Erika Wennerstrom, the fiery singer in the Austin-by-way-of-Cincinnati band Heartless Bastards has brought her garage blues band to Cleveland on several occasions. Early on, the group was still a work-in-progress and she remembers one particular performance that didn’t go so well.
“There was a rough moment on the first album and we were opening for Drive By Truckers,” she says via phone from her Austin home. “When I wrote that album, it hadn’t occurred to me to try songs in different keys. I had trouble singing that album. I was just first starting to tour. I didn’t realize that just because you get free beer doesn’t mean you have to take advantage of it. I had trouble losing my voice a lot. I remember that show and we did one in Cincinnati. I could barely sing. I didn’t cancel the show. I would sing these songs and only part of the words would come out. I’m sure we were so awful. We’ve come a long way.”
Formed back in 2003, Heartless Bastards emerged from the Dayton-based garage rock act Shesus, a band that featured Wennerstrom and drummer Dave Colvin. The two split off to form Heartless Bastards and with a little help from Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney, a fan of the band who passed their demo on to the folks at Fat Possum, the group had a record deal within a year or two of forming. Its debut came out in 2005 and though it’s gone through a handful of lineup changes, it’s remained a constant on the indie rock circuit and has evolved with each album.
For its latest effort, Restless Ones
, it holed up at El Paso’s Sonic Ranch for a 10-day stretch to write and record the songs. Produced by Grammy-winning producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, Angel Olsen, Swans), the album puts Wennerstrom’s howling voice up front in the mix and keeps the band’s raw energy intact on songs such as the distortion heavy “Wind Up Bird” and the bluesy “Eastern Wind.”
“What I enjoy about creating is trying new things,” says Wennerstrom. “I really focus on writing songs that I would like to hear. I’ve had some fans tell me that my first album is the best thing we’ve done, but I don’t want to recreate that. Ultimately, I can’t think about pleasing other people. What I’m writing is personal. At times, I question whether to put myself out there in certain spots. Some of that is figuring out the fine line between too much information and what is also something authentic and real and giving people something from within me.”
She adds that some of the songs on the album have had a particularly long gestation period.
“The initial ideas appear in my head,” she says. “There are a few tracks that might even be ideas I’ve had for six or seven years. I have a lot of ideas and then at certain times I think if it’s the right time to explore something more. I build up these melodies. I try to finish the lyrics and bring them to the band but it never really works. This album lyrically had to be forced out of me. I would work on a song and want to write lyrics and then have the same one going on for months. I would finish in two or three days. There’s a real spontaneity to the songs even though I tried to work on them for so long. I just found it necessary to force it out. That’s what I was saying about not being quite sure how to feel about what I write. Sometimes it’s nice to look back on something you’ve created and still identify with it. I had to trust myself and sometimes I don’t trust myself.”
The album’s a little more diverse than past efforts. The moody “Black Clouds” has a twangy guitar riff to it that recalls early R.E.M. as Wennerstrom lets loose a Janis-inspired wail.
“We have an idea of where we want to go as far as what something sounds like,” she says. “I find that individually within each song. I never say I’m going to write a country record. I feel like when I write albums I put one foot in front of the other. I have these songs and a definite idea of where I want them to go. But I don’t look at the overall picture. It might be song by song. I get to the end and I look back and think I’m discovering what I’ve done. It’s not calculated or planned in that sense.”
The first single, “Gates of Dawn,” capably vacillates between acoustic and electric.
“That was one we changed last minute after we had finished the album,” Wennerstrom says. “We added the acoustic and recut the lyrics. We literally finished that two days before we mastered the record.”
Those early struggles with singing notwithstanding, Wennerstrom has become a powerhouse singer. The occasional hiccups that make their way into her vocal performances help distinguish her as a singer.
“I think I’ve started to feel that when you’re recording something, something you see as a flaw can be a cool thing,” she says. “It’s almost like feeling more at peace with the recording process and I can nitpick things less and something you think of as a flaw can be a happy accident.”
Heartless Bastards, Craig Finn, John Kalman, 9 p.m. Friday, June 19, Grog Shop, 2785 Euclid Heights Blvd., 216-321-5588. Tickets: $16 ADV, $18 DOS, grogshop.gs.