They're subtle — and sometimes sung in Spanish — but the questions that are scattered across Calexico's Edge of the Sun carry the thrust of the album's themes.
Where? What? Why? The questions are prominent on an album about progressing, searching, and moving. And they're at the core of interactions, of meeting new people, of seeing the world from the perspective of another.
"It's all about the soul's evolution, us as individuals and us as a community, whether it's a band or a city or a continent or a country or a planet. It's all about that movement, that evolution. We need each other," says singer-guitarist Joey Burns. "It's important to ask questions. And more than any other record, there are questions asked all over this."
To prepare for the band's eighth studio album, Burns, drummer John Convertino, and keyboardist Sergio Mendoza took a retreat in Mexico City, exploring and soaking in the city, looking for inspiration and writing, finding the first flashes of sound or ideas that could take shape back in the studio.
"John and I had spent a couple different sessions throughout 2013 in Tucson at our own studio space, hammering out ideas. We both realized that it would be great to get to go somewhere, not only for some inspiration but some stories and experiences and to try doing something different," Burns says. "Even just 12 days in Mexico City is a really fun window to jump through."
For musicians whose catalog and history of almost 20 years is so interwoven with their Southwestern home of Tucson, working in new location inevitably helped shape the music. But, Burns says, Calexico's time in Mexico City had unexpected results. The bright mood, the encounters with friendly locals — musicians, artists, and cooks — sometimes brought out a poppier side of Burns' songwriting.
"It was great to get to the chance to go down there, and it proved to be really successful. Not only did we come up with lots of ideas, but there were some beautiful surprises," he says. "Songs like 'Falling from the Sky' I wouldn't expect from hanging out in Mexico City, but it was part of that experience that led to all of these songs."
While in Mexico City, Calexico visited La Casa Azul (Frida Kahlo's home that's been turned into a museum), hung out in the local plaza, held a BBQ with neighborhood musicians, and got to explore the studio of conceptual artist Pedro Reyes, whose "Disarm" project transformed old weapons, seized by the Mexican government, broken and dismantled, into musical instruments.
"It's stunning when you're staring at a violin and it's got gun barrels and handles," Burns says. "There are a lot of interesting things going on there, a lot of interesting music being made. More importantly, I feel the connection between north and south, regardless. I'm really drawn to that connection that we have here in the Americas."
That lesson came to Burns in Australia, of all places, at the annual WOMADelaide world music festival. Introduced by Calexico's Spanish-born guitarist Jairo Zavala to Cuban Eliades Ochoa of the Buena Vista Social Club, Burns' salutation of "Yo soy Americano" was met with the reply "We're all Americans."
"It was great to be enlightened right then and there by someone I really respect a lot, and it opened the door to understanding how connected we all are," Burns says. "Somewhere along the way, people separate or classify things, and I enjoy bringing things together. I'm really passionate about that aspect of being in Tucson. That's why I've stayed here for so long, and it's important to represent that aspect playing in Phoenix."
Bringing people together has always been a hallmark of Calexico's, and Edge of the Sun includes perhaps more collaborations than ever. Iron & Wine's Sam Beam, who recorded the 2005 joint EP In the Reins with Calexico, was the first guest solicited, for the immigration-inspired "Bullets & Rocks."
"I knew instantly when we came up with the song and I did a pass of a backing vocal, that Sam's voice would work beautifully here," Burns says. "He ended up doing more vocals during the end of the song repeating refrain 'A future's promised to you.'"
Once Calexico got the ball rolling, the band wanted to extend invitations to as many friends as possible, Burns says.
Past collaborators Neko Case and Pieta Brown feature prominently, while Ben Bridwell from Band of Horses, Nick Urata from Devotchka, Carla Morrison, Gaby Moreno, and Amparo Sanchez all bring their own talents to the album.
"The greatest collaboration of all is getting Sergio more involved in the shaping of the songs and being a soundboard for me. That was really vital," Burns says. "John was in the process of moving from Ohio to El Paso during the making of this, and Sergio and I just kept bouncing ideas off each other."
Blending the Mexico City inspiration with the eclecticism of their breakthrough album, 2003's Feast of Wire, Calexico recorded an album that's as close to the band's live show as ever. Burns, Convertino, and Mendoza co-produced the album, working as usual with Chris Schultz and Craig Shumacher at Tucson's Wave-Lab Recording Studio.
"I feel really fortunate to be here, and I'm learning a lot by being here, and I want to give back to show my appreciation because I'm really inspired here. I have been for a long time," Burns says.
As the album was taking shape, Burns began to see the themes of his lyrics — the questions, the journeys, and the people — working together. The idea for a title grew out of that and books like John Fante's Ask the Dust and Charles Bukowski's South of No North, mid-century writing that leaves room for interpretation.
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"When I travel and I'm away from Arizona and I'm away from that abundance of sunlight, I miss it. I rely on the energy of the sun, and with the title I wanted to map something out that embraced the poetic side of being in a place where there is sun, focusing on that positive energy, yet it's not that far off from venturing into darkness, which is an important part to our lives," Burns says. "In the music, more so than not, it touches on those themes of melancholy or reflection or sorrow, or death even. I wanted to find something along those lines, so Edge of the Sun came out of that quest."
That quest, of blending darkness and light, of crossing borders, of shaping together different perspectives, has been part of the essence of Calexico since the band formed. It's all reflected in Edge of the Sun's first single, "Cumbia de Donde," written by Burns and Mendoza. Full of questions — "Where are you going? Where are you from?" in Spanish and English — the song chronicles places the band has seen, lining up like stamps on a passport, just brief mentions standing in for story after story.
"That's one of the benefits of being in a band. It's a wonderful vehicle to getting out into the world and bringing those ideas back home and sharing your ideas along the way," Burns says. "It's exciting to travel because you're face to face with audiences from around the world and everyone has perspectives on these universal themes."
Calexico is scheduled to perform Sunday, October 4, at Crescent Ballroom.