“I wanted them to be an Italian band”: Alejandro Escovedo on his new album and recording in Italy

Alejandro Escovedo (above, third from left) is one of America’s most iconic songwriters and performers. His new album, “The Crossing,” was recorded in Emilia-Romagna with a group he met serendipitously while touring in Italy. It tells the story of two young migrants — one from Mexico, the other from Italy — who meet while working in a restaurant in Galveston. 

Over the Christmas holiday, I had the opportunity to interview the legendary Texan musician. The following are excerpts from our conversation. 

He and his Italian band Don Antonio are playing this Sunday at the Heights Theater in Houston (see this preview on the Houston Press).

When it comes to rock ‘n’ roll, Italians have a different sensibility and a different sense of rhythm than Americans. What clicked for you working with Italian musicians?

I did not expect them to have that groove. I didn’t want them to be an American band. I wanted them to be an Italian band. And it was important that they kept their identity that way — musically. And that’s what impressed me about them.

When they bring in anything that’s slightly American, it’s about the Twist. Because the Twist was a popular form in the 1960s, in Italian movies and soundtracks. It’s not that they don’t love American music. They’re very well versed in blues and soul and R&B and the guitar players from Austin, songwriters from Tucson. Obviously they’re big fans of that stuff. [But] it doesn’t dictate who they are. And that’s what was really attractive to me.

So I did not expect them to sound like the Stooges from Detroit, I didn’t expect them to sound like the Zeros or the MC5. I wanted them to be Italian because the beauty in Italian music is that it’s always searching for melody. It’s got this beautiful, kind of dramatic soulful, very passionate kind of view. And that’s what I wanted from them. It wasn’t a problem for me that they didn’t sound like Muscle Shoals. That’s not what I wanted.

In interviews, you’ve talked a lot about how recording in Italy was a different experience than recording in America — in part because of the food.

The Italian press [like] Buscadero has been very generous with me. And I’ve always had great shows in Italy. I’ve done a lot of tours.

But when I met Antonio and the boys, they picked me up in Bologna at the airport. And they happened to have a friend who was also on the same plane. So they gave her a ride back to Faenza. And then we proceeded to Modigliana, which is their town. Then we immediately went to go eat, which the Italian thing, right? It’s essential.

Every time you play in Italy, you go out to eat afterwards. And we went to eat at this restaurant that was amazing. There were probably about 20 of us, 25 people eating. And they brought all their regional dishes. And one was a tripe dish that looked a lot like menudo except it didn’t have hominy. And then they put it in what I would call a bolillo, a kind of bread roll. I loved it. I was just scarfing on it. And they loved that I was enjoying it so much. Every time I took a bite, they would cheer. They said that most Americans wouldn’t eat this. “We are so proud,” [they said]. So I felt a real camaraderie there. It felt very comfortable.

What were some of the stand-out meals?

We [also] had some amazing meals along the coast that were just unbelievable. The amount of food that they feed you is frightening. It was just surprising how much food [they gave you]. My appetite grew. I gained so much weight when I was in Italy. It was unbelievable.

When we recorded, we recorded out in a farmhouse very close to a little town called Villafranca [a hamlet of Forlì].

We had a cook, this wonderful woman, Alessandra, who we gave credit to on the record. She would cook for us every day. And she would always make regional food so that we could see what they ate on a daily basis. It was just amazing. It was so good. Every morning [when] I’d get to the studio, there’d be an espresso waiting for me. And pastry that she had made the night before. When we left, pasta would be out on the table drying overnight so that we could eat it the next day. She’d make a little menu of every day’s meal. If you’re American and you’re in a rush in Italy, you’re pretty much screwed because they’re not going to move fast. They move at this beautiful pace. It taught me a lot about the sense of sensuality that exists in life sometimes… Here in America, you don’t sit a table usually. You’re eating on the run. And you’re in a hurry. All you talk about is the record and what’s next. And how can we expedite this and how can we make it happen. And there lunches were never less than two hours. We would toast and the guitar would come out and we would sing, tell stories, and they would laugh. It’s funny how you can tune into the sense of humor of a culture without knowing the language. There was a lot of humor. There was a lot of brotherly — what we call slagging or teasing. Or chismes as we say in Spanish. But it was all brotherly. It was all really funny. It was an experience I know I could never duplicate.

The two main characters in the album’s narrative meet in America where they’ve both migrated in search of work. Is there a parallel between youth in Mexico and youth in Italy — where unemployment for under-25 women and men is around 50 percent?

I think that’s what leads to the decay of a certain kind of culture, too. And also physically I saw it in the towns we were in, the cities we were in, which were beautiful but you could tell that the population wasn’t as vibrant as it once had been. And there was this sense of decay, in a weird way. It was beautiful in how it was happening. I was merely an observer but I’m sure for the people who live there, it must be a bit frightening. They have a problem with a lot of people coming from Africa. So they deal with it in really much the same way that we are dealing with it here. There’s a lot of resistance. There’s a lot of nationalism. I think that the record really came to life in Italy. That’s where we really kind of saw that the message about immigration was a human message. And not just a Mexican or African or Syrian or Albanian or whatever. It was a human message. It’s a human story.

What was the reason for setting the album in Galveston?

Several reasons. First of all, because around Houston and Galveston was where the largest population of Italian-Americans were in Texas. And I learned this from my wife, who grew up in Galveston. So that’s another connection with Galveston. And she told me about these Italian restaurants that she would frequent when she was young… There was this sense that if they come to Texas, where are they going to go? Well, they’re going to go to work… at Salvo’s uncle’s restaurant in Galveston. It just makes sense.

The metaphor is the loss of innocence. Because they’re young. And their eyes are wide open to this America that they’ve seen flash before them in their imagination. Through the records that they play. Through the movies they’ve watched. At one point, at the end of it, Diego, once he’s lost Salvo, realizes: “maybe we just got here too late.”

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