Erika Wennerstrom’s voice sounds slightly road-weary when she answers the phone from her hotel room. She’s waking up somewhere in between St. Louis, where she played the night before, and Little Rock, where she’ll play that night.
No surprises there—the Heartless Bastards guitarist/singer/keyboardist leaves it all on stage every night, belting and howling her way through songs like new album opener “Wind-Up Bird,” while ripping her guitar to pieces. She puts her resonant alto voice through the ringer.
But she has a magic cure.
“I think sleep is really important, and hydration. Those are the two biggest things,” she said (vaguely sleepily) via phone in late September. “If I am sick or having vocal trouble, I find pho, the Vietnamese noodle soup, to be really great. The spices help, having some with Sriracha.”
I expect Wennerstrom has taken in more than a few bowls of delicious pho since catapulting into long summer and fall tours in support of her band’s fifth full-length, Restless Ones (out on Partisan Records since mid-June). The band—Austin transplants after many years in Cincinnati—recorded with John Congleton (St. Vincent, Angel Olsen), who helped bring the album’s 10 songs into laser focus.
“I think he really helped us make our songs more concise,” Wennerstrom said. “He would suggest things here and there; I think 80 percent of the time we went with his suggestions. Even if we didn’t, we would all agree that maybe there needed to be something that would change there, and we would work on it and come up with something new.”
Photo By Lauren Baker, taken at Pickathon 2015.
But before Congleton could get his hands into any of Wennerstrom’s tracks, she had to write them. And she’s always been a lone wolf writer.
“I always write when I’m alone. I just find that I have a lot of focus issues when it comes to getting something finished. I feel inspired all the time, but finishing anything is a real challenge for me,” she says. “ Sometimes I need to just get in my car and go off somewhere and isolate myself.”
Restless Ones is the first album by the Bastards that retains the same lineup as the album previous (Arrow, 2012, Partisan Records). It’d be inaccurate to call the band a solo project of Wennerstrom’s, but she’s always maintained total control, picking up players like current members Dave Colvin, Mark Natan and Jesse Ebaugh, when needed. Perhaps that total control has been what’s shielded her from feeling some of the industry too-rampant sexism, which she says she doesn’t really feel affected by.
“I don’t find myself discriminated against,” she said. “You know, I lead this group. I’ve talked to some other girls that would find that to be a different case … it can be tough to be the minority in a group, if there’s all guys and there’s a woman in the band. I don’t think about it, and I don’t think that they think about it when we’re writing. We’re just working together. But then again, maybe because I lead this group, I don’t feel that effect as much.”
She claims Joan Jett and Kim Deal as guitar inspirations; but before she picked up a guitar, she was playing piano (which she still plays with the Bastards), and at some point she picked up the bass, too.
“I had a friend that was starting an all-girl group called Shesus,” Wennerstrom remembers. “She asked if I was interested in playing bass. I hadn’t played it before, but she thought that I could probably figure it out, which I could. I played bass in that group. Looking back, I think it kind of sounded like Bikini Kill.”
Now, she’s primarily on guitar, with a few reliable axes in her arsenal.
“On tour, I always use my Les Paul Goldtop, which is a reissue,” she said. “I’ve had it for about 14 years now. I have a Les Paul Studio, which is a spare. I also use a J50 acoustic, and I have a J45 as a spare now. I always write on my [Gibson] J-50 or my J-45—I just write on acoustic. I already have the melody, and the words are the real challenge for me. Even if I intend for the song to be on the electric, I find acoustic is fine for figuring out the words.”
I’m sure that Goldtop has taken a beating in those 14 years under Wennerstrom’s care. She’s a raw nerve onstage and on record across the board, while playing, singing and lyric writing.
“I just find music to be cathartic for me,” she says. “I think in order for it to be cathartic, there needs to be honesty there, because it’s all very personal. It’s almost like if I’m not honest in my lyrics, then I’m lying to myself.”