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Musician/songwriter Alejandro Escovedo has made a career out of taking chances. His first true band was the San Francisco-based punk outfit The Nuns. Then he joined up with cow-punks Rank & File before forming the country-oriented True Believers with his brothers, eventually hacking out a solo career. His music typically garners critical acclaim, but that doesn't necessarily add up to record sales. Undaunted, for years Escovedo has pushed hard, played hard, and, all too often, partied hard.
Even after being diagnosed with hepatitis C, a disease that attacks the liver, Escovedo kept up the rigorous pace. He was admittedly in denial about the illness — that is, until he collapsed on a Phoenix stage in April 2003.
He spent months, a year, in the hospital battling not only the hep C, but the negative side effects of the drugs he was prescribed that ate away at his bone marrow. Hospital bills mounted, but a bevy of musicians staged benefits on his behalf. He was humbled by the experience, but it also gave him strength. Supported by sheer willpower and holistic treatments, Escovedo slowly recovered.
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"It was like a nightmare, really, but with a happy ending, you know," he recalls by phone from his Austin home. "It was pretty frightening. There was a lot to go through physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I healed in all sorts of ways . . . I'm reminded of it every day. Everything is a reminder that I'm very fortunate to be alive and do what I do."
What he does is make soul-stirring music that encapsulates vintage rock, blues, punk, Latin, and country influences into a driving force carrying introspective and deeply personal treatises on love, loss, society, and hardship, gritty manifestos of life's excesses and poignant protest songs.
Currently disease-free, Escovedo finds that his near-death experience continues to guide his music. "Headstrong Crazy Fool," from Big Station, his most recent release, catalogues the pitfalls of a rock 'n' roll lifestyle, including his own.
"You wouldn't be wrong in saying I draw inspiration from that experience," he says. "I draw from it all the time. It's not always a pretty picture. 'Golden Bear' was definitely about hep C and what I did going through it. 'Can't Make Me Run' is a statement about, you know, surviving. There are mentions in many of the songs I still write."
Escovedo's music always packs a raw edge, though those jagged lines have rounded recently thanks to his songwriting collaborations with Chuck Prophet, a musician who's been dealt his share of hardship as well.
"Working with Chuck has changed [my songwriting] quite a bit," he says. "You have to be willing to let go of a lot of things."
This collaboration brought Escovedo more notice, but like lesser-known contemporaries such as Garland Jefferies and Roy Harper, he has to settle for cult status.
"With Real Animal and Street Songs of Love we had a real shot at [commercial success]," he says. "We made albums that were real strong and powerful, that we thought people would take notice of. And we did get a lot of attention for those two records, but . . . "
Forever moving forward, Escovedo plans to sonically up the ante on his next record. Detroit acts MC5, The Rationals, and early Bob Seger — plus electro dub acts — are current influences.
"The thing I liked the most about those bands is that they were very black-influenced — rock 'n' roll bands trying to be James Brown. That kinda dance-y, rock 'n' roll thing was something I always really, really wanted to explore," he says excitedly. "Somehow we're coming up with a way to present the new material. We'll see what we'll come up with."