After almost a decade and a half fronting the celebrated indie rock outfit Heartless Bastards, Erika Wennerstrom is branching out on her own with the release of her debut solo record Sweet Unknown (out March 23). We talked with Wennerstrom for our newest NoiseTrade One-on-One to discuss her transition from band member to solo artist, her songwriting on Sweet Unknown, an enlightening ayahuasca retreat in the Amazon, and much more!
NoiseTrade: After more than a decade fronting a full band, what all went into the decision-making and inspiration to write and record your debut solo album, Sweet Unknown?
Erika Wennerstrom: A couple of the guys in the band wanted a break and when we all talked about it we all decided it was a great idea. We all needed some change in our lives. I didn’t even realize how much. This new album just started pouring out of me. I think I felt pressure (which I put on myself) to keep the band working and it was inhibiting my writing.
NT: Did you find that the songwriting and recording processes were much different for you between band and solo formats in any specific ways?
Wennerstrom: My song writing process is still similar. It starts with melodies in my head. Sometimes I have a full picture and sometimes it slowly reveals itself, whether it be a few days, weeks, months, or even years. Once I get the arrangement figured out I bring it in to work on. In the past with the band, I would talk about the vibe and they would help me get there and they would make suggestions in arrangements or other ideas. I really value their opinions. When the band wanted a break, I didn’t have my support system. I really had to learn to fully trust myself and my instincts. I found it very exciting to play with different people. There was a revolving cast over several different sessions. I felt the more the merrier. With each record I make, the recording process is a bit different, even with the band. With this one I wanted to take all the time I felt I needed. I chose to do it locally near Austin. I went down every rabbit hole I felt inclined to. I like to call them rabbit tunnels, because even when an idea failed it led me to other ideas that added a lot to the song. I thought there are no mistakes, only steps.
NT: I read that album opener “Twisted Highway” went through a few different rewrites and sonic tweaks before you landed on the spaciously bombastic finalized version. Was this the hardest song to get to a “completed” state? By contrast, which song came the easiest to write and record?
Wennerstrom: Actually, I didn’t rewrite anything on the song. I just got to the second verse and I was stumped on where to go. I felt the song needed to have growth and evolve. Six months went by and then I happened to have a conversation with a friend who’s a writer and he said when he’s stumped he starts all over. I thought “Hell no, I’m not starting over”! The next day I just kept thinking to myself “think outside the box.” I went for a drive and a whole new melody for the second half and the rest of the lyrics came to me. It fits over the same chord progression. I realized six months had gone by and I wasn’t even the same person I was six months before. I’d had a lot of life change. I was trying to create words that fit into a preconceived box and not allowing myself to take an unexpected turn in the road. It’s funny it was called “Twisted Highway” from the very beginning of writing it. I need to let the song tell me where it wanted to go instead of trying to steer it. It’s been a great analogy for me on life. Trying to be open to where ever my life leads out into the Sweet Unknown.
I think the easiest song was “Good To Be Alone.” It was more of a concept with some basic structure to it for parts and changes, but there was a lot of room to be in the moment. We all listened for Patrick to give drum fills to cue the coming change, but he was also feeling out the level of intensity of Lauren’s guitar part to decide when that shift would come. Lauren and I would take turns. I’d sing for a bit and then she would play for a bit. We all gave each other a lot of space. We had one rehearsal day, which Lauren (who plays guitar on the track) couldn’t make it to. We got it on the third take. I think it’s my favorite track on the album.
NT: Tell us about the experience of your ayahuasca retreat in the Amazon. What sparked the trip and how did it inspire your songwriting for Sweet Unknown?
Wennerstrom: I was really unhappy in my life. I needed to wake up. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. I was repeating a lot of negative patterns. Something really needed to give. I had heard about ayahuasca and decided that maybe it would be good for me. It allowed me to face myself. I had gone to therapy here and there but you can’t really fix issues you don’t even realize you have. It really allowed me to see and understand myself and the dynamic of relationships in my life. I’ve done it quite a few times since and its really taught me self compassion. That process of growth and learning to be kinder to myself inspired the songs.
NT: I love the astonishingly beautiful album artwork for Sweet Unknown and the way it echoes your sonic mixture of rustic roots music and adventurous psych-rock by aesthetically blending rural, earthy themes with the unknown expanse of outer space. What’s the story behind the cover art and what was the initial direction you saw for it?
Wennerstrom: Sometimes when I’m on Instagram and I go to the search function page it has a lot of random strangers pics. Sometime I’ll recognize somebody I know or I just see a great photo and click on it. Sometimes I explore it a little. I’m kind of fascinated by it. Julián González León had a photo show up on that page, and I clicked on it and looked at his other work and came across what is now the cover. There is something about that shade of blue that really draws me in and I find soothing. I love the surreal aspect and I thought how great It would be for a cover. I decided to follow him. Almost a year went by and I saw a pic in my feed of a stranger and I thought, “who the hell is that?!” I realized it was the artist I liked from months ago. I somehow tracked down an email and contacted him. He said he was flattered I liked his work and that I was welcome to use the piece and he’d help design the rest of the album layout. He lives in Bogata Columbia, and typically works in film. He happens to do collage work as a hobby. I decided to ask if he ever did music videos and if he might be interested in working on one with me as well. He said yes and I planned a trip down to Columbia this past October to shoot. I stayed with Julián and his wife Laura, and they showed me around the city. They were lovely people. I look forward to releasing the video pretty soon. It’s really pretty cosmic how it’s all came together.
NT: To close things out on a fun, related not, what are some of your favorite album covers from other artists/bands that forego a standard photo image and favor a creatively artistic flair?
Wennerstrom: Gosh, there are so many great ones, but here’s a shortlist: Led Zeppelin – Houses of the Holy, Miles Davis – Bitches Brew, every Bjork album cover is amazing, and Grinderman 2 is pretty great too!