When your band has toured as rigorously as the Head and the Heart the past seven years, there’s a danger of losing connection to the songs you play night after night. You perform them seamlessly — but can forget what the words mean. Even with thousands of loyal fans singing the lyrics back at you.
So Jonathan Russell, co-founder of the folk-pop sextet riding the success of its monster crossover hit — the melancholy-sweet “All We Ever Knew” — took a bold step in March as he hung out at his girlfriend’s apartment in San Francisco. He booked a solo performance at the Chapel: a small venue in the city’s Mission District. It was a way for the singer-songwriter-guitarist to reconnect with the music and push himself to express it with rawer passion.
The experience definitely stirred his emotions.
“The whole day of that show, I had the worst anxiety,” Russell confessed in a March phone call preceding the Head and the Heart’s new tour leg — which kicks off April 7 at the Grand Sierra Resort and Casino’s Grand Theatre. (Opening act: Brooklyn pop-punk trio Dreamers.)
“It kind of reminded (of) how much the other band members do for you,” Russell said. “What that feels like when you’re the power of a group walking out on stage, versus the power of one, trying to carry the weight of an entire show.”
Happily, all went well.
“It turned out to be an amazing show,” said Russell, who accompanied himself on a Nord keyboard or an acoustic or electric guitar. He treated fans to a reduced-to-the-essence mix of Head and the Heart songs, and some of his originals that haven’t appeared on an album.
Then he got a little help from his friends.
Bandmates Josiah Johnson and Charity Rose Thielen, and Thielen’s husband, Matt Gervais — who is filling in for Johnson while the singer-guitarist is on indefinite hiatus from the group to recover from addiction — joined Russell on stage, one by one.
“They were in town anyway, so I kind of staggered them out,” Russell said. “I did the first two-thirds of my set on own, then I had Josiah come out for a few songs, then I had Charity come out, and then I had Matty come out. By the end, there were the four of us on stage. It was a nice surprise for all the fans who didn’t know that was going to happen. To a degree, neither did I.”
A tonic for the soul
Playing acoustic versions of Head and the Heart songs proved tonic for his road-weathered musician’s soul, Russell added.
“When you play the songs over and over again as a band, you can kind of get a little robotic, because things start going well. The more you do it, the better you get at it. And the better you get at it, the easier it is. And the easier it is, you don’t really have to be as connected to it as often.
“To do something like that — where everything is stripped back — you can get a little more connected and in the moment with those songs. Which is nice.”
Keeping live performances in the moment will remain a focus of the band as it resumes touring in support of its third album: 2016’s “Signs of Light.” From Reno, the Head and the Heart continues with dates at Coachella and other festivals and concert halls across the country and Europe.
The sets will contain an even number of songs from each of the three albums, played in full-band arrangements — with a few dramatic exceptions, Russell said.
“There’s a song on ‘Signs of Light,’ it’s like a two-fold song called, ‘Oh My Dear’ and ‘I Don’t Mind.’ The first half of that it’s just me and my electric guitar for two-and-a-half minutes, singing and playing, a very sparse arrangement, and then it turns into this full-band song.
“Generally, we try to drum out at least one acoustic song somewhere in the set, just to kind of strip things down and slow it down, bring the energy into the moment. That’s something we take a lot of pride in, making sure all the songs hold up without all the moving points, with just a voice and a song.”
A frequent choice for the acoustic spotlight has been Thielen’s contemplative, poetic, Simon & Garfunkel-esque ode, “Library of Magic.”
“When we do it acoustically, with these beautiful harmonies throughout the entire song, it almost has more power,” Russell said. What’s more, every time Thielen is showcased, her subset of followers grows extra loud. “She’s almost like our secret weapon.”
In all, audiences tend to cheer or sing along to many of the songs — whether the big hits such as “Lost in Mind” or “All We Ever Knew,” or longtime fan favorites, Russell said.
“I feel the majority (of fans) are enjoying this arc, this almost curated mood that we try to put people in for an entire hour-and-a-half. Songs like, ‘River and Roads’ and ‘Down in the Valley’ — which have never been on the radio, and are quite slow and sparse — they’re the last songs you’d expect people to freak out over. But those are the songs that people are freaking out over.”
The Head and the Heart will likely see the largest turnouts of its career in 2017 — thanks to the heavy radio play and downloads of “All We Ever Knew.” But the band already had built a solid fan base from prodigious touring in support of its first two albums — which were recorded with legendary Seattle indie label Sub Pop, and established the Head and the Heart among the darlings of the ballooning indie-folk genre, along with Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers, and Of Monsters and Men.
The Head and the Heart formed eight years ago in Seattle, after Russell grew acquainted with Johnson at open-mic nights at a pub called the Conor Byrne in the city’s Ballard district. Each was a newcomer to the Emerald City, and each was a singer-guitarist with a high, brooding tenor — Russell’s more wistful and inflected with the drawl of his home state of Virginia, Californian Johnson’s a bit lower and fuller.
Soon they’d recruited more bandmates: violinist-guitarist-vocalist Thielen, keyboardist Kenny Hensley and drummer Tyler Williams. The final founding member was bassist Chris Zasche, who was bartending at the Conor Byrne.
Johnson said in an interview with Mother Jones magazine that the Head and the Heart came by its name from the members’ embracing their commitment to the band despite the daunting odds of the music business: “Your head is telling you to be stable and find a good job, you know in your heart that this ... is what you’re supposed to do even if it’s crazy.”
There was nothing crazy about the potent sonic chemistry among the members. With a love of Americana as well as the Beatles and Fleetwood Mac, their sound coalesced around the wistful, harmonizing vocals of Russell, Johnson and Thielen, sweet, easy-flowing melodies on the violin and keyboard, strummed or picked folk chords, a kick of electric guitar and prominent percussion.
What propelled them into an act with a chance for big things was the essential difference between hometown heroes and potential stars: strong songwriting. The Head and the Heart’s music combined the lyrical introspection (heavy on 20-something restlessness) of the singer-songwriter and folk genres with the formulaic catchiness of pop. They crafted tight, tuneful hooks, including those characteristic of contemporary pop featuring non-lexical vocables (“whoa-oh-oh’s” or “la-la-la’s”).
The songs, in other words, came across as serious and sensitive while also being instantly listenable: a strong combination not only in rainy, ruminative Seattle, but among thoughtful millennials everywhere, trying to make sense of life choices. (“Lost in My Mind” begins: “Put your dreams away for now/I won’t see you for some time/I am lost in my mind.” “Down in the Valley begins: “I wish I was a slave to an age-old trade/Like ridin’ around on railcars and workin’ long days/Lord have mercy on my rough and rowdy ways.”)
The band blew up organically in an old-school way: discovered by local fans who bought physical copies of music. The bandmates recorded an album themselves, burned CDs, packaged them in handmade denim sleeves and hawked them at shows. The buzz crescendoed via word of mouth, and Seattle indie music stores soon had trouble keeping the CDs in stock. The sales figures attracted A&R representatives from record companies and led to the band signing with iconic Seattle label Sub Pop (which had broken Nirvana during the city’s grunge heyday). Sub Pop re-produced and fine-tuned the self-titled album and released it in 2011. It spawned two hits: “Lost in My Mind” topped Billboard’s Adult Album Alternative chart, and “Down in the Valley” reached No. 24.
The band — now with Warner Bros. Records, which picked it up before the third album — toured heavily across the United States and Europe, opening for major acts including the Decemberists and fellow Seattle group Death Cab for Cutie. The touring continued nearly non-stop for four years.
The Head and the Heart’s second album, 2013’s “Let’s Be Still,” had three more Top 10 hits on the AAA chart: the title track, “Shake” and “Another Story.” The third album, 2016’s “Signs of Light,” has spawned two more AAA hits: “Rhythm & Blues” — and the crossover smash “All We Ever Knew”: which not only topped the AAA chart but the U.S. Alternative chart, and climbed to No. 13 on the U.S. Rock chart.
“All We Ever Knew” is a post-breakup pondering of how our pasts can lock us into repeated behavior patterns that result in inevitable heartbreaks. But the song is more than an aching lament. It echoes with a resilient yearning for growth — a recurrent theme in the band’s music, and one which a Rolling Stone review termed “bruised but determined optimism.”
Clearly the band is broadening its audience and riding a surge of momentum, although it is coping with the absence of Johnson. In March 2016, during the recording of “Signs of Light,” he took a hiatus from performing with the band. The Head and the Heart’s Facebook page reported that Johnson was “battling addiction and focusing on his recovery,” without providing specifics.
Russell said he hangs out frequently with Johnson — who lives in Napa County, California — sharing new songs. His friend is making progress — although there’s no timetable for his return, Russell said.
“He’s doing really well. That is the most important part. Things are moving in the right direction. If it works where he can come back to doing shows with us again, that’s even better.”
Whenever Johnson returns, he’ll likely see much larger and diverse turnouts for the band’s concerts than before “All We Ever Knew” blew up.
“We’re seeing a few more late-30s and 40s people showing up, which is interesting,” Russell said. “But we’ve always had a good broad section of listeners. We have teenagers to grandparents in the same audience, which has always been a really cool thing for us. It shows the music is broader than just contemporary songs. Nothing against contemporary bands, because at the moment we are one. The kind of music we listen to is the kind that holds up over time.”
Whatever it is about the Head and the Heart’s songwriting — it connects deeply with fans, resonating with their shared emotions.
Capturing a feeling
Russell said the lyrics alone don’t create the meaning in the songs he pens. The music and the sound textures also play a big part. That was the case with “All We Ever Knew.”
“I focus less on making sure that my lyrics are conveying the exact, microscopic-like message I’m trying to say. I pretty much just try and make sure that I somehow capture that, like, arm-raising feeling that compelled me to sit down and write it in the first place. I just want people to feel the way I felt when I first thought of writing that song.
“Sometimes, it’s just a sound or a melody or an inflection in your tone or your voice, or a register when you go up and sing it, that gets you there. For whatever reason, the la-la-la’s sort of opened up and expanded after singing all the lyrics I’m singing on ‘All We Ever Knew.’ It seems to capture the feeling that I’m trying to exude. I’m basically describing things that aren’t really going well in my life, but at the same time I know it’s going to work out. So, ‘La-la-la-la-la,’ that melody — for whatever reason — just kind of wraps it up and makes you forget about all the negative things that are happening, and just makes you, like, turn the song up and feel good.”
What makes Russell continue feeling good on stage is tapping into a song — even one he’s played thousands of times — and delivering it with honest feeling.
“It’s why I did the solo show. Just as important as it is for you to write another good song for your fans, it’s also just as important to you as them that you’re doing what you have to do to keep this fresh and keep this a great show and a great performance, and a meaningful performance for the fans.
“At the end of the day, it’s for them. It’s for you, as well, but when it’s a show of 2,300 people in a town that we rarely get to see, you damn well better make it good for your fans, y’know?”