Inquiring Minds: Exene Cervenka on Losing a Friend, Weeping Willows, Albums as Collage and Her Good Buddy Biscuit

Ali Smith/Bloodshot Records
Exene Cervenka is one of those musicians who makes an interviewer nervous; like, you hope the questions you come up with are good enough not to piss her off, or worse, laugh at you. Besides a published poet and accomplished visual artist, Cervenka and now-ex-husband/recurrent musical collaborator John Doe founded arguably the seminal U.S. West Coast punk band - and certainly one of the first - in X.

The Southern California firebrands seared their rockabilly-influenced, surprisingly humorous (at times, anyway) gut-check rock into a pre-Alternative Nation's earholes via albums like 1980 debut Los Angeles, '81's Wild Gift and the next year's Under the Big Black Sun, which spawned piss-and-vinegar anthems including "Johnny Hit & Run Pauline," "We're Desperate" and "The Hungry Wolf."

After X cooled down, Cervenka and Doe joined up with Blasters buddy Dave Alvin to form the country (but still rockin') combo the Knitters; she then went on to record solo albums and take her place at the head of the '90s riot-grrrl pack in Auntie Christ. Most recently, she released Somewhere Gone (Bloodshot), an intimate, acoustic collection of love-and-loss songs (check out "Trojan Horse") recorded with a cast of musicians including ex-Skeleton Lou Whitney, current touring partner Dexter Romweber and late Austin-born violinist Amy Farris.

As it turned out, Cervenka, reached last week at her home in SoCal, was exceedingly pleasant and willing to talk about anything, from how the loss of her friend Farris has affected her set list and the similarities between her collages and making an album to her admiration for Texas musicians in general and the wild nights she and X had with the Big Boys and their late singer, Cervenka's close friend and fellow visual artist Randy "Biscuit" Turner.

Rocks Off: Where did this batch of songs come from?

Exene Cervenka: Ooh. It came from isolation - living in Missouri and being real isolated and having a lot of time to write songs. The main thing about these songs to me was I wanted to write songs you could hear the words to. I wanted it to be arranged and produced in a way that wasn't like X, you know, or like my other bands that I've been in. I didn't want to make a rock and roll record or a traditional-sounding record, so I wrote the songs with that in mind.

RO: How did you wind up in Missouri?

EC: Ooh. I wound up in Missouri because I wanted to go someplace completely different from L.A. I grew up in Illinois, and I love small towns and I love rural America - I love the Midwest, I love the South. I decided to try it for about four years and see what would happen, and it was really good for a while, but then after that, it became really not good after a while and I moved back to California.

RO: Now that Amy Farris has passed away, do you think it will be difficult to do some of these [Somewhere Gone] songs live?

EC: We did ten shows in California after the record came out, and it is difficult, and I'm not doing a lot of the songs on the record because of that. I'm doing "Somewhere Gone" and a few other songs. I have a band that is really great, and can play all my songs, but there are certain ones that I'll never play again, like "Bury Me Beneath the Willow," for instance, where she played fiddle and I played guitar and we both sang it. It's great - I'm so glad that's on my record.

She was an amazing friend, above all her talents as a musician and singer and songwriter. She was the first person to call you when something bad happened. She was just an amazing friend, and that's what I miss about her the most is her friendship, more than even her musical talents. Every day she crosses my mind, and I'm sad.

RO: I was going to ask you about that willow tree song. What made you pick that for the album? It's the only one you didn't write.

EC: My heart and soul is in that music. I just love that song, and it was appropriate for me because that's how I feel sometimes. I write a lot of love songs - most of my songs are love songs. Some are really happy and joyous, some are really sad and, you know, the waiting - the song where you're waiting for someone, or the song where you've lost someone or the song where someone doesn't want you. But there's a lot of really positive love songs that I'm writing right now.

RO: What is the history behind the willow tree?

EC: What do you mean, as far as in music in song?

RO: Right.

EC: You know, I don't know where it came from, but I have it in my mind too, that there's a willow tree on a hill and someone I love is buried there and I go and visit them. That's what it is, it's like when you don't have a marker. That's what it means to me, anyway. And the willow tree, of course, the weeping willow.

RO: But the song itself, you're not sure what its origins are?

EC: No. But like a lot of that traditional music, it's from a murky past on some level. I'm sure it can be traced back. Mine was on a bluegrass record, and I'm sure that song's way older than a bluegrass record.

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