernova,” one that earned raves from some critics and head-shaking from long-time fans for diving into Sixties psychedelia that would fit on a Jefferson Airplane or late-era Byrds album.

Lamontagne says when he wrote the title cut, a Sixties-style pop song, he knew he was on a roll. “The other songs are good stuff I’ve put on the shelf for another time or another record,” he says. “It wasn’t until I had written ‘Supernova’ that I felt energized, a little more confident I kind of knew where this record wanted to go.”

Lamontagne has a reputation for being tight-lipped and reclusive, but the interview, scheduled for 15 minutes, stretches on as he talks passionately about his work, often referring to songs created without contrivance. “Most of the time, songs just kind of happen,” he says. “At a certain point after writing songs for so many years, you just start to trust things. You know when a line is right. You know when a melody is working. You just kind of have to trust your gut.”

Asked if there are any songs that are views into his souls, Lamontagne admits there are a few. “There are some that are a little closer to the bone than others, but those are few and far between. I could probably count on one hand of all the records I’ve made songs that are emotionally or viscerally tied to me.There are little bits and pieces here and there, but ultimately I’m just trying to write a good song.”

Pressed, he says songs like “Empty,” “Sarah” and “Be Here Now” — all from 2009’s “Gossip in the Grain” and 2006’s “Till the Sun Turns Black” fit the bill.

The drastic departure in sound, too, was something driven by the songs. “It’s the songs that always kind of lead the way. They dictate the sound that surrounds them,” he adds. “Whatever kind of emotional stuff it stirs up that turns into the sonic stuff.”

While his songs are often emotional, they are never topical. “I don’t like those kind of songs,” he adds. “The songs I love and the songwriting that sort of informs me were the ones that sounded like they just happened. A lot of Neil Young’s stuff is like that. Bob Dylan, of course, is like that. The Band. All that stuff just got me excited in the beginning.”

His beginning is storybook. He made his debut, “Trouble,” an album recorded after he quit his job at a Maine shoe factory. The album, which harks back to the sound of Van Morrison and Damien Rice with the rasp of Joe Cocker, has gone on to sell more than 750,000 copies. The title track has been everywhere, appearing on an insurance commercial and shows like “True Blood,” “The Office,” and “Rescue Me.”

Listening to that and the three albums that followed, it’s easy to imagine Lamontagne as a sad soul. But he was 28 and married to his high school sweetheart with two children when he made his first album. “Trouble” was a writing exercise inspired by his love for 1960s soul and rock. In short. don’t confuse Ray Lamontagne, the songwriter, with Ray Lamontagne, the person.

Lamontagne almost didn’t make a fifth album. When he got off the road from the “God Willin’ ” tour, he thought about quitting. He was depressed and in a bad place, he says. But, as often happens, hitting bottom propelled him back up.

What turned things around? “I think just having enough time away from the road, probably. Also it kind of forced me to analyze what was driving me up until that point or how I was driving myself I should say,” he explains. “It just wasn’t very healthy. Over time off the road having time to quiet myself I realized I could still do this an enjoy it a lot more if I would stop being so unfairly hard on myself. That’s not easy to do. We all have these challenges. We have to figure ourselves out in life. It all just came down to the way I was treating myself.”

What Lamontagne has figured out is how to crank out songs. He sits down and focuses, sometimes for 16 hours at a shot. “When I’m working, when I have a goal and I know I want to make a record, I make myself stay in my room,” he says. “I go in right after I wake up, grab cup of coffee and stay there all day until 10 30 or 11 at night. I have to make myself stay put because there are so many other things. I’d love to be on my motorcycle or messing around with cars or in the wood shop or the blacksmith shop (he does Colonial iron work) or walking around. So I have to force myself to stay in there.”

“Once I’m in that mode, songs are going to get finished no matter what,” he adds. “Sometimes hey’re us not going to blossom so you just move on, set it aside and get away from it,” he adds. “I’m in a place where I’m comfortable doing that. There was a time when I couldn’t let something go.”

With songs he liked in place and a kinder, gentler view of himself, Lamontagne dialed Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys seeking a recommendation for an engineer to help him record an album at home. They started talking and soon Auerbach was producing the disc in Nashville. Auerbach had some free time. They’d talked about working together in some capacity before. So why not now?

Lamontagne says Auerbach’s influence can be heard on every cut. “That’ s why you work with someone else — to get someone’s perspective and their ears in the room. i have plenty of my own perspective on that stuff and sometimes you just need to separate yourself from it. that’s why you hire a producer. and hopefully trust them. It’s almost to force yourself to have some other perspective to say ‘Hey, look, this could be better if we do this, maybe we should cut this verse in half. You need somebody to do that and hopefully it makes for a better record.”

Lamontagne says he was a fan of early Pink Floyd, the Kinks, the Troggs, and Captain Beefheart and it shows on the disc.

“We always wanted to do something together. We’d been talking about it for years,” he says of Auerbach.” I couldn’t be happier with the album.”

Ray Lamontagne at the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts, Nov. 5 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $35 to $65. http://www.sandlercenter.org.


Tedeschi Trucks Band: All in the Family

Susan Tedeschi says when she and Derek Trucks talked about uniting in a band after a decade of marriage they knew there were risks.
Tedeschi was a perennial Grammy nominee, both for rock and blues. Trucks had played with Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, and his uncle’s band, The Allman Brothers, starting in his teens earning a reputation as one of the finest slide players on the planet.

They’d played with their own bands for a long time. So it wasn’t an easy choice. But Trucks wanted to take the chance, expand their horizons by coming together.
“Derek was like, ‘The heck with that. We want to do this, we should do this,’ ” she says. “He could also see we could be great together. We’d just have to convince our audiences. “

Whatever fan objections there were at the start have faded with the critical and commercial success of three albums, including a Grammy for their debut, “Revelator,” last year’s “Made Up Mind,” and steady touring that later this spring takes them to India and Japan.

Tedeschi is an expansive, happy mood talking from home in Jacksonville, Fla., this morning. Merging careers with the family — the couple has two children, ages 9 and 11 — is working, really working.

Looking back, the move to a new band seems a natural evolution. “I think one of the things people have to understand, too, is that in order to be a great artist you have to reinvent yourself,” she adds. ‘You can’t just settle and be one thing. Eric Clapton was great with Cream, but he kept reinventing himself. You have to keep it fresh, too, to keep yourself happy.”

So is it harder to be married and touring opposite ends of the country in separate bands or touring together in one band?

“It’s a complicated question,” she says. “It’s more difficult in some areas. For example, when we’re both gone all the time it’s hard on the kids. We used to deal with a staggered schedule. I’d go out on tour when Derek would be home or maybe we’d both be on tour, but not all the time together. Now, I think the kids notice it more. We’re on more of a Derek schedule. He is a workaholic. He’s not afraid to work 200 dates a year.”

Tedeschi says she was happy playing 80 shows and releasing an album every three years. Not Trucks. She won’t home school the kids because she wants them to have the life experiences of school. It helps that Derek’s mom, who lives a few houses up, is a saint with the children.

The couple plans tours with their 11-piece band, which needs to work more to pay the bills, she notes. “We learned to compromise in a lot of new ways,” she adds. “I’m used to being the band leader. He’s used to being the band leader. But he’s a natural leader at some things so it’s easy to let him take that role.”

One role she let him take is writing the set list, something she found difficult at first to surrender as the singer. He had to be educated, made to understand she couldn’t open the show with five belters, sing a slow run, then belt out five more; her voice wouldn’t stand up for the tour. “But he’s great at getting a feel for different venues and what kinds of things he thinks people want to hear,” she adds. “He’s also into really playing for the band, what’s best for the band at the time, keeping it fresh.

“It’s a process, but we’ve been doing really well, getting along surprisingly well for two people who grew up married apart.”

Tedeschi, who has a souful rasp somewhere between Jani Joplin and Bonnie Raitt, started singing as a child and played in bands as a teen. She learned the piano and clarinet and dabbled on the guitar, but didn’t really start studying it until she was 21 and began inhaling blues records. She earned a degree in composition from the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she played, and quickly took to the guitar. Her early albums earned her a following and a 2000 Grammy nomination for best new artist.

Trucks picked up the guitar at nine, but says the Allmans weren’t a big part of his childhood. They were more myth than reality. Meanwhile, he fell under the spell of Elmore James and the late Duane Allman as well as B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Ray Charles, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis as well as classic rock. He became a member of The Allman Brothers in 1999 at the age of 20.


That’s also the year he met Tedeschi when she opened for the band in New Orleans and a series of gigs that summer. They clicked as friends. She thought he was too young for her — she was 28, he was 20. “I was, like, I don’t know. You’re a baby,” she adds. “Then I realized he’s an old soul and very mature for his age.”

He kidded that he’d find the right girl when he found one with the right record collection — Mahalia Jackson, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, John Coltrane — and those were all in her collection. They married in 2001.

“He’s very eloquent, he’s very intelligent. He’s a mover, He’s always thinking ahead, always inspired, or looking for inspiration,” she says. “So he’s a good influence on me for sure.”

Tedeschi makes playing in the Tedeschi Trucks Band like the coolest camp you can conceive. The band can play anything from the straight-ahead blues rock of “Made Up Mind” to the soulful Motown scratch of “Part of Me” to the Delaney and Bonnie slow burn of “Do I Look Worried.” And “The Storm” is a cut that keeps developing live as Trucks opens with a Delta blues riff and then goes Hendrix on it. Tedeschi likes to sit back and watch the interplay between him and the rhythm section.

“Everyone gets along really well and we all really care about each other,” she says. “We know this is a rare band. We don’t take it for granted that we get to be on the road as this large band getting to do what we love.

“It’s one thing to have a band with a couple of great people, but to have a band filled with so many outstanding artists, it pushes everybody to new levels, not only musically. On the road, everybody works out to get in shape. Musically, physically, emotionally, we try to be there with each other. It’s really a unique band in a lot of ways. We even do laundry together. It’s a band that spends a lot of time together and enjoys it. A lot of bands don’t hang out, but not this group.”

Camp TTB extends to recording, which takes place at a studio on the couple’s property in Jacksonville. For “Made Up Mind,” they wrote with a series of partners including Gary Louris of The Jayhawks, John Leventhal (Shawn Colvin, Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell), Oliver Wood of The Wood Brothers and Doyle Bramhall II.

Each brings a different vibe. Wood shows up with almost-finished songs. “”He spits out songs like he’s a waterfall of creativity,” Tedeschi says. “He can write three songs in a day that are amazing.”

Leventhal likes to grab an acoustic guitar and sit down to talk about what to write, what story to tell, and discuss the descriptive details.

Bramhall is chaos. He tells Trucks when picked up at the airport that he has a bass line in his head so they go straight to the studio, where he lays down the bass with Trucks on drums. Tedeschi pops her head in, then leaves them alone. “I came back and there was already a tune,” she says. “We didn’t have any lyrics so I got in there and started making up lyrics and he was making up lyrics and before you know it we had a song, just hadn’t finished it. He came back a week later and we knocked it out.”

Other songs started as jams. Sometimes the band plays in the afternoon, but if it’s not working, they may break for dinner, down a few Dark and Stormys, and then go back at it. “A lot of people think Derek writes the guitar parts and I write the lyrics, but it actually can be opposite,” she adds. “It’s all about the inspiration in the moment.”

Their engineer lives a few doors away so he’s on call 24 hours. They just flip the switch and record everything so there’s no missing any inspired moments.

Tedeschi likes the result so much that she plays the album. No kidding. “I actually listen to it,” she says. “I’ve never listened to any record I’ve made. But I’ll run to “Made Up Mind.” It’s awesome.”

Tedeschi Trucks Band at The Sandler Center for the Performing Arts, 8 p.m. January 24.

Tickets: $45, $50, $55, $65


Joe Ely’s Never-Ending Road


Joe Ely remembers the last time he played a songwriters show in Virginia Beach quite well, thank you. He was on stage at the Pavilion in 1991 with John Hiatt, Guy Clark, and Lyle Lovett when Lovett invited an old college buddy, Robert Earl Keen, on stage. Keen played a tune off his latest album, “The Road Goes on Forever (And the Party Never Ends).”


Ely was so struck by it that he leaned over and told Keen he was going to record the song the next week.


It may not have been the next week, but Ely recorded “The Road Goes on Forever” for his stellar 1992 album, “Love and Danger,” and it’s become one of his signature songs.


Now, Ely is headed back to Virginia Beach, to the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts on Nov. 22 to play another songwriters’ night, this one with fellow Texan Ruthie Foster and southern blues man Paul Thorn (both of whom played the Attucks Discovery Series in recent years).


‘The three of us have not played together as this combination,” he says one morning from his place outside Austin. “It’s going to be a real treat. It’s always fun when you don’t really know what’s going to happen.”

Like hearing a song for the first time that you’ll play for the next two decades.



In Ely’s case the road really does go on forever. He’s a restless soul. His parents worked for the Santa Fe Railroad, moving from his birthplace in Amarillo to Fort Worth, San Antonio, and finally Lubbock in desolate west Texas when he was about 11. “I’ve been traveling one way or another since I popped out of the womb,” he says.


Ely writes epics. He writes sketches. His songs portray the distance and the longing, the romance and the regrets of the road. He’s a honky tonk, chasing lost souls and lost dreams across the border in a voice that lingers like smoke in a sweaty bar. New Jersey created Bruce Springsteen; Texas created Joe Ely.


So it’s fitting that “The Highway Is My Home” is the first cut on his latest album, “Satisfied at Last.” The evenings sitting around and playing with Hiatt, Lovett, Clark and others have gone off and on for 20 years now. They are nights, he says, when he learns to look at a song in a different way, nights he sees things he didn’t know were there.joeelystage


Not surprisingly, he’s a fan of songwriters. He’s championed songs penned by Tom Russell (“Gallo Del Cielo” is almost always in his set) and Billy Joe Shaver (his “Live Forever” is an emotional high light of Ely’s latest platter), among others.


“As I was traveling around, it seems like songs would find me,” he says. “All of a sudden, I’d feel that I have something to do with that song. I’m able to fell that story. I feel a duty to pass that story on because it’s a good story.”


He heard Russell’s tune on a jukebox while touring Norway. What, he wondered is a song about going to Mexico to fight roosters and win back land doing in Norway? It turned out Russell had lived in Norway for a while. Shaver asked him to play “Live Forever” when he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in Nashville.


“I’ve known Billy Joe for years and years and I’ve always wanted to do one of his songs,” Ely says. “I just want to pass it around. People might hear my version who wouldn’t hear Billy Joe’s. When there’s a good song, I feel an obligation. It should be heard.”


Ely has created his own cast of memorable characters with his story songs over the years, songs like “Me and Billy the Kid,” “Sleepless in Love,” and “Ranches and Rivers.” He played in bands for years, but it wasn’t until he landed in jail that he says he got serious about song writing.


He started violin about 10, playing in the school orchestra. Then a neighbor had an old Fender Strat and amp for sale. Goodbye violin. He took guitar lessons in the house, he learned years later, in which Buddy Holly had lived.


As a teen, Ely formed a band with some buddies, listening to the 50,000 watts pumping Wolfman Jack out of Mexico (immortalized in The Blasters’ song, “Border Radio”). “Out in the cotton fields, we’d put a six pack on the dashboard and listen to Wolfman Jack playing stuff we’d never heard before — Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker,” he says.


When a song came on, one band member would memorize the first verse, another the second and so on. Sometimes it took them months to learn a song if it wasn’t in heavy rotation. But the music filled the emptiness, the desolation. “There’s nothing out there. Nothing. Except trouble,” Ely says. “I never did take to school. Or maybe it didn’t take to me. Filling up that big emptiness with music seemed to be something to do. It seemed to have a purpose and a place. And there was plenty of emptiness to fill up out there.”


So how did he end up writing songs in jail? It was about the time Merle Haggard’s “Branded Man” hit. Ely and his buddies scored some mushrooms and some peyote from the Big Bend Desert, but the problem was the stuff had just been outlawed. Busted. Busted on the very day it became illegal. “Just my luck,” he says.Joe-Ely-Merch-Satisfied-At-Last-CD


He started traveling with the band. Their first road gig was at Louann’s in Dallas followed by a fateful show in Clovis, New Mexico. They were pulling a trailer, driving home through the night when Ely woke up to an orange glow. Someone had flipped a cigarette out the window and the tarp on the trailer caught fire. They left the trailer with all their gear, guitars and everything, smoldering by the side of the road.


If jail provided a prod for his writing, meeting a couple of fellow Texans, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock, further transformed his writing. They wrote about the landscape, populating it with characters. “The three of us just kind of locked in together and from then on, I wrote songs day and night,” Ely says. He figures he wrote 20 elyor 30 songs in the six months they shared a place during 1972. They were, of course, the illusive and legendary band, The Flatlanders, whose first album came out on a few eight-track tapes, then was finally issued to the masses 20 years later as “More a Legend Than A Band.”


Gilmore was the country guy. Hancock was the folk guy. And Ely was the rock guy. They were among the first to break down barriers, to lay the foundation for what would be called Americana.

It helped that Ely seems to have a knack for meeting people at the right time. One day he was driving on the outskirts of Lubbock and saw a guy with a guitar hitchhiking. He picked him up. The guy said he’d come from San Francisco and had just cut a record. When Ely dropped him off on the other side of town, the guy handed him the record. He took it over to Gilmore’s house and the three of them ended up listening to the first Townes Van Zandt record over and over for weeks.



“We called ourselves The Flatlanders, but we never thought of it as a band,” Ely says. We never got hired to play anywhere. We played in the living room, sharing songs in a little house over by the university. People would drop by at any time of day or night. Just as quick as we came together, we all went different directions.”


Only decades later did they reunite and release a string of albums. “One guy said the Flatlanders was the only band that lived their careers in reverse,” he adds. “That’s kind of true. We’ve released more stuff now than when we were together.”


That time, though, got Ely thinking more deeply about song writing, about storytelling. His songs would have a place, an anchor. “To me, once I actually gave it a place, I could feel the story better,” he says. “Not all songs were like that, but a lot of them were. I was able to pick out the characters. I am always careful not to write about anything verbatim and true. I leave it open, where new people can come in and add twists to the story. I liked doing it that way. It intrigued me.”


Ely always carried a notebook in his guitar case. He kept a journal and made drawings (some released as a book, Bonfire of Roadmaps). Now, he also carries a camera.


“Sometimes I’d write only a line or something going by the window,” he says. “Maybe add something from the days before that and I’d have a theme and I’d start digging into it and trying to uncover the puzzle. A song is a puzzle and you’re always trying to break into the secret part of it. “


Some songs gestate for years. “Ranches and Rivers,” a cut from “Letter to Laredo he likely will play at the Sandler, took seven or eight years. Ely had the verses but never could find a suitable chorus until one day, while flipping through other songs, he found one that fit perfectly. “All of a sudden, the song was finished,” he says.


Songwriting skills earned him a major label deal in the 1980s and an interesting assortment of fans. His early records didn’t get any play in the U.S. they were too rockin’ for Nashville and too twangy for LA. But they were played by the BBC. Ely toured the UK, playing the Wembley Festival and soon found Joe Strummer and The Clash backstage offering to show him and his band around town.


They hung out, hitting nightspots, record stores, and sharing favorite poets. After Ely got back to Texas, Strummer called asking him to help with some shows. He called promoters. The Clash came to the border, playing a high school gym in Laredo, a brothel in Juarez, and a club in Lubbock. Later, Ely sang backing vocals on “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” “They wanted to play the out of the way places,” Ely says. “The same with Springsteen. He came to see us and invited me to come back and sit in with him. We figured we had the same kind of backgrounds, off the beaten path. I played the honky tonks; he played the rock clubs.”


Ely still walks the streets of towns, taking in the scene, adding to his notebooks. He figures he has five or six more books of writings and journals, things that could turn into songs. Like Woody Guthrie before him, he spends his time on the road observing and writing. In “Bonfire of Roadmaps,” he writes:


Pack up after Amarillo show for a 2 a.m. drive to Lubbock I argue with crew; I’m at the end of my rope Like horses in a pasture everyone can smell the barn ‘Fine,’ I say, ‘I’ll just ride on the roof!’ And this tour ends, at least this leg With a carload of crazy musicians on Highway 87 And me, riding on the roof of the van screaming with glee On the Amarillo Highway with the wind in my hair…


Packing up is what he has to do now, ending our interview, going home to the road, falling under the spell of wheels.


“I’m headed out,” he says, “I have to drive 400 miles to Lubbock today.”


Joe Ely, Ruthie Foster, and Paul Thorn at The Sandler Center for the Performing Arts, Nov. 22, 8 p.m. Tickets are $30-$45. http://www.sandlercenter.org

Alejandro Escovedo Slows Down and the Songs Flow

alejandro Browse through Alejandro Escovedo’s considerable body of work, notably his group efforts with the pioneering bands Rank and File and The True Believers as well as his solo discs beginning in the early 1990s, and you’ll find only a handful of collaborations, a song written jointly with Chris Stamey here, with Stephen Bruton there.

That changed five years ago. Escovedo was traveling through Michigan doing solo gigs with Chuck Prophet. He had new management – – Bruce Springsteen’s honcho, Jon Landau, and a desire to write an album about the story of his life in bands, but he wasn’t getting anywhere. So he asked Prophet to come down to Texas and see if they could work together.

The two old hands from San Francisco soon found they played well off each other. Their first effort, “Slow Down,” set the bar for the dozen more that flowed and became 2008’s “Real Animal,” a disc that garnered critical acclaim and found Escovedo sharing a stage with Springsteen to play “Always a Friend,” his catchiest rocker in years.

“Let me take your hand. There’s something I want to show you,” they write in “Slow Down.” “Close your eyes and you can hear the music in the wind.”

It was a sort of manifesto to slow down, enjoy life, enjoy relationships, and acknowledge the past while living in the moment. From that song with Prophet, nearly three dozen others have flowed over the years.

“He’s very adept at writing hooks and clever lines,” Escovedo says in a phone interview from his home. “He has a very journalistic eye for details whereas I’m more of an emotional writer. I go for images. He fine tunes those images into things you see every day. It’s become more and more fun and more and more interesting and more creatively lucrative.”

So creatively fulfilling that Escovedo and Prophet, who first shot to notoriety with San Francisco’s Green on Red, have produced two more albums in quick succession, “Street Songs of Love” and “Big Station,” each filled with their collaborations.

“We just hang out. We riff back and forth together for hours and hours until we come back with stuff,” he says. “We jump around the room, make each other laugh, make each other cry.”

The songs on those albums rock harder and more consistently. Escovedo has been something of a musical chameleon, successfully modeling one new skin after another. In liner notes to his 1993 album, “Gravity,” Joe Nick Patoski described him as cast in a number of roles: “wayward son of America’s first family of rhythm, nihilist San Francisco neo-bohemian, leather-clad New York punk rocker, denim-clad L.A. neo-cowboy, tough but sensitive captain of a guitar army from Texas, and, most recently, conductor of an ensemble large enough, eclectic enough, and professional enough to call itself an orchestra.”

Escovedo adds to that considerable resume when he comes to the Sandler Center on Sept. 25 for a show with Shelby Lynne. He will be joined by violinist Susan Voelz. “It’ll get noisy, but in an acoustic way,” Escovedo says.

Prophet isn’t the only partner on those three albums. Each was produced by Tony Visconti, best known for his work with David Bowie, T. Rex, Iggy Pop, The Moody Blues, and others. Escovedo has moved through cowpunk and string-fueled ballads as well as Southwestern folk. (No Depression magazine named him the artist of the 1990s). He’s always rocked, but the sound is often harder on the newest records.
“I think Tony saw the rock and roll side of me and really wanted to draw that out,” Escovedo says. He recently played a folk festival in Halifax and hung out with Robyn Hitchcock, Willie Nile and David Lowery and they were talking about how British songwriters seems to have a different sense of melody, sense of structure.

“Bowie and Ian Hunter and Robyn Hitchcock and Brian Eno, Ray Davies, too, there’s just a different sense of language,” he explains. “Tony brought that kind of thing to our records, like those T. Rex and Bowie records that experimented with the shapes and sounds of the words and music and how it can be rock and roll, but somewhat literary.”

Rock and roll and literary apply to Escovedo’s work, though it’s also cinematic and deeply personal.

In fact, Escovedo early on had ambitions to become a filmmaker. He’s written the story of his family in song and on stage in “By the Hand of the Father,” and he’s working on a show for January that will trace the history of Austin’s music scene from 1950s gospel group The Bells of Joy on through Lucinda WIlliams, Joe Ely, and the Butthole Surfers. He’s always been ambitious. Even now, the most recent collaboration with Prophet, “Big Station,” was an attempt to get away from writing about himself.

“I was talking about that recently with Robyn. No matter how many skeletons there are in the closet, they eventually run out,” he says. “But there’s so much else that ‘s not about you. When i was young and I wanted to be a filmmaker one of the first teacher I had emphasized telling your own story, the story of your family, the universal story everyone understands. Adolescence is messy and strange, but so is adulthood. It’s always interesting in my opinion.”

“Thematically with ‘Big Station’ we were trying to get away from writing just my story and seeing world through the eyes of someone else,” Escovedo adds. “This person was getting older and maybe worked really hard all their lives and had come up for air to see how different world has become and how they can relate to it or not. Looking for what their purpose is in life.”

When I suggest that is also his story in a way, Escovedo pauses, then agrees. After a strong start to this solo career, he ended up critically ill with Hepatitis C from 2003 to 2006. Musicians including Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, The Jayhawks, The Cowboy Junkies, Son Volt, Peter Case, Los Lonely Boys, Jennifer Warnes and others recorded “Por Vida,” a collection of his songs to help pay his substantial medical bills. For Escovedo, it was a time to take stock and make changes.

“There was a sudden shift in perspective,” he says, “and it allowed me to be more focused on my music, my friends. I eliminated a lot of things in my life that weren’t helping me, things that were harming me, and so I tried to clean up a bit. As a result, I think my music has gotten better, as a performer and a bandleader.”

Escovedo has also lost some friends in recent years, notably Stephen Bruton, a guy he says he could talk to like a brother, a father, and an uncle, and who was a supportive critic.

He’s back in Texas, has been for a while, but his perspective is shaped by time in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York as well. How has shuttling between those cultural poles influenced his writing? “It’s had a huge effect,” he says. “Living in San Francisco and New York City, both hardcore urban experiences, and then to live back in Texas, to come back to Austin. Just waking up this morning and seeing all these trees. It’s such a different thing. When I started doing solo records, that drive from Austin to Los Angeles through west Texas was so inspiring. I wrote so many songs along the way.”

Writing the songs is one thing, but he says learning how to sing them well is another. What they start as on a record, is just the first draft. “It can take a long time to learn how to sing you own songs,” he says. ” ‘ I Don’t Need You’ on “Man Under the Influence” is an example. I felt it was a good song, but I never felt I had a handle on how to sing it, but now I feel like I’ve finally gotten there.”

He and Prophet are starting work on a new batch of songs. Lately, they’ve been into the postpunk electronic band, Suicide. Though he is in his early 60s, Escovedo says he’s not concerned about running out of material.

“Life is just so fucking interesting and complicated and beautiful,” he says. “Every day, every interaction is different. There’s so much floating around that I would find it really hard to get bored. I’m interested in creating in some way or another, whether it’s photography or writing or just walking through the world.”

Alejandro Escovedo & Shelby Lynne
Date: September 25, 2013
Time: 7:30pm
Website: alejandroescovedo.com – http://www.shelbylynne.com
Tickets: $29, $38, $45, $50