For someone with a history of depression, Exene Cervenka sounds positively bubbly.
And why shouldn't she? Currently on tour supporting her terrific new solo effort, Somewhere Gone, the frontwoman for legendary Los Angeles punk rock band X is receiving the best critical reception of her lengthy career.
Having blazed a trail as one of punk rock's legitimate poets, Cervenka is now happy to be a country/folk singer. She's still a poet, mind you—just one with a mellower and more rootsy and reflective attitude.
"I wanted this new record to be about the words more than the band," says Cervenka over her cell phone while traveling by car from Tucson, Arizona, to her home in California. "I write real simple. My songs have simple chords and simple melodies. The words aren't simple, but what I play is simple. That's why it works."
One listen to Somewhere Gone and it becomes hard to disagree with Cervenka. The new record is a meditation on mortality, a hushed collection of Appalachian folk with whispers about alienation and dislocation. Songs such as "Walk Me Across the Night" and "Willow Tree" come across as poetic diatribes, uncomplicated songs about complex emotions. Such is assuredly true about the later cut.
"'Willow Tree' is a sad song that is hard to listen to," admits Cervenka. The song is a duet between Exene and violinist Amy Farris. Tragically, Farris took her own life just weeks before the album was released, and Cervenka still refuses to do the song in concert. Yet Cervenka does see the irony of Farris' death in the context of the album's theme of mortality. "Amy's death has had an impact on my record. I'm certainly grateful that she played on it because she was a friend of mine and I miss her greatly. Amy's death makes me appreciate her talents and what she gave to my songs."
Besides the passing of her good friend, Cervenka has also been dealing with her recently diagnosed multiple sclerosis. After years of not feeling healthy, she was finally diagnosed this past summer. Still, the singer vows to do her best to not let the illness get in the way of what she loves to do.
"I have to take better care of myself," she says. "I have to take a lot of medicine, but other than that, I'm pretty much the same."
Pretty much the same includes not capitulating to audiences that might expect Cervenka to mix a couple of X songs into her current set lists. Cervenka is quick to dismiss such notions.
"We've all had a chance to see and hear X by now," she says, referring to the numerous reunion tours she and her former husband and X bandmate John Doe have done over the years. "I'm sticking to new material this time around, and if people have a problem with that, so be it."
Even as a relatively chipper folk singer, that old punk rock spirit still comes shining through.