A couple months back, between wrapping her band's fifth studio album and kicking off a tour with the Hold Steady's Craig Finn, the Heartless Bastards’ Erika Wennerstrom retreated to the Amazon jungle. Long fascinated by ayahuasca (pronounced "eye-uh-WAH-skuh"), a hallucinogen that’s said to be like 10 years of therapy in one gut-wrenching night, Wennerstrom dove deep into life-changing transcendence — complete with chanting shamans.
Her takeaway? “The journey is the destination.”
Inspired by the published journals of photographer and activist Dan Eldon, who was killed by a mob in Somalia some 20 years ago, Wennerstrom had made the decision to be "more present" in her life as frontwoman of the Austin-based blues-rock band that’s gotten love from the likes of Rolling Stone, NPR, and Entertainment Weekly. “I just need to stop and be in the moment, instead of looking too far ahead of where I want to get, or thinking too much about things that have already past,” she says. “It’s a challenge."
The Heartless Bastards' new album, Restless Ones, invokes this challenge. It’s gutsy as ever, with ominous percussion and layered guitars. The record's arc is big and bold, yet rooted in Wennerstrom's earthly, small-town tenderness that’s fittingly landed the band’s music in two episodes of swagger-with-a-heart-of-gold staple "Friday Night Lights." Songs crackle with momentum, and revel in the power of just standing there: “I am awoken, the footsteps sound of thunder,” Wennerstrom howls on the truly epic "Gates of Dawn” (trust: this woman sings like a prophet), before proclaiming, “We’re making our way to the sun, where the past and the future’s unknown; we’re all just trying to find a place to be whole” on the aptly named “Journey."
This is the same songwriter who — nearly a decade ago on All This Time’s closing track — mused, "Too much reflection isn't healthy for me. Present and future is where I need to be."
We grow, we change, and somehow, at our core, we stay the same.
The Heartless Bastards have done all of the above since emerging from the Cincinnati, Ohio scene back in ’04 after the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney heard a demo. The lineup has changed, the homebase has changed, and Wennerstrom has certainly changed. That’s what it is to be human. But the driving force behind her music is still the catharsis of writing, of getting herself through the “difficult” things, and having the results resonate with someone, somewhere.
“When I’m singing, I find it comforting, especially the more that fans get to know songs,” says Wennerstrom. “If they’re singing along and identifying with the song, then it kind of makes you feel like we’re in the boat together."
In same the boat. On the same journey. Restless ones, the lot of us.
HEARTLESS BASTARDS with CRAIG FINN. 9 p.m. Thurs., June 18. Mr. Small's Theatre, 400 Lincoln Ave., Millvale. All ages, $18-20. 412-821-4447 or www.mrsmalls.com.