The Migrant Journey Inspired Alejandro Escovedo's New Album
DON GONYEA, HOST:
Alejandro Escovedo has had a long career in the Texas music scene. His work traverses Americana, rock 'n' roll, Latino music and punk. The Mexican-American singer-songwriter is now 67 years old and has never shied away from making noise with his music and his message. But his latest album packs an even bigger punch in today's divided political landscape. Sometimes blunt and other times thoughtfully reflective, the tracks in "The Crossing" come together to tell a cinematic road trip across the American Southwest. Two characters, Diego and Salvo, both recent immigrants, meet in Texas and decide to explore their new country in search of a mythic America that no longer really exists.
Alejandro Escovedo spoke with me from Dallas, Texas, about "The Crossing" and its central characters.
ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO: Well, Diego comes from a town called Saltillo in the state of Coahuila in northern Mexico. He's a young man just entering into his 20s. He loves rock 'n' roll. He loves literature. He loves film. Salvo comes from southern Italy. He's from Calabria. And he's also a young man that sees America as a land of dreams and opportunities. And they decide that they're going to go on a journey to find this America that they believe still exists.
GONYEA: The youth of the characters, Salvo and Diego, is also very central to the album. Let's play a little bit of the track "Teenage Luggage."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEENAGE LUGGAGE")
ESCOVEDO: (Singing) You think you know me. You don't know me. You think you know me. No. You think you know me. You'll never know me. You're a bigot with a bad guitar.
GONYEA: First off, it's not an Alejandro Escovedo album if it doesn't get noisy. So tell us about this particular song - its feel, but more importantly, what it's saying.
ESCOVEDO: Well, "Teenage Luggage" really was a song that, for me, really kind of was a on-the-road kind of song. You know, they're traveling through Lubbock. They're traveling through Yuma. And they're headed towards Los Angeles. But it's along the way here in Texas that they really start to get a sense that the America that they had dreamed of really doesn't exist, and if it does, they're going to have to dig real deep to find it.
GONYEA: Why did you decide to build an album around these two characters?
ESCOVEDO: Because I had done immigration stories before. I've done my father's story. He came from Saltillo when he was a young boy. In 1919, he crossed the border as a 12-year-old boy. These young boys are really kind of going out and looking for - I think they're more innocent in a way in that they want to look for more of an aesthetic America that they believe exists. And so I felt that these two young boys, which are really kind of based on myself and Antonio Gramantieri, who's my co-writing partner on this project, that they were really kind of based on our lives and our interests and our aesthetics.
GONYEA: I understand you also met with DACA recipients, the DREAMers, as part of the research for this album and that Antonio went with you.
ESCOVEDO: Yes. Antonio came to Dallas and stayed with me here where I live. There's a lot of kids around here who I've gotten to know who work in the shops and the record shops and coffee shops and restaurants. And so we spoke to a lot of them about their stories. And some of them turn up and some - you know, like on "Texas Is My Mother," the chorus is really part of a story that one of the young boys told us about carrying his sister across the river and that his aunt did not make it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEXAS IS MY MOTHER")
ESCOVEDO: (Singing) I would carry you on my shoulders across the muddy river. Texas feels like Mexico. She reminds me of my mother.
We traveled the countryside. And we took the back roads in Texas and just kind of stopped, and we would kind of soak in the atmosphere in different parts of Texas. And that's where you really kind of see Texas for what it is, you know. And through the DREAMers, we saw it through their eyes, what they went through.
GONYEA: You mentioned that you've written about immigration and the immigrant experience over the years in your previous work, but rarely has your approach to the issue been as blunt, as direct as it is in the song "Fury And Fire."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FURY AND FIRE")
ESCOVEDO: (Singing) A man came to gamble on a better life. The TV says that they're going to run us out, call us rapists, go and build a bigger wall. We're going to tear it down. We're going to tear it down.
I think that one just kind of, you know, really addresses the state that our country's in, the role that Mexican-Americans have taken now that someone has made us the enemy. It's really disheartening. And so I wanted to say something about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIRE AND FURY")
ESCOVEDO: (Singing) Bang, bang, trouble in America. They want to tear it down. They want to tear it down.
GONYEA: Did the process of writing just take you there or did you know that you were going to be confronting these political issues so directly?
ESCOVEDO: No, that wasn't intentional. It was something that happens with making a record. You know, once you start making the record, it's like a journey. You know, suddenly, another door opens, another - you meet another character who leads you to another place, tells you about a different destination to go to. Those kind of things are magical that you don't - you can't force that, you know.
GONYEA: You've said in interviews that this album is a series of letters in a lot of ways, letters to your children. What do you mean by that?
ESCOVEDO: Well, I think that because of the life I've led, which has been so nomadic, you know, I've been on the road all my life, the difficulties I've had in keeping relationships as a result of that kind of lifestyle, I've always felt that like, you know, my father's stories were important to me when I was a child. And they really inspired a lot of what I wrote about as I was getting older. So I hope in the same way that these songs and these albums will be kind of like bread crumbs for them to follow and get a better idea of who I am.
GONYEA: Is there one song in particular on this record that you hope resonates with your kids?
ESCOVEDO: Well, I hope that "The Crossing" is the one that really kind of resonates because Diego, in the end, is alone. And, you know, you kind of just contemplates whether it was worth it at all, you know. I'd be lying to say that there aren't times that I, you know, question whether this whole thing has been worth it or not, you know.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE CROSSING")
ESCOVEDO: (Singing) If I could turn back the block, return all the dreams we lost in order to make the crossing...
You give up a lot, you know. There was a lot of times I was on the road, the booking agent would call and we'd talk. And he'd tell me how much fun he had at his kid's ball game or whatever. And I was out on the road, you know, and I couldn't - I missed a lot of that stuff, you know. And those are things that you can't rewind and redo. But they were decisions that I made, you know, thinking that it would help all of us, really, in the end, you know. And I hope the kids see it that way, too.
So that's what I mean when I say that I leave these letters, these songs behind because, you know, there's 15 albums now. I've said a lot about my life in these records. So hopefully they'll understand that it wasn't all just fun and games. There was a lot of effort and sacrifice put into making these records and this career, you know.
GONYEA: Well, this one shows that you're still searching for something, too.
ESCOVEDO: Absolutely. It's not over yet, no.
GONYEA: Alejandro Escovedo. His latest album is "The Crossing." Thank you so much for joining us, and Happy New Year.
ESCOVEDO: Same to you. Thank you very much.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE CROSSING")
ESCOVEDO: (Singing) We all make history when we make the crossing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.