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.