Ask his fellow musicians about Alejandro Escovedo, and you’ll hear nothing but praise. Yet he’s never been a household name, and even among rock fans, his work, though influential, is not widely known: He’s been more of an aficionado’s musician.
But over the last few years, the veteran singer, songwriter and guitarist has gotten a higher profile, though he’s still far from mainstream. His album “Boxing Mirror” in 2006 was deemed by some critics to be the greatest work of his decades-long career; with his new album “Real Animal,” released last month, he cracked the Billboard Top 200 album chart for the first time.
Escovedo doesn’t know why, after suffering through a devastating bout with hepatitis C and near financial ruin, that these last few years have been so fruitful, artistically and commercially. He says it’s never been a priority for him. But at 57, he is clearly enjoying his moment now.
AP: After “Boxing Mirror” many critics said that was your definitive or career album — they’re saying the same thing about the new CD.
Escovedo: It’s nice to have a lot of career albums, I guess. I think that (with) “Boxing Mirror” ... after this illness that I was faced with and the uncertainty of whether I would play again. There was a lot emotional rallying around the album and myself. For me the fact that I made an album at all was quite a feat and that was a victory in itself. And now with this album, it’s a completely different world for me and I view everything differently now as a result of what I went through in the past. ... It was deeply personal in a more kind of emotional, spiritual sense I guess.
AP: Your fans saw you and experienced your shows differently once you recovered from hepatitis. Did you come back and look at your audience differently?
Escovedo: Absolutely. Most profoundly. I think it was a matter of understanding how music bonds all of us. There was this larger family of people suddenly. I viewed them differently. I viewed everything differently you know, and so the relationship with all the people who had supported me through all of this was pretty profound.
AP: Did you ever lose faith in music?
Escovedo: It’s interesting because I think that a certain point when I became ill, it was almost like I blamed the music for the disease. ... I didn’t play my guitar for a year — and I didn’t write any songs, really and there was a lot of things that happened. Not only did I go through this illness, but my father passed away, so that was extremely major in my life, but I think as a result of that I really wanted to come back and play music again. ... In a way, I had lost some of that, but I regained it in a big way, much larger way actually.
AP: Do you sometimes feel a little nostalgic for the old days, when things were smaller? There’s such buzz now — you’re on the verge of no longer being rock ’n’ roll’s best kept secret.
Escovedo: I’ve played in small clubs now for 33 years so it’s like my home. But I enjoy — I always wanted to play for people and I’ve always felt that we really had something to offer to a larger audience. There’s times when I miss the camaraderie that I had with a band like the True Believers, my brother and John Dee and everybody else who played with us and hung out with us and traveling from town to town in a van is a real romantic life and it’s a very arduous life, too. I mean it’s difficult, but I’m ready for this. I’ve waited all my life for this so I’m open to whatever happens.
AP: Why do you think it didn’t happen before?
Escovedo: I can’t answer that. If I could, I think I’d be a manager or something.
AP: You must have thought about it.
Escovedo: Sometimes it’s interesting. You watch your friends succeed or whatever you want to call it. They get places, you know and maybe a glimmer of thought comes in, “Well, why can’t we have that?” We see our friends traveling in buses and we’re still in the van or whatever you know. But it’s never with envy and also I’ve watched so many people be the next big thing and they’re not doing what I’m doing now and they don’t have the body of work that I have at this point, so I think it’s fine.
AP: Is Jonathan Demme doing a movie about you?
Escovedo: Well, that’s in the ether I think. It’s still in the works. It hasn’t been filmed yet. We filmed a little bit two years ago at South by Southwest where in one night I took every configuration of the different types of things I do from playing as a duet to a string quartet or quintet at that time, then I played with the whole orchestra, strings and the rock band and then I also reunited my band Buick MacKane to play. We were just like this trashy garage band you know. So we did film that. But that’s about all that’s been filmed so far. You’d have to ask Jonathan.
AP: Having almost died, do you think that really changed you as person?
Escovedo: You know, I don’t know that it was a radical transformation, because in a way I saw a lot of myself that I didn’t like and there were times that I felt like I was a monster of some sort but I learned how to deal — not that it’s complete in any way — but I shed a lot of those things. Maybe anger and frustration, a lot of the grief that I might have held inside me. I tried to let go of that and maybe the disease itself helped me rid myself of those things. But I think what happens is that everything becomes sharply in focus suddenly and for me as a result of hepatitis C, I quit drinking and I live a cleaner life as far as substances and things I put in my system and that has lent itself to a lot of clarity that I didn’t have prior to that.