At age 53, singer, songwriter, artist, and poet Exene Cervenka remains one of the coolest women in rock. As one-fourth of the seminal punk group X, Cervenka and then-husband/bandmate John Doe laid the groundwork for what would become one of the most important musical movements California has ever seen. With legendary folk icon Dave Alvin and Doe, Cervenka’s band The Knitters helped set the mold for modern day alt-country music. And as a visual artist and solo composer, Cervenka has again and again proved herself a force to be reckoned with-with or without a backing band.
“I feel like I was a part of one of the greatest punk bands, and I was a part of one the best folk outfits when I was working with Dave Alvin,” Cervenka stated matter-of-factly via phone. “They’re all perfect, and it makes me think, ‘I can really do anything now.'”
In addition to continued touring and writing with both X and The Knitters, Cervenka’s “anything” has encompassed everything from solo albums (from 1989’s Old Wives’ Tales to this year’s Somewhere Gone) to spoken word performances to books to mixed-media art exhibits in some of the country’s more notable contemporary art galleries.
For Somewhere Gone, the songstress has crafted an album that’s sweet, soft, twangy, and meticulously under-produced, making for a collection of folk songs that speaks to its listeners intimately and assuredly. Lying smack in the middle of Somewhere’s bluesy country and lush folk is the traditional Appalachia-esque “The Willow Tree,” which strips Cervenka’s girlish vocals down to their most raw while acting as a testament to her exceptionally wide musical range.
“We’ve always said that folk is just punk rock played slow,” laughed Cervenka. “We’ve been saying that for years.” “When John and I first met in 1976, he would play stuff that I grew up with,” she said, recalling her folk roots. “We’d listen to 45s from Chuck Berry to John Cage to all kinds of folk music. : We all had very wide ranges of tastes, John, [guitarist] Billy [Zoom], [drummer] D.J. [Bonebreak], and I. If it wasn’t for John, I wouldn’t know half the stuff I know about now.”
Past influences aside, Somewhere Gone is very much a reflection of Cervenka’s life when the album was written. Following a three-decade stint in Los Angeles, Cervenka and her now-estranged third husband Jason Edge (actor Viggo Mortensen was hubby number two) moved to a farm in rural Missouri, where Somewhere was both written and recorded.
“After living in L.A. for 30 years, I just wanted to buy an old house with a barn and have a place where we could do art and music,” she explained. “But now I’m going through a divorce. : I’m back in L.A., and I’m so happy. This is where I want to be. The people here are the people I want to be making music with.”
In addition to her Left Coast homecoming, 2009 has marked a number of milestones, both good and bad, for Cervenka. Musically, she’s reteamed with Doe, Zoom, and Bonebreak for a number of new X songs, which may find a home on a new album-the band’s first since 1993’s Hey Zeus!-sometime soon. Cervenka also made headlines this summer with her public announcement of her diagnosis with multiple sclerosis.
“It is a disease that operates on a spectrum of symptoms : and I’m somewhere in the middle, and I’m very, very lucky,” she explained. “I came out with my diagnosis because I didn’t want to make people worry that I was dying or that I was sicker than I actually was. I didn’t want my fans-I hate calling them ‘fans’-but I didn’t want the people who care about me to worry.”
“I’ve learned you never know what the future holds,” Cervenka continued. “I can only hope to keep working and making music and making art and staying healthy.”
Exene Cervenka plays Velvet Jones (423 State St.) this Sunday, November 15, at 8 p.m. Call 965-8676 or visit ticketweb.com for info.