Interview: How Heartless Bastards’ Erika Wennerstrom Learned to Put Herself First While Crafting Her Debut Solo LP
After she released 2015's Restless Ones with her band the Heartless Bastards, frontwoman extraordinaire Erika Wennerstrom took a trip to the Amazon for an ayahuasca retreat. For the uninitiated, ayahuasca is an Amazonian hallucinogenic plant that is used in Shamanic healing ceremonies, and for Wennerstrom — who has since done additional retreats — it has proven to be a life-changing experience.
"I definitely found out a lot about myself," Wennerstrom tells The Boot, laughing. "It walked me through a lot of my life and helped explain a lot of things. It allowed me to step outside of myself because a lot of times my perspective — really, our perspectives — is only limited to my experiences. There was something that allowed me to start to look at things the way others might feel. It's given me a lot of compassion."
The timing couldn't have been better, in terms of both her career and her life. Near the end of 2015, each member of the Heartless Bastards began to voice their desires to try something new. The band wasn't breaking up, but it was clearly time to take a break. For Wennerstrom, the hiatus brought with it an opportunity to write, record and release her debut solo LP, Sweet Unknown, out now via Partisan Records.
I write the songs in the group, and I felt a kind of pressure to keep us working. When I realized they were okay with a break, it was like a huge weight was lifted.
"Dave [Colvin] had mentioned that he was ready to try something new in his life," she explains. "Jesse [Ebaugh] had been a sideman playing bass, and he always felt like he could be a good songwriter, and he wanted to try his own thing out. Mark [Nathan] has been doing some different stuff, too, and so when everybody wanted the break, it was a huge thing for me," Wennerstrom explains. "I write the songs in the group, and I felt a kind of pressure to keep us consistently working. When I realized they were okay with a break, it was like a huge weight was lifted. I didn't realize everybody would be okay with that, and that's when a lot of the new album ideas came. That's what spawned a lot of Sweet Unknown, and I had a huge creative opening. I wrote quicker than I ever have."
Much of that creativity was spurred along by the ayahuasca retreats -- "It gave me realizations about myself, and it definitely inspired a lot of the subject matter of the album," Wennerstrom admits -- but that wasn't her only inspiration.
"You know what else might have been an even bigger inspiration? The simple idea of change," she adds. "It can be easy to go through the motions ... I think I've finally realized I just need to let myself take some breaks. You make one big change, and it helps open you up to something else changing, and by now, I've had a lot of change. The hiatus really was the big domino, that first domino, that led to so much else."
Between ayahuasca and the band taking a break, it seemed as though the stars were aligning for Wennerstrom's solo career. Not realizing just how much she needed to take a break from the Heartless Bastards, she began to figure out how to worry about and focus on her own needs above other things for once.
"I don't think that's selfish," Wennerstrom argues. "I think if you can put yourself first, you can bring the best of yourself. I really needed to learn how to do that. The more I'm learning how to put myself first, I feel like things are ... I don't even know how to explain it. Let's just say this: It's a good thing."
While some established artists may feel a sense of terror when it comes to putting out their first solo effort, Wennerstrom says it was actually life-giving: "There was something really thrilling about writing without expectation," she tells us. "People didn't really know the band was on hiatus and didn't know I was working on an album.
"I didn't know what it was going to sound like ... I feel like I'm sort of starting over with something completely new," she continues. "There's not an expectation of what it's supposed to be, versus if this was the sixth Heartless Bastards album, you know?"
I feel like I'm sort of starting over with something completely new.
That excitement has been with Wennerstrom since she started writing Sweet Unknown, and it's remained with her even as she wrapped it up last year.
"Sometimes an album can sit there for a minute," she says, "and then you kind of have to do rehearsals and learn it all over again. But for me, I've been playing these songs here and there at shows, so I don't feel like I've ever stepped away from the material. This album, a lot of the subject matter, it's all about self love, and I feel like that's the kind of mantra to myself, so I find a lot of comfort in singing those songs. It feels really good to sing them."
As she's explored the idea of self love, Wennerstrom has also experienced her own self growth: "Sometimes I can be a little too internal when I write," she admits about her process with Heartless Bastards. "When I'm writing, I'm exploring myself, and so with Sweet Unknown, I wanted to write a message to others. That was a new thing to me, and I got a lot of satisfaction out of it."
Her growth as a songwriter and artist has led to Wennerstrom experiencing things she's never encountered before in her career. And for her — and her fans — that is proving to be a very good thing.
"I feel like I'm kind of living for the first time, in a way that I haven't in a long time," she confides. "I'm taking those leaps ... there's something frightening about it, but also something really exciting. I'm giving my best, and it's okay, even if it doesn't go great. I put myself out there and I hope fans embrace it. But the thing about all of this is, honestly, I'm going to be okay either way. I believe in it so much that I feel like I've already made myself happy with it."