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Posted June 18, 2019 by Jeff in Tunes
 
 

Erika Wennerstrom is Letting Things Unfold

Photo: Briana Purser
Photo: Briana Purser

Formed back in 2003, the garage rock band Heartless Bastards emerged from the ashes of the Dayton-based garage rock act Shesus, a group that featured singer Erika Wennerstrom and drummer Dave Colvin. After touring and recording steadily for more than a decade, when the band took a hiatus last year Wennerstrom seized the opportunity to issue her solo debut, Sweet Unknown. In a recent phone interview from her Austin home, she talked about the album.

What inspired the decision to make a solo album?

We’d been touring a lot for years, and I think the band wanted a break. It’s funny. I had been really struggling with my creative process when it came time to writing the last Heartless Bastards album. When the band wanted a break, my creativity flowed and I wrote the quickest record I’ve ever written. I think there was some internal pressure there.

And you took a trip to the Amazon?

I took that trip probably just two months before Restless Ones came out. Then, some of the insights from that trip slowly unfolded for me over the past year. For me, it’s still a bit of a slow process of unfolding. I had the melodic inspiration for “Twisted Highways” before but I could never figure the song out. I had the idea ahead of time and it was like I finally got the pieces to the missing puzzle. I have hundreds of songs that are unfinished, but I still believe in them. I’m working on a song I’ve had in my head for 20 years. I never want to force it. 

Was it the trip or being away from the band that made the songs so introspective?

It’s probably a combination of both. I did go to the Amazon and did [the spiritual medicine] Ayahuasca. You step outside of yourself when you do that. You’re watching yourself from another perspective. I also think big changes cause introspection and that might have been inevitable. Taking the hiatus made me think about what do next. Those types of things bring self-evaluation.  

What was the recording process like?

I did demos with my friend Danny Rice. I just brought some musicians in to work out demos here and there. There’s nine songs and we did six songs in the first session. Patrick Hallahan from My Morning Jacket is a good friend of mine. I had talked to him about working on the album, and Jesse Ebaugh from Heartless Bastards helped me record. I had a various cast of guitar players. The main rhythm tracking and some of the leads were done by David Pulkingham who played with Patty Griffin and has played with Alejandro Escovedo and Robert Plant. Lauren Gurgiolo, who was in Okkervil River, did a couple of tracks on the album and she blew my mind with “Good to Be Alone.” I had a lot of people. I felt like the more the merrier. I picked people who played certain styles in a way that I had seen them play and knew I wanted for a particular song. My theory was that it would be easy because I’d be asking them to be themselves. If you have one player, some things are in their wheelhouse but they have to step outside of that box for other things and it can be challenging. 

Your voice sounds great. Did you want to push yourself vocally on this album?

I think I just gave it all the time and love that I could. I was just really going for letting everything be the best it could be. Danny was really patient with me and let me explore. I put a lot of time in the record. Sometimes, I tend to go down rabbit holes. I call them rabbit tunnels. Sometimes, I’m trying something that doesn’t work but I’m still trying to figure it out. In the past, someone might stop me before I find my way.

I just need to let myself sail before I find those things that do work.

“Extraordinary Love” has such a massive sound. Talk about what inspired it.

Well, I remember getting the melody of it when I went on this hike in Big Bend National Park in West Texas. It was right when the band decided to go on hiatus. We had some dates coming up, but I knew I had a lot of figuring out to do. I did this huge hike one day and started at 8 a.m. and finished it by sunset. A lot of the ideas came in that hike. The continued process of writing the song unfolded over the next six or nine months but that was where it came [to me] initially. I remember the chorus came out the next day. In my head, I was thinking of Pink Floyd and the way they do harmonies. They’re in fifths or thirds. I’m not a technical theory person when it comes to music. It’s very much just finding my way. I heard the harmonies in my head and had the feel of it. Choruses take it up a notch in a song, but I looked at that song like a breath of fresh air on the album. There’s tension and then you get to the chorus and it lets it breathe. That song is opposite of a lot of songs. It’s very simple when you get to the chorus. With the tension in life and all the chaotic noise, it’s that unnecessary stuff that’s part of being human. That song is like a reminder to take a moment to stop and breathe. 

What was it like to make the video?

I have a love of West Texas. That region inspires me because there’s so much space. My dear friend Laura Wallgren and I both have a mutual love for that area, and we’ve taken trips out there. She’s involved in filmmaking and other stuff within that field. I asked her to make a video. That was filmed near Terlingua. It’s kind of funny. I’m walking on that mountain in the video. There are tons of huge mountains out there [but] that one was just like a big hill. I thought it was funny how it looked. Laura said, “There are just some things that are too big to film.” A massive mountain is hard to capture on camera so you use optical illusions with smaller ones.

“Gravity” makes for a good album closer and brings things to a fitting end. 

That was one of the first songs I finished on the album. It’s funny I ended with it. I had been going through physical therapy issues throughout the last several years of touring. They had to do with the weight of my Les Paul guitar on my stature. I play an acoustic pretty hard. I think my arms grip it firmly. For my size, I’m standing there in a bit of a contorted stance for a couple of hours a night. There was a point when had been going through therapy for two-and-a half years so something and I didn’t know if I would get better. I still have issues with it. I think there was a point where I told myself I would be happier once I got better. [Then] I had this epiphany, which is part of the song. You don’t tell yourself you’re going to be happy when you get to this point or that. It’s a bit of a state of mind. I think that song was kind of like being in the moment and choosing in that moment to have gratitude. 

What’s the status of the Heartless Bastards?

Jesse is in his mid-forties and says if he wants to explore his solo stuff he owes it to himself to do that now, and Dave [Colvin] said he needed some change in his life. He has family and is doing different stuff. I have had a couple of lineups of the band and when it comes to where I go next, I haven’t figured it out. It would be nice to have the same team. When you tour with someone for a long time, it’s like family. I also recognize it’s something I was working at for a long time and has more name recognition. When I put together the next body of work, I’ll figure out in that moment what makes sense. It’s all amicable. At the end of the day, it’s always been my baby and my project and when the time comes I’ll have to figure out what’s best for me. 

Photo: Briana Purser


Jeff

 
Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at jeff@whopperjaw.net.