TAS In Session (Newport Folk Festival Preview): The Head And The Heart
The Newport Folk Festival is this coming weekend and Seattle's alt-folksters (and grassroots success story) The Head and the Heart, who perform on Sunday, July 31, are one of the most promising new acts on the bill, joining more established artists like The Decemberists, M. Ward and Gillian Welch.
The band, which consists of violinist/vocalist Charity Rose Thielen (vocals, violin, percussion), bassist Chris Zasche, singer/guitarist Josiah Johnson, guitarist/percussionist Jonathan Russell, pianist Kenny Hensley and drummer Tyler Williams, nursed their word-of-mouth, local reputation carefully, eventually opening for Vampire Weekend, Death Cab for Cutie. the Dave Matthews Band and My Morning Jacket. Most significantly, they were the surprised subjects of a vigorous label bidding war, finally deciding upon hometown heroes, Sub Pop.
The Alternate Side's sister station 90.7 WFUV (with NPR Music) will have extensive live Newport Folk Festival coverage on Saturday, July 30 and Sunday, July 31 (noon to 8 p.m. EDT) which you can listen to live or on WFUV's stream.
Not long ago, WFUV's Claudia Marshall caught up with Newport newbies The Head and the Heart for a very special WFUV and TAS session featuring songs from the band's auspicious self-titled debut:
Claudia Marshall: There’s 22 people in the room! It’s nice to have you guys here. If ever there has been an overnight sensation story - because usually those take ten or twenty years - but you recorded this recorded about a year ago in March, in May you gave away burned copies at shows. Here we are a year later, and it’s really been meteoric. How are you doing with it?
Josiah Johnson: There was that early tour when we thought we were a punk rock band, playing tiny venues. But Jonathan knocked a monitor offstage and threw a mike on the ground.
Jonathan Russell: I’m pretty punk rock.
Claudia: It can’t be punk rock with full beards. Did you know that?
Josiah: Damn it.
Claudia: You were the toast of SXSW, you’ve now played one of the late night shows?
Josiah: Conan. Love Conan.
Claudia: And it’s all downhill from here. Is the sound of the band going to have to change as you play bigger venues?
Josiah: When you’re playing in smaller venues you can rely on the energy of the music and just the loudness and closeness to convey what you want to convey. And definitely, you have to realize that you can’t play that way in bigger halls. It’s a weird transition.
Jonathan: I don’t think it has to do where the band is going success wise. I just think as people.
Josiah: Little performance things.
Claudia: Fans can get attached to the way they first found you which is very DIY. This first song you’re going to play is actually two songs - you’re going to roll from one into the other. Almost a suite. Is there anything you want to say about them?
Josiah: No, talking about music is just weird.
Claudia: Josiah is rocking an indescribable dance move in the studio.
Josiah: We call it the home school. (laughs)
Claudia: Did you come up with this just now?
Josiah: I was home schooled from elementary school until junior high.
Claudia: But still, calling the dance the home school! I’m particularly fond of that song and the lyric, “You’re in my soul now, you’ve got to waste away with me. My mind’s made up, I’m staying here with you.” And then you go on … “I’m doing this with you!” I love that. What happened with that song?
Josiah: Tyler tried to quit the band and I wouldn’t let him. There was torment. I’d dragged him to Seattle and we’d both grown up in Virginia. He dropped everything on a whim and left some people behind that he missed and family. It was a tug of war, back and forth, for a little bit. Nobody knows where this is going to go. We were at a bar one night and he said he was going home [the next day]. I said, no you’re not. I thought he was going to go home but he didn’t.
Claudia: Tyler, nod yes or no, are you glad you didn’t go home? No, he’s not glad! I’m joking, he’s nodding yes. I’d read in an interview with Chris that the second song in that suite, “Coeur D’Alene,” originally started off as very mellow and then turned into a dancey little thing.
Josiah: There was a moment. Tyler always gave Jon and me crap because at the time the band was forming we played on acoustic guitars and wrote songs on acoustic guitars in this very folky, old country Seattle environment. I remember sitting and trying to turn something into a pop song from an acoustic song. The sound was thrown together in a weird way. You make an album not knowing if it’s going to do anything and not having an audience when you make it and then you wonder, should we have overanalyzed this? There’s all sorts of things that we did just because that what we were doing.
Claudia: It was very organic.
Josiah: That makes everything sound Northwest.
Jonathan: Lots of free range chicken.
Josiah: This band was formed in a very free range kind of way.
Claudia: You’re really known for your live performance and that’s how you grew your audience. Was it difficult translating that? Do remember walking into the studio for the first time?
Josiah: It was really straightforward. You play your parts, I play my parts.
Claudia: You didn’t overthink it.
Jonathan: Yeah and we had good people working with us. People coming to the show, they’d done their homework and tried to figure out how to capture that sound. We did a little preparation beforehand to kind of not have a lot of preparation going on during the process.
Claudia: You prepared before so you didn’t have to prepare during?
Jonathan: That didn’t make any sense! I almost got away with it. Josiah: When we recorded it we’d only played a few shows so our live show was way louder and more fun because we were still trying to figure out how to play. The album is very early, less full force.
Claudia: It’s a recording. It’s a snapshot. So much has changed in a year, though. Are you even starting to think of the next record?
Josiah: We have no idea. Claudia: What about the writing process? it’s got to be interesting with three singers. How is that process changing. Josiah: We have all sorts of different configurations that have worke. Jon, Charity and I have written songs together. Jon, Kenny and I wrote a lot of the songs before there was even a band that existed. The six of us wrote songs, which is always the most hectic and crazy. It’s a really weird. It’s very organic ….
Claudia: Free range. What about this next song? “Down in the Valley?”
Josiah: I think I’ll just overthink it.
Claudia: You guys all still live in Seattle? How did you end up there? Jon and Tyler, you’re from Virginia. Charity, where are you from?
Charity: Chris and I are both from Seattle. We both grew up there.
Josiah: Kenny and I are both from southern California.
Claudia: Even worse! Kenny has been wearing these wristbands that have been on his wrist for a long, long time.
Josiah: The Sasquatch! one he got last year and jokingly said - or seriously since he’s still wearing it - said “I’m going to wear this until we get asked to play Sasquatch!”. And we played Sasquatch! this year.
Claudia: One of the things that I find so remarkable about this band is that you do have a piano player; it’s so much the sound of the band. That can be complicated as a touring group.
Josiah: [You use] a keyboard that has a close-enough piano sound. I think he’s spent a lot of time finding ones with good, weighted keys that sound similar enough.
Claudia: But no banjo! Is that a conscious choice?
Josiah: We’re not really going for the Americana thing. We don’t want it.
Claudia: Jon what were you doing in Seattle?
Jonathan: I just kind of moved out there. I was doing music in Richmond, Virginia and I went with a friend, hopped in a car with her to check out Seattle. If I liked it, I’d stay. And I liked it. I met Josiah early on.
Josiah: I had hit the end of the road for me in southern California. I’d been in Seattle on road trips and liked it. It’s beautiful. I moved up there to go to grad school and once I met Jon, we started writing songs, there seemed no point. My mom is very supportive of everything that I do and my dad was concerned that I’d be broke and living on the streets. He’s come around.
Claudia: The record I’m holding in my hand is beautiful and the photography is gorgeous.
Josiah: Damian Jurado’s wife actually took all of those photos.
Claudia: What’s going on with the cover art? It’s a little alarming. There’s someone wearing a sheep mask smoking a cigarette.
Charity: That’s Josiah.
Josiah: It’s PG-13.
Charity: It’s abstract.
Claudia: But it’s a beautiful record in gorgeous packaging. But is it true that in the original packaging, the DIY version, that someone hand-stitched denim covers?
Josiah: That was Chris. We took old jeans that we didn’t need.
Charity: It was mostly Chris’ old Wranglers.
Josiah: We were making fun of Chris for whatever fashion thing. He used to be in alot of alt-country bands around Seattle and as soon as he joined this band, he cut up all of his old Wranglers to make CD covers and began shopping at H&M.
Claudia: Aside from packaging, you also re-recorded some of the album for Sub Pop?
Charity: We re-recorded songs like “Hallelujah” because it was a lo-fi sounding recording. We recorded “Rivers and Roads” which we’d written a few weeks after we made the record. So it worked out on our Sub Pop debut that we could put it on.
Josiah: It’s remastered. I think it’s punchier. Has a good feel.
Claudia: Any thought of going back in the studio by fall?Josiah just laughed at me.
Josiah: I’m just thinking about how far out I know my schedule and touring going on. Until the start of January, I have a vague idea.
Claudia: So no studio in the next six months.
Claudia: I really want to have that denim covered copy.
Chris: I might have a couple. The first show we ever played in Boise, someone brought it along. It was awesome.