Can we let the girls play with the boys now?
“I just like to consider myself a musician, instead of a female musician,” answers Heartless Bastards’ frontwoman Erika Wennerstrom when questioned about her place in the legacy of powerful female rock vocalists. “I guess maybe there aren’t that many, but it doesn’t make me feel extra special in any way. I just feel like when you separate yourself, like “oh, I’m this female musician”, you’re almost sort of ostracizing yourself, in a way. I just feel more like I’m this musician, and a singer and songwriter, much more than putting the woman term as part of that.” Regardless Wennerstrom’s is not merely the voice of any old musician. That otherness has been Heartless Bastards’ greatest asset, but is also its likeliest source of stagnation. With last year’s release of The Mountain, the Bastards take a few more steps to make something more of that voice.
Heartless Bastards bread and butter rests in a shuddering heaviness and undeniable power, stemming mostly from Wennerstrom’s throaty yet strangely warbly growl of a voice. Her propensity for low register rumblings, however, has for the most part resulted in songs that feel a bit stifling in their similarity. “I just do what I feel, and however it sounds, whether it’s different or similar to my previous stuff is just what happens, and I can only hope that people continue to respond,” says Wennerstrom. “I’m a huge fan of so many different kinds of music, it’s just sort of an absolute must for me, an imperative that I experiment and try new things, instead of just trying to do the same sound. It’s just kind of what happens naturally to me. I feel like it’s a natural progression of any artist to try new things, and that if I just stick to the same sound, I’d just be repeating the same thing.”
This time around, Wennerstrom’s artistic imperative seems to be throwing some sparks into the darkness, filling out the Bastard’s usually dense sound with a bevy of new instrumentation. Banjos and mandolin add an almost jaunty feeling, while mournful pedal-steel and string arrangements underscore the darkness that rests at the heart of most of Wennerstrom’s writing.
“I think what sort of links all the albums together is my voice,” posits Wennerstrom, and she’s right. Heartless Bastards’ sound, in any incarnation, will likely be a vehicle for her undeniably powerful vocals. Since Wennerstrom is the constant, delivery is the key to moving things forward. Wennerstrom is stretching out a bit more as a singer, reaching above her comfort range with more frequency and determination, and hearing her voice stretch its range, adding highlight and shadow, just reinforces what a force it is. As for the emerging eclecticism of the Bastards’ sound, Wennerstrom offers this: “Like I said, I write what I feel and am inspired by at the time. All of those elements are me, and it just depends on the time, which one of those is going to be more prevalent. Sometimes I feel inspired to write a really heavy, sort of urgent rock song, and sometimes I just wanna sing a little folk song. I guess I would say … they’re just gonna duke it out forever, how ‘bout that?”