Stepping away from a sure thing, even temporarily, can feel like the biggest risk ever. Yet that’s what Erika Wennerstrom did. The frontwoman of the alt-indie-rock breakout Heartless Bastards had released five albums with the band she formed in 2003, to critical and mainstream success. The albums formed a beautiful, sometimes melancholic, 21st century soundtrack, knitted together with Wennerstrom’s contemplative lyrics and gorgeous, velvety vocals.
Those vocals and lyrics are intact on Sweet Unknown, Wennerstrom’s debut solo album (set for release Friday, March 23), along with a side to the Ohio-born songwriter that has, until now, remained personal.
“I came to the realization, working on myself and my inner self growth… sometimes, things that I feel very vulnerable about what might be what’s most relatable,” she said. “At times, it takes me a while to get comfortable to reveal those vulnerable parts in song, but there’s something about this that I didn’t worry about. I didn’t hold anything back, and when you don’t hold back, there’s no room for regret.”
That sense of optimism and fearlessness opens Sweet Unknown; on “Twisted Highway,” Wennerstrom sings about “Getting to know myself in a way I’ve never known/Getting to be myself in a way I’ve never shown.” It’s a metaphysical journey inspired in part by her own physical travels. Prior to making of the last Heartless Bastards album, Wennerstrom visited the Amazon, and has since visited Ecuador and Colombia. On one of these trips, she had an ahuyasca experience; those participating, typically under the guidance of a respected elder or shaman, drink a tea brewed with the hallucinogenic plant, which is understood to help bring a greater sense of self and self-introspection.
Although the experience was touted in the Sweet Unknown press release, Wennerstrom downplays the unfortunate recent trendiness of “going on an ahuyasca journey.” Although she’s done the hallucinogen 12 times, she said the experience is hard to describe.
“Part of me held onto certain things, and unhealthy things,” she said, noting that during one of these experiences, she repeatedly told herself to “just love yourself.
“And I needed to hear that,” she said, noting “Be Good to Yourself” is inspired in part by that journey.
Taking trips – and the distance between here and there – was the artistic nourishment Wennerstrom had been searching for. Heartless Bastards had gone on hiatus following a 2015 tour in support of the group’s fifth album, Restless Ones.
“It was 13 of us, living on the tour bus for months at a time,” Wennerstrom joked. “So I decided I needed to do some camping.”
On that trip to West Texas, the creativity started flowing, as did the lyrical content, bridges, songs, and messages. Through the next six months, she did a lot of meditative walks and lyric writing.
An acoustic tour across Europe via train provided plenty of downtime to work on lyrics. Wennerstrom uses her cell phone to record lyrics, song ideas, and notes. Unfortunately, at the time, she wasn’t using cloud backup – and her phone was stolen. She laughingly admits data backup wasn’t her strong suit, and wonders what the album could have been with that info.
“To me, I just know that I gave every bit of love I possibly could,” she said. “It’s the best of me, and if people don’t like it, that’s fine. I’m ready to present this piece of who I am, and I’m excited.”
Words by Melissa Fowler