Just about six months ago, I heard a song on the radio that made me sit up and say, "Woah, who is this?" The tune itself wasn't anything out of the ordinary, but the lead singer's voice was like nothing I'd ever heard. Raw and resonant one moment, pleading and tremulous the next, androgynous yet distinctly feminine. She mouthed each syllable like she was rolling a fine whiskey around on her tongue. I was enthralled.
After that initial introduction, the Heartless Bastards haunted me. I heard their songs and their name everywhere: friends recommended them, they showed up on TV, they announced a show in Missoula. So when their publicity team sent me an email asking if I'd like to interview the lady-of-the-voice, the lead singer herself, I couldn't possibly say no.
On the phone, Erika Wennerstrom, the singer, songwriter, guitarist and founder of the Heartless Bastards, sounds nothing like I'd imagined. So mild-mannered, so quiet, I can barely hear her answers to my questions. "Where's that wild voice of yours?" I want to ask. But there's also something utterly charming about the Clark Kent feel, knowing that this unassuming, petite, blonde gal transforms at a moment's notice into a roaring vocal powerhouse on stage.
The Austin, Tex.-based four-piece rock band is currently touring behind its new album, Arrow. "I'm really, really proud of this album," says Wennerstrom. "It's the first time we've all been on an album together, even though we've been touring as a band for about four years." A short, polished set of 10 songs, Arrow has the feel of a band that's finally come into its own. With hard-driving rock as well as folk- and blues-inspired tunes, the sound is confident, brash and musically refined. Three previous albumsrecorded with varying back-up musiciansmet with mixed reviews, but this one has garnered high marks from nearly everyone. They were on Letterman in February, played Rolling Stone's SXSW party in March and earlier this month hit the stage for Conan O'Brien.
Two other people found the Heartless Bastards and Wennerstrom's talents to be especially intriguing: Andrew and Alex Smith, the Montana-born brothers who are currently putting the final touches on their film adaptation of James Welch's novel Winter in the Blood. They liked her sound so much, in fact, that they asked her to write and record the soundtrack for the forthcoming film.
"I guess they were both working on the script independently," says Wennerstrom, "and it turns out they were each listening to a different Heartless Bastards album. So they thought that perhaps it would be a good fit for the film." Eager for the chance to try a new challenge, Wennerstrom dove in. "They gave me a copy of the book, and I loved it. I loved the story." She set to work on the score before filming even began, and based her compositions solely on her impressions from the novel. This suited the Smith brothers just fine. "They said they wanted to edit the film to the songs, instead of the songs to the film. It was done oppositely from how a soundtrack is normally done," says Wennerstronm. "I just kept thinking 'I hope the song fits!' But they're really happy with it, and I think it'll be really good. I can't wait to see it."
Based on the subjects the band sings about on Arrow, the union of songwriter and film seems a perfect fit. The film chronicles the misadventures of Virgil First Raise, the Native American protagonist who embarks on a journey to track down his missing wife and rifle and ultimately discovers himself. Set in central Montana, the landscapeboth made and naturalfeatures prominently: The story is awash in coulees and plains, small-town bars and isolated cabins.
Similarly, the Heartless Bastards draw heavily on the imagery and iconography of the West (the cover of Arrow is emblazoned with a bison). "I find it very inspiring to be out among the mountains and desert and tall golden grasses," says Wennerstrom. The album also explores the individual journeys we all take, literal and metaphorical. When she was writing the music, Wennerstrom says, she hit the highways of America. "I took several road trips by myself, so I could just go off and focus. It sounds great, but in a lot of ways it was really hard and isolating."
The results were both introspective and expansive, just like Welch's novel. A good example is the tune "Parted Ways," which, while not written for the film, sounds like it was made expressly for it: "I need a little bit of whiskey and a little bit of time to ease my troubled mind." And then, a few lines later: "Out in the space, / I'm a long way from home. / The hum of the wheels they are carrying me on / To a wide open space to be breathing."
Having spent considerable time in the desert of west Texas, Wennerstrom wanted to make sure she got a sense of the Montana landscape as well, and she came for a visit as she was working on the soundtrack. "I found it absolutely beautiful," she says of Missoula and the surrounding area. "You know, we always used to just drive through on tours, but I started requesting that we play there. It was like, 'Why do we drive 24 hours from Seattle to Minneapolis, and not stop to play in this beautiful place in between?'"
The Heartless Bastards play the Top Hat Wednesday, August 1, at 10 PM with Little Hurricane. $15/$13 advance.