Erika Wennerstrom, leader of the powerhouse rock-band Heartless Bastards, has been praised for her singing, songwriting and guitar-playing. When recently asked which talent is her strongest, she pondered the question for a second—a little hesitant to sound arrogant, but intrigued. She finally opted to focus on which of her skills is the most gratifying.
"I enjoy singing, but I think that part of it is like when you are young, and you feel the need to indulge in self-expression," Wennerstrom said during a phone interview from her home in Austin, Texas. "And I'm an OK guitar-player, but I sort of taught myself how to play guitar. I feel like my style of playing is pretty unique, but it's not what I do best."
She said she gets the greatest rewards from crafting a good song that she can sing. "Writing songs is cathartic to me. I don't know if I would get the same satisfaction from singing songs written by someone else. I mean, I enjoy singing covers here and there, but I don't know if I would enjoy it as much without my own music."
Heartless Bastards will return to Tucson for a gig at Club Congress on Friday, March 30, with opening acts David Vandervelde and Brian Lopez.
Part of the joy of listening to the Heartless Bastards is the rich palette of musical sounds from which the band draws: punk and country, glam and psychedelia, blues, soul and folk. The product is pure rock 'n' roll, brought to a boil by killer players and infused with Wennerstrom's soulful vocals, which combine focus, passion, confidence, yearning and empowerment.
Comparisons are risky, but Wennerstrom's singing incorporates the raw power and emotional conviction of Janis Joplin or Tracy Nelson, not to mention the occasional Patti Smith howl and Chrissie Hynde tease.
Wennerstrom formed the Heartless Bastards in Cincinnati around 2002, and the band has since released four albums. The most recent is Arrow, which became available Feb. 14. The record's title and the Valentine's Day release were a happy coincidence, she said.
Although Austin boasts one of the most-vibrant music communities in the world, Wennerstrom didn't move there because of the scene. She has family there, and about nine years ago, she was ending a relationship and decided it would be a good place to start over. Wennerstrom's romantic recovery resulted in the 2009 album The Mountain.
After employing a shifting roster of musicians for the Heartless Bastards' first albums, she went on the road to support that release with a lineup that has stuck: drummer Dave Colvin and bassist Jesse Ebaugh, both of whom played in the first edition of the Heartless Bastards years earlier. They added guitarist Mark Nathan, because Wennerstrom liked the textures of two guitars. That was the same lineup that played an explosive show at Club Congress last year.
Born and raised in Dayton, Ohio, Wennerstrom wanted to sing since she was old enough to know what singing was. As a child, she loved Chrissie Hynde, Pat Benatar and Joan Jett, but she also listened to the records that were around the house: Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Mahalia Jackson.
"Since the summer when I was about 5 years old, I just told everybody I was a singer. But I never did too much of it when I was growing up, until I was about 17 or 18. That's when I started telling myself, 'I can really do this, and maybe this is where I want to have a career.' I started thinking maybe I should get out there and try to build up the confidence to do that.
"I always had pretty supportive parents. They kind of told me if you put enough work into anything, you can succeed. So that is what I started out to do in music. Luckily, I was blessed with some talent, too."
Arrow is the first album the Heartless Bastards have released on a label other than Fat Possum Records—it came out on Partisan—and the first for which they used an outside producer. Jim Eno, the drummer for the Austin-based band Spoon, was behind the board.
"I essentially self-produced those first three albums," Wennerstrom said. "I didn't really quite know what I was doing with that for a lot of years. It's all just been a learning process for me."
Not only was Eno able to help Wennerstrom realize the sound she wanted on Arrow, but she also entered the recording sessions with familiar collaborators.
"This is the first album I've been able to work on with the band that I had been playing with, and we've been playing now for about 3 1/2 years. We've become tight musically, and it feels very natural. We're very comfortable, and we're friends, which I feel helps a lot when we're touring. I mean, you could just view the situation like a job, and we have to be professional, but we actually enjoy playing together."
She appreciates the diversity that her band mates bring to the Heartless sound—Colvin's jazz background, Ebaugh's swinging sense of Americana, and Nathan's history with metal bands.
"And we listen to everything across the board, too. From T. Rex to Thin Lizzy to Ennio Morricone to Lee Hazlewood with Nancy Sinatra," Wennerstrom said.
When the Heartless Bastards began, the band was known for kicking ass and taking no prisoners, firing on all blues-punk cylinders. On the past couple of albums, Wennerstrom's songwriting approach has started including acoustic and folk elements. She still loves to rock, but her moods are more varied, she said.
"It really kind of depends on the day for me. ... Sometimes, I'm way more into the rocking-out songs. And then I'll feel quite quiet other days. That's where songs like 'Low Low Low,' with the acoustic guitars, on the new album, come from."