Despite rumours to the contrary, protest music is alive and well thanks to Erika Wennerstrom and the Heartless Bastards.
Heartless Bastards founder, lead vocalist and songwriter Erika Wennerstrom proves herself to be anything but when she chatted with Americana UK’s Martin Johnson over Zoom from her home in Austin, Texas, and discussed their new record, ‘A Beautiful Life’. It is clear that she genuinely believes that people should be good to one another, and while ‘A Beautiful Life’ is a protest album, Erika Wennerstrom simply believes she is telling the truth. The record could easily have been an Erika Wennerstrom solo recording, and she gives the lowdown on why it ultimately became the Heartless Bastards’ sixth record, released six years after their last. Finally, she is fulsome in listing the eclectic range of artists who have influenced the music on the record, and shares a family secret that it was her aunt who helped her understand the importance of lyrics when she was only eight years old.
How are you?
I’m OK, and I have just moved a few weeks ago, so I’m still getting my place in order, right before I go on tour, haha. It will be nice to come back to my new place though.
Why is ‘A Beautiful Life’ a Heartless Bastards record and not the second Erika Wennerstrom solo record?
Well, honestly, I just reach a lot more people with the band name I’ve built up over the last going on twenty years, haha. I’ve had a couple of different line-ups but I had had the same team for going on ten years, and then we took a hiatus and everybody was doing different things and the timings didn’t line up. It wasn’t like completely starting over like the solo record, and with everybody on different paths, I didn’t think it was fair to myself to put the record on hold until everybody’s schedule would magically line up timing-wise. I think it was good for me to go on forward with this thing I have built. Ultimately, I write the songs, and it has been my thing. I took a long way around saying that, but that is what it is, haha.
It has not been easy making records recently. When, where and how did you record it?
I actually finished the record on March 1, 2020. I finished it in Los Angeles, and I got home five days later and I had been following the news but hadn’t been home for awhile. I’m a pretty introverted homebody anyway, and as things developed I was thinking to myself I’m just going to keep staying at home, haha.
Are you still in Austin?
Yeah, I’m still in Austin, Texas. I like Austin.
Has Austin been an influence on your music?
It has in some ways. I feel I am very influenced by just life in general, but at this point, apart from COVID, half of my life is spent on the road, travelling, whether it is touring or hiking, which I enjoy a lot. There are even snippets of this new album that I wrote on a train when I did an acoustic tour in Europe. I have some lines on Italy in ‘The Thinker’ that were inspired when I missed my train and connection. I had some time waiting for my new connection and in that moment I had a little bit of reckoning with myself and what I was doing, and how can I be a bit more thoughtful, what my intentions are and where I’m going in my life. It is a much deeper song than just missing a train in Italy, but there are just little snippets of life and moments. That happens to me wherever I am. Austin definitely has an influence on my writing just by me living my life here, and it is a city that is a must-stop tour spot. Whoever is touring is going to come through here, and I’ve had a wonderful opportunity to see so much great live music over the years, and that has certainly inspired me, but those might be bands like a band from London coming through and I see them in Austin.
The music on the new record is largely relaxed and mature, but the lyrics are of the moment and feisty. Was that deliberate or just how it came out?
There are a few songs that have a feistiness, I’d say, but they are really just about the truth. A song like ‘Revolution’ for instance, I do sing a line about hungry politicians feeding bullshit to the masses, and somebody could say that is a divisive line, it is a political song, but the reality is on any side of the aisle, whatever your political persuasion is, bullshit has been feed from politics since the beginning of time. That is not meant to be a divisive line, if anything a song like ‘Revolution’ is a wake-up call to look beyond that, loving one another and what is really important. We are constantly being sold this idea that we are lacking things that we don’t really need. There is this climb to get ahead, just so you don’t get left far behind, we are in the rat race but the planet can’t sustain the level of consumption that we are doing. If we are going to consume like this, at least we should make things that bio-degrade and are more sustainable from our environment’s point of view, and therefore help the survival of our species. That may be feisty, but I think it is more like critical mass, and I think we are at a point where we need to act now towards the environment. Also, a lot of this division with politics and all these things, they are almost a distraction to that. It is like the divide and conqueror thing, I don’t know whether it is a Dr. Claw and Inspector Gadget kind of thing, haha, masterminding the divide and conqueror thing. Ultimately, it starts with some feistiness on this album with what I think is important consciousness for folks, and then in order to work through that, I think self-love is that recognition that you don’t need this or that. There is a lot about just this glass is half full rather than half empty sort of perspective on life. I think the album takes a turn into a lot more about that because I think we have to find some grounding and work things out for ourselves in order to tackle that message at the front of the album. We have to work together as a species to get there. It is a big deep message for me, and I’m not always the best at simplifying it, haha.
It has been a hell of a year for everybody, and you wrote these songs over eighteen months ago, but the album seems more relevant now than when you recorded it.
I think a lot of these messages are from a place that has been there since the beginning of politics, being good to one another never stops being a message that we need, haha. I’m getting emotional just thinking about this stuff.
There is a myriad of influences on the record that go to make a cohesive whole. Who are your go-to influences?
They are so broad. Led Zeppelin is one of my favourite bands of all time, and I feel there are moments of the song ‘When The Levee Breaks’ that make little spots of influence on lots of my albums, and definitely on ‘The River’ on this one, just that meditative groove they have in that song. Wilco actually influenced the beginning of that song, the very opening of ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ and I love that experimental exploratory sound that slowly makes its way into the song from the beginning. I did that in my own way, so we added street noises and did random percussion noises. I did some touring with Wilco and for me, they just get better and better all the time. Even just older songs continue to sit very well with me. Oh, Bob Dylan, I mean he is so just like one of the kings of songwriting to me. As a kid, I always wanted to write songs and I was drawn to melody first and foremost, and I didn’t think too much about lyrics, but when I was growing up my aunt would talk about Dylan, particularly on the long car trips we used to take, and she used to cite Neil Young lyrics to me when I was eight years old, haha. I always think about that though when I am writing, because even though I was more drawn to melody, initially, I thought my Aunt is somebody who is more drawn to lyrics, and she is listening to what I’m saying and I need to say honestly what I feel, and be thoughtful. My Aunt influenced me a lot, haha. There there is old rock’n’roll, there are some Beatles influences on ‘Revolution’ and ‘How Low’ was influenced by the Jackson 5. I love the Jackson 5 and they are a recurring influence, just their rhythmic stuff is so great. Marvin Gaye was a huge influence on the song ‘A Beautiful Life’, the self-titled song on the album. Sadly Charlie Watts has just passed, and The Stones have been such a huge influence on me. Another aspect of The Stones that has influenced me, is the fact that they try new things and change it up and experiment, and they have had all these different sounds over the years. They do different things and they do it well, and they just keep on experimenting.
You’ve already mentioned you are naturally a melody person, but how do you go about writing songs?
I always get the melody first. Sometimes I get snippets of words and they help me understand what the song is going to be about, but I always write the melody. Sometimes I will have a song completely arranged and melodically finished from beginning to end before I even have more than two lines. When I’m writing lyrics, I sometimes have to try and work out how I’m going to preserve the melody within cadence, but I’ve got a lot less precious with that though and it has made finishing a lot easier. In the past, I could just struggle and struggle lyrically as I would try and make it fit with the melody, and I think it adds a bit more free-flow spirit to the songs, there is no forcing it and more and more I really want the songwriting process to be a joy, and I think the more kind I can be to myself, and not just being super precious. Even like in the song ‘The River’, the concept is just letting things flow a little, and sometimes the water forms a little bit and changes the route a bit over time. Being amenable, just being able to go with the flow, not being so headstrong in my vision that I can’t just flow a little somewhere else.
When you went into the studio to record the songs did you have them all written and the arrangements in place, or did you work some things up in the studio?
I would say that this record is the closest I have come to realising my vision. I do try things, and sometimes they don’t quite work and I’ve got to try and figure it out. Looking back it is everything I wanted it to be, and then some. There are some surprises here and there.
You are another independently minded artist who has signed up with Thirty Tigers. What attracted you to them?
They really do a great job, and there is some independence there because I have my own label and it just feels so empowering, in a positive way. I can make certain decisions regarding the album where I am following my gut and heart on certain things. Thirty Tigers offer so much more than if I went fully with my own label from scratch, and I’m not quite that ambitious. Maybe at some point, but at the moment it is the perfect combination of having that help, and also being able to step out and do something somewhat independently, haha.
Do you have any plans for 2022?
Next year we have our European tour in late January, and we are still having some potential discussions beyond that. The next nine months or so are solidly planned, and then we will see where the rest goes.
The album seems to be generating quite a bit of interest.
I hope so, I don’t really know as we are just getting started. I have no perception about these things anymore, haha. I just made the best album I could, and now I’m just hoping people respond to it. Yeah, I think it is off to a good start.
Steaming is a hot topic at the moment. As a fairly well-established artist with your own label, what are your views on streaming?
I don’t know. It is a mixed bag because when I look at the data it is interesting on Spotify just seeing people from different exotic countries in the world and realising where the music now reaches that is beyond what a physical album purchase market would be. Ultimately I just want to reach people with the songs, and I’m sure the physical unit makes more money than the digital one, but it might balance out in time, I really don’t know. I don’t have any control over it, so I have decided not to get too involved, and there are positives to it in reaching people beyond Austin, Texas.
Do you get back to Cincinnati much now you are Austin based?
Here and there. I started the band in Cincinnati but I’m originally from Dayton, Ohio, which is an hour North. My family moved to Columbus, which is another city in what is a little triangle. Most of my time is spent in Ohio when I visit, I spend most of my time with family. I do get back to visit friends in my home town and I lived in Cincinnati for ten years so it is a must tour-stop for me. A lot of times I just get that catch-up time when I’m coming through working, I will also do a lot of holiday shows sometimes as well when I’m kind of near because of visiting family. I still talk to people I went to elementary school with, I really like keeping track of all the people in my life.
At AUK, we like to share music with our readers. What are three of your favourite tracks or artists on your current playlist?
I’m always bad at stuff like this when I’m put on the spot, haha. A band I really like are the Night Beats, they have some desert vibes which I lean a little bit into. I have a song called ‘The Arrow Killed The Beast’, and it is like we both like Ennio Morricone or something, and what they do is also like old garage rock. The vocals are so great and they have a new album called ‘Outlaw R&B’, and I’m really digging that. I can listen to Kurt Vile all day, haha, he is like Thai food to me, I can eat Thai food every day, haha. It is the variety that gets me, I can eat all sorts of different Thai dishes, it is not like one particular dish, haha Kurt Vile has a lot of dishes. In all honesty, I spend half my life in silence, haha, but I never forget a song or an artist I love, Cass McCombs, I just love Cass McCombs.
Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK readers?
Please buy the album, haha. Give it a whirl, give it a stream, particularly if you already have the service, just give it a listen, check it out. I’m very much looking forward to coming to the UK. We are doing a lot more cities than we have done in the past. I think we might have like eight or nine stops in the UK, and we usually do two or three tops. This is the first time I have done an extensive tour with a full band. I think I have a really kick-ass band, I have been pinching myself because I’m like wow, how did I end up with such a great team. Despite my band name, I just want the best for everybody, through this time and beyond.
The Heartless Bastard’s ‘A Beautiful Life’ is out now on Sweet Unknown Records.
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