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Alejandro Escovedo Still "Boxing"

Austin singer-songwriter licks death, collaborates with Velvet Underground hero

February 16, 2006 4:26 PM ET

Alejandro Escovedo is looking pretty good these days. The Austin-based rootsy singer-songwriter is about to release his first studio album in four years, The Boxing Mirror, produced by one of his idols, Velvet Underground alum John Cale. He recently married his girlfriend of several years, and happily indulges the whims of their three-year-old daughter, his seventh child. One would never guess that he just turned 55 -- much less barely survived a bout with Hepatitis C.

In 2002, Escovedo realized the hard way that the disease he'd been diagnosed with just years earlier would not tolerate the rock & roll lifestyle he'd insisted on living. He collapsed during a performance of By the Hand of the Father, a theater piece developed from songs he wrote about his Mexican-immigrant father. As his health problems mounted, so did the medical bills, prompting friends and fellow artists -- including Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Los Lonely Boys, the Jayhawks, Son Volt, his niece Sheila E and Cale -- to put together a double-disc tribute/fundraising album, 2004's Por Vida.

Now, aided by Buddhism and healthier habits -- he's convinced even one drink could kill him --Escovedo has found a new balance, and The Boxing Mirror reflects that. Beyond his personal life, the album (due May 2nd) also builds on his creative history: his early years in punk band the Nuns and "cowpunk" pioneers Rank and File; his rockin' True Believers/Buick MacKane era; his classical, Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra explorations; his acoustic string quintet, which just released the live album Room of Songs; and seven solo albums, including the aptly titled More Miles Than Money.

On The Boxing Mirror, Escovedo's sonic past is audible, even as his sound moves into new territory, with unexpected ambient elements. "I think there's no way to be born again without looking back," says the singer. The new album, he continues, "shows everything that we do -- but in a way that's much bigger and grander than we had before."

Appropriately, the album examines mortality. The track "I Died a Little Today" refers to Escovedo's near-death due to side-effects from his treatment. And "Evita's Lullaby" was inspired by the death of his father and its impact his mother, after sixty years of marriage. Songs like the mystical-sounding opener "Arizona," which addresses the singer's conversion to the straight life, and "Break This Time" also reveal Cale's influence -- through every bowed cello string, every searing guitar lick. Which is exactly what Escovedo wanted.

The two originally met in late-Seventies New York playing on some of the same bills -- one a serious Velvet Underground fan, the other recovering from the band. After Escovedo had moved to Austin with Rank and File, he was re-introduced to Cale by former Velvet guitarist Sterling Morrison. "The more I got to see John, the more I really became closer to him," Escovedo says.

In the studio in Los Angeles in December, says Escovedo, Cale cracked the whip -- but he also clearly had his back. "There was a day when I went in and really sang -- I probably did the best singing I did on the whole record," Escovedo recalls.

"And it made him so happy," he added. "Because what he wanted more than anything, he said, was for me to sound like a person who was healed and not sick anymore. A person with confidence and with a sense of life, a vibrancy. He says when I got that, it made his whole production job worthwhile."

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