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Calexico: Road Songs For Wandering Souls

John Convertino and Joey Burns have been performing as Calexico since 1996. Their latest album is called <em>Algiers</em>.
Jairo Zavala
Courtesy of the artist
John Convertino and Joey Burns have been performing as Calexico since 1996. Their latest album is called Algiers.

At 11 a.m. on a weekday, Calexico rehearses for its upcoming tour in a cramped studio on the south side of Tucson, Ariz. The stereotypical musician would just be getting up, but lead singer and songwriter Joey Burns has been up since dawn with his twin baby girls.

Trumpet player Jacob Valenzuela arrives late to the rehearsal — and that's because his washing machine broke and he had to deal with a small flood. Valenzuela grabs his trumpet as the band launches into "Splitter," the first single from Calexico's new album.

Late last year, the musicians left the kids and the appliances to find the space and time to record Algiers, named for the neighborhood in New Orleans where they made it. "Splitter" is about an immigrant in a field, by the side of the road — the kind of individual who shows up in a lot of the songs Burns writes.

"There's a lot of characters there that I think I identify with [on] parts of the road, especially in the Southwest," Burns says. "You notice these people standing out everywhere you go, kind of looking for a break."

Burns got his inspiration for "Splitter" from a book of stark character studies by the photographer Richard Avedon, called The American West. Calexico is tied to the Southwest: It's named after a small town on the California-Mexico border. Tucson embraced the band, partly because of how often it has played there in the last few years — at the Festival En El Barrio, which benefits Tucson's oldest neighborhood, and at countless other benefits. Calexico's core members, Joey Burns and drummer John Convertino, are not from Tucson, though. Convertino fled Los Angeles in the mid-1990s.

"I'd been in L.A. for nine years, and I'd seen a lot of spandex and long hair and a lot of people trying to do the same thing," Convertino says. "Coming to Tucson, you could see people just having the space and the time to do something different."

Burns also moved from L.A., fell in with local musicians and gradually fell in love with the place.

"The feeling that you get when you're just by yourself here is really divine," Burns says. "The fact that we are a border region is really exciting. I like the mix of cultures and language styles and life. It's an honor for me to be thought of in a positive way with this place."

One moment this year embodied the band's connection with Tucson: a memorial service on the anniversary of the shootings that rocked the city. Former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords, who was wounded in the attack, sat on stage as Calexico played "Crystal Frontier," one of Giffords' favorite songs. There had been speeches, prayers and candles lit for the 19 shooting victims.

"I really think when they got onstage and they played, it was really a release that the whole audience needed," says Ron Barber, who replaced Giffords in Congress. "You could just hear and see how people responded to them playing that night, and I know Gabby just loved it, because I know this is her favorite band, too."

Nancy Barber, Ron Barber's wife, has a more intimate perspective on Calexico's musicians than most people. She was a postpartum doula for John Convertino's children — and now Joey Burns' twins.

"He's busy: He's gone and he has these two gorgeous, wonderful little daughters," she says. "Twins are hard, and he was there all the time [saying], 'Nancy, teach me this, how do I do this?' Just asking all the questions."

Family is an important part of Burns' songs, especially families separated by the U.S. and Mexico borders. Or, in the case of "Sinner in the Sea," off the new album, those stranded by the political divide between Cuba and the U.S.

"It's about those people that are trying to get across," Burns says. "It's about that connection that is, for the time, being submerged."

There's that theme again — people on some kind of journey. The members of Calexico are on one now: They're on tour, bringing dark joy to fans in Europe, then back home in the U.S.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As supervising editor for Arts and Culture at NPR based at NPR West in Culver City, Ted Robbins plans coverage across NPR shows and online, focusing on TV at a time when there's never been so much content. He thinks "arts and culture" encompasses a lot of human creativity — from traditional museum offerings to popular culture, and out-of-the-way people and events.