The 31-year-old leader of the Ohio-based band the Heartless Bastards—which earned critical praise for the albums Stairs and Elevators and All This Time and toured with Wilco and Lucinda Williams—disbanded her three-member group and relocated to Austin in 2007. The vocalist and guitarist has now assembled a new lineup (bassist Jesse Ebaugh and drummer Dave Colvin) and in February will be releasing a third album, The Mountain (Fat Possum).
Let’s begin with the obvious question. The Heartless Bastards were getting plenty of buzz in Ohio, yet here you are, starting over in Austin. What happened?
Well, I was in a ten-year relationship with [former bassist] Mike Lamping, but then we split up, and it was really hard to make it work. So I decided to move. I have family in Austin, and [Austin-based] C3 Presents is my management company. I also have a lot of friends here, and I like the city.
You were born in Ohio. Do you have family up there?
Yes. Well, my mom lives in Dayton, where I’m from, and my dad lives in Las Vegas.
Growing up in the Midwest, did you get a lot of rock and roll shows coming through?
There are a lot of bands that come through. Dayton had a pretty healthy music scene—the Breeders were huge when I was in high school, and most of them were from Dayton. There was always a rich musical background there.
What did you grow up listening to? What gave you the music bug?
Well, I don’t know. I’ve always wanted to do this. My mom listened to a lot of old soul, Ray Charles and Otis Redding and stuff like that, and a lot of jazz. My dad doesn’t really listen to music. I don’t think he owns any.
You started the Heartless Bastards in 2002. A lot has been written about your shyness; was going onstage difficult at first?
Oh, definitely. I’m more used to it now, but I’m always going to be nervous before a show. I think that’s healthy, though. I don’t want to be so relaxed that I don’t have that energy. But I am shy; it’s easier for me to sing than to do any talking with the audience.
Yet you have this enormous voice.
I’ve always wanted to sing, and once I really started, this range just came out. I have a friend who was a big inspiration. He’d say, “Come on, belt it out,” when I didn’t even know I could.
Were the Heartless Bastards the first band you put together?
Yeah. I was playing bass in another band, and I wrote a couple songs, and that gave me the motivation, or the confidence, to do this.
Was there a model or a musician whose writing you admired a lot when you first started?
Yeah, there’s a lot of people. I’ve kind of found my own voice now, but I think it’s because I’ve copied off of so many people. I can’t say that there’s one strong influence—there’s hundreds—but I would say Bob Dylan, Otis Redding, Neil Young, Iggy Pop.
Do your songs come easily? Does making music still mean the same thing to you as when you started?
I try to tell myself to never write a song just because others will like it. I care what people think, but you have to write something that you believe in, that is up to your standards. Writing music is always a challenge; that hasn’t changed for me. When I write songs, I try to focus on one at a time, because I don’t ever get anything done otherwise. A song is something I still really have to work out, whether it’s the words or the rhythm or the melody. If I didn’t, it wouldn’t take me one to two years to come out with a new album.
You worked on The Mountain with producer Mike McCarthy. Did you record in Austin?
Yeah, he has his own studio in north Austin. It’s an old film studio where the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre sound effects were made.
Did the session take place with your new or your old band members?
Actually, neither. I hadn’t put together the band yet, and Mike knew some people who he thought would be perfect for this. He was fine with me trying to put together a band, but he really wanted me to try to see these guys first: Doni Schroader, who played with [Austin band] And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead for a bit, and Billy White, who I’m told used to play with Dokken. He’s an Austinite but lives in Mexico now. We all got along great.
After working with a close-knit band for so many years, it must have been strange to go into the studio with people you didn’t really know.
It was kind of liberating. I felt comfortable right away. I wouldn’t have continued to work with them if I hadn’t, because I didn’t want a sterile session, where you’re just churning out stuff like an assembly line and none of it is organic.
How has your music evolved over time? When you sat down to make this record, did you have something in mind?
This is my third album, and I just work on the songs as they come to me. I don’t really write an album with some sort of whole vision.
How have the changes in your personal life influenced your music?
There are themes on the album about being in a new place, but half of it was written before I moved or my relationship ended. “The Mountain” itself was one of the last songs I wrote, and that is a totally different theme. I don’t really tell people what the songs are about. They’re all over the place.
What’s on the horizon for you?
I think we are going to be doing a lot of touring. The album comes out February 3, and we have some dates back east right after that. I’m pretty excited.