the AU Interview: Josiah Johnson of The Head and The Heart (Seattle)

The Head and The Heart are a folk-infused pop band from Seattle. Their self-titled debut record was released by the band last year, but has since been reissued following their signing to the Sub-Pop label. Musically, think luscious harmonies with weird and unusual arrangements, and a sixties sound revitalised for a modern audience. We have a chat with singer, songwriter and guitarist Josiah Johnson to find out more about this great up and coming band…

How did the band all come about and come together?

Well, I had just moved to Seattle, and I hadn’t played music in a while. I had gotten tired of the whole band thing. I was still writing songs and discovered the whole open mic thing, that you could go and play songs but not necessarily be in a band, but still get that feeling of performance and working on your songs, and trying them out in front of people…

So I started going out to the open mic in Seattle, and Jon, the other singer and songwriter, had moved from Virginia to Seattle the week before, and he played at the open mic. Open Mics are often hit and miss, so when someone is really good it definitely catches your attention. And he was really good. So I just kinda became his friend after that, started hanging out and writing songs, not really with the intention of forming a band, just enjoyed the writing and playing them.

Just over the period of six months, we just started meeting people as we played. We met Kenny and spent all summer, the three of us, writing songs – and from there it just went. When people started remembering the songs and singing along to them as we were playing at open mic, it became ‘Oh, maybe we should do something with this. We’ve kind of got something here.‘ And it kinda went from there.

So is the creative process largely collaborative? Do you each contribute a song, and choose the songs democratically?

Yes. I think because when we first started out it was more about finally enjoying having another songwriter around, and we kinda both write songs in opposite ways, so we both learnt a lot of each other. So even from the get go, if I had part of a song and I couldn’t finish an idea or know where to go from there, or couldn’t break up the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge thing, he was able to help with that and vice versa; and as we began to add people I think that kind of spirit held over. So it’s like anyone in the band are all very opinionated, and good musicians, and arrangers in their own right. So we have this idea, no matter if it’s your song, if someone else has an idea for where it should go, we’ll try it out. And often times we like that better. So there’s a lack of control on the part of the person who wrote the words or the melody. But I think, ultimately, allowing all these opinions to be heard allows the songs to become honed, and better, with the different perspectives making the songs a little less one dimensional… This is always something that’s important.

How would you describe your sound?

The original goal, I think, especially as we came at it from a songwriters perspective, it’s more about writing a song, and making it, and wanting people to hear it and be affected by the words. I think of it as pop music, and it definitely is, it only has acoustic guitars and harmony, and some people have called it Americana, but the pulp of the song is less like a traditional folk kind of thing, and more of a pop sensibility… So, pop with folk influences, I guess.

OK. There’s been quite a few big names thrown about when talking about the band and your style. But who do you consider to be the main influences on your music?

Around the time we met, I had kind of… You know how you go through that phase, where the music your parents listen to when you are growing up, and you are rebelling against your parents so you don’t listen to any of their music, and you reject all of that? Well, I had grown up enough to become friends with my parents, and go ‘maybe I should go back and listen to those guys, maybe they had something’. So I went back and started listening to a lot of what my Dad was listening to, like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. And I was listening to a bunch of that, and I had always liked The Beatles too, but I never listened to a lot of that. And the way they would place their arrangements, where they would have a song – it was going in one direction, and then all of a sudden jumps into almost a totally different song on the same track. So it’s a combination of all that; pop songs with all sorts of harmonies like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and then the weird arrangements of the Beatles were some of the things I was most enjoying when we were writing these songs.

So a sort of Sixties/Seventies sort of feel?

Yeah, I get those, definitely that older type of music, but there’s also this desire to do something different with it, so I think for us it was to make it more upbeat, and for the shows to be fun and uplifting. So there might be a lot of those sensibilities in the songwriting, but there is more of a louder, more upbeat edge to them.

I have had a few listens to the record, and am already a big fan. What’s the reception been like to the album as a whole?

One of the really cool things that’s happened, even when we were just on our own, before we got signed, was that, I think, people responded to it really well, more so than with a lot of bands I have been in. People have been telling their friends, and the internet and social media have been a big part of that, I mean you’ll see people saying “you need to listen to The Head & The Heart” or whatever. And it’s been much more of a music that people can relate to and feel like their friends can relate to as well. Which is great. We’ve got critical things, where it’s like ‘oh, they’re taking things from these old things, and doing that’. And none of us are really denying or hiding that, it’s what we set out to do, but to make it uplifting for people, which I think a lot of people have caught on, and it’s one of the things people love about it.

Has work begun on a second album?

We’ve been touring so much. Our songwriting process is less to write full songs, and more to write parts of songs or choruses and verses or ideas. It was weird when we were writing songs we didn’t really have… Well, in some songs there were verses and choruses, but then on others songs it was more there was this one part that would go into this other maybe completely unrelated part, related maybe thematically but not necessarily musically. We were writing those, but as a band we haven’t had the time to sit down and arrange any of those, or to figure out a feel or anything like that. I feel the goal is not to make another one that sounds exactly the same. This album was very simple in terms of it’s how we play it live, on exactly the same instruments we always play, just recorded. And there are several multi-instrumentalists in the band that we never really messed around with, having them switch off on different things, which we probably will do when we have a little more time. Because we never really expected this album to do what it did, so we kinda of got our ideas down quickly, but there’s more we’ll definitely spend more time exploring next time.

Like you said, you’ve been touring pretty relentlessly with some pretty high profile support slots in there as well. How has life on the road been for you?

I think it’s been really been good. Like you said, we’ve been really fortunate to play with all these bands we really like. Or be fortunate to be about to open for these bands we really like, so it’s been really cool to be able to do that. For me, it’s been a little easier than for those in relationships. I mean, we were gone, I mean, we are on our first break for more than two or three days in about three and half months. We’ve got about a week and a half off.

But I think as a band, as it is with most bands, as crazy as it is to leave Seattle and then come and have your friends notice, because you don’t notice, that the way you play the songs has changed, just like the tightness of the band, both personally and musical. It has been a great thing to see grow tighter. It’s tough not being in the community you were born in, or the community the band was born in, but I think it’s been really fun. Getting to tour with these bands we really love has been great.

Also, I think we have learnt a lot from bands who have been touring for longer, about how to do it, and how to do it well. When you first start out, every show is like an experience or a party. And when you are on tour you can’t go out into all hours of the night, because you’ve got to be up early in the morning and it do it all again. You quickly learn that if you want to have longevity and to do it as a career, and being professional about it. But at the same time it’s been really fun.

What can people expect from a The Head and The Heart live show?

Well, I think we definitely try and connect a lot with the audience. More upbeat than the album, I don’t know, people are dancing, clapping and singing along. I mean, we played a show last week where we couldn’t hear the monitors, because the crowd was singing over them. Which was awesome and, you know, it doesn’t happen the first time you play in a place. But once you have been through a couple of times, and people have seen you and come to know what to expect, I think, you know, there becomes less of a line between us and the audience, than say there are for some bands who are a little cooler. We’re not really cool; we just have fun and connect with the people who come to our shows.

Can we expect you to head down to Australia anytime soon?

I think plans are in the works to be coming to a few of the festivals that happen right around the time the new year starts, a few of the summer time festivals, so hopefully we’ll be able to get down for a few of those. Which I’m really excited about. That’s another thing that’s really cool about touring. I realised late in life, well not really late in life, but late I think compared to some of my friends, realised how fun it is to come to other places, and see all these different things. I got to go to Europe and go around most of Europe for the first time, so I’m pretty excited about coming down to Australia for sure.

Excellent! Well, thank you very much for talking to me today.

Ah, cool, thanks.

Photo Credit: Curtis Wayne Millard

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Simon Clark

Books Editor. An admirer of songs and reader of books. Simon has a PhD in English and Comparative Literature. All errant apostrophes are his own.

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