The Reader interviews The Head and the Heart

Seven years ago, I was managing a bar in Sandpoint called the Downtown Crossing. Kaylee Cole, a regular act I booked, recommended I check out a little-known Seattle band called The Head and the Heart. Always striving to bring new music to Sandpoint, I booked the promising band for a show in September 2010. 

The six-piece indie folk rock band showed up with another little-known trio, The Lumineers, and proceeded to blow the roof off the Downtown Crossing. That was the beginning of Sandpoint’s love affair with The Head and the Heart; a relationship that seems to have reached a perfect nirvana with the announcement this spring that The Head and the Heart will play the Festival at Sandpoint.

In the seven years since, The Head and the Heart has made a splash on the music scene, garnering national attention for their catchy melodies, lip-quivering four-part harmonies and infectiously feel-good aura to their original tunes. Recently, I had a phone conversation with frontman Jonathan Russell, who shared with me the surreal rise to fame, the essential nature of remembering your roots and the ever-evolving sound from one of the top indie folk rock groups in the game right now.

Ben Olson: How Jon, thanks for taking the time to talk. How are things going?

Jonathan Russell: Pretty good. Right now we’re in Winnepeg doing some Canadian shows, wrapping up a tour. A few more dates on this one, then a few days off before we go to Bonnaroo and start making our way around the country again.

Does it ever get old, touring?

Sometimes, you find yourself missing the really mundane domestic things you complain about before you go on tour. Like hey, I’m off work now, so I’m home in my space with my girlfriend. You’re never really off work when you’re on tour.

There were a lot of happy people when it was announced you were playing the Festival in August. I don’t know if you remember, but I actually booked you guys to play at the Downtown Crossing years and years ago.

I was wondering! I saw your name on the interview and I was like, “That sounds familiar. I wonder if we crossed paths in the day when we used to play out there?” That’s so cool.

It was the Head and the Heart and the Lumineers.

I remember that show.

People in town still talk about it. Here we are eight or nine years later and you guys have taken off into something amazing.

Both bands! What are we on, man?

Do you ever look back at those old days and think you’d end up where you are?

We were all pretty jazzed how things were going, and I think we all were confident in some way, shape or form that it would amount to something. To know that it would turn into anything on this scale, I didn’t think it was possible. It seems like every few months we’re doing something that you’re like, “Well, never thought that would happen.”

Do you have any “pinch me” moments recently?

We just recently did an event with a lot of other artists for Tom Petty with MusiCares, and we did a Tom Petty song, “You Got Lucky.” The Lumineers were there as well and did a song. That was cool. It was the first time we’ve seen them in awhile. Stevie Nicks was there. Don Henley was there. The list goes on and on. Tom Petty is one of my favorite songwriters of all times. He’s from Florida, I’m from Florida. It was a “Are you fucking kidding me?” moment. We’re going to be doing a show with him and The Lumineers and Stevie Nicks and a few other bands in Hyde Park in July. So playing shows with Tom Petty is one of those “never thought that would happen” moments.

Did you get one-on-one time?

No, not yet. It would be cool if it ever happens, but I’m not sure it will. Honestly, it’s also one of those things, it’s not like I’m meeting Tom Petty who is my age and is just as young and hungry. I don’t know that I want to meet him – you kind of want your icons to live in this glorious statuesque light. I don’t know if I need to lift the veil necessarily. Playing some shows with him is cool enough.

That’s like why I don’t think I’d want to see Bob Dylan live. I don’t want to tarnish anything.

I know. I know. For me, it’s like, “I think I was born a little late to see Bob Dylan.”

Let’s talk about your latest album, “Signs of Life” that released last fall. It’s quite a departure from your folk foundation.

You’re hearing a record that came out three years after our record came out. These were songs that we were slowly collecting and slowly working on and hearing evolve. But throughout those years, I’ve been familiar with these songs and these sounds that we’re developing throughout this process, so it feels like less of a departure for the inside out, but I hear you. This is the first time we worked with a producer. The sound was bigger, it has a more polished quality to it, I guess.

Isn’t that sort of part of the artistic process, to stretch your wings and try something different?

Yeah, I just don’t know how I would make more records without evolving. It just seems like an oxymoron to me. Along the way with life, as a musician, your influences are changing. The sounds you’re drawn to are expanding. Yes, there is a little bit of a departure. I hope there always is a bit of a departure just so we continue to expand. I think we’re a lucky band in the way that we’re a democratic band. Everyone has a hand in every song, we’ve all shaped these songs, whether it be songs written by Josiah or myself, it usually comes out feeling very different, with a whole new attitude once the whole band has touched it.

That’s a unique thing about your band in particular, the fact that whether or not one person writes the lyrics or not, it doesn’t seem like your songs are written by one source, but through collaboration. That’s pretty rare these days.

I know, you realize that the more big festivals we play. It’s like, damn, bands are like dinosaurs. They’re just about extinct, man. You don’t really see too many band bands. It’s interesting, because what I’ve noticed is that it allows me to draw more and more influences from completely different genres. I think I’ve been most inspired by what hip hop artists are doing whether it’s with a stage setup or just production on a record. It’s almost like this lawlessness that they have that, for me, is really attractive to imagine.

Are you listening to a lot of hip hop?

Yeah, I’m always listening to a lot of different genres. It really depends on the day. Is the sun out? Am I hung over? Am I on a health kick? In one day I might go from Kendrick Lamar to Tim McGraw to Bonnie Raitt, and then go to Dope Lemons, this Australian band. I just love variety. Kendrick Lamar’s most recent record, “Damn.” I mean, Damn. His performance at Coachella was just mind blowing. I wish I had some under the radar names to throw out there, but I really don’t. My girlfriend is 29 and I’m 32, so I get a lot of alternative influences from her, but it seems like every time I throw a name out it’s apparently a really big artist, and I’m just behind.

I’m having that trouble too. I’ll get into a band and say, “Have you heard these guys?” and people will say, “Yeah, like seven years ago.”

Right. That’s how I am with music and Netflix. Like I just started watching “Game of Thrones” three months ago. I was like, “Damn, this show is amazing!” Everyone is like, “What? You’re worthless.”

Dude, you’re way behind.

I know, way behind.

So you seem to be constantly touring. How is that for you?

When you’re touring all the time, you start shaving off bits of your personality just to make touring go more smoothly. You become like a cog in the wheel. And that can dilute yourself, your personality, what you bring to the table as a musician. For us, it was good for us to say, out of respect for our music, our fans, we needed to hit the pause button and allow life to happen on its own, so we were lucky enough to do that and take almost a year off, then we came back together more refreshed. It felt like a fresh start.

Do you find that it’s quite different getting recognized on the street by your fans?

Well, I live in a town where that doesn’t really happen that often. I’ve never been that comfortable with it. I don’t know anybody who really is. I try to get better at it, and just not let my anxiety come across as me being an asshole, because it usually comes across that way. I’m just awkward. I’m learning to just embrace it because if you don’t, people will think you’re an asshole. You can’t fight it. It comes with it. You wanted to be in a band as a career, as your life and have people know you, just pony up. This is part of it. Don’t be a weirdo.

That’s a good point. Some of the time when people are being “assholes,” they’re probably just as nervous and anxious as their fans.

Yeah, I always think about the snake. The snake is more afraid of you than you are of it. Anxieties and insecurities come across in different ways. In those scenarios, people almost expect someone in my position, that old cliché, “Yeah he’s an asshole, I met him,” and I think, “Was he though? Or were you both just really nervous and it was really weird?” I’m trying to get better than that. It’s like you were saying earlier, did we ever expect this to happen back in the day when we were playing shows in Idaho and the answer is, you don’t know what all comes with it. You live you learn.

We joke a lot when we’re loading gear about “I can’t wait until it gets easier when we have roadies and all these support people.” Does it ever get easier?

You know, I was thinking about that recently on this tour. At this point, we’re on a bus, which is incredible and we have just as many crewmembers as we have band members on the road with us, and the venues we’re playing have far more hands than smaller clubs do, so you don’t touch your gear until you walk in and it’s all shiny and cleaned up and plugged in. So yes, to a degree, it gets easier. But the area of difficulty sort of shifts to something else. One thing is easier, but this new dynamic that you’re now exposed to, you may not be very good at.

How’s Josiah doing? Does he have any plans to come back? (Josiah Johnson left the band recently to deal with an addiction issue.)

Josiah is doing great. Honestly, doing incredibly well. Whether or not he’s coming back or not is sort of an ongoing conversation between all of us. It’s only really just now getting to the place where the dust is starting to settle and we’re slowing down a bit so we can like look at everything and start talking again. It’s hard to give a definitive answer, but the relationship between the bandmates is strong and we love each other. We miss having him, honestly. At this point it’s, and I know this is hard for some to imagine, but it’s like, does he want to come back? Is this a lifestyle that he wants to jump back into? Because, when you have time away from it and you figure out how to balance your life in a healthy way, jumping back into this fast-moving car and going around the world and not having a life all of a sudden doesn’t look as glamorous. So it’s really just depending on what’s best for him. But most importantly, he’s doing great and he’s happy and he’s in a good spot again.

I didn’t realize that it was Charity’s husband, Matt, who is filling in for him.

Yeah, it’s been great. He’s probably the most talented person in the band. That’s kind of embarrassing sometimes. He’s one of the sweetest people and most talented musicians I know, period. We’ve all known him for years, we’re friends. When he signed up and came on tour with us, it’s changed the dynamic, which would have changed anyway without Josiah, and we’re happy to have him. Ideally, the lucky seven would be amazing. We used to dream about that before Josiah was even not playing with us. It would be nice to have Matty in the band. As the records get bigger and I’m writing more and more stuff that I can’t play and sing at the same time, I can ask him, “Please play this solo so I can sing,” so it’s really great. Charity’s obviously happy – she gets to travel around with her husband. So yeah, for Christmas, I’m just going to ask for a seven-piece band.

After you played that one little bar show in Sandpoint which there may have been all of 30 or 40 people at, this town was hooked. You’d hear people driving down the road playing your album, you’d go into a bar and hear someone rocking it. People very much took The Head and the Heart to this personal level and said, you know, this is how we feel about everything right now. I just wanted to ask how that feels when people really connect with your music?

That’s a good question. It’s one of the things that I am maybe seeing in a different light and learning to embrace it and let it be a part of the whole identity of this band. When you’re on the road you’re relinquishing yourself and your life to not only this band, but this lifestyle and the fans on top of that. Sometimes that feels like you find yourself sacrificing that little piece of you. Hearing you say that immediately gives me chills and makes me proud and feel good, that this is all for something, it’s not just a pretty song that I like. It goes beyond that. You have people coming up to you saying, “This song got me through this,” or “This family member passed away, and all I listened to was your record.” It’s like, holy shit. You can’t really absorb the magnitude of what that person is trying to tell you. It’s a difficult thing. You find yourself saying thank you and smiling and giving a hug, but it’s hard to put into words.

I always try to differentiate between the empty compliments and the ones that mean a lot. But I got so many compliments from that show when you came through and everyone always said, “They’re going places.” And sure enough, here you are, embarking on this amazing career.

I can’t tell you enough how excited we are to get back to Sandpoint. That’s no lie. That show and those circuits… when we found out there was a festival going on in Sandpoint we said, “This has to happen.”

Thanks so much for taking the time to chat, Jon. Looking forward to seeing you in Sandpoint again.

Yeah! Take care and hope to see you again, soon.

The Head and the Heart play the Festival at Sandpoint Thursday, Aug. 10 at Memorial Field with opening band Matt Hopper & The Roman Candles. Tickets are $44.95 and worth every penny. Call the Festival at Sandpoint at 265-4554 for tickets.

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