Heartless Bastards play Aspen; leader Erika Wennerstrom just wants to rock
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – Yes, Erika Wennerstrom had an older brother who guided her into boy-like activities. And yes, Wennerstrom had an aunt who fed her a steady diet of Neil Young and Bob Dylan.
But Wennerstrom says those are not the reasons that the music she makes lacks any measure of girlishness. Instead, it is her attraction to vocals in the lower register that has shaped her music. Joni Mitchell, Stevie Nicks, Madonna and Mariah Carey seem to have played no part in Wennerstrom’s artistic make-up not because they are women, but because they tended to reach for higher notes.
“I gravitate toward a lower register,” the 34-year-old said from Portland, Ore., where her voice was competing with the noise of cars and trolleys. “And I’ve been influenced by more male singers than female. But Chrissie Hynde sang in a lower register, Mahalia Jackson. And I liked Joan Jett growing up.”
Wennerstrom has also taken what might be considered a masculine approach to her music career. After playing bass for a short while in a band that had little room for her singing or writing, Wennerstrom formed her own band. She gave it a tough-as-nails name – Heartless Bastards – and being the bandleader allowed her to call all the shots, and do all the singing and writing.
“The more songwriters you have in a band, the fewer of your songs you get to introduce,” she said. And being the leader has meant that she is not much at the mercy of bandmates. Since forming Heartless Bastards, in 2002 in her native Ohio, Wennerstrom has seen band members leave on a fairly regular basis. (The current quartet, which plays Belly Up Aspen on Friday, April 13, has been intact for four years, but Wennerstrom is the only original member still in the group.) “What if you play with someone and they decide to do a salsa album?” she explained of her decision not to rely too heavily on permanent bandmates.
Heartless Bastards earned positive reviews for its debut album, 2005’s “Stairs and Elevators.” Their next two albums, “All This Time” and “The Mountain,” solidified their reputation, earning them an appearance on Austin City Limits and a slot as the opening act for the 2009 American tour by the Australian hard-rock band Wolfmother. Those three albums were all released on Fat Possum, a Mississippi-based label oriented toward gritty blues-rock. Wennerstrom says she is pretty certain that Heartless Bastards is the only female-led act on Fat Possum.
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Heartless Bastards’ latest album marks a break with Fat Possum; “Arrow,” released in February, is on Partisan, a Brooklyn-based label that specializes in rootsy but aggressive rock. But the switch in labels doesn’t signal an alteration in sound. Wennerstrom and company – guitarist Mark Nathan, bassist Jesse Ebaugh and drummer Dave Colvin, along with guest Matthew Holmes on congas – are still most interested in power chords, power beats, and pronouncements like “I need a little bit of whisky and a little bit of time to ease my worried mind.” Or, as the title to the album’s third track puts it, “Got to Have Rock and Roll.” The word that jumps to mind to describe the album is “ballsy,” and indeed, there are times, like the song “Simple Feeling,” when Wennerstrom sounds like she’s got a pair. There are also moments when she does reach for the higher register, and on “Only For You” she does so comfortably and convincingly.
“Arrow” describes, on the whole, a searching for something. In “Marathon,” which opens the album, Wennerstrom sings of a “fork in the road” and “this long race home.” “The Arrow Killed the Beast” talks of “wandering toward the sun” and “a new day is rising.” “How do I find? How do I find?” she repeats in “Simple Feeling.”
Wennerstrom says the theme of looking for something comes from the end of a nine-year relationship. What she was searching for was herself.
“We’d been together a long time and it took a long time to get myself back, feel comfortable” said Wennerstrom. “So when I wrote ‘Arrow,’ it was a time of getting back to myself, feeling comfortable with my own company. ‘The Arrow Killed the Beast’ – that symbolizes the part of me that’s moved on from something. Ended something, but in a positive way.”
When she began to write for “Arrow,” more than a year ago, Wennerstrom experienced writers block. She had a bunch of melodies, but wasn’t clear on how to put her thoughts into words.
“So I got in my car and drove around for a month by myself,” she said. “I stopped, visited friends and family in Cincinnati, Columbus, where my family now lives, went to All Tomorrow’s Parties [a music festival held that year in upstate New York’s Catskills Mountains], to the Alleghenies and holed up in a cabin there. Made a couple of trips out to Texas – outside Marfa, where you can’t see any buildings, just mountains, golden grass. I think a lot of that imagery got into the album.”
But in Wennerstrom’s translation, as filtered through the group that is Heartless Bastards, that lonely landscape becomes something not serene but explosive. Even in the quieter passages of “Arrow,” you feel a contained energy; the next power chord is just around the bend.
In conversation, Wennerstrom doesn’t come off like a girl determined to prove she can rock like the boys. She is thoughtful, a little self-effacing and unpretentious. Though she admits to being a tomboy – when I ask if she was a tomboy growing up, she answers with a long, knowing laugh – she isn’t trying to be masculine.
She just wants to rock.
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Renters in Aspen are facing rent increases this year but there are resources and COVID-19 relief available on the local, state and federal levels.