The Head and The Heart’s Josiah Johnson on Politics and Relationships

Music Features The Head and the Heart

The Head and The Heart are beginning to wind down a tour behind their sophomore album, Let’s Be Still, which more or less will finally give them a rest after nearly five years of non-stop campaigning. Josiah Johnson gave us the scoop on the next steps from the Seattle collective, as well as the political season, fantasy football and the challenge of relationships.

Paste: You write these heartland songs. You’ve been across the heartland of America. I feel like you’ve had adequate time to see it all. Have you realized the state of humanity and its future? Once you’re out there and seeing everything, you either come away with a sense of “You know what, we’re going to be okay.” Or, “Well…”
Josiah Johnson: It’s weird because on the one hand, you have the side of people that you see at concerts a lot, where you’re connecting with music in a way where there’s a couple thousand other people there that are also connecting with this, and you have this, at the best parts of a concert everyone feels in it together. So that capacity to connect with all of these people that come from all these different ways of life that are different than yours is something that makes you want to go, “Oh, we’re going to be okay.”

Paste: And the flip-side?
Johnson: Well, the flip-side is I think we’re getting to the point where people start looking at us as things and not people. And people do that, at its worst times 10,000 is why we have Keeping Up With The Kardashians. Something that everyone’s fixated on. So you encourage those come-togethers and relate to other people in an honest way and try to downplay the other bits.

Paste: I’m sure there are parts of America or the world where you run into someone and think, “Oh, this exists. This exists where I exist.” And then you’ve got to turn around and put the positive spin on that. And they could be your fans or the guy in the liquor store.
Johnson: More than the first album, there’s a couple songs, and John wrote them, but they’re songs that still relate back to him, and the first album was all songs that we were writing about ourselves pretty much exclusively, like myopically, and they turned out to have universal implications. On this album there were a couple songs that John wrote that kind of started outward and then got turned back around as he was writing it, but it started seeing other people’s experiences.

Paste: Along those lines, I see this picture of you online standing next to Bill Clinton and Rahm Emanuel.
Johnson: [Clinton] wouldn’t move out of my way either, so I kind of tried to get into the middle and fit in somewhere but he wouldn’t scoot over or open a hole.

Paste: So what awesome moment led to that picture?
Johnson: It was a fundraiser for Rahm Emanuel, who was running for mayor of Chicago. In retrospect, I think the experience of doing political stuff and fundraisers over the last couple years, I’ve kind of stopped liking the idea of doing that, really.

Paste: Do you feel burned a little bit?
Johnson: Yeah, a little bit. I feel like what was a more successful time of that was something more like Music for Marriage Equality in Washington, where it’s a cause. You don’t know what a person is capable of, and a person is only capable of so much in political office and is subject to all of these outside forces, but specific causes that you believe in is something that I, going forward, can get behind a lot more than telling all of these people that “this person will be good.”

Paste: And then you’ve got blood on your hands because you stumped for them.
Johnson: Yeah. They put out what their intentions are; maybe those intentions are the most positive ones, but then they turn pragmatic and their actions don’t match up with what they said their intentions were. So I feel like doing those political campaigns have ended up…It’s been pretty crazy to get to meet Obama and Clinton and all of these huge influential icons. But I think ultimately, I’ve felt much better doing things for a specific cause than for politicians. Going forward, that’s probably what I would stick to.

Paste: Lighter topics! You’re a fantasy football man. Seahawks, right?
Johnson: I don’t actually have any Seahawks players on my fantasy team, but yeah, that’s my team. I grew up in L.A., Orange County. But there’s no teams in L.A. They all had left, and I never connected with the 49ers or the Chargers. I would have been a Rams or a Raiders fan if they had been there, but they had both peaced out before I started following sports. So I didn’t really have a football team. I love the Dodgers and the Lakers. So I moved to Seattle four years ago.

Paste: Last year was good for you all.
Johnson: We had a good last year.

Paste: So how’s the fantasy team doing? Are you good at the game? Do you pay attention?
Johnson: I really pay attention. I’m in two leagues. The league that I did the draft in, I’m 3-0 [at interview time].

Paste: Is this like in elementary school when we would all choose characters from our favorite show? Except now it’s The League. Would you consider yourself Taco or Ruxin or…?
Johnson: I’d probably go for Pete.

Paste: So The Head and The Heart has now spent much of its life on the road. Now, being at home, not a musician, it’s hard enough to keep a relationship going. Have you really figured out how to be a human being, how to be a person out there when you’re constantly gone, whether it’s having a relationship or any kind of normalcy to your life? Because once again, I feel like with The Head and the Heart, you guys are in this really interesting spot right now. Second album is out of the way. We believe you, you’re a band.
Johnson: Totally. That was a thing. There’s a lot of bands that released one album that magically connects, and then you don’t know what happened. I don’t know, it’s weird. I’m in this relationship that I’ve been in for about a year and the better that gets, the harder it is to be on the road. The closer and more connected you are at home, the more you are aware that you’re not doing that when you’re on the road. I think oftentimes we get into this routine, us personally, when we’re checking in, “How’s your day going,” and when you’re in a band on the road, it’s kind of like, “Oh, well we soundchecked and then we waited around and played a show and then had some drinks.” Your days are kind of the same thing over and over again. So talking about your day, there’s not a lot of material. You have to dig a little bit to feel close.

Paste: Even in the rest of the band, Charity got married, which has its own hurdles.
Johnson: What’s cool now, because we’re more established…you know when we first started out, any opportunity that came up, you’ve got to take it because you don’t know how much time you’ve got on this one shot. And now being a little bit more established, you can say no and limit how long you’re on tour for. John and Chris were in relationships where we were gone for like three months and then home for four days and then gone for another two months.

Paste: It almost becomes a one-night stand with someone you know.
Johnson: Yeah. But now our longest tours are like three and a half weeks by design, and then we have a couple weeks off before we do anything else.

Paste: As you guys wind down on Let’s Be Still, it becomes a dangerous spot for a lot of bands where you can fall into the monotony of album-tour, album-tour, and before you know it, that’s all you’ve done for 10 years. But it sounds like you all have some kind of grip on what you need to do to survive inside as a person.
Johnson: It’s been four and a half years since we self-released the first album, and it’s been four and a half years of touring on that, or working on that before we were signed or going on crazy tours. But it’s been four and a half years since we’ve had a chunk of time off, and so when we finish up touring at the end of this year, it’s pretty much just going to be “take six months off to live and be writing songs.” John and I will get together to work on stuff. I think we’re planning a handful of things next year where we play an acoustic show, the two of us, and use the money from that to rent an Airbnb that has a piano. Go and write and try out those songs. That’s once a month, and the other three weeks we’re home. Ultimately next year, we’re going to give ourselves a chance to be normal people who live at home and have girlfriends that actually feel like girlfriends.

Paste: Looking at what bands have historically done from point A to point B to point C, you’ve defined yourself, so you can stretch out with your third album. It becomes, I won’t say dangerous because every album has the same stakes really, but bands put out a record, and if it’s a hit, you have that. And if the second album cements that further, then the third album has them saying, “Okay, we don’t want to just be this one thing that’s not going to be a thing in five years when everyone is tired of it.” Or alternately, “This is who we are.”
Johnson: One nice thing I think about our band is that we have this idea that we will put out like, six, seven, eight, 10 albums until we’re old and lumbering around the stage like Neil Young. And that might be a pipe dream, but it’s the goal, so every album doesn’t just have to get bigger and bigger and bigger so much as wind around and do what you will. I think this album will be really good because we want to take more time with it in the sense that when we made Let’s Be Still, we pretty much got off the road and were like, “We haven’t put out an album in two and half years. We’ve just been touring this whole time. Let’s go make another one.” And we didn’t take any time to write songs. We took the songs that we had, fleshed them out as a band, went into the studio, realized we only had seven or eight actual, usable songs, and then had to spend a bunch of time writing in the studio. But we didn’t have any life experience time.

Paste: Second album, road album.
Johnson: Yeah! We’re good enough at writing songs that there’s not a lot of blatant road references in there, but there is definitely the feelings from being on the road. But I think being able to take some time and live and write about that and not write about being on the road will be a good thing. And then also getting back to writing together, which we really didn’t do on the last album, because you get off the road and are like, “The last person I want to see is that person who I was just on the road with.”

Paste: Is the style of music ever part of the equation? By sheer timing, you all became part of the acoustic boom. That becomes a trend that eventually won’t be in vogue anymore. And I know it should come down to just writing a good song…
Johnson: But…Yeah, I think I’m aware of it. We’re all aware of that, but all of the moves that we’ve made thus far are more because…like we toured with My Morning Jacket and seeing the palate that they’re using rubs off on you. You want to pick up an electric guitar and have it sound more epic than what you’ve been doing.

Paste: You can write an epic song in two minutes, but I get the feeling you’re saying something that is bigger than background.
Johnson: I think if it’s not something that’s making you forget where you’re at or what’s going on in your life for a second, mid-song, then you might have done something wrong. But the funny thing is that the way people listen to music now makes it even more difficult to pull people in, so you’re listening to it in your headphones in transit from place to place.

Paste: I have faith in a song. We were talking about faith in humanity, but I have faith in a song. Maybe someone’s only going to give it 30 seconds at the beginning, and the great part exists three minutes into it, but as long as it exists and other people find it, it will get back to that person.
Johnson: I think so too. But a lot of times if you set out to make a song that has that epic, sprawling, draw-you-in quality, it might be more of a grower. And I like that. Which, in a nutshell, is really a great explanation of The Head and The Heart.

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