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How Road Trips Help Heartless Bastards Singer Erika Wennerstrom Write Songs

The songs on Heartless Bastards' latest record reflect both the band's relentless touring life and the breadth of styles the group embraces.

So in a number of ways, says singer-songwriter Erika Wennerstrom, the Restless Ones title is especially fitting for this collection of 10 songs.

"I know what direction I want to go within specific songs, but I don't look at an album as a whole when I start writing," Wennerstrom says. "I actually think the songs on this album, some of them sound so diverse from one another that I wouldn't even say this album has one overall direction. It's just us experimenting and trying new things and having fun. There's a song inspired by Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd and a song inspired by Bob Dylan's Band era and I don't think they sound anything alike."

That restlessness defines Wennerstrom's songwriting, too. Often, songs will sneak up on her when she's out on the road and she'll have to embark on a getaway, set herself in motion again, to bring the song to a close.

"Being in this band for so long, travel has been such a part of me. I'm home a couple weeks and I get wanderlust. I can't sit still sometimes," she says. "Most of my songs, I don't sit down and try to write a melody. A melody will just find me. A lot of ideas pop in my head when I'm driving.

"As I'm writing songs, I just put one foot in front of the other and it slowly unfolds. I usually don't have a set direction I'm going to go in. It's this process of self-discovery. A lot of times, I have difficulty focusing to get things finished and I hop in my car and just go somewhere for a week or so by myself and isolate myself."

Those trips help to form and focus the songs. "It seeps into the imagery, or maybe sometimes it's the pieces of the puzzle that I'm missing," she says.

To record Restless Ones, the band left Austin for El Paso, working with Grammy-winning producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, The Walkmen, Swans) over a 10-day stretch at Sonic Ranch studios. Wennerstrom, guitarist Mark Nathan, bassist Jesse Ebaugh, and drummer Dave Colvin had a tightly rehearsed set of tunes but kept the window open to make changes in the studio.

"We've never done a destination recording and I feel that added to a lot of the vibe of the album," she says. "Sonic Ranch was such a unique spot. And what John does is enhance the direction we're already going in. The different territory and sounds for this were of our own making, but John had great suggestions. He compliments what we're trying to do."

Restless Ones is a broader and more varied album than Heartless Bastards' 2012 Arrow, their best-selling and most critically acclaimed record. Album opener "Wind Up Bird" takes flight with big guitar riffs and spacy keyboard from guest John Baggott (Robert Plant's Sensational Space Shifters, Portishead). "Gates of Dawn" begins with just a strummed acoustic guitar before bursting into a psychedelic storm of guitars. "Into the Light" features layered, atmospheric guitars. "Eastern Wind" has an easygoing, open-road feel, while album closer "Tristessa" is a meditative, mesmerizing tune built from droning guitar loops.

"I feel like I have so many musical interests, particular styles that I like and a lot of this [album] was exploring that," she says. "There's never been just one sound that I wanted to focus on and in that sense my writing is a bit restless," she says.

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Eric is a freelance writer covering music, travel, science, and food and drink.
Contact: Eric Swedlund