Heartless Bastards: Songwriter Erika Wennerstorm Aims for "Clint Eastwood-Meets-Nancy Sinatra" Sounds
Timberlake-style audacity aside, it takes some serious stones to open an album with a six-minute-plus slow-burning anthem. But that's what Erika Wennerstrom does with "Marathon," the opening track of her Texas-via-Ohio band Heartless Bastards' 2012 opus, Arrow.
The move pays off. "Marathon" is a classic empowerment anthem -- not cheesy or overly sentimental, but powerful. It hits like a fist to the gut.
"It was planned from the beginning," Wennerstrom says of the decision to open with the number. "'Marathon' was meant to be on our last album, The Mountain, and we ran out of time. But I really believed in the song, and I wanted to use it for this next album."
Her connection to the strong was strong, and the Heartless Bastards -- which featured session players when The Mountain was recorded -- was in the midst of an evolution into a full-fledged rock 'n' roll group of Wennerstorm, bassist Jesse Ebaugh, drummer Dave Colvin, and guitarist Mark Nathan. Producer Jim Eno (Spoon, Black Joe Lewis, Alejandro Escovedo) suggested the fledgling unit take the songs that would eventually comprise Arrow on the road, allowing the compositions to take root and evolve naturally. The approach benefited the record, like the T.Rex-style strut of "Got Have Rock and Roll," the loose-limbed "Skin and Bone," the cocky Stones-evoking "Late in the Night," and its restrained black-coffee-and-cigarettes moments, like the spooky "The Arrow Killed the Beast." It especially brought clarity to "Marathon."
"I felt like a song like 'Marathon' could have been overlooked in the middle of the album or toward the end," she says. "Because it's common for you put all the rock 'n' roll songs and everything that's super-catchy up front, [and] I don't like front-loaded albums. It's kind of a mellow song, but it really builds. It was a powerful way to open the album, and I thought people wouldn't notice it in the middle of the album. From the beginning, I knew it had to be first."
With Eno at the helm, Wennerstorm brought her influences to the table, discussing LPs with the producer and pointing out specific sounds that she was drawn to.
"Jim wanted to find out what my influences for these songs were, and what kind of sounds I saw in the final songs," she says. "I would cite examples of inspirations for each songs, and ideas for a sound I was going for. Jim would help us find that.
"I'm a huge fan of Thin Lizzy's cover of that Irish traditional song 'Whiskey in a Jar,'" she says. "It's a rocking song, but there's an acoustic guitar in there. I wanted that sound."
It's the same sort of the acoustic guitar sound you hear in "Street Fighting Man," she says, percussive and chunky, fitting in a sonic space between tube-amplified electric guitars and the drums. When it came to vocals, she had classic sounds in mind: the duets of Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra, and the spaghetti Western grandeur of Ennio Morricone.
"I love the vocal stylings of Nancy," she says. "It sounds like [her and Lee are] out in the middle of nowhere on some mountain, but I was also inspired by Ennio Morricone's spaghetti Westerns; I wanted this kind of Clint Eastwood-meets-Nancy Sinatra style."
It's not just the attention to detail that makes Arrow feel like a complete statement. With a solid lineup intact, Wennerstorm says, it's the best thing the band has put to tape, thanks in no small part to the suggestion to warm up with them on tour.
"We just really got give those songs a live, tight sound for the record," Wennerstorm says. "I think we were all just on the same page, and I'd like to think it all comes across on the album."
Heartless Bastards are scheduled to perform Saturday, March 23, at McDowell Mountain Music Festival at Margaret T. Hance Park.
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