Moving, working and an appreciation of things: An interview with Erika Wennerstrom of Heartless Bastards

By Nick Bequette

February 26, 2016

Erika Wennerstrom is a restless one. Aren’t most of the interesting people? Her voice draws you in like a hypnotist, blending so well with her melodies. You close your eyes and listen. Suddenly, you awake from the trance and the record is over. Pick up the needle and repeat. The Heartless Bastards’ sound is built on melody: aimless road trip style, put-the-map-away-we’ll-find-out-where-we-are-when-we-get-there music.

Through five studio albums she has fronted the Heartless Bastards. First, from her home in Cinncinatti, Ohio, and then to her adopted city of Austin, Texas, where she traveled to record 2009’s The Mountain with studio musicians, before forming the current line up of the band. The tour of their latest record, 2015’s Restless Ones, brings the band to Charlotte’s Neighborhood Theatre on March 1st. I caught up with Wennerstrom at in West Texas. With each of us a pot of coffee deep, our discussion ran the gamut from early influences and the threat to Austin’s music scene to an aunt’s musical education and where best to sit on an airplane for inspiration.

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Photo credit Courtney Chavanell. Courtesy of Partisan Records.

CLTure: I wanted to just tell you, on a personal note, I saw you open for Lucinda Williams quite a few years ago in Asheville. It was a great thrill. I came away loving your music.

Erika: Oh, thank you.

CLTure: That’s one of the things I love about seeing live music: going to see an artist you really enjoy and discovering someone else who becomes a favorite. You were definitely one of those cases.

Erika: Oh, wow. Thank you. That tour was such a great opportunity. I think Lucinda gets better and better with time. She’s kind of like how I would like to be at her age.

CLTure: You’ve said you wanted to be a singer since you were very young. Would you say you grew up in a house of music? Is that where it started?

Erika: My mom was really into music. My dad, he probably doesn’t own a single album. He’ll turn on a station that plays instrumental music and hum along even though I know he doesn’t know the song. He likes music as background noise. But but my mom was always into Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding, Ray Charles and she was really into jazz. I don’t know if the jazz thing caught on when I was a young child (laughs). That was something I later acquired a love for. I definitely think that a lot of the old rock and roll, R&B and soul music was something that stuck with me. My parents would have these parties in the summer like where people would bring a dish, like a pot luck kind of thing. Some of mom’s co-workers at the university were musicians, they would come with their instruments and kind of jam around and I think that might have inspired me.

CLTure: Is that something they encouraged you to do?

Erika: Well, I don’t know if I was saying I wanted to be a singer. I think my mom just thought it would be good that my brother and I each learned an instrument. We had gotten a piano and then in elementary school my brother and I were both signed up for an instrument. I played flute, but I wanted to play trumpet. But, I don’t know… I think with most parents, I feel like I was brought up in a household that allowed me to believe that if I worked hard at things I could achieve them. But I also think that my musical interests back then were not something my parents thought I would actually pursue.

CLTure: Do you remember an artist or artists that had an effect on you when you were young.

Erika: Definitely those soul musicians like Ray Charles and Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. When I was young we had this Christmas album. There was this Mahalia Jackson song on there, “Go Tell it on The Mountain” which is really just kind of a gospel song more than just like Christmas. To me, it felt appropriate to play year ‘round. I loved that song… And I listened to a lot of R&B, mainly, like, a lot of pop R&B stuff when I was young. So the first things I’m considering are the things that really stuck with me as a child because I definitely don’t sound like Salt-N-Pepa now but I listened to a lot of that kind of stuff. When I hit high school I started to get my first exposure to rock ‘n’ roll…my aunt is a huge musical influence on me. She was always listening to Neil Young and Bob Dylan. She would get really into it and probably owned every Bob Dylan album ever made. She would talk about lyrics to me. I would be like eight years old and she would be like, “You know it doesn’t take a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” She would always say that.

CLTure: That’s awesome! So she drew you more towards the lyrics or the messages in songs?

Erika: Yeah, I felt like that really stuck with me a lot. Lyrics are very important to me. I always found myself….like, what comes easy for me creatively is melodies. You know, the songs just kind of appear in my head. I never found myself being that analytical of lyrics when I would listen to music. But then when I started writing music I always thought about my aunt and her talking to me about lyrics. About what they meant to her and Dylan and Neil Young. I felt like it really made me feel that even though it wasn’t something I was initially drawn to in music, that it was just as important of an element (to a song).

CLTure: I had read that you usually find a melody and write the music before the lyrics. Is that usually the case?

Erika: Yeah. Sometimes when a melody appears a few words or like a line will appear so I almost know what I’m going to sing about. I mean, I try to sing different ways but I always tend to go back to my method.

CLTure: Do you write on the road?

Erika: Ummm, it’s rare. I get melodic ideas on the road. In a lot of ways, I don’t like sit down and try to write a song. I just go about functioning in my life and songs appear in my head. And then they’re just, like, there and I have to get them out. I mean, I used to try to write songs but now they just kind of find me. I’ll be in the middle of doing something. Like, I’m at the grocery store and a melody appears in my head. So when I’m on tour, a lot of times, ideas will appear but….you know where I get a lot of ideas? Flying in airplanes. Something about it, especially the window seat. I always get inspired in an airplane.

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CLTure: After the second record you moved to Austin without the original band, and recorded The Mountain with session musicians. What was your draw to Austin and Texas?

Erika: My manager was there and I’ve got an aunt and a cousin there. I didn’t really grow up with them; we went on a couple of trips. I was really young but it was just nice having family there as well.  It’s just a great  town. We had done some touring through there several times by that point and I just felt like it was a good spot.

CLTure: I feel like I can hear, in the records since the move, especially the new one, some Texas influences on your sound. Do you feel like that has had an impact on your music?

Erika: I mean, in all honestly, I don’t know if I have a Texas sound. But I also find, especially in Austin, the musical diversity…I get inspired traveling a lot on the road…But like, The Mountain, for instance, I had half of those melodies and ideas of where I wanted to go before I got to Texas. Some albums since then I’ve had the same idea for 15 years but it wasn’t the right time and then I finally finish the idea. Sometimes I let some things simmer.

CLTure: Do you consider that your home now?

Erika: Yeah, I’d say so. I’ve been there going on nine years now. in November it will be nine.

CLTure: I’ve read a lot recently about the economic frailty of artists living in Austin. The rising rent and the cost of living, it’s getting harder and harder for musicians to really survive there. Even the mayor has said that Austin could be at a tipping point. Are you concerned at all about the future of the city’s relationship with live music? Have you seen an impact?

Erika: Yeah, I definitely have. I mean, I’ve actually just recently been displaced. Right before I left for a tour my landlord sold my house and I had a month’s notice. But I was going to be on tour for five weeks so I literally got out of my house with a three day notice. Honestly, my stuff’s been in storage ever since. I could find a place to settle but with touring so much through the end of the year. There’s literally going to be four weeks I’m home total and they’re separated. I was just like, I don’t see the point in even finding a place last minute that I’m not sure I want to stay in. So I’ve been a little bit of a transient person right now… I do think pretty soon it could lose some of what made it so special and what draws so many people to it. It’s like, people come to South by Southwest and they have so much fun and they love the town and they’re like, “Oh, I must live here.” And then all the increase of people wanting to live there. Then someone is like, “oh, I’ll build a hotel right downtown right across from all these music venues.” Then all those people that loved Austin so much, probably from experiencing it through SXSW and the music scene and all that kinds of stuff, they buy one of the condos across from the music venue and then they start complaining about the noise.

CLTure: Well, I’m definitely rooting for the city. Charlotte is going through some growing pains and there is a lot of give and take, especially when a city is growing so quickly. There is always the threat of killing what makes you great. I hope it doesn’t lose what makes it so special.

Erika: Well, I think it’s kind of up to the city council and people to make sure because money talks. A lot of the jobs that are in the city are good jobs and the people that are moving there are creating tech start upland all this, which is great. I think as long as the city makes efforts to preserve and doesn’t let money do all the talking, it can last.

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Photo credit Courtney Chavanell. Courtesy of Partisan Records.

CLTure: How does the new record sound live? Are you happy with it?

Erika: Yeah, I think we’ve, especially with this lineup, we play live stronger than our records. And we’ve made some strong records, so yeah.

CLTure: So, the new album, Restless Ones, where did that title come from?

Erika: I spend a lot of the traveling and trying to focus…I don’t know, I mean it just sort of says it all. I guess I’ve been pretty restless in the time I was writing it, but I also feel like a lot of people in my life are sort of similar so it made it plural. Maybe there is a part of me that had trouble feeling content… It’s just hard to sit still but I guess I have moments where I do sit still though, and with writing this record I reached a point where I was like, I really need to just stop and just appreciate what I’ve already done and just stop there for a minute and be grateful and appreciate a lot of things. But, I don’t know, I’m always moving and working….I guess I’m restless.

Catch Heartless Bastards with SUSTO on March 1 at Neighborhood Theatre

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