On the new album A Beautiful Life, Heartless Bastards share a wide-eyed and radiant vision for harmonizing a broken world. The Ohio-bred and Texas-transplanted band’s first new music since 2015’s Restless Ones, A Beautiful Life affirms frontwoman Erika Wennerstrom as a songwriter with the power to profoundly influence our state of mind, often by alchemizing her idealism into viscerally potent rock-and-roll songs. With its delicate coalescence of so many eclectic touchstones—French pop and Celtic folk, space rock and symphonic pop, Disney scores and post-punk—the result is an album that immediately lures the listener into a more receptive mindset, one that leads to deeper generosity, greater compassion, and a restored sense of possibility.
Co-produced by Wennerstrom and Kevin Ratterman (Strand Of Oaks, Jim James, White Reaper), A Beautiful Life finds Wennerstrom joining forces with the likes of guitarist Lauren Gurgiolo (Okkervil River), drummer Greggory Clifford (White Denim), multi-instrumentalist Jesse Chandler (Mercury Rev, Midlake), keyboardist Bo Koster (My Morning Jacket), guitarist David Pulkingham (Patty Griffin), and longtime Heartless Bastards bassist Jesse Ebaugh. Although she debated releasing A Beautiful Life as a solo effort (as with 2018’s Sweet Unknown), the Austin-based singer/songwriter ultimately conceived the album as a continuation of the journey begun on the band’s breathlessly acclaimed 2005 debut Stairs and Elevators. “I loved the last iteration of Heartless Bastards so much—they’re like family—but the stars weren’t aligning for us to reconvene on this record,” says Wennerstrom. “As the record came together I realized it’s always been my project, and I was determined to continue forth with that. I had so much faith in these songs and in myself, and in many ways it feels like a rebirth.”
Like many timeless songwriters before her, Wennerstrom channels her nuanced observation of the outside world into music that incites contemplation, catharsis, and a joyful sense of defiance. “It’s so easy to get caught up in the material goals that are prioritized by our society and the every-man-for-himself mentality of late-stage capitalism,” Wennerstrom says of the album’s central themes. “That way of thinking presents a false idea of what a beautiful life is, and I think it’s so important that we as individuals all ask ourselves what it truly means to have a beautiful life.”
Throughout A Beautiful Life, Heartless Bastards guide their audience through an unhurried pondering of that very question, an exploration that begins with the soulfully expressed frustration of songs like “How Low.” “It’s becoming harder and harder to choose a simple life; so many people struggle to get ahead so they don’t get left behind,” says Wennerstrom, who names the Jackson 5 as a key inspiration for the track’s jangly R&B grooves. “I believe that a truly elevated, conscious society is one that seeks to lift each other up—one where we work for the common good.” On “You Never Know,” the band brings in elements of Brazilian bossa nova and yé-yé, arriving at a sweetly spirited anthem against jadedness. “As we get older and experience the pain of certain plans not working out, we can build up walls to protect ourselves,” Wennerstrom says. “This song is a reminder to stay open, stay present, and keep taking chances.”
One of the most hypnotic moments on A Beautiful Life, “Photograph” unfolds as a sprawling psych-rock epic, speaking to the urgency of unconditional compassion. “There’s an extreme divide that’s developed in our society, but underneath it all I think we all want the same things,” says Wennerstrom. “One of the biggest challenges I’ve dealt with is learning that I can’t control the energy that comes at me, but I can control my reaction, and try to take a compassionate approach with everyone.” And on “Went Around The World,” Heartless Bastards elegantly merge hip-hop beats and high-drama strings in a mesmerizing meditation on the inherent connectedness of all life. “I’ve toured for years and backpacked around in my off time, and through experiencing new situations I’ve gotten to know parts of myself I’d never known,” says Wennerstrom. “It’s reinforced for me that it doesn’t matter what our race or religion is, or whether we’re male or female, straight or LGBTQ—we’re all connected to each other, and to the planet that sustains us. It’s all family.”
In the making of Heartless Bastards’ most elaborately realized body of work to date, Wennerstrom immersed herself in a highly experimental process that sometimes involved breathing new life into song fragments she’d first created decades ago. “There are little pieces of songs that I’ve had in my head for 20 years, and that finally found their place on this album,” she notes. As she dreamed up A Beautiful Life’s finely detailed yet free-flowing sound, Wennerstrom repeatedly wandered down what she lovingly refers to as rabbit tunnels. “I call them tunnels instead of rabbit holes, because they take me somewhere instead of leaving me stuck,” she says. “I allowed myself to really feel my way through things, trusting that I was going to get to where we needed to go. I never abandoned my vision, and because of that the album became everything I hoped it would be and then some.”
After recording some of the basic tracking for A Beautiful Life with Danny Reisch in Austin, Wennerstrom headed to Ratterman’s Invisible Creature studio in Los Angeles, assembling such singular musicians as Andrew Bird and Persian setar virtuoso Fared Shafinury (both of whom contributed to the wildly rambling folk of “The River”). “I made sure to pick people whose style I knew would be a perfect fit for these songs—that way I could tell them, ‘Hey, I just want you to be you,’” she says. As the album took shape, Wennerstrom and her collaborators discovered an undeniable chemistry that led her to invite Clifford and guitarist Gurgiolo into the lineup for Heartless Bastards’ upcoming live shows, marking the start of an exciting new era for the band.
For the final track to A Beautiful Life, Heartless Bastards chose a slow-burning piece called “The Thinker,” a gently galvanizing plea to “see the beauty in everything.” “There’s a line in that song that sums up the whole album for me: ‘I did it all for love and I’d do it again,’” says Wennerstrom. “For me music is a gift—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.”
Raised in Louisville, Kentucky identical twin sisters, Chandra and Leigh Watson, have always blended musical genres to tell their story. The twins moved to the thriving music scene of Silver Lake, Los Angeles in the early 2000’s where their sound “developed a style of sweet, soulful indie-folk that does more than nod to alt-country influences” (NPR). This time in LA connected them to an inspiring music scene and through friends they began singing with a local neighborhood songstress, Jenny Lewis. The three had an immediate connection and their voices together created a sound heralded by critics. The release of Rabbit Fur Coat (2006) launched the trio from neighborhood scene to international touring act.
In 2006 the Watson Twins signed a deal with Vanguard Records, releasing Fire Songs (2008) and Talking to You, Talking to Me (2010). The sisters toured both releases extensively, performing on late night tv, nationally syndicated on-air radio shows and high-profile festivals, while also gaining a reputation as notable back-up singers. “The twin sisters have a sense of harmony that has gone unmatched and growing reputation as the artists to call when you need perfect voices behind you” – Paste Magazine
While on tour performing their crowd favorite cover of “Just Like Heaven” (Fire Songs), the two were inspired to make Night Covers (2011/self-release), an EP of covers spanning genres and musical influences from Bill Withers to the Black Keys.
2013 brought a major shift for Chandra and Leigh when they decided to leave the City of Angels and head back to the south. Nashville was at the beginning of a renaissance and the energy of the city was something that drew them in and inspired them to create in a new way. “The backdrop of Nashville encouraged a new direction for us. We’d always written songs separately, but we wanted to focus on our strength as a duo,” Leigh says.
The Twins’ Nashville chapter began with recording Pioneer Lane (2013/self-release), a family folk album that showcased the sibling harmonies they’d become known for… “The intention for this collection of songs was to create original music aimed towards parents and their children, something the whole family could listen to together.” Amazon Music tapped this record for an acoustic performance and the songs found their way on to a multitude of playlists and streams.
In 2016 Rabbit Fur Coat (2006) celebrated it’s ten-year anniversary. Jenny and the twins spent months on the road performing for sold-out houses, solidifying this album as a timeless classic. Being on tour and singing every night inspired the Watsons to start writing and recording again. The result was their album DUO (2018/Orchard) produced and recorded by their longtime collaborator Russ Pollard (Everest/Sehadoh) and featuring friends Carl Broemel and Bo Koster (My Morning Jacket), Vanessa Carlton, Mickey Raphael (Willie Nelson/Chris Stapleton) and the Cactus Blossoms. This batch of songs came with a new approach, finding the sisters co-writing all the material for the first time and singing all parts together, creating one singular voice. “As twins, they can shape-shift even more effectively than most polyphonic siblings; the aura they project, of one voice split in two, enhances their ability to cast a spell.” (Los Angeles Times)
Touring DUO throughout 2018, 2019 and 2020, the twins continued to hone their live performance, while also nurturing and growing deeper roots in the Nashville music community. Butch Walker (Grammy nominated producer/musician) had become part of their musical family and often tapped them to sing on records he was producing (Harry Connick Jr, Jewel, Matt Nathanson) including his own release GLENN (2022). Their collaboration continued with Walker producing/recording their single “Two Timin’” (2022). “As expected, the twins’ tight harmonies take this energetic foot-stompin’ honky-tonk tune over the top!” – WFPK Radio
The chemistry in the studio was undeniable and the idea sparked to record a full-length Watson Twins album at his studio in Nashville. Walker was excited by the collaboration and in July of 2022 the sisters and their touring band were back at the Butcher Shop, tracking LIVE in the studio. The outcome was pure magic, recorded over five days with the twin’s Nashville based band: Steven Cooper (guitar), Thayer Sarano (keys), Owen Beverly (bass) and Sam Wiseman (drums). Butch Walker produced the album and is featured on guitar and vocals, adding the perfect complement to the sister’s sibling harmonies.
HOLLER is the twins latest album and is slated for June 23, 2023 release.
In recent years the Watson Twins have toured in support of their own releases, as well as continuing to perform as back-up vocalists for some of music’s most notable acts. The Watson Twins have performed with: Kings of Leon, Vanessa Carlton, CeeLo Green, Foster The People, The Shins, Paul Cauthen, Orville Peck, Jenny Lewis, John Paul White (the Civil Wars), My Morning Jacket, Shooter Jennings, Butch Walker, Jessie Baylin, Nicole Atkins, Leah Belvins, Bahamas, Billy Bragg, Willie Nelson and many more.
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