An Interview with Exene Cervenka (AMP Magazine, March 2011)

Exene Cervenka is a woman of many hats. In a career spanning over 30 years, the singer, songwriter, and guitar-slinging poetess has stayed true to her art and has remained teachable. While most noted as lead singer and co-founding member of the Los Angeles punk rock band X, Exene has also been a member of Auntie Christ, the Original Sinners, and the Knitters. Having written and recorded hundreds of songs and playing innumerable gigs around the globe, Exene’s pen and voice remain evergreen by the love of music and her adoring fans.

As a solo artist, Exene’s first two records, Old Wives’ Tales (1989), Running Scared (1990), were critically acclaimed, flaunting her musical expansion and diversity. It would then be nearly a decade before the singer would release her next solo effort, Somewhere Gone, a collection of songs soulfully steeped in folk and country.

The Excitement of Maybe is Exene’s forthcoming solo offering, featuring Dave Alvin (The Blasters, X) and a host of other highly talented musicians. Love is the enduring theme of the new album, and, according to Exene, its songs encompass every facet of love.

“I think I covered everything,” Exene says. I covered the happy and the sad pretty well. The complicated and the ambivalence are in there. The desire and the yearning and the disappointment are in there. This record I just wanted to put all the love stuff in. I wanted to make it consistently one thing and not all over the place. There’s a lot of things about love–romantic love, of course–that are good, and a lot of things that are bad. And everybody knows it’s both, so I put both in there because you can’t have love without the bad and the good.”

The pedal steel guitar-laden ballad, “Dirty Snow,” conveys a sound and message vastly different than the material from Exene’s days with X, yet the song, along with the other tracks on the album, emanate completely from her experience. Exene warmly admits, “I’ve always been the character. I’ll never stop being the character. Happy or sad, I am the character.” She adds, “I wrote a bunch of those songs in a five year period on the road. In February I wrote that song. I wrote that song in Oklahoma City, and I wrote “I Wish it Would Stop Raining” and “Beyond You” and a couple of other ones right around that same time.”

“I think this record made me supremely happy because the people that are on it brought so much love and genius to the studio. They all came with the best they had. And brought it completely. Whatever I wanted, they had. They were all amazing people, so I’m honored to have worked with all the people I worked with on the record. That made me really happy. Sometimes you do a project and you go, ‘I could have done this better. I could have done that better.’ And other times you’re like, ‘Wow. I did it. I did what I wanted to do.’ This is one of those “I did what I wanted to do” kind of records. So, I’m very happy about it.”

Obviously, there has been a profound, yet inevitable evolution in Exene’s songwriting and style since her early days with X. There was a fun, “fuck the establishment” angst in a typical X song, and in the late 70’s and early 80’s it was commonplace to see Exene up front at the microphone, lashing out and leading the charge. It’s almost uncanny to see hear her nowadays, singing a sweet, country-tinged ballad of love. She admits, “Well, you know, the Knitters started in ’82. So John and I and Dave started doing Hank Williams and Carter Family songs in the early ’80’s and made our first record in ’85 with the Knitters. I could identity with it and it was the style where I was probably going.” Exene cites Ray Price, The Shirelles, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Brenda Lee, and Ray Charles as some of her other influences. “I’ve always listened to this kind of music since I was little. Americana music, whatever you want to call it.”

“I have a song that I cover all the time and it’s by Hazel Dickens, who’s a folk/country artist from West Virginia. She’s in her late 80’s and she wrote a song called “Will Jesus Wash the Bloodstains From Your Hands?” It’s an anti-war song. I do that a lot. That’s about it. I don’t cover a lot of people’s songs.

Exene hadn’t visualized being a performer when she was a child. Apparently it wasn’t a dream fostered by the people around her. “When I was a little kid there was no such thing as being a songwriter. It was a nun, a mom, or a nurse,” she explains. “I didn’t think about singing until I moved to California. I had been writing poetry, but I don’t think I had actually wrote as song. It was the furthest thing from my mind. It was an abstract. How do you get on the radio? How do you find people? I never thought about that. I just knew it was magic.”

“As far as making the decision to become a musician, there’s no security in it. It’s month to month. We’ve been doing this for a long time with no insurance and no benefits. Any money you save, you save. You’ve got no employer looking out for you. You got nobody looking out for you. It is something you have to want to do, to do it. I realize that now. I look back on my life and I’m like, ‘Oh my God. What was I thinking?’ (laughs) What a great, amazing life. But, on the other hand, what an idea I had there, you know? What kind of idea was that? What was I thinking? It’s been a privileged life, I gotta say. People gave me my life. The people who like what I do–who love X–they gave me my life. And if they take it away, I won’t have it anymore. I’m entirely dependent upon people like you. That’s crazy. I don’t mind it. You have to earn the respect of people over a lifetime. Not just play music, but maintain your integrity and be kind to people.”

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