It's 10 a.m. in Austin, Texas, where she's about to kick off her tour to promote her new album on Bloodshot Records, enigmatically titled The Excitement of Maybe.
It's a record full of songs of separation, of lovers in different parts of the world with more than distance keeping them apart. They're dispatches from people stuck in places where the rain never seems to stop falling. But she doesn't want to talk about all that.
“I'm not broken-hearted,” she says a bit too quickly. “I'm not in love.”
That's hard to believe. In 13 songs that range from pop-folk to alt-country, Cervenka explores the nuances of a love story that ended badly. “Now you're gone and the sky's all wrong,” she croons in “Someday I'll Forget.”
“It's about capturing a moment in time,” Cervenka explains. “Everybody has the same experience. I write songs for other people.”
“Capturing the moment” is what love songs are all about. They're a way of moving past the sadness that comes with being on the wrong end of a bad break-up. Cervenka does this exceptionally well. Through simple, straightforward lyrics, she gets at truths that are hard to face.
In “Brand New Memory,” she sings, “Say goodbye and drop me gently into nothingness”—a perfect description of the particular aloneness that comes with being left that sounds suspiciously like reflections from The Heartbreak Hotel.
So if the lyrics seem personal—but aren't—does that mean the songs are a kind of fiction?
“No,” she says. “I only write about real people.”
Real people presumably not named Exene Cervenka.
She's been writing songs about “real people” all her life—before, during and after those heady days when punk hit L.A. like a neutron bomb and her band, X, was at the center of the fallout.
She's always been prolific. After X, Cervenka was in the bands The Knitters, Auntie Christ and The Original Sinners, country-punk bands that mellowed as the years went by. Whether it's songwriting, making art or writing poetry, she's moved gracefully from genre to genre, gig to gig, collecting memories and gathering experiences.
“You can be good and prolific,” she says. “I'm always really grateful. Knowing how tenuous life is, I'm lucky to have voice. It's a privilege.”
This gratitude comes from Cervenka's battle with multiple sclerosis, which caused her to cancel an April 12 show at The Casbah with Kevin Seconds, another punk rocker who's changed his tune since he was the frontman for the Sacramento hardcore band Seven Seconds.
“I like to have control,” she says. “I wrote the music, co-produced the record and chose who was going to be on the record. I'm not just a songwriter.”
But life and love have a way of not going according to plan. This lack of control is reflected in Cervenka's songs, in which the singer is powerless to effect a happy ending. The contradiction seems stark even on a record that's rife with them.
In one song, Cervenka consoles herself by singing “Someday I'll Forget,” but a few songs later, the mood has shifted. In “Brand New Memory,” the chorus insists, “You're a brand new memory / fading in and out already.”
So, which is it? Forgetting or remembering? Real or imagined? It's a classic chicken-or-egg situation. Do songwriters write these songs because they have all this heartbreak in their lives? Or are these broken-hearted love songs a by-product of being performers who spend so much time on the road?
“You write in isolation in a bad state of mind,” she says. “You work on it. You give it to the world. And that's it.”
Maybe. Maybe not. Perhaps her true feelings can be found in the song “I'll Admit It Now”: “Just like in a song, when I woke up this morning baby you were gone / Just like in a poem, when I woke up this morning I was alone.”
Maybe it doesn't matter whether Cervenka (exenecervenka.net) is baring her soul or burying her emotions. Maybe it doesn't matter whether the songs are artful constructions or truthful confessions. Maybe all that matters is the songs themselves.
“Without a song,” Cervenka asks, turning the tables, “what have you got?”