By: Sarah Hagerman
Growing up in blue collar Dayton, Ohio, Erika Wennerstrom's desire to sing was ingrained and impetuous. "I've kind of always wanted to do this since I was a little kid," she recalls. "I don't really know why, but I just did. Even when I was four or three, I was like, 'I'm gonna be a singer!' [laughs]. My mom had a lot of friends that were jazz musicians. When I was a kid my parents would have parties and sometimes they would get together and jam while they were there - trumpets and saxophones and all kinds of stuff - so I think maybe that inspired me."
Sneaking into bars to go to rock shows, where Wennerstrom was further galvanized by Dayton local heroes such as The Breeders, Guided by Voices and Brainiac, a fierce rock & roll spirit was developing inside her, although there were certain hurdles to kick down first. Her father had given her a guitar as a Christmas present when she was 16, but with calluses painful to form, she admits, "I kind of lost my interest quick. I didn't know how to go about learning it on my own. But when I was 18 and I had started going to shows a lot more, I had been working on writing songs in my head, with the melodies on piano. I told myself I should really buckle down and try to learn guitar because I wanted to be a singer. But I thought, 'What am I going to do with my hands? [laughs]' I didn't know if I had the courage to be a run-around-on-stage kind of singer. I just pictured myself being so shy and scared to be up there. I thought playing guitar and learning it would help me get past my shyness of singing in front of people."
After cutting her teeth playing in Shesus, then striking out with her own Heartless Bastards, 31-year-old Wennerstrom is now long past those early timid days, although she mentioned that stage banter can still feel a bit awkward. "I find it hard sometimes to talk to the audience," she says. "I get nervous and don't know what to say, you know? So generally, I leave it to, 'How's everybody doing? Thanks for coming out!' I think I'll always have a little bit of pre-show nerves, but it's definitely way easier than it used to be."
Wennerstrom talks in a down-to-earth, unassuming manner, like the laid-back bartender you'd shoot the shit with at a dive soaked in smoke and whiskey (and Wennerstrom indeed used to work as a bartender back in Dayton in her early twenties). But behind a mic, her voice commands a room with the kind of electricity that makes your neck hairs shoot into exclamation points. Her badass rock goddess pipes, which can howl something wild or smolder in softer corners, have been compared to the likes of Janis Joplin and young Robert Plant, rolling dice with the fearless sonic swagger of PJ Harvey. Obligatory comparisons aside, it is the Heartless Bastards' flat-out gritty, gutsy music that chomps straight to the skeleton with deep incisor bites, a brown bottle chaser and the occasional flying boot heel. Served up stomping, bluesy and growling, with plenty of laid bare, melodically pumping heart, it's not-to-be-messed-with everyday people rock & roll.
Change Is Never Easy
Their latest album, The Mountain (arriving February 3 on Fat Possum Records), was written during a period of upheaval in Wennerstrom's life, namely her breakup with bassist Mike Lamping and a resulting move to Austin in November of 2007. Speaking of the move, she says, "We [her and Lamping] have all the same friends and I thought it would be harder living in the same city. I have some family here, I've made some really great friends throughout touring, and my manager, who really helped me through that, is here. Also, Mike McCarthy, who produced the album, lives here, so I knew I was going to come here for a while to record this album. So between all those factors, it just made sense."
|Erika Wennerstrom by Vivian Sachs|
Although she doesn't write with a particular theme in mind, one naturally unfolds on The Mountain.
"I kind of write [the songs] as I go," she explains, "but I do think that working on them through a period of my life there ends up being a theme. I really think a lot of it is about making changes in my life, maybe in a scary way, but also in a positive way as well - moving to this new place I'm unfamiliar with and just learning how to live alone again after ten years in a long term relationship. Change is never easy. Overall, that's the theme of it. That 'I Could Be So Happy' song, that's about how I always feel like I ultimately know things that I need to do to better my life, but it's just a matter of making that decision to do that. Anything you go through, it's kind of how you chose to see the world. It could be easy to be upset about something or complain about something, but ultimately it could be easier to just change your attitude and accept it is what it is, and this is just what I'm going to do. It all correlates together."
Over a period of six months, out of friction and battles with writer's block, inspiration sparked. Wennerstrom captures those unsteady times when the wagon wheel suddenly jolts forward from the mud and, whether we are ready or not (and we usually aren't), we are thrown head first into the watershed to swim against an unpredictable current. The real craft is making some sense out of the whole messy ride, with its everyday struggles and readjustments. It comes distilled in a strong proof on The Mountain, emerging in small moments of achingly honest self-reflection and lip-biting determination, which flag down intimacy on an expansive canvas that includes images of thirsty deserts, towering trees, rocky ranges and freewheeling space.
Working with producer McCarthy, an Austinite who's worked with And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead and Spoon, Wennerstrom had to trust him when it came to picking the session musicians. After years with Lamping and Kevin Vaughn (drums), Wennerstrom felt understandably apprehensive about wading into unfamiliar waters with people who she had never shared a stage, or even a beer, with before.
|Heartless Bastards by Carly Sioux|
"Honestly, I was extremely scared [laughs]. When I [first] came down here, I was like, 'I'm going to find a band and then we're going to practice the hell out of everything and I'm going to figure everything out first and then we're going to go in the studio.' And I hadn't quite found the perfect combination yet, and I was kind of stressing myself out about it, and trying to finish the songs at the same time," she recalls. "I talked to Mike McCarthy and he said, 'Why don't you just concentrate on finishing this album? I've got people in mind that I think will be perfect. I think you'll get along with them well. If you don't click, then we can go from there and make other arrangements, but concentrate on finishing the music.' So, I put trust that it would work out, and it did! I was worried it would sound a little bit stiff if I had just met them, but they were so solid, and as people we clicked instantly."
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