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The Head and The Heart

The Heart: Exploring New Lands

Nov 20, 2013 The Head and the Heart
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It’s been a scant two years since Seattle’s The Head and The Heart released its self-titled debut album for Sub Pop, a smash that went on to become one of the best-selling debuts in Sub Pop’s impressive history. The band went on to tour with the likes of My Morning Jacket, Dr. Dog, Iron and Wine, and even Dave Matthews Band, and by the time the six-piecesinger/guitarist Josiah Johnson, singer/guitarist Jonathan Russell, bassist Chris Zasche, vocalist/violinist Charity Rose Thielen, keyboardist Kenny Hensley, and drummer Tyler Williamswas ready to return to the studio to record its follow-up, things had evolved.

Let’s Be Still boasts a fuller sound and more expansive musical palette, including two songs written and sung by Thielen, and a precious two by Johnson, who with Russell made up half of the songwriting team on the band’s debut. Apart from exploring new sounds, Johnson finds the multi-songwriter approach liberating. “It’s nice to be able to have different moods and textures, because we’re all very different songwriters, and then the album can be a lot more dynamic than if you just have one,” he says. As for Thielen’s contributions: “When we play ‘Rivers and Roads’ [from The Head and the Heart] and she hits that one note, the crowd goes more wild than they go at any other point in the show. I think that pushed her and gave her the confidence to step into the role of being someone that can carry us.”

Johnson and Zasche caught up with Under the Radar on a recent Saturday in November, prior to performing the second of two sold-out shows at Philadelphia’s Union Transfer.

Frank Valish (Under the Radar): I understand that the new album includes more shared input and shared influence from all the band members. I wonder if you can talk a bit about the process in writing the album and how all that played out.

Josiah Johnson: On the last album, it wasn’t that we didn’t have input from everyone so much as that the songs had been played in acoustic fashion for so long that they already had their personality. I think that since we were starting from such kernels of songs this time and that they hadn’t been packaged and wrapped up, everyone felt more comfortable making more intricate changes to the songs.

Was the songwriting more collaborative for Let’s Be Still?

Josiah: The actual writing of the songs has never really been a full-band process, so much as the arrangement and the way that the song ends up feeling and the mood of it is influenced more by the full band. That’s what shifted. It wasn’t that the full band wrote lyrics or the melodies of the vocals or anything. It’s just that developing the personalities of the songs was a lot more collaborative.

You have talked about the influence of being on tour with bands like Iron and Wine and My Morning Jacket, and how that seeped into the thought process in creating this album. Can you talk a little bit about what influence those experiences had on what you decided to do differently with this album?

Chris Zasche: Especially with a band like My Morning Jacket, you listen to those records and there are really good songs in there, but there’s also a lot of really nontraditional sounds and arrangements. I felt like after seeing them play and hearing a synth here or a non-natural sound, it made us feel okay about doing that. The first record was just guitar, bass, drums, piano, and violin. With My Morning Jacket, especially seeing what they do with their keyboards, all the different sounds that they use, it never feels out of place. On this record, we definitely explored that more.

Josiah: The whole folk thing hadn’t really hit or happened yet when we were writing and first started recording the songs [on the debut], but as soon as we put it out, it was right around the time when it was steamrolling and becoming a thing. I think when we were recording the second record, we were looking around and identifying way less with any of the bands in that area and more with bands like My Morning Jacket and Dr. Dog and those bands. What had been natural to us before kind of put us in this place that we didn’t feel good about as a band. But touring with those bands was like, “Oh yeah, I feel more comfortable in this space,” trying out those synth sounds and those heavier loud sounds that are more my personality.

Do you get sick of being compared with Mumford & Sons and Fleet Foxes and did you take that into account in making Let’s Be Still, wanting to distinguish yourself from those bands and that “scene”?

Chris: I think we’ve always felt pretty separate from those bands, just on arrangements alone. On this record, not only with arrangements, but it’s more not feeling like we have to make a record to fit into a genre. You don’t care about trying to be a credible folk band or a credible rock band. None of that matters.

But did you care that people were sometimes pegging you as that?

Josiah: Honestly, no band likes the labels they’re given. It’s not specific to us. But it’s nice to do something as a band that surprises people, something that they weren’t expecting from you. But I think every band feels that way. It’s not unique to us.

I wanted to ask too about your musical upbringing, because I read that you, Josiah, didn’t grow up in a musical family.

Josiah: It wasn’t so much that it wasn’t a musical family. My dad played acoustic guitar in the worship band in church and then I did. But he and my mom, when they had kids, they took all of their Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Grateful Dead, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and Bob Dylan albums, and were like, “We’re Christian. We want our kids to have good influences.” And they just tossed them. They gave them away, like, “We have this musical heritage and we don’t want you to have it. It’s not a good influence.” So it was music, but it was really bland, boring music, worship, Christian, that kind of thing. So I figured it out on my own, in college.

What was the first thing you remember that really stuck with you?

Josiah: My girlfriend in college was like, “You’ve never heard Radiohead?” And I was just like, “No, no, no idea. Been sheltered all my life.” I had a four- or five-month period where I just listened to Radiohead. She started me with The Bends, and I just listened to that until I wore it out, which was like a few weeks. And then I listened to OK Computer until I wore it out. It was months until I listened to anything other than Radiohead. The way that he uses his voice as an instrument and it kind of makes you feel uncomfortable sometimes, that just fascinated me. That was my big, mind-expanding thing. I knew the radio, KROQ in L.A., heavy alternative radio. I listened to that. I remember that my senior year in high school, I listened to Dashboard Confessional, and my first heartbreaks were to that. Before he went full-band.

You didn’t have the same experience, did you Chris?

Chris: No. I got a guitar for Christmas in eighth grade and was just self-taught. I never took it that seriously, never got that good. But over the years, you just pick up on little things. In Seattle, early on, I got into Modest Mouse and that sort of guitar playing. There was always music in the house. I don’t relate to that [gesturing to Johnson].

I wanted to ask about the references to children on the album…

Josiah: Yeah, there’s “10,000 Weight in Gold”: “If you take the kids and go, I can’t blame you for the things you know.” And then on “Fire/Fear” there’s the grading papers and tying shoes, and kids at school.

And then there’s the one about Newtown [“Another Story”]. Do you have kids?

Josiah: No. No kids in the band.

So where does that come from?

Josiah: “Fire/Fear” is the one of those songs that I wrote. Jon wrote the “10,000 Weight in Gold” and “Another Story.” For me, the song “Honey Come Home,” from the last record, was inspired by a short story that my friend wrote, and it was about an old man who, in his old age after he retired and was home all the time, was so frustrated with his wife’s constant nagging that he turned really stubborn and was dismissive of her, to the point where she was like, “I love you but you are so insufferable that I have to leave you.” At first, he’s so grateful to finally be able to do whatever he wants, and keep the house a mess, and not get nagged to clean up or whatever, and then realizes obviously that the person was his love, but he wasn’t putting in as much as she was. I’ve never been married or anything, but I do know that I feel that in most relationships I’ve been in, I’m the one who’s putting in less than I’m getting. Reading that and seeing that story delineated so clearly hit home for me. So when I wrote “Honey Come Home,” it was using those characters as a foil for my own relationships. And “Fire/Fear” is those same characters almost. It’s just a way to write about stuff I’ve dealt with, even if the details are different.

Second albums are often written while the band is on the road and busy with promotion on the first album. I know some of that is the case with this record as well. Were you conscious of that going in writing the songs, maybe not wanting it to be too reflective of the written-on-tour records?

Chris: Nobody wanted to make a record about the road. I feel like we talked about it at some point. I’m not going to tell somebody what to write about, but you don’t want to write that record. Everyone has already written that record a million times. It’s nothing new. But I think the songwriters in the band know that and have enough taste…well, “Let’s Be Still” is a song about the road, but it’s written in a way that’s reflective of the road but not that song about touring that you’ve heard a million times.

Bob Seger.

Chris: Exactly. It’s already been done perfectly. That’s how I feel about it.

Josiah: I think both Jon and I, when we’re writing songs like “Honey Come Home” and “Fire/Fear,” were conscious of having the details be one thing but the emotions split from that. You can write a song about being on the road and pull out only the essence of that experience as opposed to any of the details. And the essence of that experience, of feeling burnt out, feeling lost, forgetting why it is that you’re doing what you’re doing, that isn’t a road record. It’s a life experience record. So it was a road record in the sense that it was written on the road, but I don’t think it’s a road record in terms of implementation at all. I think that’s something that attracts me to Jon’s songwriting, and vice versa. You don’t have to know what we were going through when we wrote the song to feel something from the song.

Did you get a break between touring the first album and the writing/recording the second?

Josiah: It was only a couple months of rehearsals before we went into the studio. I feel like our break was just taking a long time in the studio. We were in the studio 2/3 on, 1/3 off over the course of four or five months of recording, and then another month of mixing. But in terms of when the songs were written or recorded, I think maybe five or six were written before we went into the studio. Five or six came together in the studio.

What’s next? You’re on tour through December and then do you get a break?

Chris: We’re taking the month of January off. It’s a miserable time to be touring. It’s cold, potentially dangerous driving around, especially overnight when the roads get slick. So we’ll take January off and then in February probably tour for the rest of the year.

Josiah: I don’t think we start until the 18th or 19th of February either, so we get almost two months off, which is good. But next year is pretty busy.

Chris: It’ll be a busy year. It’s good.

Are you writing?

Josiah: There are pieces of things. I personally was really bad at writing while touring last time around. And Jon manages to wall himself off a little better, so he can access that space. So I’m getting better at it. When we went to record an album and I only had two songs to bring I was like, “Well, shit.” There’s only two full songs of mine on this one, which is very different from the first album. But it’s a nice thing about having three songwriters. Jon stepped up. Charity has two of her own songs on this album for the first time. It’s something that I’m learning to get better at this time around. You might not have a big break, so rather than hoping to get a break and write songs, develop the habit and practice of being more intentional about it.


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November 25th 2013

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March 27th 2014

The Head and The Heart are amazing! Considering only their massive potential in terms of the collaborative songwriting… Some of the songs don’t seem to be almost “carved” and they also offer an incredible diversity when it comes to performing their tunes. I was lucky enough to witness them live on stage earlier this year and I think especially Charity adds quite some verve to their music. However they do work quite well as a band and I’m curious to see where their path is leading and what bends and turns there might be…