Erika Wennerstrom of the Heartless Bastards on the Letting Go and Going Within

Erika Wennerstrom of Heartless Bastards press photo
Erika Wennerstrom leads her band Heartless Bastards at Intuition Ale Works on September 16 | Aaron Conway, courtesy of the artist

How does one rock and roll the ineffable? 

Starting in 2003, Erika Wennerstrom has been the founder and forge of the Heartless Bastards. While the band was formed in Cincinnati, Ohio, since 2007 Wennerstrom has called Austin, Texas home. Since their inception, and despite some lineup changes, Heartless Bastards have garnered a devoted audience and critical raves due to their guitar-rock sound that plays both raucous and poignant. 

Speaking from her Texas home, Wennerstrom is between two polarities: preparing for an upcoming tour while settling in after being invited to play the 40th anniversary celebration of her hometown, Dayton, Ohio’s, finest: Guided by Voices.

“Oh, it was it was a blast and fun,” says Wennerstrom, of a two-day fest held at the Dayton Masonic Center (apropos considering the esoteric tilt of GBV) on Labor Day Weekend that included performances by Dinosaur Jr. and Built to Spill. 

“You know, for a small market like Dayton, we’ve actually had some pretty great stuff. When I was in my late teens and young adult years, it was pretty inspiring. The Breeders had a hit with ‘Cannon Ball’ when I was in high school, they’re from Dayton and Guided by Voices was kind of more on the indie side of things. But I think just for a teen and young adults sort of wanting to be an aspiring musician, especially Guided by Voices, it made me feel like you could live in a in a smaller market. You didn’t have to live in the you know, the coast cities.”

Regardless of locale, the vigilance and talents of Wennerstrom would have surely caught the ears of fans of savvier music. Thanks to a recommendation from drummer Patrick Carney of the Black Keys, the band began releasing albums on notable Mississippi independent imprint Fat Possum Records. 

“Frankly, Fat Possum really pushes their artists and without Patrick recommending me, maybe I would have done DIY for another year or two and just burnt myself out.”

Thankfully, Wennerstrom avoided being immolated by the enervating realities of being an independent artist and seeing life roll by from the grimy windows of a touring band. Since 2005, Heartless Bastards have released six albums. Their sound can strum and kick like Neil Young and Crazy House (“Only For You,” “Skin and Bone”) or tap into vulnerability with pizzicato-symphonic strings (“You Never Know”). Their most recent album, A Beautiful Life, was self-released on Sweet Unknown Records. Compositions and personnel shifts aside, the ballast of the band is Wennerstrom’s voice, versatile and strong and surely tapping into swirls of emotion. 

“I might not be a household name to some but I feel like there’s a lot of people in this world that appreciate what I’m doing. I am just grateful for it all.”

Wennerstrom has been candid about reconciling her introverted nature with the highly-public life of a performing artist. “Honestly, I would just get drunk to be social or gig,” she laughs. “But that wasn’t doing me any favors. But I don’t really drink anymore. I’m still introverted but I think I do my best to find little windows to be alone, which can be a little challenging on tour, even aside from being on stage and all that kind of thing. But yeah, I just learned to live with being introverted.”

In the era of self-centered social media and bling-desirous celebrity, Wennerstrom is arguably one of the only musicians to be featured in Pitchfork and Psychology Today. Ongoing clinical depression and life changes ultimately led Wennerstrom to participating in three Ayahuasca ritual-retreats. Her solo debut Sweet Unknown (2018) addressed in part her psychospiritual experiences and how she attempted to describe the indescribable. Wennerstrom continues to speak candidly about this all-natural paradigm enhancement.

“In that ceremonial setting when I’m doing a kind of self-work, I’m there to really work on myself with plant medicine. It’s kind of a big self-love tool.”

“I think [Ayahuasca] allows you to look at things yourself that you might not always allow yourself to see, which it does in a gentle way,” she says, noting that the plant is routinely aligned with divine feminine, the Sophia-wisdom element that is more gnostic than New Age. “It has the term ‘mother’ or ‘grandmother.’ And to be just honest with you, there are things that sometimes we don’t allow ourselves to see within ourselves, or we can cloud the picture of a clear kind of path forward. We can complicate things that shouldn’t be that complicated.” 

There have always been elements of Wennerstrom’s music that evoke psychedelia. “Extraordinary Love” is an unabashed day tripper, chronicling her initial plant medicine experiences. Taken from A Beautiful Life, the song “Revolution” begins with a simple guitar motif and Wennerstrom’s subdued delivery. The song incrementally escalates into a mystical roar, with Wennerstrom questioning the audience, asking how we all sold out our virtue and tenderness, apparently wholesale: “And you were born with a voice so open up and speak your mind / Raise consciousness and elevate how we all relate don’t hesitate / No need to be better or smarter than anybody else / Leave judgement at the door for others and yourself.” Heady stuff for sure and welcomed in the era of vapidity, celebrities, politicians—and now the chimera of the 21st century—vapid celebrity-politicians. 

Make no mistake: Wennerstrom isn’t intent on converting anyone to ingest an ancient entheogenic plant-being or proselytize therapeutic modalities. She’s too busy and grounded for that. At press time, she’s gearing up for a dozen shows through the Deep South, the Midwest and back home to Texas. While some of the music of Heartless Bastards has sounded like missives from a homesick spirit, in recent Wennerstrom’s music has become more expansive, at ease and more evocative of a key definition of integrity: to be fully integrated with the Self.

“I’m now 20 years in on being in front of an audience and I think I have been able to step back and appreciate how far I’ve come,” explains Wennerstrom. “And you know, I might not be a household name to some but I feel like there’s a lot of people in this world that appreciate what I’m doing. I am just grateful for it all.”

Heartless Bastards perform with Folk is People at The Bier Hall at Intuition Ale Works in downtown Jacksonville on Saturday, September 16 at 8 p.m. Tickets are available here.

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