It’s been six years since Erika Wennerstrom picked up stakes and moved herself and Heartless Bastards from Cincinnati to Austin, Texas.
Since then, the band has released two of its best albums, 2012’s brilliant Arrow and this year’s diverse and equally amazing Restless Ones. If there is a correlation between her relocation and the rise in the Bastards’ creative fortunes, Wennerstrom doesn’t see it.
“In all honesty, I don’t think of geography in the sense of writing a song,” Wennerstrom says via phone while on a stroll in New York City before a recent show. “Half the time, I’m stir crazy and have writer’s block and I get in my car and drive all over the place for inspiration. I’ve seen a lot more live music since I’ve moved to Austin, and I’m inspired when I see live shows, so in that sense I’ve found inspiration there. There’s something about watching someone do something that I really enjoy that I find motivational to go work on my own thing.”
Wennerstrom and the Bastards have clearly been on a roll considering the critical and commercial success that has been lavished upon the band’s last three albums. The Bastards have been critics’ darlings all along, but starting with 2009’s The Mountain, the band (now expanded to a quintet with the addition of multi-instrumentalist Kyleen King) has proved to be a formidable marketplace force as well. Still, Wennerstrom tries not to get too wrapped up in that end of the game.
“I honestly haven’t followed it,” she says of the public’s acceptance of the new album. “We’ve had a lot going on. I just moved, and then there was the Europe tour. It’s really hard to gauge with the state of Spotify and iTunes and streaming. Spotify came out several months after Arrow, and it was hard to compare Arrow to The Mountain because the landscape changed, and now it’s changed even more. Who knows what it even means now? We’re having a great response at shows, so I’m guessing it’s going good.”
In the press material for Arrow, Wennerstrom cited the album as the band’s strongest work to that point. Restless Ones may have overtaken its predecessor on that front, but Wennerstrom isn’t play favorites this time.
“I think Restless Ones is just different,” she says diplomatically. “I don’t think it’s any less strong than Arrow, they’re just very different. Even the reviews depend on the person. With Arrow, one person said what my shortcomings were and those were somebody else’s favorite moments on the album. Some people have said (Restless Ones) is the best thing I’ve done, and others aren’t that into it. I’m proud of it, and it’s sort of a snapshot in time of my life in the past several years, and now I’m in a different place. I find it to be equal in quality.”
From Wennerstrom’s perspective, she and the band — bassist Jesse Ebaugh, guitarist Mark Nathan and drummer Dave Colvin — didn’t set out to craft something at odds with the rest of the Bastards’ catalog. The differences that set Restless Ones apart from previous Bastards recordings are based simply in the songwriting approach.
“It’s just fun to explore different influences I’ve had over the years, and there are definitely different sounds on this album, but I think it still sounds like a Heartless Bastards album,” she says. “When I get ideas for songs, I think ‘What does this remind me of?’ and then try to figure out where the idea came from. For ‘Into the Light,’ I was like, ‘We should get this drum-swing vibe like the Flaming Lips.’ The Soft Bulletin album has always been one of my favorites, and I was wanting that swing. We didn’t reinvent the wheel or anything, it’s just an example of how the influence thing works.”
One of the hallmarks of Restless Ones is Wennerstrom’s lyrical candor — the moments of soul baring give the new songs a greater sense of gravity. Freeing herself from the constraints of her internal editor allowed for advances in her songwriting evolution.
“I’d like to think my writing is growing. I was a bit more open than I’ve been in the past on this album,” Wennerstrom says. “Sometimes I questioned whether to put certain thoughts and emotions out there for the world to critique. I feel like I hold back sometimes because I don’t want people to criticize who I am in that sense, but with this (album) I thought, ‘I’m not gonna care or worry about it.’ The more open I am, the more people can understand and directly relate to what I’m saying, and I don’t need to be politically disguising everything. I think there are moments on this album that are a bit more emotionally raw than I’ve allowed myself to be in the past.”
The Bastards also worked some spontaneity into the proceedings by coming into the sessions with partially finished songs and ceding a certain amount of control to producer John Congleton. Wennerstrom also left a couple of songs largely without words until the last minute.
“I ended up not getting all the vocals done in west Texas,” Wennerstrom says. “We did this festival in L.A. and I had a day off, so I was doing vocals for ‘Wind Up Bird’ there, and I also finished some vocals in Dallas, where we mixed. I stayed up all night to finish the words; I got them done just in time, I went straight to the studio and sang them and then we mixed the song. I was worried I was going to listen back and not feel good about it, but everything I wrote I felt, and I realized that I totally related to it and was very happy with it.”
HEARTLESS BASTARDS play the 2015 MidPoint Music Festival Friday at the Christian Moerlein Malt House Taproom.