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As Josiah Johnson of Seattle’s folk-rock sextet The Head and the Heart describes it, the band has evolved from bright and sunny to darker and deeper.

“The first record was very optimistic, ‘Follow your heart,’ and the second was ‘Even if you follow your heart, there are going to be some rough spots,” says Johnson, a Californian who formed the band out of a songwriting partnership with Virginia native Jonathan Russell.

At first, it was open mic performances, and one by one, Johnson and Russell collected bandmates — Kenny Hensley on piano, Charity Rose Thielen on violin, Tyler Williams on drums, and Chris Zasche on bass. The band built a following around Seattle, fans drawn by the instinctive three-part harmonies and captivating, inspirational songwriting.

“There was this period of time when we first started, and that carried over to when we recorded the first album when we weren’t particularly great, but there as a magic vibe, a purity to the first record, which I really love,” Johnson says.

The self-released, self-titled album made the band a local favorite in music-hungry Seattle and caught the attention of indie institution Sub Pop, which re-released the record in 2011 and sold nearly 300,000 copies. The heavy touring that followed helped shape the band in different ways, leading to the world-weariness that underscores much of last year’s sophomore release Let’s Be Still.

“The second one, we recorded it right after being on the road for three years, and we were feeling really tight as a band and really close as a band and knowing each other’s strengths and weaknesses really well,” Johnson says. “But we were a little worn down from the road and having some growing pains.”

The emotional core of the album comes from songs that emerged from that state of mind. The road-written tunes on Let’s Be Still make a mature and reflective batch of songs, while others, like “Josh McBride” and “Gone,” were older songs that the Head and the Heart had played but never recorded. Adding piano or strings or electric guitar, letting themselves stretch out as a band and learn to let the song pace itself made all the difference, Johnson says, lessons learned from the experience on tour.

Still, expanded instrumentation and more daring songwriting hasn’t changed the essence of the Head and the Heart, born out of fast friendships and three vocalists who perfectly complement each other.

“It’s more communal singing than lead singer and backup singers,” Johnson says. “We have a connectedness that allows us to pick up on the nuances of what someone else is doing and being able to follow it really closely. We’re not just backup singers — whoever is singing harmony is tight and cohesive.”

It’s been nearly a year since Let’s Be Still was released, and the band is looking forward to returning to songwriting for the follow-up.

“Every time we get together working on songs, there’s something about the band’s chemistry and intuitiveness that people can respond with parts, and every time it happens, it’s just ‘Oh, yes, that’s why I play music with those people,'” Johnson says.

Published Aug. 6, 2014 in the Phoenix New Times. 

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Eric Swedlund is a writer, photographer and editor living in Tucson, Arizona. His music writing has appeared regularly in the Tucson Weekly, Phoenix New Times, East Bay Express, The Rumpus and Souciant Magazine.

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