How Heartless Bastards Frontwoman Erika Wennerstrom Arrived at Her Solo Debut

Songwriting at the edge of her comfort zone on Sweet Unknown


Photo by David Brendan Hall

In some ways, I feel like I get to start over. I'm 40 years old and this is a new project.

When everyone in Heartless Bastards mentioned taking a break, it brought on a lot of inspiration. Before, I felt like if I took a break, then I'd be putting folks out of work. This was a huge opening to me, because it was guilt-free. They wanted the break. Had I done it, I maybe would have felt guilty.

There's that saying that life begins at the edge of your comfort zone, and I love that. When this break was brought upon me, a whole new territory of what's next opened up for me. Part of that is frightening, but then there's this other part of me that felt I was living in a way I hadn't lived in a long time. Just living in the moment and being more present. It's the Sweet Unknown and who knows what's next?

There’s that saying that life begins at the edge of your comfort zone, and I love that.

There's something exciting about that, taking those leaps, taking those chances. I've realized that in life it's really important to put yourself first. Even if you have kids, if you're not being kind and good to yourself and taking care of yourself, that's not a good model for them to see. Putting yourself first and foremost allows you to bring your best self to the people you're around.

I've always wanted to grow. I think that's something we all want in life. There's outward growth – monetary wealth and things like that – but then there's inward growth, and I've really been focusing on that the past few years. Maybe I have been my whole life. Maybe what's drawn me to be an artist and a songwriter is therapeutic – creatively trying to understand myself.

When I first started writing, maybe I didn't really have intention and wasn't sure what I was trying to say. With this album, I knew what I wanted to say. Sometimes I'll overthink how I'm trying to say it, so I had very clear intentions on each song's message. Then I just let it go and flow.

I've had a lot of personal epiphanies. Some of it I'd attribute to my ayahuasca retreats [revisit "Restless One," June 12, 2015], but a lot of it is the changes in my life. Life's too short to worry about what anyone thinks. As much as I've felt that I've been very true to myself in my art, it's always been a struggle to get to that point. I was averaging an album every three years, and I think part of that is that it would take me a long time to let go of certain emotions because of the idea that it would later be judged.

With this album, I realized that the things that make us feel vulnerable are actually a way to our strengths, and what can be relatable. I've always been pretty open in my songs, but the struggle to get to the point where I feel brave enough to put it out was always a thing. Life is short, so what do I want to say and how do I want to say it?

I'm doing things with a lot more intention these days, but I'm also not trying to be meticulous. I'm letting the ego down and not guarding anything. When you give every bit of yourself, you're not going to regret being yourself. People are going to take me as I am or not, and that's OK.

Another personal realization I had is that when people come at me really negatively, that's more of a reflection of how they feel inside. I can't believe it took me until I was about 40 to realize that, but it's given me huge compassion for whenever people do approach me negatively – for what they're going through inside.

In a way, a lot of the albums leading up to this one was a searching, and I do feel like I've found a lot of myself. When I wrote "Be Good to Yourself," I remember sitting in my living room wanting to write a message to others. A lot of time when I'm writing, it's self-exploration, and at times when I've had struggles, I can get wrapped up in myself and it feels self-involved. So I wanted to write a song to others directly, but as I wrote it, I realized I was writing to myself, too.

It's a mirror, a self-reflection back. "Staring Out the Window," it's self-reflection, but we're always projecting to others. So it's like, what do you want to project? Who do I want to be, what do I want to project?

I've thought a lot about success and what is success. And I think it's being true to yourself and finding that inner peace more than what society might deem as successful. Money, album sales, none of that is really what success is. You have to ask yourself what that means to you. To me, it means living my life as my truest self and not trying to fit into any sort of mold. I realize I've always been trying to find that.

Life's not easy for anybody. Some people have said parts of this album are sad, but I think it's uplifting because I've found strength in my vulnerability. I used to struggle with writing, that struggle to be open, but then I started listening to people coming up to me and saying I affected them in a positive way. I had a hard time taking compliments because I was struggling internally. Part of me didn't want to believe.

Then I started listening, and it gave me this revitalized sense of purpose with what I do. I realized that as honest as I could be with myself and just creatively, even if I'm just saying these things to myself, maybe some other people will understand and relate to it and it will help somebody. Then it didn't feel so self-involved. Sometimes it's hard to step outside of yourself.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Erika Wennerstrom, Heartless Bastards, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac

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