The Heartless Bastards’ Erika Wennerstrom didn’t realize she had a pent-up desire to make a solo album. But the fact that the upcoming Sweet Unknown — whose opening track “Twisted Highway” is premiering below — was the quickest album she’s ever made certainly told her something.
“I didn’t realize that with the band I had felt this sort of internal pressure to keep things going on order to keep everybody working,” Wennerstrom tells Billboard. “When they wanted a break it was just the biggest weight lifted. It was a huge creative opening for me, and I didn’t realize how much I needed that. I just felt a lot of creativity.” And despite a track record of five albums with the band, Wennerstrom felt no expectations going it alone.
“There was something to say about having a new album that’s under my name,” she explains. “There’s no expectations whatsoever — or maybe there is, but I just didn’t really think about it. I just kind of felt like I was writing in my 20s again and nobody had ever heard Heartless Bastards. So I was just easier on myself and dealt with everything as it came out.”
Sweet Unknown, which comes out March 23, has a central theme of “self love and growth,” according to Wennerstrom, the result of shedding toxic elements in her life, overcoming depression and healing through an ayahuasca retreat in the Amazon. As an album opener and theme-setter — “I’m trying so hard to grow…and accept that things are changing” — the driving, anthemic “Twisted Highway” was one of the first ideas Wennerstrom worked on, though it went through a couple of permutations before Wennerstrom felt she had it right.
“I had the melody for months and months before I really started working on the album, but I had written the first verse and a chorus and I was just stumped on the second verse,” Wennerstrom recalls. “I was telling a friend at South By Southwest last year and he was like, ‘Y’know, when I write, I just start completely over if I’m stumped on something.’ So the next day I went for a drive and all of a sudden a totally different melody came to me, and then the words poured out. The melody still sits over the chords but it’s definitely different from the first verse to the second. That was a real creative opening me to sort of let it be whatever it was going to be and to think outside the box. For me, creatively, it was a huge thing.”
Wennerstrom recorded Sweet Unknown with producer Danny Reisch at his studio in Lockhart, Texas, with contributions from My Morning Jacket’s Patrick Hallahan, Kelly Doyle, former Okkervil River member Lauren Gurgiolo, Heartless Bastards’ bassist Jesse Ebaugh and others. She’ll be playing at this year’s South By Southwest, followed by shows during March and April with Drive-By Truckers and, Wennerstrom hopes, more solo dates on the horizon. She’s also holding a PledgeMusic pre-order campaign with exclusive merchandise and other perks for donors.
Heartless Bastards’ hiatus, meanwhile, is open-ended, and Wennerstrom isn’t predicting a firm return date for the group. “There wasn’t a drama or a breakup with the band,” she says. “I think at one point David (Colvin, drummer) said, ‘I think I just need to try something different in my life,’ and then we got to talking about it and Jesse said, ‘I’ve been a sideman my whole life. I would really like to focus on songwriting.’ So we’re all doing these other things, and (a reunion) is not something that is definitely not going to happen, but it’s a matter of us all being on the same page at the same time. I guess right now my mind’s so into doing what I’m doing now and this present (album) I haven’t really thought that far ahead. You never know where life’s going to take you.”