NEW YORK - It was meant to help pay his medical bills. A tribute album with musicians performing Alejandro Escovedo's songs arguably helped his health, too.
The Austin singer-songwriter was trying to recover from a near-deadly bout with hepatitis C when the discs from his peers started arriving - Lucinda Williams, the Jayhawks, Son Volt, Cowboy Junkies, Calexico, John Cale, Ian Hunter, Steve Earle, his niece Sheila E.
Thirty-one artists in all, enough to make a double set when Por Vida: The Songs of Alejandro Escovedo came out in 2004.
Escovedo sobbed as he listened to many of them.
"Not only was it making me feel good, it was making them feel good to be able to help me," he recalled. "From all those years of traveling around the country and meeting these wonderful people and admiring these wonderful people, it was really just overwhelming."
The emotional boost - and some new doctors - nudged Escovedo toward recovery. Eventually, he returned to making music.
His first new recording since 2001, The Boxing Mirror, will come out Tuesday and offers a thorough overview of his abilities. Escovedo has three cult bands (the Nuns, Rank & File, True Believers) on his resume and has been a solo artist since 1992. What makes him distinctive is his ability to incorporate non-rock instruments into his music, as seen in a recent New York show that featured two cellos, a violin and two acoustic guitars.
"We love to make noise," he said. "We love to rock hard, we love ballads and we love atmospherics. I think all of those things came to play in this record."
His quieter songs pack the biggest emotional wallop. Arizona, the first song written after his illness, has two meanings. The state was where he collapsed onstage in 2002 and had to be rushed to the emergency room, clinging to life. It's also where he met his wife, poet Kim Christoff, who contributed lyrics to two new songs.
Both of those life events are referenced as well in I Died a Little Today and Looking For Love.
Escovedo has written frequently through the years about his musician-father. On the poignant Evita's Lullaby, he writes about his mother trying to regain her footing after his father died following 60 years of marriage.
His mother is always asking Escovedo for cassettes of him playing the guitar, he said.
"She loves the way I play guitar, for some reason," he said. "It's the kind of guitar playing only a mother would love."
A huge fan of the Velvet Underground, Escovedo realized a dream by employing that band's John Cale as his producer. Cale played a key role, totally reshaping the music and giving the songs more focus, Escovedo said.
With his wife, Escovedo has become interested in Budd-hism and non-Western medicine. It was through an acupuncturist, he said, that he learned his treatment for hepatitis was slowly killing him by eating away at his bone marrow. It also took a toll on his personality, causing mood swings and making him difficult to live with.
"All the things you enjoyed prior to taking this medicine, you didn't enjoy while you were on it," he said. "It was a pretty hellish experience. I'm glad it's over."
He kept being sent to rock 'n' roll doctors who seemed more interested in talking about their own guitars or songs than his health. They kept promising to get him back on the road quickly.
Since the excesses of the road had nearly killed him, that wasn't high on his list of priorities. What Escovedo, 55, really wanted was to spend more time with his seven children - ranging in age from 3 to 33.
He had met Christoff not too long before his collapse. She was a creative writing teacher at the University of Arizona at Phoenix, and someone brought her to one of his shows.
"She had no idea who I was," he said. "She didn't even know how to pronounce my name. We met, and it just changed my life."
While working on music with a spouse can be problematic (see Ono, Yoko), Christoff only helped with lyrics. They have a mutual insecurity society, both admiring the other's writing ability more than their own.
Escovedo said his health is good now. He feels strong.