Tonight in Seattle:  

Exene Cervenka's record store tour

Record stores have, like nearly every business, not fared particularly well in the economic climate of the past few years. In fact, they have likely had a much more difficult time staying solvent as the move towards more people getting their music online than at retail stores. At the beginning of this year, the first two albums to hit number one on the Billboard 200 chart this year (Ke$ha’s Animal and Vampire Weekend’s Contra) were the first two albums in history to top the charts with more than 50% digital sales. The lower prices, huge catalogs and fast delivery methods have made iTunes, emusic and Amazon the often first place for people to go to purchase music (and that’s saying nothing of what is obtained via illegal downloading) and has made it that much harder for record stores to stay in business.

One artist who is doing what she can to help record stores is Exene Cervenka. Best known for being the badass frontwoman for punk band X and the alt-country band The Knitters, she has been one of the most prolific and multi-faceted artists over the past thirty-plus years. Not just a musician, but she’s also a writer, poet and visual artist. My favorite quote about Cervenka came from her X and Knitters bandmate John Doe (which I found in Maria Raha’s great book Cinderella’s Big Score), who said “she was such a badass! I pretended to be but Exene was the real thing. She had the ax to grind…the unusual wiring that made it possible for her to throw a drink in somebody’s face and still be right.” She most recently released a gorgeous solo record called Somewhere Gone last autumn. She is currently on a tour, playing in-store shows at record stores on the west coast that will include appearances at three Seattle-area record stores: Easy Street Records (Queen Anne) on Friday, April 16 and on Saturday, April 17, the actual Record Store Day, she’ll be at Tyrannosaurus Records in Renton and Damaged Goods in Belltown.

I asked Cervenka during a phone interview last week why she was doing this tour of exclusively record stores and she said bluntly, “I want to help keep them open,” and then adding “and I want to play places that are all ages, where we aren’t playing at 11:00 at night that is full of beer and whiskey, where young girls can come, or young boys who want to see someone who has been around.” She also said, “I want to play my new songs and I want people to hear my new songs and not have to worry about getting a babysitter and drinks and parking and can’t go because it’s at 11:00 at night. It’s hard for people to go out and spend that kind of money, so I wanted to make it easy for them. I win, the fans and the audience win and the record stores win.”

Her album she’s touring to promote is Somewhere Gone (Bloodshot), her first solo album since 1996. It’s a beautifully-made album with personal, sincere lyrics that compliment the folk arrangements. Contrasting with her previous work, she told me “these songs are different. They’re all like emotional landscapes and they’re all love songs. They’re kind of poppy and folky and catchy.”

She’s had a remarkable career for over thirty years, not just with numerous musical projects like X, The Knitters, Auntie Christ and her solo work, but also as a writer and artist. My favorite book of hers is Adulterers Anonymous, a collection of poetry with No-Wave artist Lydia Lunch where they annotate each other’s words. She said of the comparison between making visual art and music, “The art, the collages that I make is great because your mind is kind of free and kind of Zen-like. You don’t really think about anything other than what those colors look like together but when you write a song you’re going deep into your emotions. It’s a completely different process. It depends on your mood. Some days you don’t want to think about any of that stuff so you make art, other times you feel like you really want to get your emotions out and something hops into your mind that you want to work on, so you write a song.” She added “right now, it’s all music, all the time.”

This all music, all the time is keeping her busy. Later in the spring she’ll play some shows with X and The Knitters before finishing up her next solo album. She told me “I started recording and when I get home from this tour and I’ll start recording again and hope to finish up in June. I’ve already figured what the songs are going to be and they’re all written. I have a fantastic producer, fantastic studio and fantastic people to play on it. I can’t wait.” She understandably didn’t want to talk about who she would be collaborating with.

Part of what makes her energy, output and longevity as an artist so impressive was the admission recently that she has multiple sclerosis. She released a statement, visible on her website, saying in part “many people remain strong and continue to live their lives as productively as they had before an MS diagnosis. I plan to be one of those people.” When I heard her on KCRW’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic” program a few months ago, host Jason Bentley asked how she was feeling and said “fine”. With her prolific output as an artist and upbeat, friendly manner when I talked to her on the phone, it’s difficult to see how she could be anything but.

Right now, she is on this tour of record stores and said she’s having a great time. She said the in-stores “were exactly what I had envisioned when I thought about doing this. There were kids there and all kinds of people there and they were buying records and things to have signed. There have been a lot of people coming out and the record stores were very happy.” She added, “There is pressure when you go on the road because you have a band and you have to pay everybody and make sure everybody’s rooms are right and all that and you have to keep everyone happy. Everyone is playing for not very much money and you don’t know if people are going to come out or not. They don’t have any money either, but with these in-stores, there’s no pressure. It’s me with my guitar and my best friend and we’re driving around the country and we’re having a great time. No one has to have any pressure if no one shows up; that’s just not even an issue, it’s fantastic.”

One point she wanted to convey was that she hoped everyone would support the record stores as much as they could. She told me “this is one thing I’d like to say is that when people come out to my shows, I don’t care if people buy my record or not, if they do it’s fantastic and if they don’t, it’s fine, but please buy something from the store. There are all kinds of great things in the record stores and I just want people to patronize the stores while they’re at the shows, even if it’s just to get a button or something. Just help the store out.”

{Photo by Ali Smith.}

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