Music » Music Features

Not Just a Girl in a Band

A year in the life of Exene Cervenka.



Exene Cervenka may have been born in Illinois and raised in Florida, but she will always be identified with Los Angeles. That's where she co-founded X, one of the city's best and most legendary punk bands, which in the late 1970s and early '80s took strains of country and rockabilly and revved them.

Theirs was a complex view of the city, eschewing Sunset Strip glitz-rock and Laurel Canyon folk for wrong-side-of-the-tracks punk and portraying L.A. as seedy, hostile, dangerous — with a tension so combustible it was perpetually antagonistic. Generous and heartfelt despite the setting, X's music has proved so durable that the band is still touring behind its early albums 30 years later.

Until recently, however, Cervenka was only a spiritual presence in Los Angeles. Earlier in the 2000s, she moved to a remote farm in rural Missouri, which may not be the obvious setting for punk's grand dame, but she wanted to leave L.A. "I wanted to get out to the country and be somewhere beautiful," she says. "I had a big farmhouse with a barn, all that stuff. It was fun but very isolating."

The setting proved to be conducive to writing songs and creating art: "I like to create in a vacuum, so for me it was perfect," Cervenka says. "Other people would have gone crazy."  

Her sojourn into the Midwest lasted four years, after which Cervenka returned to Los Angeles. "The people here are more important to me than Missouri," she explains. "As much as I love Missouri and had a really good experience being there, I finally decided to come back."

That homecoming was part of a year of extreme ups and downs for the singer-songwriter. In October, she released Somewhere Gone, her first solo album in 13 years and her fifth overall. The songs are low-key, mostly acoustic, and genially countrified, like X stripped down to its essential parts. Cervenka's lyrics convey her isolation, even when she's singing about traveling, playing, loving, or just living. Some songs are heartbroken ("Why does my everything sleep in someone else's light?"), others randy and ambiguous ("You do that insane thing to me!"), still others playful and unguarded in their imagery ("Catching raindrops in the parking lot/steam rising from the asphalt"). 

The rambling sound, which often places Cervenka's vocals over nothing but an acoustic guitar or spare violins, gives the album a spontaneity, as if these were no-pressure demos recorded during a laid-back session. "I didn't want to make a band record," she explains. "I wanted to make an intimate, simple, plain folk record, because that's the way the songs seemed to be translating best."

Her compositions determine their own fates, Cervenka says. "Songs are like little miracles, because when you're finished, it's almost like you've given birth to something. It's an amazing process, but then you have to figure out what to do with these little miracles to make them reach their potential. That's the tricky part." 

Ultimately, Somewhere Gone is also an album about inspiration, which is fitting for an artist working in so many media at once. Cervenka is well known for her folk-art-inspired collages and found-art sculptures created from old prints and materials. She likens them to a kind of recycling: "Especially with old photographs and stuff like that," she says. "People get rid of their family heirlooms in thrift stores or auctions, which is where I find stuff. And I like to give it new life, give it new respect."

In 2009, she opened two art shows — a solo exhibition titled "Celestial Ash: Assemblages from Los Angeles" at the Craft and Folk Museum in L.A. and a joint exhibition, "We're Not the Jet Set," with Wayne White at Western Project in Culver City. She currently has a piece in "Never Can Say Goodbye," a show organized by New York art collective No Longer Empty and set up in an abandoned Tower Records store on Broadway.  

While the music and the visuals come from similar places, she says, they don't really intersect: "They replace each other at intervals. I'm so happy that I can do two or three different things, because if I were just doing songs, maybe I would take that ability for granted or not do it as much. But I can go back and forth between two different things, so I never get tired of one." 

If 2009 was a year of big highs for Cervenka, the big low came in the spring, when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. That news, she says, was not out of the blue. "I was expecting the diagnosis," she says, "because I had been sick for a long time with weird things, so I just figured there was something weird wrong with me."

Nevertheless, it came as a shock to her friends, who she says have been unfailingly supportive and ultimately turned that low into a high.

"It's going to be a pain in the ass someday, but right now it's been very positive because I learned a lot about people. I'm getting lots of advice, lots of recommendations, and it feels like the cumulative reward for working all these years, just to know that there are all these people out there. I always knew they were there but didn't know to what extent they were capable of feeling for a girl in a band."

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