Q&A: Erika Wennerstrom of Heartless Bastards learns to go with the flow

Heartless Bastards, Erika Wennerstrom

Heartless Bastards, courtesy Aaron Conway.

Erika Wennerstrom has been fronting Heartless Bastards since 2003. The Austin roots-rock band’s sixth studio album, A Beautiful Life, which came out Sept. 10, is some of her strongest material since 2012’s Arrow. On it, she ponders the value of taking chances, materialism, enlightenment, revolution and what it truly means to have a beautiful life. Heartless Bastards’ current tour, which started last month, will bring Wennerstrom to 38 cities in three months. We caught up with Erika Wennerstrom on a video call while she was in Minneapolis. She’ll headline the Independent and Starline Social Club in Oakland; her first time playing the latter venue.

Heartless Bastards
Valley Queen 

9 p.m., Friday, Nov.5
The Independent
Tickets: $30 (21+)

8 p.m., Saturday, Nov.6
Starline Social Club, Oakland
Tickets: $30.

RIFF: How’s your tour going? Is the new Heartless Bastards material getting a good reception?

Erika Wennerstrom: Yeah, the shows are going great! We did a residency in Austin first, and we did two different clubs every weekend. On different nights some songs would shine more than others, but overall, the response has been really positive.

How does it feel to be finally be back out on stage again, playing after having been in lockdown for so long? Do you feel like you’re reconnecting with your fans after being home for so long?

Wennerstrom: It feels really good. When we first booked the tour, there wasn’t a Delta variant. Then we were hearing about breakthrough cases, so I was getting a little nervous about whether to still do the tour or cancel. But we instituted some protocols and we’re pretty safe now, I think. … It just feels really good to play and I think people are really thankful for the shows. I’ve had a lot of people say that this was the first show they’ve seen since COVID started, so it feels good to be that band for people.

Are you playing this new material live?

Wennerstrom: I play a song here and there, and from my solo album, too. I have seven albums and I feel there’s a lot of strong work on the new album. We’ve been varying the sets every night; it’s been really fun with the band. We’ve explored all the way through to my first album and I picked a lot of my personal favorites and consistent crowd favorites over the years. We’re changing it up every night. A lot of the focus is on the new album and also on fan favorites. “Arrow Killed the Beast” is maybe one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written, and I have so much fun playing it live, so I’ve been doing that one every night.

Your band is versatile, which is great because Heartless Bastards combine a lot of different sounds in your music.

Wennerstrom: It makes for a live show that doesn’t get monotonous because it flows together really well. We do a pretty good-length set, so it’s good to have that dynamic flow.

All the lyrics on this album are deep and meaningful; they all seem like they’re really coming from somewhere for you. When you went to make this record, was that a purposeful thing or was that just what was on your heart?

Wennerstrom: Well, I think in the past, I’ve tended to overthink things a little. I was almost being hypercritical of myself. I wasn’t letting myself flow, I was analyzing things as they’re coming out, rather than just writing what I feel. I just took off the filters; maybe there was just this message that needed to come out, but the lyrics just flowed, and I let them. I was just so content with what was coming out, and I’ve been really learning to be kinder to myself. I was thinking about letting go of ego, and not judging myself, not worrying about other people judging me and just letting the creativity flow. And a lot of that message is on the album. It was a really beautiful process for me, and it was a joy to write.

You address big issues like climate change and corrupt politicians on the album.

Wennerstrom: With the climate issues and the environment, we’re distracted from that and if we don’t really wake up to that, we’re going to wipe our own species out in the not-too-distant future. The line with politicians, that’s not even like a side-taking kind of thing. I think there’s just a lot of bullshit out there on either side of the aisle. In “Revolution,” that’s a call to look deeper and beyond all of that, to basic human decency to one another. I think it’s all about being a good human being. If somebody is ignorant of a certain issue, let’s talk to each other. Let’s educate and inform each other and have a dialogue, rather than just cutting somebody down and feeling like we’re better than them.

On “How Low,” you sing, “Let’s lift each other up or just let each other be.”

Wennerstrom: Just being good to one another; I think that’s what we really need … in this world. Some folks are misinformed and if we can attempt to lovingly inform someone rather than chastising, maybe we can add another perspective for them. People don’t listen when they’re being yelled at. I think whether it’s social issues or even two humans, one on one, having a disagreement, the only way to solve our issues is to truly try to understand each other. Sometimes people just aren’t ready to receive another perspective, but I still feel approaching each other with love rather than anger is the way to go.

What does the album cover represent?

Heartless Bastards, A Beautiful Life

Wennerstrom: It’s funny, I originally had this different concept for an album cover, where I was going be in the desert or the salt flats and I was going to be watching TV in a sparkly suit and there was going to be some kind of commercial on the TV. But the concept wasn’t quite coming together right. I happen to have a friend in Cincinnati, Aaron Conway, who did this photo. If you watch the video of the process, it’s not digitally inserted, it’s a light and a slow shutter. And it’s like painting with light and every single photo is completely different because it’s an in-the-moment process.

Aaron and his crew made that suit. It’s some sort of foil material and I felt so lucky it happened to fit because I just showed up there to do the photos that day. It all totally came together, and I was like, “I think I’m staring at the cover.” There’s a lens flare and these little orbs floating above my head. It’s all a big mystery, but I think sometimes in life, it’s like they say: There are no accidents. To me it looks a little futuristic, like a rainbow in space, and I feel like a lot of this album is looking beyond the practical mind to being open to the possibilities in life. I wanted to send that message out to people: Be open, be vulnerable. Follow your heart. If you have a chance at something, take it. Like I say in my song, “You never know, until you do.”

Is there someone you haven’t worked with yet whom you’d like to?

Wennerstrom: Robert Plant, or it would be cool to do something with, like, a hip-hop artist. With “Been Around the World,” I was experimenting with creating beats and I listened to a whole bunch of rap, like Wu-Tang Clan, and then I listened to just random songs looking for samples. I really like exploring different sounds. I love old-school metal and I love hip-hop, and R&B and soul, and Bob Dylan, space rock like Spiritualized and Spacemen Three. … I feel like my whole career in music has just been me having fun trying these different things and inspirations. I’m just grateful if somebody likes any of it. I’m just out here doing my thing and the fact that I’m seven albums in and I’m still playing, and doing what I love, is a real gift. The fact that I can continue to do what I love to do is a real blessing and I’m so grateful for it.

Follow Rachel Alm at Twitter.com/thouzenfold.

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