It's no surprise that Ohio-born indie darlings the Heartless Bastards made a big splash right away. When the Black Keys' Patrick Carney first started championing them in the early 2000s, frontwoman Erika Wennerstrom and company were bashing out rock & roll with a stout Midwestern garage wallop like an earthier, more soulful sister to the Paybacks. But in the past handful of years, their music has been unfurling richly, tracing the contours of Wennerstrom's personal life, a trek that's entailed upheaval, adjustment, rediscovery and liberation.
Although operating out of Austin, Texas, for the past four years, both Wennerstrom's life and music have long, deep roots in the Midwest. Her relocation followed the end of a nine-year relationship, and the Bastards' 2009 album The Mountain hangs heavily with the toll of emotional and physical adjustment.
“I was having a hard time when I wrote The Mountain,” she says. “But a lot of the subject matter isn't specifically about a breakup as much as what I was kind of going through personally after that point.”
But the circumstance midwifed the beginning of an awakening. “After touring a lot on The Mountain and sort of stepping away, I had some ideas for all these songs that I kind of had trouble expressing them and putting them into words, so I went on these road trips by myself,” Wennerstrom says. “I went on a month-long [drive] out toward the East Coast, and I also took a couple of trips out to West Texas, outside Marfa. I have a friend [with] a ranch that's been in her family a long time and there's an old bunkhouse on it, and she offers it to friends from time to time to stay there. So I took these trips on my own. It's not even as much about just the relationship. I think it's just that I found a new strength in enjoying my own company.”
Not coincidentally, the Bastards' bright new album, Arrow, stands with an entirely different footing. Besides Wennerstrom's newfound personal groove, she now has a stable lineup, and this record is their first LP as a four-piece band. Moreover, Arrow feels less burdened, emotionally and instrumentally. Its concise arrangements are leaner but freer and more jubilant.
“I feel like with Arrow, it's really captured the live sound of the band,” Wennerstrom says. “There's not a lot of extra guitar parts and layers. I think we had thought about adding some of those things in the studio. But when we sat and listened, we really didn't think it needed anything else, so it's a pretty stripped down album.”
What remains constant however is the Bastards' musical compass and its smoldering heart: Wennerstrom herself. All woman but brawny enough to stare down even the game's big boys, her powerhouse voice is one of the most commanding in rock music today, and her sensibility deftly roots the band between heritage and relevance in the American music tradition.
“I don't feel I'm reinventing the wheel at times,” she says. “But neither is really anybody else, you know? What I'm singing about is personal, and you can't put a time stamp on emotion and expression.”
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.