After a successful three and a half week solo acoustic tour of Europe opening for Patty Griffin, Ohio native and critically acclaimed singer/songwriter Erika Wennerstrom is back home in Austin, Texas and experiencing a brutal case of jet lag. Her brain buffers as she considers questions posed and potential answers.
At one point, she laughs, acknowledging her fugue state, and says, “Just make me look smart.”
That’s not a difficult task. As the primary creative component of Heartless Bastards (which formed in Dayton, Ohio and was based in Cincinnati early on) for over a dozen years and now as a solo performer, Wennerstrom has been an intelligent and thoughtful lyricist, an emotive vocalist and a powerful guitarist. She readily admits she’s never been particularly deliberate in her approach to songwriting, performing or living, allowing her intuitive nature to guide her.
“I’m not really a calculated person,” Wennerstrom says. “I really just try to follow my heart creatively. I always just hope that people will respond to the songs.”
Wennerstrom’s instinctual side has served her well since her Heartless Bastards bandmates announced their need for a break after a six-month tour to promote 2015’s Restless Ones. For years, she’d been operating under the self-imposed idea that it was her responsibility to write songs, record albums and book tours to keep her band working. That internal pressure came to a head on Restless Ones.
“It was really difficult to write, because of this sense of having to finish it in order to keep everybody employed,” she says. “It started to take the joy out of it.”
Prior to the completion of Restless Ones, Wennerstrom booked a trip to a Shipibo healing center in the Amazon Jungle, the first step of her eventual solo journey that ultimately resulted in the release of her debut album under her own name, last year’s Sweet Unknown.
“I had read about (spiritual/medicinal/ceremonial brew) ayahuasca and something compelled me to experience that. I booked the trip and did a sort of spiritual awakening,” Wennerstrom says. “It was very eye-opening and life-changing. It had me reassessing what’s important to me in this world. In a sense, it was sort of a mid-life crisis, with me reevaluating my life.”
After the release of Restless Ones, the subsequent tour and the band’s stated desire for a respite, Wennerstrom felt a wave of relief. Even more surprising was her reaction to it, which may well have had its roots in the Amazon.
“You know, I actually felt like a heavy weight had lifted. All of a sudden, I got extremely inspired and I was writing. This was probably the quickest I’ve ever written a record,” she says. “With ayahuasca, a lot of the experience slowly unfolds, it’s not an immediate change or epiphany. I began to look at situations and how I approach them; it’s almost like you step outside yourself and you’re looking at yourself and your behaviors. That informed a lot of the album.”
Wennerstrom asserts that she didn’t begin her solo work with the intention of differentiating herself from Heartless Bastards. She notes that most of the band’s albums are stylistic patchworks, which many of her cohorts have pointed out are tied together by the strength of her voice. Wennerstrom says she’s heard from some people that Sweet Unknown sounds different from Heartless Bastards, while others have said it’s not different enough. But she has personally recognized the biggest difference in the reflective and even more intimate Sweet Unknown.
“A lot of Heartless Bastards songs have been about longing. I feel like I’ve always been searching for something,” she says. “I think with this album, I faced myself head on and it was kind of about finding the answers to the other five albums in my past, and finding that connection with myself.”
Wennerstrom points to the song “Be Good to Yourself” as an example of her newly minted songwriting perspective. Typically, she would retreat into her own head and try to work out issues in the context of the song at hand, but she tried a different tack this time.
“In that song, I thought, ‘I want to write something encouraging to other people,’ ” she says. “The funny thing is I think I was projecting. When I sing that song every night, I get that message right back. It’s sort of an encouraging mantra. I realized that whether it’s something to myself from within or writing to other people directly, it’s the same result. There are a lot of messages like this on the album. It’s up to me to choose to make myself happy in the moment and not long for happiness.”
Wennerstrom notes that the most important thing to translate with her solo songs was the vibe, the feeling that they gave her rather than a sonic blueprint. To that end, she recruited My Morning Jacket drummer Patrick Hallahan and Heartless Bastards bassist Jesse Ebaugh, along with a rotating battery of guitarists, like Lauren Gurgiolo and session ace David Pulkingham. For the live translation, Wennerstrom assembled a band that includes Gurgiolo, a veteran of her recent solo touring (“She blows my mind on a daily basis…”), and Cincinnati’s Beth Harris on backing vocals.
At this point, Wennerstrom has no clear perspective on the future of Heartless Bastards, noting that everyone is busy working on other projects. She is neither closing the door on the band nor looking ahead to its return, she’s merely concentrating on supporting an album that she feels very strongly is among her best work. And she’s looking forward to her imminent return to Cincinnati this month for a very specific reason.
“I lived in Cincinnati for 10 years and we never played Fountain Square,” Wennerstrom says. “There are probably people in Cincinnati who aren’t familiar with Heartless Bastards. We built up a really nice thing in the world, but I don’t know if we’re full-on household names, so I’m sure there are people that haven’t heard of either project that might happen to be down there that day. So many people will probably be seeing this new project for the first time so the set itself will be special to them.”
Wennerstrom has added several deep Heartless Bastards tracks to her solo setlist for other specific reasons: They’re all her songs so no one is better equipped to do them. And she knows they’re crowd-pleasers. That latter point may be the most important of all.
“I’m going forward on this path (under) my name, but I’m always going to pull out songs from my past,” she says. “I wrote them, I don’t have to ask permission from anybody and I think people want to hear those old songs.
“Ultimately, it makes me happy to make people happy.”
Erika Wennerstrom plays a free show on Fountain Square on June 15 with Carriers and The Cordial Sins. Click here for more show info.