Therapeutic music: The Heartless Bastards’ Erika Wennerstrom, coming to the Ranch House, reflects on two decades of methodical songwriting

Since forming in 2003 and releasing debut album Stairs and Elevators in 2005, the band Heartless Bastards has been building and tweaking a sound rooted in rock, blues, punk and more. The band moved from hard blues/punk on “Gray” in 2005, to soulful, funky soft rock on “Only for You” (on LP Arrow in 2012) to, most recently, a mix of Western, gospel and pop on “You Never Know,” a track from 2021 release A Beautiful Life.

The band is heading out on a summer tour, including a stop at the Ranch House in Sparks on Sunday, July 23. During a recent phone interview, band leader Erika Wennerstrom explained what tour preparation looks like for Heartless Bastards.

“I think the best preparation is just self-care,” Wennerstrom said. “I really keep my mind on the present. We play so consistently, we don’t rehearse for a tour or something. Everybody’s got it pretty down. Our team will do basic stuff like get hotels booked and that kind of thing, but really, I think (pre-tour) is my time to work on a new album. I can’t really write when I’m touring much. I might get melody ideas, and I jot them down on my phone or something, but this is my time to work on new material, so I’m just embracing that opportunity while it’s here—while working on self-care and hanging out with my dog.”

Wennerstrom equated the process of writing new music to therapy.

“When I was younger, I don’t think I equated it with therapy, but it really kind of is,” Wennerstrom said. “Any time any of us as people can explore our creative side, it’s very therapeutic, and my process is just to explore that. I feel like music is medicine. I didn’t use to understand why I did what I did; I just felt compelled to do it. But more and more, it gives me more of a sense of purpose … and I guess it’s good for my mental health. People have told me various songs have helped them over the years, and I guess it drives me all the more to heal myself, and I know that it might offer somebody some benefits as well.”

The music of Heartless Bastards has resonated with fans all over the world, if streaming numbers are any indication. “Only for You” is nearing 50 million Spotify streams and 23 million YouTube views at the time of this writing. Wennerstrom explained how she relies on the healing power of her music to lift her through periods of writer’s block.

“I’ve been really challenged by (writer’s block), and in all honesty, I can be a little hard on myself when I don’t feel like I’m being productive,” she said. “I realized in some ways—and I shouldn’t get so philosophical—but I am this little speck of dust in the world, and if I’m having some writer’s block, and I’m not producing something, it’s OK. When I do finish a song, I find comfort in knowing it can help somebody. I think that’s part of my taking-care-of-myself writing journey, being OK with a slow writing process. It’s always been that way for me, knowing that it’ll come in time.”

A self-proclaimed slow writing approach could be one reason the group has released just six albums over their 20-year career, with the biggest gap between records being six years.

“I’m not extremely prolific, but I guess I have seven albums (including one solo record),” Wennerstrom said. “I don’t write very fast, but I’ve had some longevity here, and I’m still doing it. It’s still kind of a big body of work. I think my songwriting is growing, and I guess that’s a bit subjective to the listener, but I just really take my time. I’d like to think it’s quality, not quantity at this point.”

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Some artists release music more often because of short attention spans. When I mentioned that, Wennerstrom quipped: “If somebody has a short attention span, isn’t it going to be even shorter if it’s a bad song?”

“People just have to ask themselves why they’re doing what they do, and for me, it’s always been a bit of therapy, also,” Wennerstrom said. “It kind of starts with me trying to write songs that I think I would enjoy, or messages that I think I need to hear.”

In 2022, Heartless Bastards re-released signature album Arrow,in celebration of the LP’s 10 year anniversary. The re-release included a few bonus tracks and acoustic versions.

“There’s nostalgia, but I also feel like I’ve consistently played a lot of that material since then, even when I did my solo album,” she said. “When I look back, I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s been 10 years,’ but we’ve been playing those songs over the years, so it’s not like I’m completely revisiting the material in a way.

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“Jim Eno, who produced that album and plays drums in Spoon, is moving to Rhode Island. We did a kind of a celebration of Jim with different people he’s worked with. It’s been interesting to look back and think about (recording Arrow). I wrote some words for the event; we played some songs; and it was nice to just think about that experience with Jim and that whole process. He was real, real patient with me. It takes me a while to find my way through songs. It’s like I’m searching for something, and I have to trial-and-error quite a bit before I find my way through it. Sometimes it’s a feeling, and I can’t quite place it or put my finger on exactly what I’m trying to get out there.”

Wennerstrom remains grateful for the album.

“I know it’s been our biggest album, and I just look back with gratitude,” Wennerstrom said. “I’m so thankful that people responded to it the way they did, and I’m really grateful for the response it got, and people are still listening to it a lot on the DSPs (digital streaming platforms). Back then, I was just putting one foot in front of the other, and I don’t know if I even had a grasp on how well it was doing.”

Heartless Bastards will perform at 8 p.m., Sunday, July 23, at the Ranch House, 906 Victorian Ave., No. B, in Sparks. Tickets are $35. For more information, call 775-453-1657, or visit Facebook.com/TheRanchHouseSparks.