interview by Nikki Roddy
With the US in economic crisis and only days away from deciding one of the most critical elections in its history, the prevailing attitude of general America can safely be described as one of fear. Fear so thick and palpable that it feels like everyone is engaging in a collective nail-biting session and bunkering down for the worst.
Well, maybe not everyone. Joey Burns, the prolific guitarist and vocalist of genre-defying Calexico, seems to be one man able to keep a level head.
I had the privilege of speaking with Burns on the phone just days after he and John Convertino, the drummer and second half of Calexico’s core duo, had returned from their European tour. With a few weeks off before embarking on a set of US shows, Burns describes spending downtime with his girlfriend, working on a side project (writing musical numbers for an operatic version of the Tennessee Williams’ play, “The Glass Menagerie—a friend is directing the opera), and drinking Italian wine, a souvenir brought over from the most recent tour. When asked if he has any secrets to recovering from jet lag, he offers this wisdom: “Listen to your body if it’s tired. Drink lots of water and keep a sense of humor, because your bags might not arrive for two weeks after you, and your brain may not arrive until two weeks after that.”
His tone is relaxed and sincere whether describing European crowds (“Paris crowds are my favorite; they’re very respectful, really engaging”), or locals only spots he seeks out when touring different cities (“It’s about meeting people and exploring stranger places that you wouldn’t end up going…You look for those places that evoke character”), and I take away the impression that Burns is a person who finds pleasure in the simple things.
It is this same peaceful, open nature that Burns manages to express through his music. Calexico’s sixth studio LP, Carried to Dust, which released this past September, is an undisputed beauty. Richly layered, hauntingly poignant, and powerful in its complexity, the album’s 15 tracks showcase a harmonious blend of Southwestern jazz, country, and indie rock, as well as heavy South American influences. Carried to Dust is also one of Calexico’s most collaborative albums to date. In addition to friend and past-contributor, Iron & Wine’s Sam Bean, the album unveils many artists the band has not collaborated with before. Pieta Brown, Douglas McCombs, Mickey Raphael, Amparo Sanchez, and Jairo Zavala all make distinct contributions to their respective tracks.
My conversation with Burns turns naturally from the European tour to global awareness, politics, and stylistic influences. Recognizing that Calexico’s sound is greatly impacted by elements which span broader that the band’s American roots is important to Burns. “Journalists tend to take the easy way out,” he explains, “they tend to stop at the southwest influence…There’s an international fabric that weaves it’s way through the band.” We talk about the band’s first trip to South America; Burns describes it as “incredibly impactful,” and recounts the particularly meaningful experience of traveling through the hometown of Victor Jara, the Chilean singer-songwriter and political activist who was murdered in the 1973 Chilean coup. “Victor Jara’s Hands” is the first song on Carried to Dust, and is what can be assumed is a tribute to a man who died for his beliefs.
Clearly passionate about social justice issues, I ask Burns if he considers himself an activist. “No,” he says softly, “I consider myself a regular citizen who plays music and is considerate of others. Every time you travel outside your front door, you’re exposed to different perspectives, and you want to share those perspectives in an understated way, not overstated way…you want to be true to yourself.” When asked about the upcoming election, and the fact that Calexico will be touring massive red states, Texas and Tennessee three days after the election, Burns laughs, “I’m excited! I think it will be great. I think people will want to come out and talk and engage about what’s happened. Not just about presidential, but local elections, too.”
As if I had any doubt by the end of our conservation, I ask my last question. Does Burns consider himself an optimist or a pessimist? “Optimist all the way!” he exclaims. “Like anyone else, I have those dark days of depression and doubt. Being a musician and putting that out that helps. Going outside of your door and interacting with others, exchanging thoughts, ideas, dreams, concerns, that’s all a good remedy for that. This tour will be good because people will want to go out, locally and globally.”
Wise words straight from the optimist’s mouth. Keep calm, America.
Calexico – Two Silver Trees