Heartless Bastards oracle Erika Wennerstrom confronts the moment
Erika Wennerstrom is still processing exactly what happened in the Amazon. She tries to express revelations the ayahuasca retreat opened for her, but it comes out in broken pieces as she attempts to hold back tears. Maybe it's still too soon.
Maybe it can't be put into words.
In April, with the Heartless Bastards' new LP finally finished and the local quartet's extensive tour ahead, Wennerstrom flew to Peru alone for two weeks. From Iquitos, she followed a shaman into the jungle and drank thick brown ayahuasca tea. Visions induced by the hallucinogenic root are said to be both enlightening and terrifying.
"I was at just such a low point, I thought it might be eye-opening," recalls the singer. "I was like, what do I have to fear? The massive stress and being so hard on myself writing the album, it was a lot. There was a point where I had to start looking at things different. There has to be a different way to do this. There has to be a way to alleviate that.
"Is it possible to silence that negative voice in your head?"
Sitting with bandmates Jesse Ebaugh and Mark Nathan on the secluded upstairs terrace of Hotel Saint Cecilia overlooking Austin, Wennerstrom wipes the tears from her cheek.
"I'm so emotional," she apologizes with a laugh. "I'm starting to not care about crying so much. I used to be embarrassed, and maybe I still am, but it's okay."
Such openness and vulnerability admits a new philosophy and mindset for the songwriter, who turns 38 this week. As with 2012's exceptional fourth album, Arrow, the Heartless Bastards' new Restless Ones throbs with a palpable impulse of searching. Whereas the previous disc stretched yearningly, like an all-night desert road trip, Restless Ones turns inward. It's less a seeking of something or somewhere in the distance, than a need to understand the present and appreciate it.
For Wennerstrom, the path led her to South America.
"I do think that the trip – and though I wouldn't necessarily attribute it to ayahuasca – but I think I came out of it with more of an understanding of myself," she acknowledges. "I felt that in my life, there are these parts of me that live in fear – fear of failure, fear of success, fear of love, fear of loneliness.
"Sometimes it can just leave you inactive, or make you feel idle," she sighs. "I've been trying to understand. Writing is just so difficult, and I give myself such a hard time about it, that I think there's got to be a way that I can continue to do this and not do that to myself. Why do I do that? In a lot of different ways, and not just in a career sense, I think sometimes I forget to stop and be present."
"I had spun out and filled myself with doubt. I was standing in the doorway with the key to my own suffering, and I said to myself, 'There's no use trying to be what you want me to be.' "
– "Black Cloud," Restless Ones
When Wennerstrom moved to Austin from Cincinnati in 2007, it represented a new start. Her 10-year relationship with Mike Lamping, who joined Heartless Bastards shortly after its founding in 2002, had dissolved, and with it the band that had gained traction behind two albums of powerfully ripped blues-rock.
Even as she recruited unfamiliar session players with producer Mike McCarthy to record 2009's The Mountain, Wennerstrom determined to keep the band name rather than start over. She eventually reconnected with founding drummer Dave Colvin, who was attending graduate school at UT and now lives in Pittsburgh, then recruited bassist Ebaugh to move south from Kentucky. Nathan, who worked sound for the trio on tour, soon joined as second guitarist, solidifying the band's sound (see "I Could Be So Happy," Jan. 30, 2009).
The core of Heartless Bastards remained its frontwoman's distinctive, emotive vocals. Wennerstrom's Midwestern drawl settles in a low, throaty roar against a rumble of guitars and wails as the songs climb to crescendo.
"When I write something, I'll already have the melody, so I'll sing a lot of vowel and consonant sounds," she explains. "It almost feels like the emotion that comes to me is like a primal scream, and I'm not sure where that comes from sometimes. But I feel like when I finally force that thought into words and push it out there, it's very cathartic.
"Performing live, it's different. There's something very comforting and calming about it, even if what brought it on was from an emotional place. When I'm singing with emotion, generally I find it calming."
Wennerstrom's compositions thrive in that surge of feelings, whether the defiant rawness of The Mountain or the longing that courses through Arrow. Likewise, her lyrics draw from a deeply personal wellspring, contributing to both the intimacy and anxiety that each song brings.
"Writing an album, it's just a lot of time in my head," she admits. "They get more challenging each time, and because they're very much me, I'm trying to find new ways to say things.
"Sometimes songs have multiple meanings, even for me. Sometimes I look back on lyrics, like for [Restless Ones opener] 'Wind Up Bird.' Some parts of that song were initially about a situation with someone else, but then part of me thinks I've lied to myself. Even 'Black Cloud,' it's like I'm that person I'm trying to please, but I just can't.
"I'm just really hard on myself."
As Wennerstrom's voice begins to falter in articulating her struggles with songwriting, her bandmates pick up the thread.
"I feel that you've been developing this visual language of images that you return to, like primary colors a painter would use, and I think that process is really beginning to mature," offers Ebaugh. "These images like home or sun recur a lot, and they can mean different things depending on the context and how they're fit together. It's a maturation of that poetic process to channel emotion."
"Lyrically, you may have struggled at times, but with your voice, you could track those vowels and consonant sounds with no lyrics and still be emotive," adds Nathan to his co-guitarist. "That's one thing that comes very naturally. It's immediate and powerful, because your voice is very unique. It hits you in the gut."
"We're all just trying to find a place to be whole, and oh, now it's suddenly clear, the journey is the destination."
– "Journey," Restless Ones
Fear, anxiety, the constant self-critical admonitions and paralyzing apprehensions – more than any other Heartless Bastards album, Restless Ones confronts those emotions for Wennerstrom. Simply expressing those feelings brought relief to their owner, but more importantly, she drew strength from understanding them and pushing beyond their constrictions.
"There's a Dan Eldon book, The Journey Is the Destination," she says. "I love that book, but I also think that so much is said just in that title. It's a sense of being grateful and more present. Having that realization – an ongoing process – I felt sort of a new dawn approaching. A different outlook on life.
"Writing this record, part of me let things go that I've carried [a long time]," she continues. "'Gates of Dawn' represents a stepping outside of it, and past it. It sort of leaves off from [Arrow], from searching to realizing that you don't really need to get from point A to point B to appreciate where you're at and being in that moment.
"That's really what it's all about for me, both professionally and personally."
That emphasis on immediacy extended to production of the album as well, with John Congleton leading the recording sessions in the expansive isolation of Sonic Ranch studios outside of El Paso. Congleton (St. Vincent, Okkervil River, Sigur Rós) embraced spontaneity, given that the songs hadn't been fleshed out live. Together, he and the foursome captured unexpected moments that seed Restless Ones with a sense of serendipity and suspense.
"When I write, it's me trying to write where I want to go and not just where I am," muses Wennerstrom. "In a sense, the writing's a reminder to myself to adopt that, kind of hoping to pick that up. And singing that over and over again is like a guide to take that thought into practice.
"I've been very guarded in the past," she admits. "Because I'm a very emotional person. That's just who I am. I would hold back, because I'd be embarrassed by that. But I feel like it's good to not do that. I think it's made me more open."
Purging the voice of doubt remains a struggle for Wennerstrom, but onstage – in the pocket of the moment – it's silenced with the calm of emotion pouring out mantras intoned above the roar of guitars.
"I've wasted so much for far too long, I'm gonna set myself free, I'm gonna let myself be, and not let this life pass me by."
– "Into the Light," Restless Ones