Exene Cervenka is a tireless artist, in every sense of the word. She publishes books of her poetry and has exhibited her collages and journals in art galleries. But the 53-year-old is perhaps best known for her musical projects: the punk band X, rootsier rockers the Knitters (which features her X bandmates John Doe and DJ Bonebrake) and the Sinners (whose lineup once featured locals 7 Shot Screamers).
Cervenka's solo Bloodshot Records debut, Somewhere Gone, is a work brimming with collaborators — and cameos, too: blues-punk Dexter Romweber; Morells member Lou Whitney (in whose Springfield, Missouri, studio Gone was recorded); guitarist/percussionist Jason Edge (Cervenka's third husband, a member of local surf-rock act the Honkeys and relaunched rockers the Geargrinders) and Cindy Wasserman from the LA desert-punk band Dead Rock West. (Sadly, vocalist, cellist and fiddler Amy Farris, another woman who's featured prominently on the album, passed away several weeks ago.)
Cervenka started writing Gone's songs a year and a half ago and now says that she was trying to make a "lyric-driven" record, which explains why her voice — clear, sweet and strong — is at the forefront. Musically, the album sounds different than any of her existing projects. Spare and stripped-back, the album touches on gyspy-folk, coffeehouse twang and roots-rock. Each individual instrument — saloon piano, acoustic guitar, feathery percussion, ominous cellos — takes time in the spotlight, making Gone a delicate, graceful collection of songs.
As if music weren't keeping her busy enough, she also revealed earlier this year that she has the neurological disorder multiple sclerosis. After living in rural Missouri for the past several years, Cervenka recently returned to her native California. She and Edge are divorcing. "It was four years of isolation, which was a fantastic experience," she says about her tenure in the Midwest. "[But I] decided over the summer that I would be happier coming back to California. So I did that, and I'm living here now. The record was conceived, made, created, whatever in Missouri. It belongs to Missouri, on some level, but I'm back in California."
Annie Zaleski: What did all the musicians you worked with bring to their songs? Why did you choose to work with each of them?
Exene Cervenka: Well, that is the most important question of all of them, probably, because they brought the record to me. Everyone who played on it had their own ideas — they were well-rehearsed, they had a vision for what they wanted to hear. Sometimes I would change that vision, because it wasn't quite what I wanted [and] sometimes I would go with what they felt. I trusted everyone — I chose them because I knew I could trust them to play the right thing.
How long of a process was it recording Somewhere Gone?
I did it a couple weeks here and a couple weeks there. I don't know how long I spent on it, to tell you the truth. I don't remember — it was probably about five weeks. That included mixing and everything like that, and all the recording, getting everybody there. We recorded in Springfield, Missouri, at Lou Whitney's studio.
What is his studio like?
Fantastic. Very simple, very homey, great sounds, great microphones. He's just amazing to be around, because he's like an American treasure. If you meet him, you'd know why — every word out of is mouth is amazing. He's great at what he does.
What was the inspiration for Gone's songs?
Each one's different, every one has a different story. "Somewhere Gone," the title song, it was inspired by my friend Skwirl. She lives in New Orleans and she had to keep escaping those hurricanes, so I wrote a song about that.
I saw Dex Romweber last summer. You're also on his record [2009's Ruins of Berlin], too. What did you like best about working with him?
I love Dexter Romweber. Working with him is great, because he's everything he's supposed to be: He's intuitive, he loves with a passion everything he's doing, he loves with a passion the people that he asks to play with him — and you know that going in, so that just makes you feel great. And his singing is so brilliant, that it kind of makes it easy to sing to.
What's your favorite song on the album?
"Pinpoints," probably. It's the most out-there song. It's because of what people played on it — it sounds like a Nashville-gypsy record; I don't know how to describe it. It's a great amalgamation of different people playing together.
What kind of touring plans do you have? Any shows in the works?
I'm doing weekend shows right now around the country. Eventually, I'll be playing everywhere. Winter's going to be kind of a bummer, because I won't get to certain places by December. I won't get there until the spring. If I make a record in October and people have forgotten all about me by spring, I'm in big trouble anyway.
You played a show opening for Fear's Lee Ving at Deluxe in April. What was the most fun about that?
It was fun sharing a bill with him, because we haven't done that in very many years. I really wanted to see him, see what he would play. I thought it was great that he played "Danny Boy" and talked about having grandkids — he's fearless and shocking.
I've been very impressed that you've been open about having multiple sclerosis. Was that a difficult decision, to put it out there?
Well, I knew I had to tell a bunch of people in the music industry. I was busy making new connections and working with new people in the industry, and had to disclose to them, "By the way, here's what you're getting when you sign me," and, "Here's what you're getting when you start working with me," and, "Here's what you're getting when I go out on the road." Plus I had to tell my friends, so that information was going to come out and filter out into the general public. And my friends and fans that I didn't tell would hear rumors and be confused and alarmed and not know exactly what was wrong — and then one disease turns into another disease, and that turns into you're dead. So a long story, but it's almost disrespectful not to tell people, so they know the real story from the get go, so they're not worrying about you. I didn't want that. I couldn't keep it personal, it would get out.
I have a physical disability too, so I relate. Having something happen to your body is a private thing, but yet you're kind of a public figure.
Well, there's also a mentality in this country that is a very positive one, and that is from gay pride to civil rights to every kind of thing, people feel like they should be out. There was a sign language...not like a convention, but there was a big gathering [of people doing sign language] in Austin when I was there. They were wearing T-shirts that said slogans about being deaf, and it was really neat. Otherwise, you're in the closet.
Yeah, I have the same mindset. The movement of "disability pride" — you're reclaiming anything that people might oppress you with.
Yeah, exactly. And then you're also being an advocate for each other. I'm [helping] some people who have this same thing I have feel good in a way, knowing that someone's out there being public about it. And you know what else I figured out — I'm glad I [was so open], because it was a personal blessing to have this disease, but I got the best pouring out of love and respect and caring. It changed my whole life, it changed my whole energy toward people in general and everything else.
Has it changed how you might write poetry or write music?
It hasn't so far. I'm not in a real terrible way, physically right now. So nothing's changed.