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Heartless Bastards: Erika Wennerstrom moves 'The Mountain'

January 14, 2009 |  4:45 pm

Erika Wennerstrom Heartless Bastards Erika Wennerstrom didn't have the most auspicious start to her rock 'n' roll career. When the acoustic guitar from her father showed up under the Christmas tree when she was 16, she looked at it without any particular desire to play. She finally made a go of it, but before the calluses could form she gave up, frustrated by how painful it was to press down on the strings.

It wasn't until two years later that the Dayton, Ohio, native, then a high school dropout working at a sub shop and looking for some sort of creative outlet, picked up the guitar and really started playing. She learned bar chords first and eventually forced herself to learn open chords.

"I'm still not sure I know any real chords," Wennerstrom, now 31, says in her throaty, Midwestern drawl. "I still tell people I don't really know how to play guitar." Onstage, partially hidden by a Les Paul Gold Top re-issue or a Gibson ES-125 hollow body (writers frequently mention her small stature as if amazed that a voice that big could come out of a body that small), Wennerstrom seems like a natural, simultaneously swaggering and at ease.

If her musical proficiency is in doubt -- and let it be noted that it's mostly Wennerstrom doing the doubting -- her musical instincts are not. Aside from sporting the best band name this side of Black Sabbath, the Heartless Bastards have the good fortune to ride the whirlwind that is Wennerstrom's voice. Low and husky in a range that's closer to that of a male tenor than a traditional female singer, it packs enough power that it can feel like a plague of locusts devouring a field and has enough subtlety to add ache to soft, bluesy tunes. Combined with Wennerstrom's canny ability for crafting throbbing hooks, it's lifted the Cincinnati-spawned Heartless Bastards to the level of top regional band, a label they're likely to transcend with their latest album, "The Mountain," out on Feb. 3.

Download the title track of "The Mountain" after the jump....

Erika Wennerstrom Heartless Bastards

In November 2007, Wennerstrom, who cut her musical teeth in Cleveland's best dive bars, packed her bags for Austin, propelled by the city's throw-a-rock-and-you'll-hit-a-musician indie scene and a yearning to get out of Cincinnati after the breakup of her 9 1/2-year relationship with the band's bassist, Mike Lamping. Also, she planned to work with producer Mike McCarthy so "no matter where I moved ... I was going to end up being in Austin. There were just so many reasons for me to go there."

After a short stay in an apartment whose confines made it hard for her to work, Wennerstrom settled into the top floor of a three-story house on Austin's east side. "I can write and [my roommate] can be home and in her room on the first floor, and I won't feel like she can hear. I just get really shy about people hearing things when I work on them for the first time," Wennerstrom says.

>>>>Download an MP3 of "The Mountain," the first single off the Heartless Bastards' new album.<<<<

To keep her self-described ADD in check, she holed up in her house and forced herself to work on only one song at a time. "I had some of the melodies and things before I moved down [to Austin]. I did probably fully form the words and kind of fully finish everything when I was down there. Sometimes I'll carry a melody in my head for years, but when it comes to sitting down and really asking, 'What am I trying to say here?' and putting it to the melody, it takes me a long time."

Six months later she walked into the studio with McCarthy, who's known for his work on ... And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Patty Griffin and every Spoon album since 2001, not to mention his penchant for wearing vintage-style suits to work. Wennerstrom had produced the band's first two albums herself, but McCarthy brought in a slew of top local and sessions musicians for "The Mountain."

"I had really, really adamantly wanted to find people or friends to play on the album, but Mike [McCarthy], and I think he was right, said I should finish writing the songs instead of trying to go around playing with all kinds of people all over town," Wennerstrom says. "And because he felt he could find people that would be perfect for the album, I just kind of crossed my fingers and hoped that it would work out."

"To her credit, I think the songs are amazing," McCarthy says. "As far as the little things like instrumentation, I figured those would all be taken care of if she just but put her best foot forward musically and lyrically."

McCarthy expanded the lean instrumentation of "Stairs and Elevators" (2004) and "All This Time" (2006), adding mandolin, banjo, strings and more to the album's 11 tracks. He overdubbed timpani rolls on "Out At Sea" and even stepped from behind the mixing board to play mandolin on "Wide Awake," which buries a delicate eastern harmony under a delay-heavy guitar hook. "If you only listen to the left speaker and don’t listen to Erika's guitar part, it sounds like it's somewhere between Indian and Arabic music," McCarthy says. "I just thought her melody was kind of like that, and I wanted to have a mandolin assimilating that sound."

After bringing in Austin local Ricky Jackson to play pedal steel as a counterpoint to the title cut's swampy guitar hook, McCarthy and Jackson didn't bother writing out the parts but "head-charted" the song section by section. "I call it 'head-charting' when you work out the parts on the fly. It's a crazy stream of consciousness way to record, but it's a good way to do things for me because it keeps things fresh and unique," McCarthy says.

It transformed Wennerstrom's perceptions as well. "I would never have pictured pedal steel. He was like, 'I really think it’ll sound different and we should try this.' And I ended up loving it," Wennerstrom says.

On an album where almost every track, in one way or another, sounds like an anthem about change, from the wide-eyed confusion of "Out At Sea" to the stripped-down bluegrass of "Had To Go," it's a sonic and emotional evolution that mirrors Wennerstrom's own.

-- Elina Shatkin

Photos: Erika Wennerstrom of the Heartless Bastards, top. The Heartless Bastards, bottom, from left, bass player Jesse Ebaugh, singer & guitarist Wennerstrom and drummer Dave Colvin. Credit: Cambria Harkey