Keeping up with Exene Cervenka
If people were paintings, Exene Cervenka might be a Picasso line drawing. In conversation, as in her considerable body of work, a founding member of X expresses herself concisely, every thought contributing to a larger picture that could come only from her.
And like the Spanish artist, Cervenka has transitioned successfully through a variety of career phases, starting with her stint in X, the band that perhaps best embodied the character of L.A.'s punk subculture of the early ‘80s. She moved on to the rootsy folk-country side project the Knitters with other members of X and the Blasters, then launched a solo career that included spoken-word performances of her own writings.
In the last decade, she started taking her interest in visual art seriously to the point of regularly exhibiting in galleries around the country.
A recent diagnosis of multiple sclerosis has done little to slow her creative output, but it is one factor that has figured into her return to Southern California after four years spent living in rural Missouri.
“I’m back,” she said between sips of iced tea at the funky Filling Station Cafe, a former gas station in Orange’s Old Towne district, which is now filled with historic turn-of-the-century homes, antique shops and vintage clothing stores.
“It’s fantastic,” she said of life in the land of Mark Twain. “It was something I wanted to do my whole life: move to the middle of nowhere and live in the country.”
In one sense, she was escaping the big city rat race, but the move also served her artistic life. It was in Missouri that she wrote and recorded all the songs on her new solo album, “Somewhere Gone,” released today.
“I’ve always believed this as an artist, that the best way to create is in a vacuum,” she said.
Not that she considers the Midwest a vacuum, but by exiting a hive of activity like Los Angeles, she felt better able to act from within, rather than react to what was going on around her.
“That time in Missouri for me was like the punk days again in a weird way, even though there wasn’t a scene. I was isolated, and I think your art is more pure, and I think that’s true for visual art and music when you create that way.
“I think that’s why the punk scene was so incredibly strong, because it was ignored,” she said. “There was no MTV, there was no radio . . . . and it flourished because of that.”
X blossomed virtually from birth about three decades ago. In such watershed albums as “Los Angeles,” “Wild Gift” and “More Fun in the New World,” Cervenka, bassist-singer-songwriter John Doe, guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer D.J. Bonebrake took the unbridled energy of punk and channeled it in sharply drawn portraits of life lived on the edge.
The group’s songs mined the poetic and literary traditions of outsider writers such as Charles Bukowski and were sung by Cervenka and then-husband Doe in dissonant harmonies that became part of the group’s signature sound.
(Her music will get virtually the full scope of settings in a string of upcoming shows, including a duo performance with Doe on Friday at the Echo, a solo set Nov. 10 at Largo at the Coronet and then a full-fledged X show Dec. 19 at the Wiltern Theatre).
Cervenka has extended that approach to the Knitters and her solo work. “Somewhere Gone” has an even more stripped-down, intimate feel than most of the Knitters’ recordings, although “Walk Me Across the Night” incorporates tasty boogie-woogie piano, while “Pinpoints” evokes a seductive Gypsy caravan in Appalachia. It’s instrumentally spartan, relying on the 53-year-old artist’s still girlish voice, elemental acoustic guitar and harmonies with any of several duet partners.
Her husband, Jason Edge, contributes guitar and percussion work; among the other singers and instrumentalists who came to Missouri to record with her was fiddle player and singer Amy Farris, who died unexpectedly last week. Together, the women recorded the traditional folk song “The Willow Tree,” though it wasn’t originally set to be included on this latest collection.
“Amy came in and I had her down to play on about seven things,” Cervenka said. “I told her, ‘If we get five extra minutes, I’d like to do “The Willow Tree.” ’ We did, and it ended up on the record.”
The sudden loss of her friend, with whom she had begun writing songs, comes at a time when Cervenka has been dealing with upheaval of her own in the MS diagnosis.
“I’ve got to say that like a lot of people who have something really bad happen to them, it’s a blessing and a curse,” she said. “I’m learning a lot about people, about my friends, my family, about me.
“I’ve completely changed my lifestyle around to be healthier, and I think it’s one of the things that’s helped me make a leap forward, hopefully. It’s kind of platitude-ish, but you always want to be a better person. As you get older, you want to be more productive, slay your demons, move forward . . . . Hopefully, I can use this as a furthering of that process.”
Another part of that process is her return to the Southland, and she sounds truly happy to be surrounded by her many friends in the region’s artistic community.
“I moved back because of the people, not because of the place,” she said. “The people I want to play music with are here, and right now I want to play music.”
She hasn’t abandoned her other pursuits, however. She recently had two shows of her visual art in L.A. galleries, much of it assembled collage-style with disparate images and ideas colliding, as Picasso also did in his Cubist period. Cervenka often incorporates objects she’s socked away from thrift stores and any other place she can find “what the culture gives up. I’ve learned a lot living in Missouri, going to auctions where farms are being sold . . .
“I feel like it was my version of college,” she said, “because I never went to school. It was like my four-year college. It was . . . a glorious life. But it’s not what I want to do right now. I change really quickly when I change, and I’ve changed again.”
Might she also be thinking about reclaiming her vaunted place as one of the pivotal figures in the pantheon of Los Angeles music?
“That doesn’t register that much when you’re buying a new broom and a mop,” she said with a wry smile. “Living here is weird, but being back is good . . . I missed it when I was gone. I hated it when I left; now I love it again.”