MusicMusic Features

The Head and the Heart

Songwriter Josiah Johnson has some strong musical ideas, but when it comes to leading a band, he’s no tyrant. As one of the founding members and main writers and arrangers of Seattle-based folk-pop band The Head and the Heart, he still cringes a little if you call him a frontman.

“It’s six opinionated people communicating well,†Johnson says of the current state of his group. “There is a downside to having no master or commander in the band, but we’re open-minded. We have a lot of fun discussions about where to go and how to grow.â€

The Head and the Heart initially started up in 2009 as an acoustic songwriting project between Johnson, a California native, and singer/guitarist Jonathan Russell, who arrived in Seattle from Virginia. Within a year, the duo expanded into a full-sized band. The current lineup features violinist/vocalist Charity Rose Thielen, bassist Chris Zasche, drummer Tyler Williams and pianist Kenny Hensley.

“It was kind of a fortunate accident,†Johnson remembers. “Jonathan and I started writing and arranging songs mostly on acoustic guitars, so the songs sounded like songs that songwriters sing on acoustic guitar. It was just the two of us, coming up with the words and the songs. Then we kept meeting these people who helped push things away from that. We didn’t envision that we’d have a violinist in the band. The sound happened from clicking with the right people along the way. Fortunately, it grew away from just a straight singer-songwriter sound.â€

In early 2010, the group compiled a set of sophisticated, lush and slightly jazzy acoustic-oriented tunes. Many of the songs relied on gentle melodies, chiming hooks and clever wordplay.

“There is something about the musical language that you speak,†Johnson says. “I never experienced it until this band. It totally is the case. Jonathan and I always had a rotating, open-door policy with friends. As each person came in and added ideas, it felt right.â€

While Johnson and Russell were essentially at the helm, composing the main lyrics, chord, progressions and melodies, Johnson considers the debut collection a genuine group effort. In particular, Thielen’s violin flourishes and third-part harmonies added a rich, dramatic touch.

“I have strong ideas, but I’ve learned to trust other people’s instincts and try out other ideas,†Johnson says. “I think we’d gotten to a place where we know how to write and make decisions with each other.â€

Without assistance from a label, the Head and the Heart recorded their self-titled debut collection with engineers Shawn Simmons and Steven Aguilar at Seattle’s Studio Litho and Bearhead Studio. Within a few weeks, they were selling independently produced copies at shows and around town. By the end of the year, they’d sold nearly 10,000 copies.

In the wake of their success, Johnson and his bandmates signed with veteran alternative label Sub Pop Records in November 2010 and re-released the album in April, 2011.

The strummy, melancholic tune “Lost in My Mindâ€â€”the breakout hit of the debut —spent three weeks in the number-one spot on AAA radio last year. The snowy video hit YouTube in May and quickly became a fan favorite.

The year has been a whirlwind of travel and performances for Johnson and his colleagues. The Head and the Heart toured heavily across North America and Europe in late 2010 and most of 2011, sharing stages with an eclectic variety of headliners, including Dr. Dog, Vampire Weekend, The Walkmen, Dave Matthews, The Decemberists, My Morning Jacket and Death Cab for Cutie.

The band kicked off 2012 with an impressive and emotive six-song set on PBS’ Austin City Limits (British rock band Gomez shared the bill), then embarked on a national tour on Mar. 3 in Colorado.

“There can be some tension,†Johnson says of the band’s constant road work. “But everyone is grown-up enough to know that there’s a bigger mission at work than any one person’s ideas. We were on the road for all of 2011 except for one month. That’s a long time to be around the same group of people. We had our moments, but we learned how to get along well. I’m optimistic about the band, the music and everything that’s happening now.â€