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Exene Cervenka's gone soft. At her home in Orange, Cervenka—writer, visual artist and singer (X, Knitters, Original Sinners)—is wearing sneakers and a Badtz Maru hoodie and holding her little dog Minnie on her lap. The lady on the couch is welcoming and sweet, offering me water. She is worlds away from the intimidating figure Cervenka had cultivated in her 20s. "If you were held to the standards of when you were 23 . . ." She trails off. "I try to meet everybody who comes to my shows."
Now in her 50s, Cervenka strives to be accessible to people—and not just personally. Her brand-new solo album, The Excitement of Maybe, isn't made up of three-chord punk-rock songs. The alt-country set, which hit stores this week, is easy on the ears—and on the heart. It is, plainly put, an album of love songs. That pop element obvious in Burt Bacharach songs? Cervenka has re-created it in her own way.
"I work hard to [create] songs people want to hear," she explains. The fact that they're love songs speaks to her openness as well. "I write from a very emotional place," she says, adding, "It doesn't matter who you're writing about—some guy long gone, your husband—but the songs ultimately are about [the listener]. The word 'I' doesn't always mean you're singing about yourself; it means you're giving someone to sing along to." So the album is about love, and it's about Exene Cervenka, but it's also about the listener.
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Produced over the course of a year, the album was written in the home Cervenka moved into in 2009. Everyone knows about the Orange Curtain and all the negative things said about it—but it's a place that Cervenka feels very comfortable in. It's also a place that makes it easy for Cervenka to organize shows and play music in. Slowly, she has been gathering her friends and exploring various local venues. She's has performed at the House of Blues in Anaheim, and beginning in April, she's hosting a monthly musical showcase at a small clothing store called Moonlight Graham in Orange.
"I love it when people get together," she says. "I think that's the essence of punk rock. It's not the music and the fashion—it's not superficial."
In this economic climate, Cervenka says, that ethic is coming back. "Punk rock was an alarm we were sounding, that things were going to be bad unless we did something to change it." Back then, she says, no one wanted to hear that message. "They just wanted to look at the clothes and hear some of the bands play their songs, and that was the end of it." These days, though, Cervenka says, it's a more folk version of punk rock.
What's that again? How can folk be considered punk rock? "How are the Knitters punk rock? How is Woody Guthrie punk rock? How is Johnny Cash—the most punk rock person of all time—punk rock?" Cervenka replies. "It's not about clothes, and it's barely about music. It's about a revolutionary way of thinking. It's anti-corporate and human rights-oriented. It's a social movement more than a musical movement."
This week, Cervenka performs six shows at South By Southwest (SXSW), the annual music, film and interactive conference and festival on which purveyors of culture descend to see the next best thing. While promoting The Excitement of Maybe, she will also blog about the event for OC Weekly's music blog Heard Mentality. It's just another way to reach Exene Cervenka.
This article appeared in print as "Getting Exene Cervenka: With age and wisdom come easy accessibility to the SXSW-bound punk-rock icon."