Musicians often call an album "a snapshot in time," and for a multimedia artist as spontaneously creative as Exene Cervenka, that cliché holds especially true. But photographs unnaturally freeze a moment so that everything that follows and precedes it doesn't get reflected in what is seen — or in what is heard, as is the case with Cervenka's new, aptly titled Somewhere Gone.
Her first full-length solo album since 1990, Somewhere Gone comes during a frantically creative period for the one-time co-leader of X, the best of the West Coast punk bands to emerge in the late 1970s. In the last decade, she's put out spoken-word projects, participated in a variety of bands, issued books of poetry and prose, staged gallery showings of her paintings and collages, and on and on.
She recorded Somewhere in Springfield, Mo., with co-producer Lou Whitney, a former member of The Morells and The Skeletons with a cult following for his old-school approach to recording sessions. "He reminds me a lot of Dave Alvin," says Cervenka — referring to her former bandmate in X and The Knitters, who also started out in a roots-rock band and who has grown into something of an icon to those who relish new music grounded in traditional sounds. "I loved working with Lou. He's talented and knows what he's doing, and he's also just a good guy."
Whitney seemed a natural collaborator because Cervenka had lived in the countryside outside Jefferson City, Mo., for the four years leading up to Somewhere Gone. "Everything about these songs reflects my time in Missouri," she says. "The songwriting, the feel of the music, everything. I wanted to make an album about the lyrics, and this turned out to the best way to do that."
But as soon as that snapshot was taken, nearly everything in Cervenka's life shifted forward. She moved back to Southern California, where she now resides in an out-of-the-way location in Orange County. She filed for divorce from her third husband, Jason Edge, who contributes guitar to nearly every song on Somewhere Gone. She battled health problems, culminating in a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis in June 2009. And she lost her good friend, Amy Farris, an immensely talented, classically trained violinist who committed suicide in September 2009. Farris plays fiddle, viola and cello, sings duets and, along with harmony vocalist Cindy Wasserman, provides a good amount of the special musical flavor of Somewhere Gone.
"Amy and I had talked about her touring with me on this album," says Cervenka, who does have Wasserman in the band she brings to Nashville. "She had such an amazing stage presence mainly because she just was such a loving, kind, sensitive human being. She had this glow. She was a great friend, the kind of friend who was the first to call when something happened, bad or good. I miss her every day, especially out playing these songs we created together. But you have to move on."
As for her health, Cervenka says, "I feel good — very good, really. I'm staying busy, and I'm as productive as I've ever been. I've had this spurt of creativity; I've written 30 songs since I moved to Orange County. Some days are better than others, but everybody has something wrong with them, you know? I was sick before I knew what was wrong with me. Now that I know, it helps, because I can deal with it better."
Touring, it helps that Somewhere Gone has an acoustic, folk-country foundation, rather than punk energy of her classic X material or that of more recent bands, The Original Sinners and Auntie Christ. "I like simple music. I like direct sentences and real emotions, and I like relationship songs," she says, explaining the ties she sees between punk rock and country and folk music. "I pretty much write the same way for each, because it's all the same to me. I want to speak directly to people."
Lyrically, you can hear the thread between 2009's Somewhere Gone and 30-year-old songs like "We're Desperate" and "Los Angeles," with their short, declarative sentences and the clear images that come through in slice-of-life phrases. Cervenka's always been a cerebral songwriter, one who blends earthy realism with flights of poetic imagery that open songs up without sounding self-conscious or indulgent.
"Songwriting is my favorite thing to do," says the 53-year-old, who started in poetry and painting until meeting first husband John Doe. She formed X with Doe, guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer D.J. Bonebrake in 1976, after Doe convinced her to write songs and sing with him. "It's really what I live for. I like creating something every day. It hasn't always been music, but that's what I seem to enjoy most, especially here lately. I'm enjoying this tour, especially now, going back into America with them. It's where they came from."
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