The Austin-born, Oberlin-trained musician—and daughter of the hard-living Texas songwriter-activist David Rodriguez—at one time aspired to be a great fiddler. Then she went on tour with Chip Taylor (who wrote “Wild Thing” and “Angel of the Morning”) and, under his wing, blossomed into a singer and a songwriter. The pair recorded three studio albums; Rodriguez released her first solo effort in 2006. Her latest, Love and Circumstance (Ninth Street Opus), is a collection of songs by others.
Why make a covers album now? There were a few songs that I had been doing in my live show for the last couple of years. Every night at the end of the show, someone would say, “Oh, I wanna buy the album that Spanish song is on.” I thought it would be great to record them, but I couldn’t ever figure out how they would fit.
Was one song a linchpin for the project? “When I Heard Gypsy Davy Sing”—that’s something my father sent me in an e-mail sometime last year. It was a rough recording—he sounded pretty tired or maybe drunk. It really touched me. A lot of this record is linked to family. “La Punalada Trapera” is my great-aunt’s song—she didn’t write it, but she recorded it forty years ago. And some of the other writers are people that I grew up with because of my father, like Townes Van Zandt and Lucinda Williams.
When you record someone else’s song, do you feel an obligation to change it? I feel an obligation to make it my own. I take the tune and play it at home over and over again until I almost forget that I didn’t write it. Like the Hank Williams song “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”—I don’t think I’d heard a recording of that for many years. I just played it to myself, and when I took it to [guitarist] Bill Frisell and we recorded it, he said, “That’s really interesting. You played it in four. It’s in three!” I was like, “I did?” I didn’t even know.
Had you not met Chip Taylor, do you think you would have still headed down a songwriting path? I certainly wasn’t headed in that direction. I always envisioned myself getting a gig with somebody great. When I was in college, I saw Lyle Lovett play, and, boy, I wanted to be in that band so badly. Songwriting just seemed like something unattainable. I felt I was meant to be up on the stage, but I didn’t quite see beyond that. I think it scared me. My dad would sometimes put me on the spot and tell the audience, “Now, my daughter, she’s gonna sing for you.” He was teaching me a little guitar, and I think I had learned how to play “Me and Bobby McGee.” I was so shy; maybe that traumatized me.
All the stuff that was meant to encourage you had the opposite effect. [Laughs] I think it might have. Not to mention seeing my dad and being like, “Oh, God, this is what happens to you when you write songs?!”
What about your next record? Are you writing already? I’ve talked to Alejandro [Escovedo] a little bit about getting together, so we might find some time to do that this spring. He wants to help me write some rock songs. We were on tour with him in February, and he gave my guitar player and me rock lessons all day long. Just how to live more rock and roll, how to dress, how to talk to the ladies.
Uh-oh. You’ve recently moved back to Austin after a long stay in New York. What prompted the move? It was time to come home. Living there, you are constantly challenged to do your absolute best and to move fast. Now I’m on the road so much that I really need a calm place to come home to, and New York was not that. Austin’s got plenty of great music to go see if you want to, but it also has beautiful parks and trees and . . . I haven’t heard birds in the morning for eight years.