The inside artwork to Arrow, the newest set of earthy guitar rock meditations from Heartless Bastards, serves as a road map of sorts.
There are shots of stark, mountainous terrains presented with a dull, dusty tint. Across the skylines are scribbled bits of lyrics — lines like "the sky forms shadows all across the land" and "searching for a connection, I went in every direction."
Match the muted imagery with the narrative sense of uncertain adventure and you at least have a starting point for the songs penned by band leader and founder Erika Wennerstrom — that, and a sense of rock urgency that offsets blasting guitar rituals with scorched, folkish reflection.
But on Arrow, the lyrical and musical thrust is a little more, well, pointed. If the band's previous albums, including 2009's sublime The Mountain consisted of rockish still-life shots, Arrow places all of Wennerstrom's fascinating imagery in motion.
Perhaps that's because much of the lyrical inspiration came from two solo road trips on which the singer embarked between recording sessions. One took her through Kentucky and the Cincinnati/Dayton region where she grew up to the Catskill Mountains. The other sent her in the opposite direction, to the heart of West Texas.
"For every song I've written, the ideas for music come first," Wennerstrom said. "It starts with a melody that will just appear in my head. But I tend to have a lot of writer's block when I try to express myself within words, so lyrics become the big challenge. I had ideas for all of these songs, almost every one we put on the album, but was having a lot of difficulty putting my thoughts into words. So I got into my car.
"First, I took a trip to the East Coast and wound up at All Tomorrow's Parties in the Catskills. I saw some friends here and there, but I would take several days and just go somewhere by myself and try to focus. That helped inspire a lot of the subject matter. I already knew what I wanted to say. It was just figuring out a way to say it."
The muse was no less profound when she journeyed west from her current Austin, Texas, digs.
"The trip to West Texas was a huge inspiration, as well. I have a friend who has a ranch by the Davis Mountains. You can't see any other houses or anything anywhere else from there. You're just walking along this golden desert grass. That was really inspiring for writing songs on the new album like Parted Ways and The Arrow Killed the Beast.
One of the Arrow songs that perhaps best depicts a world removed from the mainstream yet still very much in motion is the album-opening Marathon. While the chiming guitar intro and relaxed vocal moan combine for an almost campfire feel — or the rock 'n' roll equivalent of one — the lyrics trace a race run within a cosmopolitan cityscape. Then comes the payoff — the line that suggests the city and country limits in the story are all part of the same distressed world: "We're all racing for our own reasons."
"Marathon was supposed to be on the last album," Wennerstrom said. "We had to leave it off because we just ran out of time. I remember being disappointed about that. But at the time, the song hadn't really gotten to where I wanted it. Getting to play it repeatedly since then as a band helped the song evolve. It became a kind of blessing that we got to start Arrow where we left off with The Mountain."
Creating much of the rest of Arrow on her own and on the road also underscores a perhaps unexpected aspect of Wennerstrom's life as a transplanted Ohio native now residing in one of the country's most musically lauded cities.
"I feel what I am as a songwriter is this accumulation of experiences and influences taken from my whole life. I'm sure the present songs I write are influenced in a lot of ways by my present home. But I don't know if living in Austin has specifically changed the direction of how I approach songwriting.
"Now, I definitely find it inspiring to live down here. There is always so much music going on. But when I see a great show, I don't specifically aim to go out and sound like that particular artist. I've had so many sounds and influences around me for a long time. I always feel like I'm exploring something different."