The paradox of modern times is that we have every option at our fingertips—every website, television show, song, and movie—yet, it seems hard as ever to follow your own true instincts. At times, we are drowned by choice. But for Heartless Bastards‘ frontperson, Erika Wennerstrom, listening to her intuition has actually been key to her success. She is patient with herself, now more than ever. But there was one occasion in particular during which she listened to what she wanted when faced with the choice to do the opposite. That decision to follow her own internal voice led to perhaps the biggest moment in her career: signing with the prolific Fat Possum Records. Now, Wennerstrom is set to release her popular band’s latest heartening LP, A Beautiful Life, on September 10.
“We opened for [The Black Keys] across the river in Kentucky,” Wennerstrom says, recalling a gig with her then-Cincinnati-based group. “But I also booked a little tour shortly after that, and Akron [Ohio, hometown of The Black Keys] was a stop. And [drummer] Patrick [Carney] happened to walk in halfway through our set.”
The night was even more memorable because there were only about five other people in attendance watching the band. Before the gig, because so few tickets had sold, the little club’s owner had offered to just pay Wennerstrom ahead of time. Instead of playing, she and her band could take the night off, head back out on the road for the next city on tour. Good pay for no work? Many might say yes and keep it pushing. But Wennerstrom had another idea.
“I thought, ‘Well, this is good practice,’” Wennerstrom says. “I’ve always loved really tight bands, so if we played for maybe five people, it would still be good practice. So, I asked, ‘Well, can we play?’ And he said, ‘Well, yeah, if you really want to you can.’ Then Patrick walked in halfway through that set.”
Wennerstrom and Carney hung out after her set, shared a few drinks, talked. She’d already been accustomed to handing out her album. She’d done it frequently in the Cincinnati bar where she’d worked for years. She’d gained a small following doing so; her music on local jukes. She’d recognized Carney from opening for The Black Keys not long prior. In Cincinnati, Wennerstrom had become diligent. She kept her eyes and ears opening for touring bands coming into the area to open for them. The Black Keys were one. One thing leads to the next. Then, after Carney had passed her album to enthusiastic executives at Fat Possum, which his band put records out on in the early 2000s, Wennerstrom kept missing their emails.
“I assumed Hotmail knew what ‘junk’ was!” Wennerstrom says.
But eventually, everything worked out and Heartless Bastards put out on Fat Possum in 2005, 2006, and 2009. In between, there were two more LPs in 2012 and 2015. And in 2018, Wennerstrom put out her own solo record, Sweet Unknown. Now, with a new iteration of the group, though still very much fronted by Wennerstrom, the eloquent, thoughtful, and revolutionary vocalist, the newest Heartless Bastards record is set to shake some speakers and rattle some minds. Ever a conscientious optimist, Wennerstrom believes in thinking differently while rocking. She likens it to a well-known TV show.
“If we were always only thinking practically like Spock on Star Trek,” she says, “humanity wouldn’t have lasted this long. A lot of our development as a species comes from thinking outside the box, by believing in things that didn’t seem possible.”
These days, Wennerstrom is frustrated at times. Frustrated with capitalism, frustrated with social divisions, frustrated with all-too rampant pain that stems from the “rat race.” This feeling can be heard in echoes on her new album’s opening track, “Revolution.” On it, she channels Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, and Rodriguez. But while the record opens with some anger on her tongue, filtered through a nostalgic AM radio vibe, the album doesn’t wallow in it. There’s hope and amazement, which largely stems from the dual-pronged self-love and outward appreciation.
“More and more,” Wennerstrom says, “I’ve just been trying to work on having gratitude. I don’t necessarily succeed with this every day. But it’s a constant effort.”
The Austin, Texas-based Wennerstrom, who has loved songs and language—particularly those of the writer, Shel Silverstein—since her family’s backyard cookouts, finished her new album just as the pandemic hit the United States in March of 2020. Ever since, she’s been laying low, somewhat uninspired because of the lack of connection to people during isolation. In fact, it’s music’s ability to connect with other people that she has long sought. Wennerstrom, who says she grew up shy but always loved people, knows that it’s humanity’s interconnectedness to each other and the world of creativity that keeps us going.
“When I hear a song and I relate to it,” she says, “it reminds me that I’m not alone.”