In the summer of 2009, Exene Cervenka was putting the finishing touches on Somewhere Gone, her first solo album since Running Scared hit the streets back in 1991. The vocalist for L.A. punk stalwarts X, poet, and former wife of actor Viggo Mortensen was assembling a collection of bucolic country songs to be counted among her strongest work. But in the midst of it all she wasn't feeling well. After a few months, she went to a doctor for some tests and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, the chronic nervous disorder that can result in the loss of muscle control, vision and balance.
Although she isn't displaying any acute signs of the disease yet, it was a depressing blow. But she's taking it in stride. Since she started singing with X in the late '70s, Cervenka has long stood as one of the most formidable female figures on the American punk scene. She wasn't going to let a diagnosis of MS tarnish her strong will. When she made the news public via her website, she made it clear that it would not affect her commitment to finish the album. In October, Bloodshot Records released Somewhere Gone, and true to her word the disease has done little to slow her down.
Without missing a beat, Cervenka is back on the road, living her life to the fullest while she can. "That's the only way to do it," declares the 54-year-old singer, born Christine ?ervenková. "I'm not sick right now – I'm walking and talking and everything's fine – but someday that won't be the case. So I just try to forget about it as much as possible and keep living with this mind-set for as long as possible. That's the only way to go about it and keep your sanity. You can't live in the future."
Produced by Cervenka, Somewhere Gone features one country standard ("The Willow Tree") and 13 original songs of sweeping country panoramas that gracefully shift between quiet acoustic strumming and full-bodied band arrangements. The tone of the album swells with pure, No Depression-style roots songwriting and traditional folk rhythms. Her realizations in such songs as "Where Do We Go from Here," "Honest Mistake" and "Pinpoints" are matter-of-fact ruminations over real-life redemption. And despite their sprawling nature, each number unfolds with concise, pop strokes.
The fingerprints of her songwriting with X – in addition to later acts Original Sinners, Auntie Christ, and her 1989 collaboration Old Wives' Tale with latter-era X guitarist Tony Gilkyson – are present throughout the album. But by comparison, such old songs as "White Trash Wife" and "He's Got a She" from Old Wives' Tale feel like undercooked rockabilly clichés when placed next to her recent balanced and true voice. "I still think those records are pretty eloquent, but I was younger when I wrote them," she says, pondering the difference between those songs and Somewhere Gone. "I didn't have anything in mind when I went into this record and I don't think that people should. I let it evolve and flow naturally; I knew that I wanted to make a lyric-driven, song-driven acoustic kind of record but I didn't know what everyone was going to bring to it."
For Somewhere Gone, Cervenka plays guitar on almost every song and enlists a cast of players including Amy Farris (violin), Cindy Wasserman (guitar), Jason Edge (guitar), Joe Terry (piano), Lou Whitney (bass) and Dexter Romweber (keyboards). "Unless you're a dictator and you're going to play all of the instruments yourself, it's best to let people come up with some surprising things that you wouldn't normally think of," she says.
In September, less than a month before the album was released, Farris – a respected fiddle player who has performed with musicians from Dave Alvin and Ray Price to Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys – committed suicide in her L.A. home. Her death came as another major blow for Cervenka to endure leading up to the record's release. Still, she soldiered on. For the current tour, she has a new band together that's been christened California Mothership and features a new cast of players wielding a banjo, mandolin, acoustic guitar, acoustic bass and a single drum.
Going through so much personal drama in the face of this record has not dulled Cervenka's attitude, nor has it affected her art. "You know, I have a 21-year-old son and that hasn't affected my songwriting," she declares. "When I got pregnant people started asking me, 'Is this going to change your songwriting?' It did not. I wasn't about to start writing a bunch of fucking baby songs, and now I'm not about to start writing a bunch of songs about being sick. That's not what I write about. I'm here, and I'm talking to you now because I'm coming to Atlanta on tour and I'm totally, totally so happy to play at the Star Bar with Dexter – how cool is that?"