SAFETY HARBOR — Erika Wennerstrom will perform Friday, April 9, on the outdoor stage at the Safety Harbor Art & Music Center, 706 Second St. N., Safety Harbor.
Doors will open at 7 p.m. and the show will get underway at 7:30. Tickets are $20 in advance and at the door if available. Visit safetyharborartandmusiccenter.thundertix.com. Social distancing is being practiced at the venue. Event organizers ask attendees to wear a face mask and follow safety guidelines. Those who feel sick should stay home.
There’s something somewhat frightening, yet utterly liberating when leaving the confines of a successful band to venture solo — especially a band whose latest record was called “effortlessly brilliant” by critics. But, such is the case with Wennerstrom, who took a break from her Austin-based rock band, Heartless Bastards, to deliver her solo debut “Sweet Unknown” in 2018.
“It was a really freeing experience,” said the singer/songwriter in a biographical sketch provided by Big Hassle. “I found my strength in my vulnerability as an artist, and really, just as a person. It kind of forced me to allow myself to be a little more exposed and stand on my own two feet. I feel like I’ve grown a lot creatively and personally.”
But fans of Heartless Bastards — which has released five critically-acclaimed albums since their 2003 inception, appeared on many late night television shows, and has drawn praise from Rolling Stone, Time, New York Times — need not worry. The band has not broken up.
“We’d been going for so long and everyone in the band was just ready for a little break. But I had songs in me that needed to come out. I didn’t think it was fair to push them to keep going and I didn’t want to do it without them under the band name,” said Wennerstrom, who enlisted the help of HB’s Jesse Ebaugh to play bass on eight of the nine tracks on “Sweet Unknown.”
Fans can also rest assured that what they’ve grown to love about Wennerstrom’s music is still front-and-center. Her trademark vocals remain warm yet gritty, and simultaneously gigantic and intimate. The album is full of the bluesy, rock vibes she has always delivered.
So, what is the difference?
“It’s just more of me,” she said. “It’s as simple as that. I was able to get deeper and you get another level of my heart and soul. And, it’s really about my journey of self-awareness and healing and finding acceptance and self-love. It’s very empowering.”
While Wennerstrom has always been honest in the Heartless Bastards songs she’s written, the nine tracks that make up “Sweet Unknown” are even more personal and reflective, and for her, quite transformative as well.
“When I started writing this record, I thought about how maybe the struggles I’ve had at times in my life, and with writing, could be changed if I could put my energy and message towards others, but what I got was the most self-healing I’ve ever had through the creative process,” she said. “My positive message to others became my own mantra. It’s like how sometimes we need to start listening to our own advice, and singing these songs repeatedly has given myself a message I need to hear when I sing them over and over again.”
Wennerstrom attributes her deep emotional journey, in part, to two pivotal trips which resulted in 400 voice notes on her phone with various lyric and melody ideas.
“I went down to the Amazon jungle in 2015 right before the last Heartless Bastards record, ‘Restless Ones,’ was released,” she said. “I was at a point where I was deeply unhappy, and on a whim, I decided to do an Ayahuasca retreat. Despite the idea frightening me, I felt I needed something to change within me so bad that I had nothing to lose. It really opened the door and started me on a path to many self-realizations.”
In early 2020, Wennerstrom returned to the studio with producer Kevin Ratterman, and a new Heartless Bastards album is in the works.
Wennerstrom founded the band in 2003 in Cincinnati, Ohio. It started as a recording project and evolved into a live band with a revolving cast of musicians, and they began playing regularly throughout the Midwest. When Patrick Carney of the Black Keys saw the band, he liked what he heard and passed along a copy of their demo to his label at the time, Fat Possum Records. Heartless Bastards signed with Fat Possum, releasing their first three albums, “Stairs and Elevators” (2005), “All this Time” (2006), and “The Mountain” (2009).
In 2007, Wennerstrom relocated to Austin, Texas, and recorded “The Mountain.” A new touring lineup formed including David Colvin on drums and Jesse Ebaugh on bass, bringing the project in full circle as both Colvin and Ebaugh had played on the original Heartless Bastards demos six years earlier. Mark Nathan joined on guitar in 2009, and the band became a four-piece. They signed to Partisan records and released two critically acclaimed records, “Arrow” (2012) and “Restless Ones” (2015).