Skip Matheny –former bartender in a retirement community and currently a songwriter in the band Roman Candle — interviewed Alejandro Escovedo last month, when Roman Candle was touring with the legendary Texas songwriter.
Skip’s note: “This was the last night of the tour in Louisville, Kentucky. The next day (Alejandro and his band) drove to Lexington, Kentucky, to begin a couple weeks of recording for their new record with Tony Visconti. This tour began after Alejandro had done a two- month residency at the Continental Club in Austin, for the sole purpose of working out new songs for the record. Likewise, the band had been trying out new songs every night (both in the show, and at soundcheck), and I felt very fortunate to get the chance to talk with Alejandro after he’d spent so many weeks in a concentrated ‘writing’ time.”
So you were saying you were writing a new song tonight at soundcheck?
Well, we were just kind of messing around. I was telling the (band) that, when I’ve had a band that could — instead of just playing a little chord structure — jump in and start really feeling it out right away is when I get most inspired, and I start just rambling lyrics, and I find that little core, and work off of that. I used to do that a lot, you know. I think I didn’t start writing songs until I was 20, almost 30. And, so, by that time, I had a lot of stuff that just started coming out, so it was a lot easier back then. But I think the more I write songs, the harder it seems to be for me. And I don’t know if that’s because you raise your bar higher each time. Maybe you get better as the years go by, hopefully. I think you develop as a songwriter and know what you want to say, and you don’t want to repeat yourself. You want to remain kind of interesting and fresh, and try to find new ideas, new ways to kind of say the same thing, in a way.
Some people believe that we write the same song over and over, and there’s some truth to that.
Yeah, there’s this thing the philosopher Heraclitus said: You can’t step in the same river twice — That repetition is not really ever repetition.
No, it’s not. I mean, there’s only so much to the story. And it’s our story. And I can observe, and I can find things in other people that I can relate to and kind of make it my own, hopefully. The secret, I think, or the gift, is when you write something that relates to people on such a deep level that their lives are kind of changed, you know? And that’s a rare song, and that’s a beautiful song, but that’s definitely what I love to reach for.
In your lyrics I’ve noticed there’s a lot of this kind of inevitable sense of leaving. I’m talking specifically about songs like ‘Rosalie’ or ‘Wave’ –- there’s this inescapable tension with leaving or moving past particular places or times. One verse in particular in ‘Rosalie’ when you’re talking about taking a good, long look at everything, and it’s going to be hard to move on.
When you are writing lyrics, are you conscious of this tension between staying and going, or are you just writing what comes out?
As much as I tell myself that I’m not attached to the past, I realize how much the past is who I am right now — It’s such a deep part of me. And I have such an interest in my family and my culture and things like that, that without looking to the past really — that’s where all the story is. That’s the heart of the story.
But it’s that constant struggle between trying to find a new door to open. Songs lead you kind of. That’s always been my experience. There’s always been one or two songs on an album that lead to the next album, either sonically or lyrically, or just the feel of it. Just something about the atmosphere that it creates makes me feel like, “Whoa, that’s a different place. Let’s go there.” You know? So it’s constantly searching. I always feel like, a lot of people have said this, but once you feel satisfied in any way or that you’ve been there or that you’ve gotten there, I think it’s over.
Oh, it’s trouble.
It’s over. It’s over. Anyone who feels comfortable where they are at that point is kind of getting in trouble, you know.I like the insecurity and the constant search for things.
I know you come from a musical family, jazz and otherwise, and when you came back to Texas and started to write your own songs, were there some writers you would attach yourself to? Or would you find yourself listening alone in a bedroom thinking, “This person is blowing my mind…” or “Of all of the music I’ve been exposed to, I’ve never connected with anything like –“?
Townes Van Zandt, was one of them, for sure. And that was a purely emotional kind of thing. I knew Townes. He was from Texas. He meant a lot to all the Texas songwriters, and when I went back there, he was still around, right? So I got to see him play in the worst of conditions and the best of conditions. You know, he could be really bad sometimes, and his habits got the best of him, and he wasn’t always himself, in that sense. But to me, he was the deepest of writers. There was a way he exposed the truth that was really something, and I think it’s that gift that people are kind of transported – it’s almost not you, you know? It’s just something that comes channeling through you. And he could do that, and it was beautiful to watch. And he was always poetic. Everything that came out of his mouth was poetry. So it was pretty amazing. — That, and I remember when, I first started writing, basically, rewriting Dylan songs…
[Laughs] Oh yeah. The first song we played tonight was me being sick in bed one day trying to re-write “Mama, You’ve Been On My Mind.” I was just hoping that my inadequacies would produce something different.
Well, that’s true. But I think that it’s important to note, like Salvador Dali said, that if you steal from genius, you become a genius.
[Laughs] That’s a good practice to go for.
But if you reach for that, I think that it’s really important to draw from that and not just think that you already know it, or that you have nothing to learn from these people. Because to me it’s all about learning.
Oh, absolutely. Well I’m honored. Thanks for letting us tag along these couple of weeks.