2021 sees the return of bluesy, folksy, garagey Americana rockers Heartless Bastards. A Beautiful Life, their first album since 2015’s Restless Ones, drops September 10th courtesy of Sweet Unknown Records/Thirty Tigers. This current iteration of Heartless Bastards has singer/songwriter/mainperson Erika Wennerstrom (who released her first solo record, Sweet Unknown, in 2018) returning with a largely new lineup. A Beautiful Life, which was co-produced by Kevin Ratterman (Strand of Oaks, Jim James, White Reaper), has already dropped a handful of singles and the band kick off a lengthy tour on September 16th in Little Rock, AR, which includes an October 1st stop at our very own World Café Live. For the first time since 2016, I recently got a chance to catch up with Erika Wennerstrom, who told me about how Heartless Bastards came back together, what’s been inspiring their latest sounds, and just what we can expect of their October 1st show at World Café Live.
Izzy Cihak: I know you did a residency throughout August in Austin. How was that, both in terms of just playing together on a regular basis and trying to make live music work during a pandemic?
Erika Wennerstrom: It’s been a great warm-up for tour. I was a little nervous about it with the breakthrough cases. We’ve been getting tested once a week during the shows, and I think we decided that if this is potentially the new normal, maybe we have to do our best to adapt to it while doing our best to keep ourselves and the fans safe.
Izzy: While we’re talking about the current band, how did you all come together? There are a number of new players as of recently, right?
Erika: Yeah, it’s pretty much a whole new team. We have Greg Clifford on drums, Sam Pankey on the bass, Jonas Wilson guitar, Beth Harris on harmonies and percussion, and Andy Bianculli as a multi-instrumentalist. Each person is someone whose talents I admired before working together and they seemed like the right person to ask for each role. They’re so talented and I can’t wait for folks to hear the band.
Izzy: You’re gearing up to release A Beautiful Life, both your sixth album and your first album in six years. How do you feel like this album compares to previous releases? Do you think the hiatus and your solo album impacted the latest sounds of the band in a significant way?
Erika: I think it’s my best yet. I allowed myself to explore ideas that sometimes didn’t work initially, but they always lead me to what did work. A big challenge for me is trying to get the vision in my head to translate. I gave myself the freedom to explore, without fear of failure or judgment by myself or anyone else. I feel like I can look back with no regrets that I should have tried this or that. I feel like the past Heartless Bastards albums I was searching for something within myself, and I finally faced that with the solo album. I feel like I’ve let go of a lot and created some space within myself so on the new album, the subject matter is more about the connection between us all, loving one another, and looking for the bright side as best as I can. I feel like I really got in touch with my inner child. There’s a lot of whimsy there. It’s joyful.
Izzy: Have you had any favorite reactions to the new music so far, whether from audiences at the live shows, or fans or critics who have heard the singles that you’ve dropped so far?
Erika: I think it’s all been pretty much positive so far. People were yelling out nice compliments after new and old songs this past weekend and it just felt really good. I’m so thankful for the positive early response.
Izzy: I’ve always appreciated that you’ve had a pretty massive array of influences. What were some of the things that you were listening to or thinking of when you were composing and recording this particular batch of songs?
Erika: Thank you! The new album influences are also all over the place as well.
On “Revolution” I imagined Bobby Gentry’s voice singing a Bob Dylan song with some of the Beatles and Chuck Berry sprinkled in.
“How Low” was influenced by Otis Redding and The Jackson 5.
“When I was Younger” was honestly influenced by “We are Siamese” from Lady and the Tramp. I’m not even quite sure where that song came from.
“You Never Know” was influenced by Francois Hardy.
“A Beautiful Life” was influenced by Marvin Gaye
“The River” Wilco, The Kinks, and Led Zeppelin
“Photograph” Pink Floyd, The Pixies, and Gang of Four
Some other influences are 90’s hip hop beats, James Bond theme music, Disney, Spacemen 3, Spiritualized.
I guess this is probably too long of an answer. I’ll stop there.
Izzy: You’re about to kick off a pretty massive tour. What can be expected of the live show this time around?
Erika: I’ve had so much fun exploring old songs with the band. We’re going to sprinkle in songs from the whole catalog of the band and change it up every night to keep it fresh.
Izzy: Since this is a Philadelphia-based publication, I have to ask if you have any thoughts on or favorite memories of the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection? You’ve played here a ton of times over the years (I remember some particularly good nights at North Star Bar and Union Transfer.)
Erika: We’ve always had a great time in Philly over the years. Union Transfer is one of our favorite venues. There is this Venezuelan restaurant across the street that I always meet an old friend at and they have the most amazing arepas. And the owners are a really nice married couple that make homemade chocolates as well. I highly recommend that place to folks.
Izzy: Okay, so this is sort of personal. The Mountain holds a super special place in my heart because it came out right once I had really established myself as a relevant music critic and I probably listened to it a few hundred times in 2009. So, I’m curious how you feel about that record these days. I think the last time I saw you, you were still playing a handful of songs off of it.
Erika: Wow! Thank you for appreciating The Mountain. More and more I look back at old albums with pride. There was a while where I was looking at old songs through the lens of what I would do now, and it gave me more a critical view of them. It’s been so nice to revisit these songs for tour and it’s given me an appreciation for the journey and the growth, and I think the songs are sounding better than ever.
Izzy: Not to detract from your music (I don’t think I’ve asked you think before, which kind of baffles me.), but you have a really amazing sense of fashion. Who or what does that draw inspiration from? Do you have any particularly significant style icons?
Erika: Thank you! You know I think my biggest fashion influence is probably my mom. I’ve always loved her taste.
Izzy: Finally, on a related note, is there anything you’d love to see your fans wear out to the shows? I feel like a lot of times, with music like this, the fans don’t really think about fashion, but I think they totally should, haha.
Erika: Well, I think anything pretty much goes. Despite the band’s name, I think we have some of the nicest fans ever. The club we played last weekend even said that to me. So, I think I could say it’s a safe space to be you and wear whatever you feel whether it’s ripped jeans, a suit, or sparkles, come in drag, a spacesuit, the nutty professor. Whatever you want. You all just be you.