The Vulnerability of The Head and the Heart
“Sometimes Tyler [Williams] wishes he were being interviewed when he sees us say really dumb shit,” says Jonathan Russell by phone from Seattle, responding to whether the three non-songwriting members of The Head and the Heart take offense to not participating in much of the press that Russell, Charity Rose Thielen and Josiah Johnson are doing for their second album, Let’s Be Still. Otherwise, Russell adds, Williams, Kenny Hensley and Chris Zasche "are happy not having to be interviewed.”
Three songwriters and six people that do not have a particularly long history together, The Head and the Heart have risen to fame on the back of work ethic and songwriting, conviction and chemistry. There is no uniform mission statement or ideology behind their folk and country-influenced rock and roll, though the band agrees on a few core tenants that allow them to work together in harmony.
“All six of us are really opinionated people," says Thielen, in a separate phone call from Seattle, speaking to some of the DIY principles the band has employed through its first two albums. "And, it refines you, being in a democratic band. And none of us want to give decisions to someone else, particularly a lender like a label or someone like that. It’s awesome that we are with SubPop because they give us the liberty to be DIY, but then distribute that DIY-ness. For as long as we’re a band, we’ll always want to maintain independence and closeness to our craft and the presentation of our image. Those are all important to us, and we are creating this all, it’s not another creating this.”
“We aren’t trying to make music the purists will like,” says Johnson, while meeting at a cafe in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. “I want to write a good song, and the band wants to realize it fully.”
These foundations and similar musical interests may bind The Head and the Heart, but how they found each other was fated by circumstance, each of their journeys to the group being such that to find themselves now in a successful band is not to be taken for granted. Thielen grew up in the Seattle area surrounded by music, her grandfather a violin instructor. She notes that as the youngest of three girls, she would always be last to join in harmonies when singing hymns with her sisters on car rides with her mother. She takes the same role in The Head and the Heart, with Russell and Johnson taking the melody and harmony as the primary lead singers, and Thielen finding the gaps and filling them in.
She is also the emotional center of the band, something observable when she is on stage and understandable after just minutes of speaking with her. When she considers a question, she gets excited as she figures out how she will answer, investing herself in an interview such that she wants to get it just right, but with the confidence to know that she will do just that. Best is the end, when she interjects a final thought, about her subscription to Paste when in high school and how the magazine helped her form her musical foundation. She uses the interview to show appreciation to the publication, when it’s the publication that now wants to learn about her.
Russell didn’t grow up surrounded by music, and, in fact, started playing when he was 19.
“All of a sudden piano was an instrument that I thought I could play,” he says, serious to the point that you don’t want to interrupt him, but not so serious that he doesn’t include dry humor and a self-depreciating understanding of his own idiosyncrasies. “So I took lessons and moved to Richmond and tried to go to community college for music. But, I couldn’t get enough financial aid. At the same time, I wasn’t that bummed. I had just moved out of my parents’ house for the first time to what I thought was a really big and scary city. Now, I am fully aware of how tiny Richmond is. Once I was good enough on the keyboard to hang with my friends when we played, I stopped studying the books and started just played by ear."
“I didn’t learn guitar ’til I moved to Seattle really,” Russell says. “I had this romantic image of traveling around the country with just an acoustic guitar, which was ridiculous because I didn’t know how to play a guitar. But I really wanted it so I left all my keyboards behind when I went to Seattle, though I went to Seattle with the intention of starting a band. So, that kind of forced me to learn how to play guitar.”
In Seattle, Russell would meet Johnson, a fellow transplant, in the city’s open mic scene. It was hardly a quick friendship.
“He saw me as a super-positive Southern California guy,” Johnson remembers. "And he was this brooding, I’m-skeptical-of-you-guy. And also, I was trying to date his friend.”
“I didn’t think he was very cool at first,” Russell elaborates. "But, this girl I was living with at the time, they hit it off. So I got to know him that way and they ended up not working out, but by that time we were singing harmony on each other’s songs and that became us wanting to write songs together. But we have two very different personality types. He’s much more open to people right out of the gate. But more like ‘Yeah guys! C’mon over and jam!’ And I’m like ‘Why do we need a piano player? We already have a piano player.’ That’s actually how we met Kenny. He was in another band and liked what we were doing, and all of a sudden Josiah’s ‘We can build a fire and sing songs.’ Meanwhile, I’ve been here three months and I’m like ‘What am I doing here?’ Then Kenny came over and I’m like ‘Holy shit, he’s way better than me.’ And Kenny brought something huge to writing.”
On the band’s self-titled debut album, the songs are a mixture of Russell’s and Johnson’s, some written before they came together, a few written after the fact. And after a couple years of rigorous touring and a quick leap in popularity thanks to their crowd-pleasing performances and fortunate exposure for “Lost In My Mind,” the band virtually went directly into the studio, needing to finish writing their second album as they recorded it. As would be expected, there are positives and negatives to this approach.
For Russell, who describes always writing songs and even wandering back to play open mics solo when the band had a brief break, getting back into the studio was not an issue.
“Jon has trouble getting into touring mode,” Johnson says, “So, he’s always off in the corner, doing his thing. I love that about him. He comes off abrasive because he’s uncompromising. And I could care less, because I find it inspiring how committed he is to what he does.”
The commitment of Russell’s may have been a driving factor for them entering the studio so quickly, and that uncompromising nature has gotten him into trouble, notably when he was allegedly involved in an altercation with a sound guy in Seattle, creating some waves on a local level.
“We can’t play at the Tractor Tavern ever again,” explains Johnson. The way that played out in Seattle, it was just like the people that didn’t like us were all ‘See, I told you they were douchebags.’ And, people that didn’t already hate us were just concerned for Jon, making sure he was okay. In Virginia, where he’s from, you’d get in that fight and then go buy each other a beer…It wasn’t the best thing, though.”
“I want Jon to be himself,” Johnson continues, “and I don’t want him to have deal with the fallout of his temper, just because he is in the position to be torn a new one for it. If he had been a normal dude, that incident would not have been a big deal. That guy would not have pursued him at all. So, I’m sorry that Jon had to deal with that, but I appreciate that he is always honest.”
“You don’t want to take too much time off and get out of that routine,” Thielan says of their quick jump into Let’s Be Still. “What I wanted time off for was to allow for songs to be written amongst us, so in turn we ended up writing in the studio, which means that we were paying for our practice space. But it also meant working in an environment that was really inspiring. You could play back what you just made with such clarity and work for hours in a dedicated atmosphere.”
Johnson has a smaller presence as a songwriter on the new collection, which he attributes both to the speed they worked and simply his headspace during that time.
“I’m fortunate that I’m in a band where I don’t have to be the only one writing," Johnson says. "And fuckin’ Charity showed up with some songs. Everyone would always be like ‘her part on “Rivers and Roads” is the best thing ever, you should let her sing more songs.’ And every time someone says that in conversation, our response has been ‘as soon as she writes some great songs, we’ll totally put those on the album.’ And, I love them. On stage, she lets herself get really vulnerable, broken down almost, and people can tell and latch onto it.”
“For some of us it has been harder," Thielen notes about her stage presence. "We’re always growing as performers. I come from a theater background and there is a comfort to the stage. I’ve been singing on a stage since I was young. I don’t even think about it, or think about what’s cool or not cool. I just do it if it feels natural. And sometimes I take that for granted, because Jon and Josiah didn’t grow up like that. Their craft of songwriting, working in your bedroom, is different.”
“The more vulnerable you are on stage, the more relatable it is,” she adds.
But really, they are all vulnerable in their own way, all in new situations and not completely on their own terms.
At the conclusion of meeting Johnson, he latches onto a stray idea, that “if you make good songs, and you play them well,” then that’s all that will matter. In hindsight, though those things are important, it’s the people that make the songs and play them well, and that is the key.
With shows selling out for their first tour behind Let’s Be Still months in advance, the band seems to be transcending critics and reviews, a good place to be for a group still finding its footing with each other, not to mention the rest of the world. But what comes through in talking to all is their belief in each other, their trust that Russell’s dedication, Thielan’s benevolence and Johnson’s attitude will get them where they need to go.