It's supremely ironic that a band calling itself Heartless Bastards employs a frontwoman as wildly emotive as Erika Wennerstrom. The Cincinnati native's voice ranges from earthy bellow to smoky whisper, bluesy wail to primal roar, all laid over the driving guitar riffs she's honed over five hard-hitting albums and more than a decade of nonstop touring.
Last year's masterpiece, Restless Ones, dialed Heartless Bastards' intensity down a notch or two, with drummer Dave Colvin, bassist Jesse Ebaugh and second guitarist Mark Nathan giving Wennerstrom more room to stretch. But that just resulted in the bravest, most ambitious batch of songs in the band's 13-year history – full-throttled pop on "Hi-Line," swirling psychedelia on "Eastern Wind" and irresistibly jaunty rock on "Black Cloud."
"I don't think the thought of bravery and ambition entered my mind when creating Restless Ones," Wennerstrom tells Orlando Weekly. "All my albums are pretty personal, but there are moments when I'm so completely open and honest on this album that I had to question whether I was OK with putting it out there in the world. I just create songs I like and hope for the best. [But] nothing ever feels finished to me. I just reach this point where I become OK with moving on. Maybe that's where the bravery is. You put your personal thoughts out there for the world to judge. I really have to shut all that out, positive and negative, in order to keep going."
And make no mistake: Wennerstrom has weathered plenty of storms. She didn't start singing in public until she was 18, describing her embrace of her talents as "a real slow build of confidence." The first three musicians she recruited to back her in 2003 left the following year, just before garage-blues superstars the Black Keys endorsed Heartless Bastards and encouraged Fat Possum Records to sign them. In 2007, Wennerstrom and her partner, Mike Lamping, who played bass on the band's first two albums, split after a decade-long relationship. That precipitated a move to Austin, Texas, a reshuffling of the lineup and a reunion with founding drummer Dave Colvin. But the last three records – 2009's Mountain, 2012's Arrow and 2015's Restless Ones – have all reinforced Heartless Bastards' popularity, creativity and reach. Not to mention Wennerstrom's abilities as a lyricist writing specifically for her particular strengths as a vocalist.
"I always write that way," she says. "I have melodies spinning in my head all the time. The challenge is articulating my thoughts into that melody and rhythmic pattern. It's just part of my process. Restless Ones was very in the moment. At times, I would literally finish the lyrics, record them and then mix the song that day. There wasn't a lot of time to self-analyze and ponder, which was frightening, but I also felt free in the sense of letting go in the moment. That's easier said than done, but it's what I continue to aim for. I'm definitely more present than I've been in the past."
In addition, Wennerstrom says she's more accepting of Heartless Bastards' unique spot in the modern musical landscape: not quite indie enough for the tastemakers, a little too polished for the crusty garage crew, but so honest and expressive that fans unconcerned with labels usually can't resist falling hard for Wennerstrom's unique blend of hard rock and soul-baring authenticity. Although she says she still has trouble reading reviews, she laughs when asked about the band's endless categorizations: "Over the years, we've been called blues rock, country, punk, psychedelic, folk and arena rock. People can label us whatever they'd like. It's all fine by me."
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