Josh T. Pearson
134 West Front Street
Missoula, MT, 59802-4304
Doors 7:00 PM / Show 8:00 PM
This event is all ages
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 Erika Wennerstrom who is taking a break from her Austin-based rock band, Heartless Bastards, to deliver her solo debut Sweet Unknown.
“It was a really freeing experience,” reveals the singer/songwriter/guitarist. “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,” explains Wennerstrom, who enlisted the help of HB’s Jesse Ebaugh to play bass on 8 of the 9 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 that NPR so aptly calls “warm yet gritty, throaty yet sweet, gigantic, yet intimate” are that… times 10. And the bluesy, rock vibes that Relix describes as “smoky, late night [rock] that exists somewhere between Royal Trux and the Rolling Stones” has only gotten smokier and bluesier.
So, what is the difference? “It’s just more of me,” she says. “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 9 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. 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,” she explains.
The album kicks off with the feel-good roadtrip vibes of “Twisted Highway,” which Wennerstrom says sums up her musical journey on Sweet Unknown. She explains, “‘Twisted Highway’ is the process of learning more self-awareness and self-acceptance. Writing songs over the years has forced me to do a lot of self reflection, and I haven’t always liked what I see. I really needed to change my way of thinking though. I chose to focus on the negatives within myself. I really needed to stop and take a look at what’s good in my life.”
On the somber psych-rocker “Staring Out the Window,” the artist digs even deeper into the inner workings of her mind. “It’s about discovering a pattern I established when I was young where when I’m around someone dark, unkind, or full of anger, I tend to internalize it and blame myself. I learned that sometimes we feel comfortable around people that aren’t good for us because they feel familiar, but that can be the unhealthy pattern. I had to learn how to love myself more and break this pattern,” she says.
Wennerstrom attributes her deep emotional journey, in part, to two pivotal trips in the past year, 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. I was at a point where I was deeply unhappy, and on a whim, I decided to do an Ayahuasca [pronounced eye-uh-wah-ska] retreat. Despite the idea frightening me, I felt I needed something to change with in me so bad that I had nothing to lose. It really opened the door and started me on a path to many self realizations,” she says.
Ayahuasca (an Amazonian hallucinagenic plant used in Shamanic healing ceremonies) is often used to help people break through emotional and creative barriers. For Wennerstrom, the experience helped her let go of the push-and-pull of ego and self-doubt. “It helped me be free to be honest with myself and put out what I think is my most honest record ever. It used to take me a while to get to that vulnerable place in my writing, but I got there faster this time. It just felt easier, more natural, and not as much second-guessing,” she says.
The upbeat and optimistic “Letting Go” epitomizes that experience. “It’s about letting go of what doesn’t serve me anymore. I came to the realization that we all as human beings have an inner struggle. Sometimes even people that have so much are hard on themselves with a sense of guilt. We’re all just doing the best we can in each moment. Some maybe more consciously than others. Perhaps it’s my limited perspective, but I feel it’s the human condition — an ancient feeling,” she says.
Soon after the band decided to take a hiatus the following year, she also spent quite a bit of time hiking and reflecting in the mountains of West Texas in Big Bend National Park. Explaining the impact of that trip, she says, “That’s where a lot of the ideas for the album came to me, and I spent the next year working on it. The song “Extraordinary Love” is the realization I do everything in my life for love. We all want to be liked and to give and receive love. If I can’t be kind and loving to myself how can I expect anybody else to. It’s starts with me. I find the most extraordinary thing is to be truly compassionate to yourself.”
“Good To Be Alone” is just one sonic outcome of her Big Bend trip. “I wrote this one right after a long tour, and with it being one of the last ones the band did before our hiatus, I had quite a lot to think about. I did a big hike that day in Big Bend and the seeds for the idea were planted. I was so thankful for that time alone to recharge and ponder. This song expresses how deeply introverted I can be at times and how sometimes I just need to step away and take some time for myself,” she says.
Clearly, that time alone was time well-spent. With Sweet Unknown, Erika Wennerstrom bravely invites the listener in to experience her trials and tribulations of life amidst a lush soundscape of deeply emotive vocals and melodies to what is ultimately the soundtrack to her soul.
Josh T. Pearson
Though he’s been a recording artist for over two decades now, and has been writing songs for thirty years, Josh T. Pearson hasn’t racked up much of a discography thus far, at least in terms of the number of albums he’s released. But then, those two albums – 2001’s The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads, by his group Lift To Experience, and his 2011 solo debut Last Of The Country Gentlemen – contained more substance and inspiration than most artists’ entire careers. The former was a cosmic, apocalyptic allegorical fantasy that saw Pearson try to come to terms with his faith and his intense upbringing; the latter was an agonizing, powerfully confessional account of the collapse of his marriage. You can’t rush material like that.
Lately, however, the dapper Texan gentleman has been motivated by a desire to share more Josh T. Pearson music with the world, before it’s too late. “My whole point of not putting out records was to not have to be told what to do. I’ve always intentionally limited myself. I didn’t want to be a part of the establishment. I was just trying to survive, do art, live life,” he explains. “In the last years I learned to dance, take drugs, make love… choose life. I got rid of the beard, cut my hair and started wearing colour. I burned down all my idols and realized in the process that I needed to burn down my reputation as fast as I could too. I felt constricted by the old stuff and I didn’t like being in a cage. It wasn’t letting me move on.”
“I was at the US Embassy in London when the shit went down with the presidential election in 2016,” he remembers. “It was unsettling; I’ve never seen the country so divided. A responsibility seemed to shift within me – like, where are the people really stepping up to spread joy?”
“I had artistically exhausted the depths in my explorations of despair and
had moved to a position in my life where I just wanted to make people happy and spread peace.”
It is in such a spirit that Mr. Josh T. Pearson presents you, the listener, with this waxing of his fine new songs. The Straight Hits! began as a mere creative exercise and swiftly transcended that modest intention. This is his joy. Let him spread it to you.
“I’d been reading The Conference of the Birds by Attar of Nishapur, this epic poem from the 14th Century, and it just cracked it open for me. It was August 2016 and I’d just managed to finish a batch of tunes I’d been working on for ten years [the unrecorded Bird Songs album]. I spent another month on those tunes, and this flood of long-form songs just poured out of me. By the end of it, I was in such a process that I decided to begin this writing exercise to write a bunch of songs, super-quick, within certain specific parameters.”
The “parameters” those songs had to follow, mark a transition for Pearson, a way to remove some of the crazy pressure he had put himself under during writing and gave him the freedom to write a lighter, more “straight” album. Josh T. Pearson explains that The Five Pillars run like this:
1) All songs must have a verse, a chorus and a bridge.
2) The lyrics must run 16 lines or less.
3) They must have the word ‘straight’ in the title.
4) That title must be four words or less.
5) They must submit to song above all else. (“You do as she tells you, whatever the song tells you,” Pearson explains. “You bend to her, and not her to you.”).
Three days later, Pearson had penned nine whole songs. “What can I say? I’m awesome,” he deadpans. But wait! He’s right! Because these nine songs (plus a cover of Austin Americana singer/songwriter Jonathan Terrell’s wonderful country tribute song ‘Damn Straight’) are precious evidence of Pearson’s talent, the album feeling like the calling-card of a songwriter-for-hire, showing all he’s capable of.
“The album is a departure from years of long form songwriting with tunes meant to hit straight and to the point quickly set under parameters normally convened for pop. They all had to be direct hits although I don't know if I got the 'hits' part right, but I did think it was funny calling it a 'hits' record after releasing only one solo album after a lifetime of playing music.”
And The Straight Hits! proves Pearson to be gifted in multiple different flavours of country, rock and all points in between, taking in blasts of goofy shit-kicking country-punk (opener ‘Straight To The Top!’, which Pearson conceived as “a football anthem – I was never a sports guy, but that’s the song I’d want to hear before a game, when we’re all pumping ourselves up and high-fiving each other”); cataclysmic rock’n’roll playing its romantic drama at high-stakes (‘Loved Straight To Hell’, which compresses the elemental power of Lift To Experience into five and a half minutes of symphonic turmoil); aching folksy mourn (‘Dire Straights Of Love’), and even a bona fide love song, the deliciously profound ache of ‘A Love Song (Set Me Straight)’, which Pearson admits breaks several of those Five Pillars, but obeys an unwritten Sixth Pillar: Musical rules are made to be broken.
Written fast, the tracks were cut with similar no-nonsense focus, in three days, with engineer Matt Pence (who made Mute’s 2017 reissue of The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads sound so vivid) at the controls, Lift To Experience drummer Andy Young once again manning the traps, and Daniel Creamer and Scott Lee Jr. of The Texas Gentlemen on keyboards and bass guitar. The recordings were then flown to the UK to be mixed by Ben Hillier. And while the whole project was meant as a simple “exercise”, the result is some of Pearson’s finest music.
“It’s not rocket science. They’re just songs. You write them until they’re finished.
Some are finished quickly, others take half your life.”
The Straight Hits! has taught Pearson some important lessons, not least that giving the world more Josh T. Pearson music needn’t involve the painful birth ritual he might once have thought, and that greatness can come to him quicker than he might have expected. “I was operating within pop guardrails – an avant-garde to my own avant-garde,” he says. “‘A Love Song (Set Me Straight)’, though, I spent a whole day on that one, trying to write the quintessential love song.”
Josh T. Pearson has freed himself from the mythology that has surrounded him since Lift To Experience’s implosion, his subsequent years in the wilderness travelling throughout Europe and beyond, and the release of his acclaimed debut album.
This record seems to have loosened up his muse, with Pearson talking up future releases, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. There’s new Josh T. Pearson music in the world, and it’s joyful, giddy, life-affirming stuff.