DON GONYEA, host:

Alejandro Escovedo, the Texas-based singer-songwriter, is one of those artists whose work has long been admired by critics, but who's never quite broken through to any kind of broad commercial success. By all rights, Escovedo shouldn't even be here. He was diagnosed with Hepatitis C in 1997. Three years ago, he collapsed on stage during a performance in Arizona.

(Soundbite of song, Arizona)

Mr. ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO (Singer-Songwriter): (Singing) Have another drink on me, I've been empty, Arizona.

GONYEA: Against medical orders, he was still drinking at the time. He already had cirrhosis of the liver. Doctors said he was near death. After years of difficult treatment, from interferon to holistic medicine, he headed back into the studio and back out on the road and he started living a healthier lifestyle.

Alejandro Escovedo revisits his struggles on his new CD, The Boxing Mirror. He joins us today from the studios of member station KUT in Austin. Greetings.

Mr. ESCOVEDO: Greetings to you, it's great to be here.

GONYEA: You're earlier solo recordings are full of songs dealing with human frailty and the loss of loved ones, of people very close to you. But in this one, you're confronting your own mortality.

Mr. ESCOVEDO: I was at this point where I was really overwhelmed emotionally, you know? And that's what was so difficult about writing these songs because I really had to take a step back away from it in order to be able to digest all of the things that I was feeling inside. And during these two years that I spent trying to heal myself, my father passed away too and he was 97 years old. And it really wasn't until after my father's funeral that I began to write songs.

GONYEA: How long was it before you actually did a live show? And I'm wondering if part of the healing was starting to get back in front of an audience again.

Mr. ESCOVEDO: It took probably a couple of years, maybe, a year and a half. And it was at that point that I really started to feel stronger and better. With each show, you know, I started to gain more confidence. And that led to the making of the record.

GONYEA: On this new disc, there really is a great deal of variety in the songs here, in the sound, in the subject matter. Some seem to speak just to your basic appreciation, and maybe it's renewed appreciation of those around you. And I'm thinking of one called The Ladder.

(Soundbite of song, The Ladder)

Mr. ESCOVEDO: (Singing) I climb a ladder just to see you. I have no eyes, but I can feel. (Unintelligible) so I can be you, this ladder climbs from me to you.

(Speaking) The Ladder is a song that I wrote while I was living on the beach in Santa Monica. My wife and my daughter and I would ride our bikes every day before we'd go out. And that was really inspired by this black gentleman who was on the boardwalk in Venice and he was posing in only a loincloth actually. And he had a ladder that he would climb up on and do these poses on. And then he would reach into this plastic bucket that he had alongside him and pull out two cobras that were about the same color as he was, you know. And it was just this really bizarre image that sparked this song, this love song to my wife from that experience.

GONYEA: And lest people think this disc is maybe all accordions and acoustic guitars, that particular song is immediately followed by...

(Soundbite of song, Break This Time)

GONYEA: ...one of your signature celebrations, just out and out noisy rock and roll, a song called Break This Time.

Mr. ESCOVEDO: It's just a song, it's another love song in a way.

(Soundbite of song, Break This Time)

Mr. ESCOVEDO: (Singing) If you could see you the way that I see you, the way I perceive you, no I never can just deceive you. I said I love you (unintelligible) but only love you (unintelligible). But I just might break this time.

GONYEA: This type of love song, it could be a ballad, right?

Mr. ESCOVEDO: Exactly.

GONYEA: Well, that song also gets to what I think is a pretty important element of your sound. Along with all the traditional rock 'n' roll instruments, there are those cellos and violins holding their own, right next to the electric guitars. And one moment there's a punk rock song in your performances. The next moment, it's Tex-Mex. The next moment it's something like chamber music. Talk about what you're trying to create in terms of, I guess, an aural landscape.

Mr. ESCOVEDO: Having grown up in a family where my father listened to Mexican music, rancheros and trio(ph) music, and my mother loves swing, jazz, my brothers were Latin-jazz percussionists, I had a cousin who lived with us for many years who was a big Elvis fan, Chuck Berry fan, I'm trying to kind of somehow meld into one sound. So I've always wanted the songs to be songs that you see and hear at the same time, kind of like. And so the strings really lend themselves to give you more of a dramatic, cinematic kind of picture.

(Soundbite of song, Evita's Lullaby)

GONYEA: The song Evita's Lullaby, this is about your parents.

Mr. ESCOVEDO: Yes, sir. I wrote it after my father's death and, you know, I really thought I was prepared for that. He had lived a long life and his main concern was of my mother being taken care of and loved.

(Soundbite of song, Evita's Lullaby)

Mr. ESCOVEDO: (Singing) As your last breath hung forever, were you dancing behind the (unintelligible)

GONYEA: And they had been married how long?

Mr. ESCOVEDO: Over 60 years. And so the memories that I have of them are of them dancing, because they would dance at the drop of a hat, whether they were in line at a supermarket or in a restaurant. A song struck them and my dad wanted to dance with my mom, he would. And so I just wanted to sing this for her, but speaking to my father and how I also feel that my mother really won't be complete until they're reunited again. And so it's through this song that I send that wish to him.

(Soundbite of song, Evita's Lullaby)

Mr. ESCOVEDO: (Singing) Hold her close now. Don't let her go now. Take her with you where you sleep. With the...

GONYEA: I'm wondering, as the son of parents who crossed the border from Mexico into Texas to make a life...

Mr. ESCOVEDO: Mm hmm.

GONYEA: ...what do you make of the sometimes very heated immigration debates and arguments that have been taking place in this country?

Mr. ESCOVEDO: Well, we are all the same and that's an important lesson and one we need to consider every day, I believe, you know? I just think it's really important to sing about these things. I applaud - I really do applaud the people who sing political songs, because I think they're important. But for me, I think the essence of politics is the people.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. ESCOVEDO: (Singing) There's a notion between us now, a notion of powder and dust to how I was blind, but now I can see. As you walked through this world (unintelligible) every step is one closer...

(Singing) It's about the struggles that people have trying to maintain families. I mean, being a musician, being kind of a migratory worker myself in that we travel all the time, it's a difficult thing to juggle.

GONYEA: I want to ask you to look ahead for us, which is maybe something you didn't have the luxury of doing just a short time ago.

Mr. ESCOVEDO: That's true.

GONYEA: You're making plans, you are moving forward with a career that was all but taken away from you.

Mr. ESCOVEDO: You know, to have something like that you've done every day for 30 years, suddenly the possibility was there that I would never be able to do it again. It was pretty disorienting. I had to really kind of figure out who I was again. And in surviving all that, though, I've gotten so much more strength and joy in making music and being around the musicians that I work with. We've become more familial, I think, as a band, as a result of this stuff. So it seems even more important now to go out and play than it did before.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. ESCOVEDO: (Singing) My hands are turning numb, but I've still got to strum my felt guitar. And I don't care how long. Might write a sad one. Who's gonna sing them this time? My hands are...

GONYEA: Alejandro Escovedo, thank you for your time today.

Mr. ESCOVEDO: Thank you very much.

GONYEA: And...

Mr. ESCOVEDO: It was great.

GONYEA: ...continued good health, of course.

Mr. ESCOVEDO: All right, thank you very much.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. ESCOVEDO: (Singing) Don't care how long, exactly what went wrong. Who's gonna blame him this time? Not gonna break him down...

GONYEA: Alejandro Escovedo's new album is The Boxing Mirror on Back Porch Records. We also heard shows from a live show in Austin, Texas since his recovery. To hear music from The Boxing Mirror, visit NPR.org.

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