Comparisons are the name of the game in the music biz, and Heartless Bastards' frontwoman Erika Wennerstrom says she's okay with that. “I think it's natural for people to compare something to something; I'm guilty of that myself,” she tells Xpress. “I've been compared to people I'm a really huge fan of, or others I'm not [a fan of] but greatly respect.”
A rare female rock band leader, Wennerstrom is even more of an anomaly thanks to her unusual voice. Nothing like the girly singers (Colbie Calliat, Katie Perry) currently climbing charts, Wennerstrom is likened to alt-rock songstress PJ Harvey and Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant (that male-to-female trajectory proven by Asheville Zeppelin-tribute crooner Rhett McGahee). Wennerstrom, who formed Heartless Bastards in Cincinnati, Ohio a half-dozen years ago, possesses the growl and grit of 4 Non Blondes' singer Linda Perry, or pre-fame Joan Jett in The Runaways.
Not that Wennerstrom (who relocated to Austin, Texas two years ago after a romantic split from the Bastards former bassist Mike Lamping) is out to make any sort of point about girl power. “I never really consider myself any different,” she says from her tour bus. “It's all for musicians. We look at ourselves as equals. I don't feel I get treated any different as a girl, and I'm glad for it.”
In the no-special-treatment vein, Rolling Stone gave the Heartless Bastards' 2009 release The Mountain a solid 3 1/2 stars, saying "Wennerstrom has proven herself a natural rock star … with a voice that slides from trebly quaver to a fearsome, wide-mouthed roar. She's not prone to understatement: On the Ohio rockers' new album, Wennerstrom sings about traversing deserts, being lashed by hurricanes and peering 'into the mountain where your desire goes.'"
The same review also gives kudos to the band's fuller sound, which was due to a 2008 lineup change. In fact, the Bastards (whose name, Wennerstrom told blogger Cincy Groove, came from "this Megatouch video game that they have on bar tops. We were playing the music trivia game and one of the questions was 'What is Tom Petty's backing band?' Tom Petty and The Heartless Bastards was one of the wrong choices.”) have undergone several personnel shifts during the band's tenure. Wennerstrom chalks up this most recent reorganization to her break with Lamping — it was one of those deals where he kept the band, she took the name. She also kept the record deal with Fat Possum, the gritty bluesy label that championed the comeback of Solomon Burke and the rise of The Black Keys (it was Keys' drummer Patrick Carney who passed the Bastards' demo to Fat Possum).
Despite appearances, Wennerstrom doesn't want to front a revolving cast of hired guns. “It's important for it to be a collective unit. It's important for me to have a band,” she says. “I might write the songs, but it's important for me to play with other people. This might sound cheesy, but this band is a family.”
Along with the connection to her own band, Wennerstrom has been building a following through relentless touring and a willingness to lend support to any band that asks. Recent opening slots for the Black Keys, Langhorne Slim, Andrew Bird and Wilco seem, at first glance, an exercise in eclecticism. “All of those bands are different, but there are some similarities between them,” Wennerstrom notes. Is it possible that a Venn diagram would reveal a common audience for the raucous Keys and glockenspiel-playing folkie Bird? How about for Southern-lit songstress Lucinda Williams and pretty popster Jenny Lewis (whose current tour brings supporting Heartless Bastards to the Orange Peel this week)? Actually… why not? In this, the age of multifarious MP3 mixes, it makes sense for the Bastards to get their raw, emotive sound out to all manner of listener.
Then there's the mutual admiration society factor. Of the bands that have tapped Wennerstrom's group she says, “We like some things they do and they like things we do. It makes sense that some of their fans might be into us as well.”
It's all part of an ongoing educational process for the singer who, despite dropping out of high school, insists “knowledge is a good thing.” Of not completing her diploma she says, “I don't regret a lot of things but that's one of them. I'm an impatient person — I never had a fallback plan because this is what I wanted to do.”
So far, her intuition has been spot-on. The same goes for the Heartless Bastards' sound — something very different from current airplay trends. “I don't feel, for me, my creativity is this box I have to stay in,” the singer says. “I create music I like and I hope people respond to it.”
So what does the future hold? “I could see myself taking classes,” Wennerstrom muses. “I thought about taking a cooking class recently.” More likely, what she'll be cooking up is soulful indie rock.
“I feel like things are going good,” Wennerstrom says. “I hope that fate continues to lead me.”
who: Heartless Bastards (opening for Jenny Lewis)
what: indie rock
where: The Orange Peel
when: Thursday, July 2 (8 p.m., $18 advance, $20 doors. www.theorangepeel.net)