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The American rock band in its natural habitat—a sun drenched field.
Nathan Presley

Have Heart

Heartless Bastards’ Erika Wennerstrom on her band, overcoming writer’s block and how women fit into music

September 12, 2012, 5:00 am

Austin-via-Cincinatti rock act Heartless Bastards is playing a totally awesome, totally free show as part of SFR’s Arts Festival. So I called up frontwoman Erika Wennerstrom and asked her some questions.

ADV: How are you? How’s tour?
EW: Good, thanks. We played in Mississippi last night and we’re heading to Indianapolis tomorrow. We’ve been getting a great response.

That’s awesome. Almost makes me hate to mention that I read someplace you were suffering from writer’s block.
Yeah. I was. So I got in my car and took several road trips…not to perform or anything. I went to the Catskills and the Alleghenys and sort of forced myself to work on [Arrow]. I spent quite a bit of time in West Texas. My friend has a ranch outside Marfa, and she let me flop in her bunkhouse and do some work. I guess you could say parts of the album are inspired by West Texas.

Did these trips alter your writing process?
It’s still kind of the same. Usually a melody will pop into my head and I’ll try to pick up a guitar or sit at the piano and work out the best approach. I’ve always told myself that if the melody is strong I won’t forget it. Like, if I don’t think about it but it just keeps coming back, it affirms that it must be a good idea. That’s always been the process, but I’m really great at distracting myself, so I learned that isolating myself is a great way to avoid those roadblocks.

You’ve had a lot of personnel changes over the years. Is this the band you’ll stick with?
I was in a relationship with one of the members of the initial band way back when, and when we split I moved to Austin. I didn’t really know anyone in the scene, so the first record was with session musicians. I eventually figured I’d need a full-time band. We’ve been playing in this lineup since 2009, and I don’t see that changing.

Has living in Austin seeped into your music?
It’s obviously inspiring to be around so much great music, but when I see an awesome band I don’t really think, “I want to sound just like them!” Most of the influences I have really have been with me for a long time­—before I lived here. Most of my influences are records that were made well before I was born—bands like Thin Lizzy and T-Rex. I kind of liked the music from spaghetti western movies, and I’d imagine what it would sound like with Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood singing over it. Robert Plant was always a hero.

I sometimes notice almost punk undertones in your music. Are you a punk fan as well?
When I was 16, a friend took me to lots of DIY punk shows, and I fell in love with the genre. It’s definitely always been a part of me…maybe more on the earlier stuff.

I hate that qualifier “girl-led band,” or that it’s a novelty when there’s a woman in a band. Has that ever been a problem for you?
There are so many women—especially this year—who are creating great music, and I like that it’s become normal. I don’t think it needs to somehow be special or unique just because a woman is playing an instrument or fronting a band.

So it doesn’t bug you when people automatically compare you to Janis Joplin?
I get that less and less these days. I used to belt out more, but I had to work out how to sing night after night without damaging my vocal cords. People can’t help but compare one thing to another, I guess, and it doesn’t really bother me.

What’ll you do after tour?
We just did the score for an indie movie called Winter in the Blood based on a novel by James Welch. That’ll come out soon. We’ll head over to Europe and tour and then, eventually, we’ll get to work on the next album.


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