Thursday, May 24, 2012

Erika Wennerstrom on Austin, influences, and Heartless Bastards' latest, Arrow

Posted By on Thu, May 24, 2012 at 7:47 AM

Erika Wennerstrom is the backbone, heart and creator of blues-garage act Heartless Bastards, and her vocals have a fierce, feminine grit uncommon in modern-day frontwomen. She started writing songs on the piano at the age of 13 and learned how to play the guitar by writing original material. Wennerstrom and the band have been through some flux and turmoil over the years, but the Austin, Texas, group's most recent album, Arrow, is filled with dusty, Americana rock that plays cool and confident. We recently spoke with Wennerstrom and asked her what sparked her love for songwriting and what inspired Arrow's lyrics. The band is at the Granada in Lawrence this coming Tuesday, May 29.

The Pitch: You grew up sneaking into clubs, like any good music lover. If you hadn't access to the clubs, do you think your songwriting would have flourished like it did?

Wennerstrom: {I had} experience with {knowing} local bands that were successful, touring nationally. I don't know if I would have felt it was as attainable {if I hadn't}, it's tough for me to say. I'm sure that music and writing songs would always be a part of my life, but yeah. I do think early on it took me a while to build the confidence to do what I do, and not having those local role models... and some of those would have been Guided by Voices, and Kim Deal and the Breeders, her and her sister, Kelley. And I was always a huge fan of the Pixies, which aren't from Dayton, {Ohio}, but Kim Deal is.

Do you feel like you had to go through anything extra to be taken seriously as a front-woman or guitarist, or did you not have any problems, and were you taken seriously from the start?

I never really felt that I was. I think when I first started to try and put a band together that sometimes, you know, it was difficult for people to take me seriously, but I don't think it was because I was a woman. I think people weren't familiar with me singing, or playing guitar, and until you really see someone play, and see what they're capable of, or what the sound is, it's just talking about playing music with people doesn't make it happen necessarily. So, I actually ended up doing a recording project for Heartless Bastards before I had a live band, and I did a lot of the tracks myself on an 8-Track. Like, I played guitar and bass, and I definitely didn't do the drums, but I would write all the parts. And I think once I did that, people definitely took me seriously, but I wouldn't necessarily say they didn't before because I was a woman. I just think it took me doing something on my own to get people to listen to what I was doing.

Did you just kind of teach yourself music growing up?

Um, well, I got a guitar from my dad for Christmas when I was about 16 or so, but I guess it was a year or two later when I really first started to try to figure out how to play and I just taught myself, but I had some friends who played guitar and they showed me how to make certain chords. And I just, honestly, I started writing songs to learn how to play guitar. I didn't really learn other songs, I just, I knew some chords, so I would write songs with the chords I knew. So I think over the years, you know, I started my first album just with bar chords through the whole album (laughs). I still find that I'm a very simplistic guitar player, but it's definitely progressed over the years.

Well that's good! Any type of progression is a good progression.

Haha. Yeah.

So, you've experienced much praise and accolades for your songwriting and your vocal abilities. Do you feel most in your natural state when you're singing your words, or creating them?

Well, I think they are pretty equal. Writing is something that I really enjoy doing and I don't feel like it's the same satisfaction that comes out of performing covers as I do singing songs I've written. I guess because there's no personal {connection}. And I love performing. Especially when people are familiar with the songs and people are singing along, it just feels really good. So, it would be hard for me to pick one thing over the other.

I just always assume that the writing process can be so hard, but then it's like without that, you don't have a live performance. I think they probably feed each other.

Well, honestly, writing for me can be very difficult in that it really takes a while for me to feel comfortable to express openly what I want to say in a song, but once I finally finish that, it's just such a great feeling to complete a song. And, yeah, the process of it can be very difficult, though.

Especially if songs are personal. I would assume that would be kind of a difficult experience. This relates to the writing on the most recent album, Arrow. The content is energizing and empowering, and the content really does seem to encapsulate the sound of someone who's comfortable and in charge. Does this reflect the state of the band's place of comfort, or your personal state of comfort?

I guess it's just multiple things. I feel that, I mean, part of the record, I was in a relationship for 9 years, and what brought me to Austin was when we split up, and I sort of moved here, and started over, and I think that it takes, it took quite a while for me to feel sort of back to normal and comfortable with myself and who I am now. And I think that when I took these road-trips that I found sort of this new, this sense of comfort in my own company and felt stronger, and more independent than I have in the past. I also do feel as far as the band very comfortable. We all get along really well as people and I think that we have good musical chemistry. I feel like I've sort of found a new comfort over the last few years in multiple ways.

Do you ever see yourself going on a trip by yourself like that again? Was that a one time thing, or is it a new way you'll find inspiration from now on?

I'm sure I'll do it again. I think that with a touring band, when you go on tour, it's kind of difficult to have time alone. I think it's probably good and healthy for me when we're out of tour cycles to maybe take a trip like that even just for myself, but I feel like writing music will naturally be a part of that.

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