Deriving their name from a hilariously incorrect answer on a multiple-choice trivia game (the question was: “What is the name of Tom Petty‘s backing band?”), the acclaimed indie rock act Heartless Bastards was founded in by Dayton, OH-born singer/songwriter, guitarist and founding member Erika Wennerstrom in Cincinnati back in 2003. Initially started as a solo recording project, Heartless Bastards quickly evolved into a live band featuring a rotating cast of musicians and collaborators that regularly played throughout the Midwest.
The Black Keys‘ Patrick Carney caught the band and was so impressed by what he had heard, that he passed along a copy of their demo to Fat Possum Records, who signed the band and then released their first there albums — 2005’s Stairs and Elevators, 2006’s All This Time and 2009’s The Mountain. Between the writing and recording of All This Time and The Mountain, Wennerstrom relocated to Austin. And around that time, the band’s touring lineup featured David Colvin (drums) and Jesse Ebaugh (bass), who both played on the Heartless Bastard demos recorded six years prior. The band expanded into a quartet with the 2009 addition of Mark Nathan (guitar).
The band signed to Partisan Records, who released the band’s last two critically applauded albums — 2012’s Arrow and 2015’s Restless Ones. Wennerstrom stepped out from behind a band and released her solo debut, 2018’s Sweet Unknown to critical applause. “It was a deeply personal album and it just felt fitting to use my name,” Wennerstrom says of her solo debut. “It kind of forced me to allow myself to be a little more exposed, and stand on my own two feet. I feel like I’ve grown so much creatively and personally through this process.”
Since release of Sweet Unknown and a tour to support it, Wennerstrom, along with a powerhouse backing band featuring Okkervil River’s Lauren Gurgolo (guitar), White Denim’s Greggory Clifford, Mercury Rev’s and Midlake’s multi-instrumentalist Jesse Chandler, My Morning Jacket’s Bo Koster (keys), Patty Griffin’s David Pulkingham (guitar) and longtime Heartless Bastards bandmate Jesse Ebaugh (bass) went into the studio to write and recorded their Kevin Ratterman co-produced sixth album A Beautiful Life, the band’s first full-length album of original material in over five years.
Although Wennerstom first considered releasing A Beautiful Life under her own name as the follow up to her solo debut, she ultimately came to view the album’s material as the continuation of the journey begun on the band’s 2005 full-length debut. Sonically, the album’s material reportedly is a coalescence of a number of eclectic influences and references including French pop, Celtic folk, space rock. Disney film scores and post punk. And as a result, A Beautiful Life may arguably be their most expansive and elaborate batch of material in their catalog to date while still being centered around Wennerstrom’s lyrics, which inspire contemplation, joyful defiance, catharsis, and empathy. “For me music is a gift,” Wennsterstrom says in press notes. “I do it because I love it, and because it helps me feel more connected to the world. I think we all long for a deep connection, and I hope this record adds to the conversation on how we as a species can stop seeing ourselves as separate. I hope it helps everyone to think about how we can look out for each other, take care of each other, and lift each other up.”
Slated for a September 10, 2021 release through Sweet Unknown Records/Thirty Tigers, A Beautiful Life will feature “Revolution,” an incisive and urgent song featuring an expansive song structure that meshes elements of psych rock and blues, that that calls upon the listener to get their shit straight and make the world a better place before it’s too late.
The album’s latest single “You Never Know” may be the most cinematic songs of their entire catalog. Featuring a soaring string arrangement, flamenco-like guitar playing paired with Wennerstrom’s plaintive wailing, the song is a sweet reminder that life is short and sometimes in love and in countless other things, we should take a chance. You’ll never know what will happen, until it actually happens.
“When I wrote “You Never Know,” I imagined it being in Moonrise Kingdom, the Wes Anderson film, even though the movie has already been made. There’s a sense of adventure and innocence that youth embodies whether it’s with love or goals and dreams. This song is a reminder to stay open. Life is short. Take chances.”
Directed, shot and edited by Vanessa Pie, the recently released video stars Kaylyn Mae McClellan and Tiel Ann Larson in a surreal and cinematically shot fever dream with a sailboat to nowhere, a zebra, some expressive face paint, a doorway to another dimension. But at its core is a sweet and tender love story of two people who will be companions through some zany adventures — perhaps because they both took a chance and were open.