To clear her mind after a lengthy stretch of touring, songwriter Erika Wennerstrom hit the road again, this time alone, finding both solace and inspiration in the wide-open spaces of West Texas rangeland.
What came from Wennerstrom's peaceful isolation is the Heartless Bastards' fourth and best album, Arrow, a stout and swaggering rock 'n' roll record that has come the closest to the music in her head.
The changes that marked Wennerstrom's personal and musical life — the breakup of a long relationship, new bandmates, a move from Cincinnati to Austin — made the Bastards' previous record, The Mountain, a cathartic experience. But after so much turbulence, she had to think carefully about what she wanted to say and do next.
Heartless Bastards are scheduled to perform Saturday, March 31, at Crescent Ballroom.
"I had a lot of trouble focusing when I'd finished touring for The Mountain," she says. "I needed to isolate myself here and there and clear my head and try to put into words what I wanted to say with the songs."
The trip — especially her time at a ranch near Marfa — is infused throughout Arrow, in the imagery of songs like "Parted Ways" and "Marathon" as well as the confidence and self-reliance that guides the album.
Wennerstrom says she spent her travels soaking in experiences, slowly processing the songs that struck her with the most force, not trying to jot down every fleeting idea.
"I get an idea in my head of a melody, and I tell myself that I won't forget it if it's a really good idea," she says. "I focus on that, and when I went on this trip, I'd focus on songs individually and work them out and then I'd bring them to the band and explain where I was trying to head with it."
The band — now a four-piece, with Jesse Ebaugh on bass, Dave Colvin on drums, and Mark Nathan on guitar — worked with producer Jim Eno (known as Spoon's drummer) for the Arrow sessions, a fit that Wennerstrom credits with capturing the right sound.
"This is the closest I've ever gotten to how I hear it," she says.
"Jim had asked us what we wanted to sound like, and he really helped us achieve those sounds. It makes the process really smooth and natural," she says. "To me, it's such a challenge, even when you record your ideas, to try to get them across and have them sound the way you envision them. It's been a big learning process for me. I really feel proud of all the albums I've written, but the process [on Arrow] has come together closest to what I've envisioned."
Heartless Bastards went into Eno's studio just two days after finishing a tour, so completely in synch that they were able to record the album mostly live.
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Arrow features rocking songs, like "Parted Ways," that incorporate the strong rhythms from Wennerstrom's acoustic guitar. The approach is something that bands don't do as often now; she compares it to songs like Thin Lizzy's version of "Whiskey in the Jar" and the Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man."
Elsewhere, there's the bluesy power that Heartless Bastards are known for, as well as some more somber tunes. And, of course, it's all held together by Wennerstrom's incredible voice — indelible, elemental, and raw.
"I just tend to like all different kinds of music and sounds, whether it's a quiet acoustic song or a Black Sabbath-inspired song," she says. "I just like the variety myself, and I feel like the inspiration that comes to me is very varied."