In Music

The Head and the Heart (Josiah Johnson is at left) plays Turner Hall on Oct. 6. (PHOTO: Shawn Brackbill, Sub Pop Records)

The Head and The Heart's accomplished debut continues to fuel momentum

It's rare to stumble upon a debut that feels accomplished. But the self-titled debut from Seattle band The Head and The Heart is one of those records.

Self-released last year, a bolstered version of "The Head and The Heart" was issued by Sub Pop Records earlier this year.

From the tick-tock intro of "Cats and Dogs" through the stomping piano-fueled pop of "Honey Come Home" and to the waning seconds of the strings outro of the California roots rocker "Heaven Go Easy On Me," the 10-song record is rife with pitch-perfect harmonies, dynamic arrangements and fine performances.

Think mid-'70s Dylan and The Band instrumentation. Think almost Queen-like harmonies (though, admittedly, a little less elaborate). For more recent examples, file under AA Bondy and Iron & Wine. But, the piano focus might conjure some of Ben Folds' work and "Down In The Valley" even has a moment that might make you think, briefly, of a less flashy Coldplay.

Singer, guitarist and songwriter Josiah Johnson says that the finished record is the result of a long focus on the songs it contains.

"Even before we started recording there were probably six or seven songs that we had spent probably six months on, just songwriting-wise," Johnson tells me by phone from Seattle a few weeks before the band hits the road on a U.S. tour.

"A lot of the songs grew and evolved even before we had a band. We definitely had a lot of time to polish and spend a lot of time arranging before we had the pressure of, 'OK, now we've gotta do something.'"

It's clear that the songs don't just flow for Johnson and his co-songwriters – guitarist and singer Jonathan Russell, violinist Charity Rose Thielen, bassist Chris Zasche, pianist Kenny Hensley and drummer Tyler Williams.

The result is that the songs on the record were the songs the band wrote and recorded with the intention of including. And they worked on those songs until they were ready.

"Someone asked me, 'How many songs did you guys write for your record before you chose what to record?,'" he says. "The idea that you write a song that is thrown away, that no one gives a sh*t about ... I feel like songs are more important than that."

Johnson doubts the band will ever be one of those groups that says it wrote 30 songs for a record and only used 12. But he says that like all songwriters, there are all kinds of ideas floating around. The good ones almost always end up getting used somehow. He points to a fragment that had been sitting, waiting for a good home.

"We ended up putting it into a song that we play live and it totally works," he recalls. "We more write like puzzle pieces and they're all still fair game to put into a song. I don't know if the next record will be the same way but I definitely don't want to churn out a bunch of songs with the hope that one of them is good. Being a songwriting factory does not sound appealing to me. I just don't understand how that happens."

But these songs seem quite acceptable to the growing legion of fans the band has been garnering thanks to seven months of near-non-stop touring this year, mostly as an opener for other bands.

Despite some disappointing and potentially lethal reviews of the record from NME and Pitchfork, The Head and The Heart had the wind at its back all year long.

"That momentum definitely has been carrying on; we've had a really busy year," says Johnson. "I feel very, very lucky that all of the bands we've gotten to play with this year are bands that I've liked for a long time. For the vast majority of it too the bands we opened for were cool people.

Although Williams and Zasche have had some experience on the road, Johnson says this year has really been everyone's first experience with success and touring at the band's current level. And it has been a learning experience for them all.

"It's new to all of us. We really learned a lot. There's something to be said for a band that's been touring for a while because it is a very odd experience to live your life on the road for any length of time. You've got to learn how to do it well. To be a normal person and all that kind of stuff. I think we learned a lot musically and also just about being a touring band."

But the tour that will bring the band back to Milwaukee and Turner Hall on Oct. 6 with Thao and the Get Down Stay Down finds The Head and The Heart at the top of the bill. Opening shows helped the band learn about the road, but also about the difference between between the main attraction and what many in the audience consider an optional experience.

"I think we put a lot of pressure on ourselves as an opening band, because we don't just want to be the opening band that people don't really care about or don't remember," says Johnson, who clearly has given this stuff some thought. "We always put a lot of pressure on ourselves however many people we're playing for.

"Now we get to feel like a love back from the audience, which you don't get as much as an opening band. There's something about the headlining shows, the relationship between us and the audience feels really amazing. I can't wait to be able to go out and do that. The headlining tour is going to be this whole different moment."

Unsurprisingly, Johnson says, he and the band will feel a different kind of pressure in its role as headliner.

"There's a lot of pressure if people have seen you before which by now many people have by now, to give something more," he says. "But I think, ultimately, it's more rewarding. It feels less like straightforward entertainment and it feels more like just being able to connect with an audience that has a connection to your songs and that's less pressure. Now we're all on the same page. What we're giving off of the stage is being given right back to us."

With more stage time and a more receptive, more familiar, audience, The Head and The Heart promises a different show at Turner this time than when it performed here with Iron and Wine this summer.

There will be some new songs, says Johnson, and the chance to play some "deep cuts" from the album.

"In opening sets you kind of come out with a bang and we play the songs that are very immediately grabbing. There's other songs that have kind of more of a depth to them, that are rewarding for someone who has listened to the album. I always love the song 'The Winter Song' on our album that we don't play when we have a half-hour set. (When we do play it at longer shows) that always seems like this moment where the entire set quiets down and there's a hush and kind of reverent and it's a good thing. We never really got to play the whole album even on the opening tours."

It wasn't that long ago that the band played in Milwaukee, doing the evening set at Turner and a lunchtime gig in The Pabst lobby for 88Nine. But that time he didn't get to see much of the city, he says.

"It was really hot. That was pretty gnarly. I tried to walk a couple blocks and I was sweating immediately. We played at Turner Hall. That building was insane. It was really cool. The whole uneven wood floors and all of that. And the crowd was really cool. Afterwards there were a ton of people that came up and were very appreciative. It was good because we'd never been there and to play at a place like that. It felt like a lot of people discovered us for the first time.

"Iron and Wine was a really good tour for us. It was a really good match, I think. Most every place that we went it felt like people that enjoyed his music really liked our stuff too. There were a few people that knew of us but I think it was like more of a surprise to people. That was definitely a time when we were feeling momentum as a band."

So, what's next for The Head and The Heart? When I speak to Johnson, he and the band are enjoying a much-needed month off at home. There's a little songwriting going on but not much else.

"Because we had seven months of straight touring, we're kind of all taking a break," says Johnson. "Kenny has been in L.A. the entire month, just seeing his family, who he has only seen when playing there between January and now and he's really close to them. He told me he's playing piano every day, 2-3 hours. I'm messing around with writing new songs and John is doing the same thing. So we're not rehearsing together. We're more kind of trying out ideas for things we might use in the future."

Johnson says the break is more than just a chance to catch up on laundry and spend time with loved ones. It's also a time to refuel for the tour, which kicked off Sept. 17 in Austin and ends in Europe just before Thanksgiving.

"From a songwriter's perspective, when you have those same songs ingrained in your head for so long, there's something to be said for just clearing your mind of all those things and just living before you can go back and write something that doesn't just sound like all of those. It's been a good clear-your-head, readjust yourself to living like a person (month off).

"That's way you write songs about life is by living."


Talkbacks

sandstorm | Oct. 3, 2011 at 1:51 p.m. (report)

The Beard and The Beard.

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