"Look--there's the two osprey. See 'em? Yeah, we saw them fly directly overhead here, and they were holding a fish. It was beautiful ... ."
Alejandro Escovedo is perched on the upstairs deck at his home on the edge of Canyon Lake in Central Texas, keeping an eye on his airborne friends as they cruise just above the surface of the water in search of a prize catch. The lake sprawls across the horizon for miles, filling what once was a rural valley before the rolling Guadalupe River was bottled up by Canyon Dam.
This is a very different sort of inspiration for Escovedo, who has recently moved from the "live music capital" bustle of Austin to this rocky oasis a little more than an hour southwest (and closer to San Antonio, his original hometown). Escovedo spent a good chunk of the last decade on the road, which has raised his national profile and his career as a singer-songwriter considerably, but also undoubtedly contributed to the recent dissolution of his marriage.
The break from Austin, where Escovedo moved in 1980 as a member of Rank And File (after stints in New York and San Francisco) is a major change. It was in Austin's plentiful nightclubs that the guitarist came into his own as a bandleader with the True Believers in the 1980s, and later as an accomplished singer-songwriter with half a dozen solo albums to his name. At one time or another, seemingly every Austin musician has played with Escovedo, from accomplished pop tunesmiths such as David Garza and Fastball's Miles Zuniga, to jazz instrumentalists Alex Coke and Bill Averbach, to hardcore punk aficionados Spot and Scratch Acid's Rey Washam, to Lyle Lovett string-section veterans John Hagen and the late Champ Hood.
Much of this is a result of Escovedo's open-ended approach to his music, in terms of both artistic direction and communal camaraderie. Those aspects inevitably reached beyond his Austin circles as well--most prominently into North Carolina during the past couple years.
Escovedo's latest album, A Man Under The Influence, was produced by Chapel Hill's resident pop mastermind Chris Stamey. Recorded at Stamey's Modern Recording studio and at Mitch Easter's Fidelitorium in Kernersville, the disc is loaded with guests from the Triangle music scene: Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster, extraordinary singers Tres Chicas (Lynn Blakey, Caitlin Cary and Tonya Lamm), former Backsliders leader Chip Robinson, ex-Raleigh resident Ryan Adams, Thad Cockrell bassist Aaron Oliva and Superchunk frontman Mac MacCaughan.
Stamey also produced three tracks on Escovedo's 1999 EP Bourbonitis Blues, but A Man Under The Influence marks the first time since he went solo that Escovedo's made a full-length studio record away from Austin and his longtime producer Stephen Bruton.
"I knew I had to move on," Escovedo says. "I was starting to hear different things, and I knew that if I stayed in Austin, that I wouldn't get those things done. So I thought that a change of scenery and producer and studio was important."
Stamey had originally been suggested by Nan Warshaw of Bloodshot Records, the label that provided Escovedo with a home in 1998 after a disappointing one-album stint with Rykodisc.
"He brought things out in me that I had hoped someone would, eventually," Escovedo says. "I always felt like I had a voice and could sing, given the opportunity and the inspiration and the confidence. And I remember when we made the Bourbonitis Blues record, he really focused on the vocal. And that was the first time anyone had ever done that. Because prior to that, I had just been regarded as a guy who kind of talk-sang, or did this monotone Lou Reed thing. And I'm not saying ... I certainly don't have a voice like Ryan Adams, but for me, I feel like this is my best vocal performance on record."
Escovedo also credits Stamey with helping to reshape one of the album's key tracks, "Rosalie," which was written for a play, By The Hand Of The Father, that was presented this year in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and Chicago. "I had an idea of doing it something like 'Almost Persuaded' or 'He Stopped Loving Her Today,' where there would be a spoken-word part in it," Escovedo recalls. "I was going to write these letters--the two people [in the song] writing each other letters.
"But Stamey came up with this great idea; he just said, 'Listen, I thought about it all night, and I've got this thing, so let's try it.' ... Basically what he did was, he adjusted the tempo into a place that was almost Beatlesque, and it really lent itself to those beautiful harmonies that Ryan sings on it. It made it a different song altogether."
What Stamey realized, essentially, was that Escovedo's theatrical perspective of the song didn't necessarily fit the framework for presenting it on a record. "When that song is played in the play, there's images directly behind us when we're playing this, and there's two actors on each side of the stage responding to each other as I'm singing this song," Escovedo explains. "I'll sing a verse, the spotlight goes to Rosalie, and she reads a letter, and then Joe. So it's a completely different scene."
Several other numbers on the new album were intertwined with the play's development. "There's something about the play that changed my whole perspective about what I was doing in song and in life," he says. "I think that what happened was that I began to see songs as more than just a guy sitting with a guitar. Something broader--more visual--happened in the way I started to write.
"It was a different way of writing. I started to just sing songs into a tape recorder. And usually I would sit there and play, and start to jot--play and jot. And this time I didn't have a guitar; I would walk around L.A. [where the play was in production], just talking into a tape recorder. Everywhere I went, I started to carry this little tape recorder, and I began to sing to it or talk to it."
Other changes in musical approach may be in store for Escovedo as well. Though his show at Go! Room 4 will include longtime cohorts Brian Standefer on cello and Hector Munoz on drums, plus recent addition Bruce Salmon on keyboards, Escovedo has been giving some thought to doing some solo tours in the future.
It seems related to the solitude he's found on Canyon Lake. "I can see where I've just been needing less and less of other people's input into what I do," he says. "I mean, I love playing with musicians, and I love collaborating. But I really feel the need right now to be in a place where I can be alone."
When asked if he might consider doing a tour on his own, he replies, "I would love to. But I don't think anyone thinks I can do it." On the other hand, Escovedo has already proven his ability to pull off solo gigs; he played many such shows around 1990 after the breakup of the True Believers and before his ever-changing Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra began to take shape.
"I'd have to start out really small," he says. "I remember when I first played solo, I was scared to death. I think I'd probably return to that place--but with a little more experience now."