Five years ago, The Head and the Heart was not even an idea. Josiah Johnson had recently moved to Seattle from California to clear up some headspace for something new. Jonathan Russell moved to Seattle around the same time, quitting a band in Virginia with the goal of moving in a different direction. Both of these men looking for home discovered each other at open mic nights at Conor Byrne pub.
After working together for a few shows, they formalized their work by naming it The Head and the Heart. This also meant filling out the band. Other recent transplants to Seattle were soon added: Charity Rose Thielen on violin and vocals, and Kenny Hensley on piano. Jonathan recruited Tyler Williams, a friend from back in Virginia, to play drums. And it finally all came together when they stole the bartender Chris Zasche from the Conor Byrne, to play bass.
After making an album on their own, they were soon picked up by Sub Pop Records.
The Head and the Heart first album explore themes of finding and losing one’s place. In the tradition of Americana, there is a fondness for place and home. In this case the band is both literally and metaphorically searching for where they belong in their new city (they stopped renting apartments in Seattle soon after they realized they were on the road more than at home), but also finding their place in the musical landscape. Their song “Lost In My Mind” gets at this tension. They sing,
Momma once told me
You’re already home where you feel love
I am lost in my mind
I get lost in my mind
How’s that brick layin’ coming
How’s your engine running
Is that bridge getting built
Are your hands getting filled
While most Americana and folk rock is guitar driven, The Head and the Heart often use piano to drive the melody forward. As Mumford and Sons has perfected, The Head and the Heart builds their songs from simple melodies and adds to that with additional instruments throughout the song, filling in the space with additional violin, piano, and percussion. “Lost In My Mind” and “Down In the Valley” are prime examples.
The music has an upbeat, optimistic feel, which at times hides the sadness and melancholy expressed in the lyrics. In “Coeur D'Alene,” they get at the theme of loss, while still being hopeful about love and relationships:
Wind-blown whispers wind naked down the corridor
Thoughts leavin' my head, they twist through yours
What will become of these gestures that we made
I've given up my Bible, you moved out of state
Wearily waitin' on the wastin' of his days
A sad son's smoldering soul
Give you three bucks for your sympathy and another for a cigarette
The interaction feels so cold
Oh the songs people will sing for home
And for the ones that have been gone for too long
But oh the things people will do for the ones that they love
After heavily touring their self-titled debut album for the last two years, the band approached their sophomore album, Let's Be Still with hesitation. The title track makes their situation clear,
The world's just spinning
A little too fast
If things don't slow down soon we might not last.
So, just for the moment, let's be still.
At times this album reveals the tensions of making music in community. On the opening track, “Homecoming Heroes,” they sing,
We’ve put in the time
Casting our lines off shore
And I’m sorry but I find no glory in that
I just want you off my back
And there’s not a word in my head floating around
You won’t pick apart and put down.
But they end on a hopeful note, “I need this faith to keep me walkin’
To keep me alive.”
This album continues to keep the band on top of the folk music tradition. And the wonderful harmonies of the three vocalists—Josiah Johnson, Jonathan Russell, and Charity Rose Theilen—give each of the songs compelling melodies that linger long after they have ended.
- Greg Veltman