Interview: Finding universal parallels and Signs of Light with The Head and The Heart’s Jonathan Russell

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The Head and The Heart | photo by James Minchin | courtesy of the artist
The Head and The Heart | photo by James Minchin | courtesy of the artist

After a long run of supporting their breakout sophomore album Let’s Be Still, Americana rock luminaries The Head and The Heart needed a breather.

The bandmates had been on the road together practically nonstop for two years; beyond that, they’d been at the grindstone since emerging from the Seattle coffee house community in 2009 with their self-titled Sub Pop Records debut. Stepping back for a year was essential, and some of their experiences in that time off were liberating and joyous – frontman Jonathan Russell embarked on nonprofit work in Haiti, and found himself teaching music alongside Jackson Browne; pianist Kenny Hensley learned to fly planes, and vocalist Charity Rose Thielen wrote songs for Mavis Staples. Other experiences were more serious, and co-frontman Josiah Johnson took a hiatus from the band this spring, announcing that he was battling addiction and needed time to focus on recovery.

At the end of it all is a tremendous new record called Signs of Light. It’s The Head and The Heart’s major label debut, and even though a heavy-hitting producer helped bring it to life — Jay Joyce, whose resume includes Cage the Elephant, Amos Lee and Emmylou Harris — the music within sounds refreshingly true to the band’s life-affiriming spirit, just on a somewhat grander scale. From the out the gate anthems “City of Angels” and “All We Ever Knew,” to the nuanced and reflective “Library Magic” and the deeply personal “Signs of Light,” it’s a striking blend of pop accessibility and emotional connectivity. This Sunday, October 24th, The Head and the Heart’s tour in support of the album comes through Philadelphia at The Fillmore.

Earlier this year, I caught up with Russell via phone to unpack the new record, and our wide-ranging conversation touches on The Head and The Heart’s gradual growth into theater headliners, Russell’s empathetic songwriting tendencies, ideas of collaboration versus autonomy, the absence of their friend Josiah on this run, and how they aim to pay forward the opportunities they had in their career. Read the interview in full below; tickets are still available for Sunday night’s show at The Fillmore, and more information can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.

The Key: The Head and The Heart first convened in Seattle’s open mic scene, playing tiny venues and coffeehouses. Now you’re at point where you’re doing major theaters and festivals around the world. What has that experience been like?

Jonathan Russell: Its funny because when it happens to you, it at least feels very gradual. But it’s hard to say, because everything in this band, or most bands that are doing this for a living, everything is a first. First you’re awkward and uncomfortable being in front of 20 people at a coffeehouse. Then you’re playing bigger shows, and you get these opening slots so you’re thrown on a stage you’ve never been on before; you’re like “what am I supposed to do with all this space?” For me I enjoyed figuring all that stuff out. Obviously, the bigger the stage, the bigger you want to sound. I personally enjoy the growing pains that continue to happen.

TK: With those opening slots — like the first time I saw you, when you opened for Dr Dog — is the vibe like “Well, this is their show, so pressure’s off?” Or does it make you more motivated?

JR: That to me was always more motivating. Because nobody really knows who you are, so you have to come out swinging a little bit. Also, opening for bands you really like – and Dr. Dog is one of our favorite bands – opening for them, not only are we trying to impress these people waiting for Dr. Dog, at the same time we’re trying to impress the band.

TK: Has your songwriting changed with bigger stages? Or have you always written music with lots of listeners in mind?

JR: I’ve never factored in who or where or how I’m going to be playing these songs. I think my natural tendency as a songwriter is, I’m definitely more into universal parallels than trying to be like this niche weird art thing. I like those bands sometimes too, but for some reason my natural writing lends itself more to this all-encompassing “I’m going through this, are you going through this?” sort of mentality. Mostly for me because it’s an outlet of me trying to figure out existence.

But in terms of stages and sounds, now we’re playing to this many people versus twenty, that growth happened because I personally got sick of playing acoustic guitar. You come out on stage where you’re opening for My Morning Jacket and you’re like “ah, man, there’s literally nothing I can do with this instrument that will get me closer to these vast sounds they’re making.” And so you go home between tours and you have that lingering feeling of wanting to expand your sound. So through those means, the sonic range of our music is starting to expand more and more, out of necessity and interest. Like wanting to be able to push it further. There’s only so much you can do on a totally acoustic instrument.

The Head and The Heart
photo by Jeremy Zimmerman | Jeremy-Zim.com

TK: What was it like working with your bandmates on this new record while you’re all geographically seperate?

JR: I guess this was the first record where we were all living in separate places during the writing process. Even before Let’s Be Still, even though we all lived in Seattle, we really didn’t have too much time off between tours. So whenever we were home, we still didn’t really see each other because we only had four days to escape each other.

And then this time, even though we live in different cities, we intentionally took a year off. And it was because we had gotten to the place where we were able to afford ourselves the luxury of enough time. We had done enough work where the momentum would carry even though we weren’t still in the pool, doing laps, trying to get the whirlpool to stay together. It would just keep going. And it seemed like a really healthy important thing to do.

Do anything too much, and you lose sight of why you’re doing it. If you’re creating art, that’s a really toxic combination. So yeah, honestly, everybody moved back to where they had originally moved from. And I don’t think it’s affected anyone in a negative way. I think, if anything, it’s allowed people to be more themselves. Tyler and I came back to Virginia, Kenny went back to LA. Chris is literally right now moving to Nashville, Charity and her husband are still in Seattle. It’s definitely part of the perks to the job – you can work everywhere.

TK: I hear that a lot – when you’re on the road as much as any touring band is, breaks become essential.

JR: It’s funny, now – granted we haven’t been touring that much yet – it’s really nice. You come in, see each other. It’s like anything, when you see a friend of yours who you don’t see all the time, you’re like excited to see them, you remember all the beautiful things they bring to the table. If you see somebody every single day, you start resenting the fact that you don’t have your own space and time, and that starts getting carried by the other person. Which isn’t fair. It’s nice to have all of us have our own space. It makes us playing together more alive and more free.

TK: During your time off, you did some stuff in Haiti. Tell me about that?

JR: A friend of a friend works for a nonprofit called Artists for Peace and Justice. They do a lot of work in Haiti, and this was in my year off, as I was driving to LA. I was living in Los Angeles because I bought a van and wanted to drive out to LA and rent a house for a couple months to do some writing. On my way back, I told my friend and she was like “hey, I’m going to do this thing in a month, can you go?”

And I was like “that sounds crazy, but I’m never going to be able to do this if I don’t take it now.” Because I’m so usually busy that a month out is usually booked. So I went down there, and Jackson Browne ended up being on the trip because he had gotten involved the previous year! Jackson Brown and I were in these classrooms playing songs for kids, doing a Q&A with a translator. Which is mindblowing on so many levels.

First of all, I’d never been to Haiti, or the Caribbean, or a third world country that’s this beautiful and damaged at the same time. And secondly, I’m just casually hanging out with Jackson Browne in a school. Borrowing his guitar to play “Another Story.” And I’m like “is this really happening?”

I’ve actually since gone back. That was April of 2015, and I went back again this March – a musical project came out of meeting Jackson there the first time, and we kind of wanted to do a songwriter summit. We’re still working on it, but that got started in March of this year, we both went back down there. Went to a studio to do stuff, but that’s still a work in progress.

It’s funny, I think I travel just as much if not more in my time off, but in my own way, as opposed to with the band where you kind of have to go with the flow.

TK: Right, where you lave very limited time in cities.

JR: And sometimes if anyone wants to do something on your day off, you kind of have to decide as a group, are we gonna do this? Or that? Because there’s only one mode of transportation, we don’t have time to do what one person wants. You have to become a cog in the wheel. Which is nice in one way, restricting in another. It is nice to be able to do anything you want.

TK: Jay Joyce recorded Signs of Light with you, and it was your first time working with an outside producer. What led to that decision?

JR: Yeah, this was the first time we worked with somebody other than a friend coproducing. It was a few things – a having a budget, now on a major label and we can afford to pay somebody what they’re asking for. It kind of felt like the right time. We had done two albums on our own, felt like we had a chance to show what we can do, show who we are, we kind of developed our own style and way of working together as a band.

And it felt like the right next step. It felt like the time to bring somebody in. He’s not going to come in and totally change who we are. We know who we are, we had the chance to do that. But it was an exciting opportunity to give it a shot. And honestly, if we didn’t meet the right guy, we were just going to do it on our own. It wasn’t like oh, now they’re signed to a major and they’re gonna get a producer and they’re gonna start wearing monkey suits. We had the option to do whatever we want, which is really nice.

We met with a few different people, including Jay, who is based out of Nashville. And right out of the gate, I remember when we first met him, he has this really easygoing vibe – he’s an amazing musician himself. It felt like we were going to be on the same page, he felt easy to get along with. The subtleties he gravitated towards in the demos we handed him were an interesting perspective, what he was seeing in them. It felt like a good match.

And so we recorded in his studio in Nashville, Neon Cross, an old church he renovated into this relatively massive studio. Now I look back and I’m like, I love the whole thing, but there were definitely a few moments where it was like “woah shit. What are we getting ourselves into?” He has his own way of working, we have our way of working. There’s really no right or wrong way to work on a record, but there is the difference between someone who has won several Grammys and one who has not.

The Head and The Heart | photo by James Minchin | courtesy of the artist

So there was, I think for the first couple weeks, we were like let’s try it his way, we signed up for this. Then we kind of had some freak out moments, went back and listened to the progress we were making. I’m sure everybody went home and played it for their friends and was like “this is weird-sounding, right? Doesn’t this sound weird to you? This isn’t us, right?” Luckily a lot of my friends were like “actually, this sounds amazing. This is what I wish you guys would sound like.” Because this is funny, you get so used to imagining your band the way it is, you start hearing things a little bigger or better sounding. And it can throw you off.

We wound up coming back coming back and getting on the same page. And adding more of what we normally do, and starting to make more demands. Us being like “okay, we want to work with you, but we also feel like we need to be able to say what we want to say.” And I think we found this really good middle ground. And I couldn’t be happier with the record, honestly.

TK: Was Josiah involved in the writing and production before he took a hiatus from the band?

JR: He was, he totally was. Honestly, just as much as Let’s Be Still. Different band members at different times are more or less engaged, or around for different parts of the record. He and I shared that house in LA for two months where I did a lot of the writing, but honestly for other reasons, he and I have had less and less influence on each other’s writing in a way. For several reasons. That’s a tricky thing with him, I think the hard thing about being in a band is you sort of lose your autonomy, and as a songwriter, that can be really frustrating, and you can’t really pinpoint how it happened or where it went.

Once we all sat down as a band, and were like you need some time to yourself, it’s like, that’s fair, that’s totally fair. We’re all still good friends, all on great terms with each other. I think more than anybody else, at this time he needed to step back for a minute. But he was definitely involved in the writing and shaping of the sound of these songs. Before we went into the studio, we did two individual pre-production chunks of time, three weeks at Stenton Beach, CA at this house studio, and then one in El Paso TX in a ranch that’s a big recording facility. He was there for both.

TK: Was it difficult making the decision to promote Signs of Light without him?

JR: It was, and I’m sure you realized, the last song on the album was his. And it felt like a perfect all-encompassing thing: let’s call this album Signs of Light after his song.

TK: You’re out on a big tour in support of the album, and you’re in the position now where you can help out bands the way people like Dr. Dog and MMJ helped you out in the beginning. What are some things you learned from the bands that took you on tour, and what do you try to pass on to the bands you take on tour?

JR: Honestly, the first thing that comes to mind if making them feel welcome. Depending on band [that takes you on tour], you don’t always get that. We’ve toured with bands that feel totally open right out the gate and we’ve also toured with bands where I think I saw the main guy maybe once. It’s like, “I’m pretty sure I saw him, right?” There are different reasons for that, and either way is fine.

But going through that, you definitely know what that feels like. We want these guys to feel like they can stop by, say what’s up, talk to me about my pedal board, I’ll talk to them about their pedal board. Musically if it makes sense, let’s do something together onstage, throw me a tambourine or whatever. But just trying to be present and open with them.

Sometimes I don’t seem like the most approachable person. I don’t think it’s intentional, and I’m trying to combat that too by realizing I need to be the first one who makes it apparent that it’s totally cool that you come over. Mostly just making them feel like hey, we did want you here. We chose you for this slot. Make yourself at home, let’s see what happens over the next two or three weeks.

The Head and The Heart headline The Fillmore Philadelphia on Sunday, October 23rd. Tickets are still available, more information on the show can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.

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