Quickly now, without using your smartphones, what's the common link between the Sex Pistols and Prince? (And don't say the Pistols' searing cover of "Raspberry Beret" because that song only exists in my head.)
The answer is Alejandro Escovedo.
Though his first professional stint as a musician came as guitarist for seminal Bay Area punk band The Nuns (who, alongside The Avengers, opened for the Pistols on their infamous final show in San Francisco in 1978), Escovedo grew up in a large musical family. His father worked hard playing on the mariachi circuit, his brothers play professionally and his niece, Sheila Escovedo (later shortened to Sheila E.) found fame as a member of the purple one's Revolution.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who once released a record titled More Miles Than Money, Escovedo's career is influenced by his own family's immigrant experience. His own travels have taken him from Texas to California to New York and back again.
While his styles have run the spectrum from lush orchestration to stripped-down scorching rock 'n' roll, Escovedo's songs always tend to circle back to family.
Speaking via phone from Austin, Escovedo looks back on his songwriting history.
"It's always been important to tell the story of my family, my experiences, my heritage, my culture, my lineage, all of that. My love for rock 'n' roll and how it had changed my life and saved my life in many ways," he says. "I had a film teacher very early on who said, 'It's about telling your story. And in that story is the universal story, the story of most everyone.'"
The grace and ease with which Escovedo writes is surprising when one considers he'd been playing professionally for close to a decade before truly putting pen to paper. On approaching songwriting so late, Escovedo says, there was "a little fear, a little lack of confidence. A lot of that came into play. It's been a struggle in that respect because I kinda had to learn in public."
Once out of his lyrical shell, a string of strong records issued forth and his style evolved and broadened. This phase culminated in A Man Under The Influence (2001) and By The Hand of The Father (2002), albums that documented his experiences as a Mexican-American and his father's train-hopping journey from Mexico to Texas as a 12-year-old looking to be reunited with his family. They're albums of hope for the future, love of the family and loss of a life left behind. By The Hand of The Father was subsequently staged as a play across North America, eventually as the first theatrical work to appear on the venerable Austin City Limits. It was during a staging of the play in Phoenix that Escovedo collapsed onstage. It was revealed he was battling hepatitis C.
Though fighting the disease took the better part of three years, Escovedo recovered and began writing, recording and touring in earnest with four new albums appearing almost like clockwork. Asked if the songwriting process has gotten easier over time, Escovedo initially says yes, then backtracks. "You know what? That's wrong. It actually gets more difficult, it becomes more difficult to find a way to tell the story. As you write more songs it gets harder because you get better and your expectations get a little higher and you're trying to find something you haven't found before."
He pauses, then adds, "And there's only so many skeletons in the closet, I guess." —Russell Gragg