Erika Wennerstrom’s voice is like coming home to anyone who has lived in Austin for any length of time over the past decade. Darlings of indie radio, music venues of all sizes in town, and mainstays on the top ten rack at Waterloo Records, her former band, Heartless Bastards are as much a part of Austin’s musical DNA as open mic nights at the Elephant Room, Bob Schneider at the Saxon and willing dancers at the Broken Spoke. The Americana sound pours out of their albums and spills to the floor, speaking of love, loss, paths not taken and the open road. The tunes drip with the influences of soul, country and the occasional echo of dream pop, all grounded in beauty by the ethereal voice of Wennerstrom, mastering both the low and pensive, as well as the powerful thunderous choral delivery.
With the release of a new album, “Sweet Unknown,” she’s making a move beyond those well-established sounds and into new frontiers, both musically and emotionally. And, while this new endeavor is a departure from the sounds that defined Heartless Bastards, Wennerstrom’s vocals carry the album. As the songs progress, the swirling melodies open up and focus, luring the listener into an undulating ocean that is part calm, part anthem. And although it’s hard to imagine her sledgehammer vocals doing anything but rising, it’s the quieter moments, outside the climbing proclamations her voice is known for, that proudly stake her claim on a place in heavy rotation on playlists and turntables – where her sound must surely belong – throughout the city limits and beyond.
We were able to get a few answers to some pressing questions we had of the incredible artist, and here’s what Wennerstrom offered about the release of her album. Catch her on June 9 at Barracuda and get “Sweet Unknown” at her site (for vinyl), on iTunes, Spotify, at Waterloo Records, or wherever you purchase music.
TLM: Ohio to Austin, Texas isn’t exactly a pipeline for musical success. After over 10 years here, do you feel more Austinite, Ohioan, or something in-between?
I grew up in Dayton, but I moved from Cincinnati where I lived 10 years then to Austin. I definitely feel like Austin has felt like home for a good while now, but I spent 30 years of my life in Ohio. My family is still there. I feel very connected to both places.
TLM: In what ways has your time in Texas contributed to both your sound and your being?
When I think about where I was in my life years ago as this young and insecure person taking this leap to move to Austin after a breakup and start over, I realize how far I’ve come. I think I’ve found a lot of growth and strength in Texas. Maybe that’s part of getting older and it could happen other places, but I certainly feel a connection here, and think of Texas very fondly.
As far as it contributing to my sound it’s inevitable since my life shapes my sound, but I couldn’t say exactly how. There’s definitely some imagery in the songs that reflects the wide open space in west Texas where I do a lot of my writing.
TLM: The new album is, understandably, different from Heartless Bastards releases. Is the mood an indication of why you felt it better to create these songs solo, rather than make it a part of another Heartless Bastards release?
I write the songs in both projects so the process is the same, but when the band wanted to take a break all the change in my life from it brought a lot of inspiration. I was in this place where I was like “What am I going to do with my life right now?!” It was a little frightening and exciting all rolled into one. I didn’t realize how much I needed change.
TLM: What’s the best on-ramp song for listeners in Austin to access the new album/new sound?
I think maybe Extraordinary Love, but Good to Be Alone is my favorite on the album.
TLM: What has your time in the musical spotlight taught you? What is your advice to people who want to create in the modern age?
To be grateful. My advice to creatives is to create what you love, and don’t think about how it will be received. Over thinking can hold back inspiration. Just let it flow. It’s sometimes easier said than done, but it’s good to aim for. And don’t be hard on yourself if you’re not productive. It will eventually come to you. I also think when being creative that the places that make you feel really venerable are sometimes the most relatable.
Be open to the ideas changing. It can be easy to look at where you’re trying to get to and miss the idea leading you somewhere else.
TLM: Do you have a go-to regimen to recharge, creatively?
A long walk in nature. I love Town Lake and the greenbelt. On longer recharges I go to Big Bend National Park.
TLM: Considering the new album and the support for this sound, what is next for you and for the Heartless Bastards?
I’m not even really sure. There’s no falling out, but we’re all doing our own thing right now. Jesse just released a solo album with his project Tenders Things. I think we are all focused on ourselves right now, and just want each other to be happy.
Daniel Ramirez is a native Texan, who has written about the life, leisure and legends of the Lone Star State. From music to food to film, he is always looking to remind the world that the cultural epicenter of the U.S. is just as rooted in Texas as it is on either coast. With his own roots firmly established in Houston, Austin and Central Texas, his nomadic pursuits are always grounded in a familiar mantra – Texas Forever. Insta/Twitter: @neftalirr