Immigrating to the United States was just the first step for Salvo and Diego, the two young dreamers at the center of Alejandro Escovedo's expansive, cinematic new album The Crossing.
The story takes the two boys, one from Italy and the other from Mexico, from south Texas out to California, where they're in search of the America of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and rock 'n' roll, a promised land that's full of everything that inspired their youthful, artistic dreams.
The Crossing is more than a little autobiographical for Escovedo, the legendary singer-songwriter who first burst onto the early punk scene in San Francisco and was later named Artist of the Decade in 1998 by No Depression magazine.
But part of what makes The Crossing such a rich and diverse record is the presence of Escovedo's songwriting partner, Antonio Gramentieri, who brings the Italian perspective, which helps shape this story of two boys into something larger and more universal.
The partnership came about a bit by chance.
"I was touring Europe about two years ago and I needed a band to play with," Escovedo says. "I was given the choice of three bands. Two were English bands, very Americana, alt-country types, and the third was this Italian band, Don Antonio. I was intrigued by them immediately. I loved the sound and their approach to songwriting. They were very eclectic and kind of like this Ennio Morricone surf music with parts that were avant-garde. I thought the pairing would be a good idea."
Escovedo and Don Antonio teamed for 32 shows in 36 days on a whirlwind 10-country tour. "The results were amazing, the response was amazing and we played some memorable gigs," he says, and when it came time to start working on his first album for Yep Roc Records, he sought out Gramentieri and ended up moving to Italy for the project.
"We started to discuss these ideas as I returned to Southern Italy. I saw this wonderful culture where a lot of the towns looked a lot like Mexico," Escovedo says. "The food is spicy, the desert meets the ocean, there's a lot of immigrants from Africa. There are a lot of similarities."
The story that Escovedo and Gramentieri put together revolved around Salvo and Diego, who meet when they're working at Salvo's uncle's restaurant in Galveston.
"There they devise this plan to find this America they believe they exists, of punk rock music and poetry and beat writers," Escovedo says. "They of course find a very different country and very different situation along the way. They began to lose a lot of the things they brought along with them, this beautiful innocence and this naivete that makes them believe they can find the music they want and the community they want, which is in punk rock music."
In many ways, more than not, Escovedo says, the two characters reflect both his and Gramentieri. "Invested in the characters is a lot of what Antonio saw when he came to the United States for the first time and a lot of my experiences in America as the son of a first-generation immigrant."
"For me as a kid growing up in Southern California, we'd moved from San Antonio when I was 7 years old, in the environment in the late 50s and 60s, a lot of what I thought and my parents thought California was going to be, this beautiful technicolor world of opportunity, turned out to be something quite different," Escovedo says. "There were a lot of situations along the way that were demeaning and racist. The music is what kept me afloat."
Recording in Italy with Don Antonio (Gramentieri on guitar, Denis Valentini on bass, Matteo Monti on drums, Franz Valtieri and Gianni Perinelli on horns plus Nicola Peruch on keyboards) was important for Escovedo to focus on the story he wanted to tell and not be distracted by political winds in the U.S. that increasingly demonized immigrants.
"Being that far from Fox News and CNN and MSNBC, I wasn't inundated with what was happening in America. I was free of it for once and felt very liberated to say the things that were deep inside of me," Escovedo says. "When you're that far away, the sense of family being so distant suddenly puts you in the perspective of what it would be like crossing into another country."
The duo wrote the record while they were in the studio, having figured out a basic outline, but little else before they started recording. The music, Escovedo says, inspired the words, and vice versa.
"With Antonio, it took him a while to adjust to my style. I like to ease into it and let it happen. I'm not going to sit there at a desk like a job, that doesn't work for me. Like every record, it seem to unravel before your eyes," he says. "We had these broad strokes of ideas and titles, and we knew who the characters were and where they were coming from and where they were headed, but everything in between we devised as the music was being created. It was like writing to a movie in a way."
Immigration in a broad sense is nothing new in Escovedo's music. It's a component in the story of his family and countless other friends he's had over the years.
"I've always written about immigration. My first songs were really about my father and his growing up in Mexico and his journeys. He was an adventurous spirit and traveled a lot and saw a lot and endured a lot," Escovedo says. "That's always been part of the palette, one of the tools I go to in order to write, family and the immigrant story."
But as a record, The Crossing relies on that image and metaphor that can mean so many different things.
"For us, it not only signifies the boys crossing the ocean to get here, or crossing the river, but also the idea they were crossing from boyhood to manhood, shedding part of their history along the way. It's a spiritual crossing too in a way. They're coming to terms with who they truly are and how they will cope with themselves in the world," Escovedo says.
"Antonio and I made a point of reminding each other that we wanted the record to be as timeless as possible. We didn't want to fix it to any time or narrative. It's important that it's a story about being human, being young and longing to fulfill your dreams. That's a story that everyone shares and it's a part of everyone's heritage."