For much of the past two decades, Erika Wennerstrom’s musical identity has been exemplified by the Cincinnati-spawned, now-Austin-based entity known as the Heartless Bastards.
Since the band’s formation in 2003, the Bastards have been known for their blistering performances, with Wennerstrom as the ferociously intense focal point and lead singer, captivating audiences with her unique guttural purr-n-growl. The band’s 2005 debut, Stairs and Elevators, was met with critical acclaim, grabbing a glowing three-and-a-half star review from Rolling Stone, and write-ups comparing Wennerstrom to Janis Joplin, Chrissie Hynde and Patti Smith.
“I’m not really a calculated person,” Wennerstrom told CityBeat in a previous interview. “I really just try to follow my heart creatively. I always just hope that people will respond to the songs.”
The Heartless Bastards’ sixth studio album, A Beautiful Life, is slated to drop Sept. 10 on Sweet Unknown Records/Thirty Tigers. And though a release from the label says Wennerstrom “first considered releasing A Beautiful Life under her own name as the follow-up to her widely praised 2018 solo debut, Sweet Unknown, she ultimately came to view the new album as a continuation of the journey begun on Heartless Bastards’ milestone 2005 debut.”
She and the band are taking the new songs on tour, with a local stop at Covington’s Madison Theater on Sept. 25.
A Dayton, Ohio native, Wennerstrom’s musical aspirations were bigger than her local scene, so she and then-boyfriend Mike Lamping moved to Cincinnati in the early 2000s to find a place in the area’s more diverse music community.
Ironically, her first band experience came in the form of now-defunct Post Punk Dayton band Shesus, which was her commuter gig for over two years.
Ultimately, Wennerstrom quit Shesus and began writing her own songs. She threw a band together — drummer Dave Colvin and Ruben Glaser and Jesse Ebaugh (both of former Cincinnati Rock/Blues juggernaut Pearlene) — and christened it Heartless Bastards based on a bar trivia game. The question: “What is the name of Tom Petty’s backing band?” And one of the fake answers was “Tom Petty and the Heartless Bastards.”
The newly minted Bastards recorded a five-song demo at Cincinnati’s Ultrasuede Studio, one of which was given to Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney at an Akron gig. Carney sent the demo to Fat Possum Records owner Matt Johnson, and he signed the band and released Stairs and Elevators.
From the outset, Wennerstrom seemed an unlikely bandleader. With her winsome beauty and soft-spoken charm, she could have passed for a 1960s coffeehouse Folk chanteuse, but after a couple of slashing chords and a vein-throbbing chorus shriek, that notion was quickly dispelled.
Since the start of the band, the roll call accompanying Wennerstrom has changed dramatically — except for stalwart bassist Ebaugh, her demo bassist in 2002 and a constant since his official 2008 arrival. But her songwriting and stage presentation have remained largely the same.
Wennerstrom relocated to Austin, Texas in 2007, and while she maintains that the city hasn’t influenced her on a musical level, it may have had an impact on her worldview and how she expresses it.
The shift was evident on the cinematic grandeur of Heartless Bastards’ last album, 2015’s aptly titled Restless Ones, and the contemplative revelation of Sweet Unknown, Wennerstrom’s 2018 solo debut. The latter was most profoundly influenced by her trip to an Amazon jungle retreat, which used ayahuasca as a meditative treatment.
“It was very eye-opening and life-changing,” she said at the time. “It had me reassessing what’s important to me in this world. In a sense, it was sort of a mid-life crisis, with me reevaluating my life.”
Wennerstrom’s latest collection of songs, A Beautiful Life, originally was intended to be her second solo album, but she quickly reconsidered that strategy. Part of the issue was that many of the recent Bastards players, including original drummer Colvin, were unavailable to record due to scheduling conflicts. That could have been the tipping point toward solo status, but Wennerstrom had other thoughts.
“This has always been my project and these are my songs,” Wennerstrom tells CityBeat from her new digs in Austin. “I think Heartless Bastards has a lot more reach, and I think there are some really important messages on this album that can help people. I wanted to raise more awareness about the environment and just being kind to each other without all this political stuff. These were messages people could really use right now and I thought going forward with just my name alone isn’t really fair to myself.”
With that settled, Wennerstrom searched for musicians to help actualize her vision for A Beautiful Life. She wasn’t attempting to plug new Bastards into existing roles for one very important reason.
“I’ve always liked the idea of a band. I love having that ‘family’ vibe,” she says. “But the reality is things change. At the point I had this new album, I was talking to everyone and the timing wasn’t right. But I wasn’t looking to form a band in that moment; I was trying to make the best record I could. I just called on people that I thought were perfect for the project.”
To that end, Wennerstrom enlisted Ebaugh on bass — he’s unavailable for touring due to his solo commitments — and Okkervil River guitarist Lauren Gurgiolo, a veteran of Wennerstrom’s solo tours. Other recruits included My Morning Jacket keyboardist Bo Koster, former White Denim drummer Gregory Clifford and renowned guitar-for-hire David Pulkingham.
“With the different guitar players on the album, I was looking for specific styles,” Wennerstrom says. “When I ask for someone to play their style, I’m asking them to be themselves. Like David Pulkingham — he plays a lot of classic style stuff. He lives in Austin, and I went over to his place and I described what I was going for and we played and he wrote the part in the first five minutes of being there.”
Wennerstrom had a very clear vision for A Beautiful Life, and thanks to her perseverance and her stellar personnel choices, she feels like she got — in her words — “everything I wanted and more.” The challenge for Wennerstrom and her assembled multitude was crafting the eclectic sonic palette that she heard in her mind, which included touches of Psychedelia, Space Rock, Celtic Folk, Post Punk, French Pop and even Disney-inspired score work.
“The River,” a panoramic epic, is a case in point, inspired tangentially by Wilco’s “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.”
“The opening of (Wilco’s 2001 album) Yankee Hotel Foxtrot has these sporadic, quirky instrument sounds, and the intro to ‘The River’ was my own way of doing that. I also wanted street noises,” Wennerstrom says. “I was picturing Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy. It’s this medieval town on a rock and sometimes the ocean wraps around it, and at the top is a castle. In my head, it’s like cultures combining. My friend Fared Shafinury is playing Persian setar and Andrew Bird got a more subtle part on violin, but he really wails at the end.”
A few of the songs on A Beautiful Life have roots in the earliest parts of Wennerstrom’s career, dating back and even prior to the formation of Heartless Bastards. Some of the ideas came from files that Lamping had found on an old computer and forwarded to Wennerstrom.
“A lot of the melody for ‘Went Around the World’ was pieced together about a year after the solo album, but the second verse is from a song I used to do at open mic nights at Arlin’s (in Clifton), but I never felt it was fully finished,” she says. “The same thing happened with ‘When I Was Younger.’ Mike sent me some files of songs from 20 years ago that he thought were pretty good — things I had never done anything with.”
“I was working on this melody and I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is going to fit perfectly on ‘When I Was Younger.’ Remember the band the Walkmen? It was sort of Walkmen-inspired,” Wennerstrom continues. “But really, that little melody from ‘When I Was Younger,’ I’ve been playing that at soundchecks for the last 10 years. I feel like sometimes the ideas tell you when they’re ready, and I just try to be patient with that.”
Perhaps the most important aspect of A Beautiful Life are the aforementioned messages contained in this set of songs. From the moment Wennerstrom finished the title track, she knew the new album was going to be a message-driven affair.
“For the past however many years, I’ve been trying to write from as free a place as I can, and in those moments, be patient and let it out,” she says. “Through my own work toward finding peace within myself, and the fact that music is like therapy, these messages come out and I think they’re messages I need for myself. With A Beautiful Life, I think I’m consciously reminding myself of things to be grateful for, and it’s not always easy.”
“I also think that the state of the environment and where we’re headed is not great for humanity. It’s something we collectively need to act upon now. And we’re constantly sold this idea that we need things that we really don’t need,” she adds. “There’s got to be a better way than our current system. We need to slow down and connect. Maybe if we think with our hearts and minds aligned, the idea of taking care of each other might not seem so crazy.”
Circling back to the decision to make A Beautiful Life a “band album,” Wennerstrom points to the philosophical dilemma she had with the band’s name, which infamously came from that bar trivia game nearly two decades ago. Luckily, her crisis of conscience about the perceived connotation of the name led her to its original intention.
“At my age, I’m like, ‘What was I thinking, naming the band Heartless Bastards?’ she says with a laugh. “After my solo thing, I thought the band would reconvene but maybe under my name or whatever, because I was worried the name was kind of negative. I guess I’m singing so much more consciously about love and loving one another, and I’ve got this band name. But the name was always meant to be a bit of a joke, so maybe it’s a reminder for me to have a sense of humor through it all.”
The Heartless Bastards play Madison Theater (730 Madison Ave., Covington) on Sept. 25. Tickets are $20 in advance and $22 at the door. For more information, visit madisontheater.com or theheartlessbastards.com.
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