Calexico's Joey Burns On The Sound Of The Southwest
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Dry, arid landscapes, adobe houses, cacti and brush. The American Southwest is home to musicians Joey Burns and John Convertino. And their band Calexico has spent more than two decades exploring it. Their latest record, "The Thread That Keeps Us," is a tender view of a rough terrain.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "END OF THE WORLD WITH YOU")
JOEY BURNS: (Singing) Love in the age of the extremes. There's nothing better that I'd rather do than to scatter all the myths and walk to the start of the end of the world with you.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Guitarist and vocalist of Calexico Joey Burns joins us from KUAZ in Tucson, Ariz., to discuss the band's ninth studio album. Joey, congratulations. Nine studio albums. No small thing.
BURNS: Thank you so much, Lulu. It feels good. It feels good being here.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. So you and your bandmate have spent - I think it's 20 years in Tucson. Is that right?
BURNS: Yeah, that's right.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Wow. How has that shaped your sound?
BURNS: Well, I'd say it's kind of given a lot of inspiration. It's given us the opportunity to play in front of a really incredible and diverse community here in southern Arizona. There's a lot of love here.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But a lot of the songs on the album take place in sort of harsh settings. I want to play the opening of the song "Voices In The Field."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VOICES IN THE FIELD")
BURNS: (Singing) Running through fields of flowers and smoke, leaving behind all that we've built. The garden now in ashes and the roof is caving in. A broken hourglass, blood running thin.
That song "Voices In The Field" is inspired by people who are uprooted and have to leave their homes, basically, have to run for their lives. I was thinking about Syrian refugees. I was thinking about immigrants coming from Central America, thinking about refugees from Africa and just wondering what it would be like to be in their shoes.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And I guess southern Arizona has a big connection with the border and, obviously, with immigration.
BURNS: Most certainly, yeah. It's a beautiful region here. And the borderlands between United States and Mexico - it's a great place. And the reason why I enjoy living here and what attracted me to moving here from California was the fact that you've got a lot of different cultures coming together.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you do when you want to process something that you've seen in the news or around you and put it into music?
BURNS: I usually kind of pick up a guitar or sit behind a piano. And then I take my sketches and ideas to John Convertino, who sits behind the drums...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You do sketches? You draw things?
BURNS: Yeah. I have twin daughters who are 6 years old, Genevieve and Twyla. And they love whenever I, you know, make drawings or sketches. And, sometimes, I'll write them on a postcard and send them back home for when I'm touring far away.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you don't forget. I'm curious. Have they heard the album, and what's their favorite song?
BURNS: Twyla and Genevieve both really helped out with the writing of one of the songs called "Girl In The Forest."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRL IN THE FOREST")
BURNS: (Singing) Well, the girl in the forest reached out to ease my worried mind.
I was coming up with ideas that were influenced from what was happening at Standing Rock and talking about protests and machines and diggers and cranes. And I think it kind of got heavy for them. And at some point, they just kind of turned to me and said, why can't the song just be about this girl who communicates with the animals and all things in the forest? And I thought, that is just simply beautiful.
(SOUNDBITE OF CALEXICO SONG, "GIRL IN THE FOREST")
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And "Flores Y Tamales" - what's that about? I'm intrigued, being a Spanish speaker.
BURNS: Well, it's a cumbia. And we've been enjoying cumbias for many, many, many years thanks to our good friends at the Little Poca Cosa restaurant here in Tucson.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Shout out.
BURNS: Yeah, they were the first ones to turn me on to cumbias.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLORES Y TAMALES")
JAIRO ZAVALA: (Singing in Spanish).
BURNS: It features our guitar player, Jairo Zavala, who is from Madrid. And Jairo said, you know, I have some lyrics. Maybe I could sing over this. And he just - he nailed it. It's incredible. And it's a beautiful song that just talks about coming together despite being separated either by border or by distance or by ideas. And in this case, it's "Flores Y Tamales."
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The album's called "The Thread That Keeps Us." Clearly, that's a theme.
BURNS: Well, I think in these days, I think we're often talking about what divides us. Or at least it's being talked about a lot in the news. So I thought, what are those things that bind us or that connect us? Where can we agree? And so for me, I like the fact that the title is a question because I think, ultimately, when you read it, you go, OK, well, what is it, you know? Is it love? Is it a cup of coffee? Is it music itself?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was guitarist and vocalist Joey Burns of the band Calexico. He joins us from KUAZ in Tucson, Ariz. Thanks so much.
BURNS: Thank you for having me, Lulu. I love the show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.