Heartless Bastard Erika Wennerstrom on Finding Her Voice

Categories: Interviews

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Austin's Heartless Bastards recently released their latest LP, Arrow, solidifying their reputation as a damn fine band. For those who didn't hop on the bandwagon after 2009's The Mountain, there aren't very many seats left.

The four-piece makes a stop at Lola's on Friday night. Wennerstrom talked a bit about being inspired by Ennio Morricone and the need for rock and roll.

You've recently been touring with fellow Texas rockers Hacienda. How's their new stuff sound?
I've always thought they were great. We did a tour with them a couple of years ago up the West coast. We're all fans of the band and their new material sounds awesome, actually.

The band has undergone significant personnel changes. With a pretty regularly rotating cast of bandmates, have you ever considered performing under a name other than the Heartless Bastards?
That's just a part of something that happens in bands all the time, and I've always written the songs for Heartless Bastards, so I don't feel that when things have changed I should change the name of something I've worked on for a decade. One of the line-up changes was because I had a relationship with one of the band members that ended, and then I moved to Austin and recorded The Mountain with all session players because I didn't have a band at that point. It's not that I've changed bands three times; it's all just been a matter of changing circumstances. Coincidentally, two of the players I'm playing with now were on my original demo in 2002, so it's come full circle in that way.

That must be pretty cool to have them be a part of this more well-known and accomplished version of the band.
It is, and like I said, this is the stuff that happens in bands all of the time. I read where one of the guys from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers passed away, and that didn't make the band change its name from being the Heartbreakers, you know?

For my money, your singing voice is one of the coolest instruments in rock and roll. When did you realize that you had a voice that wasn't like all of the others?
Gosh, I've wanted to sing since I was three or four, and then I told myself that singing is what I wanted to do when I got a bit older. The funny thing is that I never really sang until I was an adult and started to write songs when I was 18. I've always had faith in myself that I could be a singer; I just didn't have the confidence to attempt it until then. Since then, I've just tried to develop my voice.

O.K., but you at least have to recognize that your singing voice is certainly unique, right?
I do recognize that now, but initially, I mean, I didn't put a lot of thought into it. It's just my voice, you know? Really, my voice is me trying to emulate so many of my favorite voices. I like so many different styles and singers. I found that being inspired by all of them, I've kind of found my own voice.

What are some of those voices that have inspired your voice?
Oh, man. They're all over the place: Otis Redding, Mark Bolan from T. Rex, Hope Sandoval from Mazzy Star. I got to see Hope Sandoval perform on her solo tour and she was phenomenal. On Arrow, there's a song, "The Arrow and the Beast," inspired by Ennio Morricone, and I imagine myself singing like Nancy Sinatra or Lee Hazlewood over a Morricone soundscape.

The title track from The Mountain has one of the best opening riffs of any rock song. How do the sounds that land on the album develop from inspiration to recording?
For me, it always starts with a melody in my head, and I'll carry it with me for a while. I won't record it immediately, because I tell myself, "If it's good, it'll stick with me for a while." At some point, though, I sit down to focus and write words that fit with the melody, which is always a challenge for me. When I write from a personal place, it takes me a while to feel comfortable putting myself out there. Because it starts with the melody, I think it's important to hold that melody with words that work well and fit the meaning of what I'm trying to say. It's a real challenge to get the words to flow together. I'll then bring the songs to the band and we figure out how to end the song and they help me fine-tune everything.

You recently performed "Got To Have Rock and Roll" on Letterman. There aren't many songs that simply celebrate rock and roll these days. What went into the writing of that for you?
The line "I got to have rock and roll" just came to me instantly. I was worried that it might seem cliché, and I even asked myself if it did sound cliché, but I thought about the way the words came to me so naturally, and I realized that I do have to have rock and roll. Sometimes, I write from such a personal space and the songs can be so cathartic, so I feel that having that emotional release is important. But with "Got To Have Rock and Roll," it was kind of like, I want to sing about something fun. I'm just telling myself that when I'm having a bad day or going through a bad moment, "Hey, at least I've got rock and roll." It's a special part of my life. Sometimes it might sound generic, but if it's true, why change it?

The Heartless Bastards perform with The Fling and The Cush on Friday, March 9, at Lola's Ft. Worth.

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