If the sound that defined Seattle folkies The Head and the Heart’s eponymous debut album can be described as grassroots, the unlikely story of the success that followed is even more so.
The six-piece band of multi-instrumentalists self-recorded and released the album, distributing it at local rock clubs and record stores, and relying on word of mouth to generate hype. And, somewhat remarkably, it worked.
The Head and the Heart went from playing the Seattle club circuit to opening for Vampire Weekend and being tapped by Dave Matthews to join him on tour in what seems like record time. “That was insane,” says vocalist/guitarist Josiah Johnson, “but we didn’t really have time to step back together and be like, ‘It’s all happening, guys.’ You kind of just put your head down and keep going and going and going. [But] at some points, when we did have breaks, you sit back and say, ‘Man, I didn’t expect this much.’”
They didn’t expect much of anything, according to Johnson. “I don’t really consider the last time like recording an album,” he says. “We were just kind of getting things down as quick as possible and kind of just creating something that we could burn and give to venues. It wasn’t this ‘I have a big picture of this album' thing.”
In fact, he attributes a large part of the sound on their freshman effort — an organic, delicately melancholy marriage of stripped down strings and lovely, unadorned vocals — simply to having to make do with what they had.
“It’s not really what we set out to write. That’s not the only type of band that we are,” he says, when asked if he ever worries about the band’s direction, once the current wave of popularity of indie-folk recedes and another genre inevitably takes its place. “One of the things that was really exciting about recording [their new album, “Let’s Be Still”] is when you listen to this album it’s not all reliant upon the stamping and clapping and the ‘hey-ing,’ because that’s not what we set out to only be. The reason you might hear that on the first album is because we didn’t have the time to sit in the studio. We only had our acoustic guitars and limited resources.
"I love that album, but that’s not the only kind of music that we listen to, and I think this band has a lot of directions it can go in.”
One of those new directions — and the fruits of their access to more resources, since signing with Sub Pop in 2010 — is evident on “Let’s Be Still,” which is marked by a considerably slicker, more polished sound. This time around, they’ve had time to put thought — a lot of it — into what was indeed a “big picture of an album thing.”
“We recorded it at a studio that we recorded some stuff for the first record at,” says Johnson. “Except, for the first record we just did like a big session in a room with a piano in three days and then recorded everything else in a guy’s living room. This time we were there for the better part of three and half or four months. And we spent a lot more time in the studio not recording, but sitting and writing, and jamming out. Which is a luxury that you have when you have a record label that is helping you pay for it.”
What hasn’t changed, however, is their knack for heartfelt balladry and thoughtful lyricism, mining for bare emotion without over-emoting. But “Let’s Be Still” shows a maturity that can be attributed to both a lot of time spent on the road — “I think we did more than is sustainable. All these crazy opportunities were coming up and available to us so we tried to take them all,” says Johnson of a whirlwind couple years spent touring nonstop — and an ease in their relationships as bandmates, both in the studio and on the stage.
“We always make mistakes and learn from them. I think that’s the best thing about having six people in the band,” Johnson says. “We all kind of make those mistakes, but we have each other to correct ourselves along the way. It was a huge learning experience. I think, at this point, we’ve become family in the sense that we definitely have our arguments, but when we go on stage, well, we view ourselves as a live band.”
The Head and the Heart are, undeniably, first and foremost a live band. Their onstage energy is kinetic and they genuinely seem to be enjoying themselves. An unfettered, honest joy is palpable at their live shows — which isn’t something a band can fake.
“Some bands just want to sit in a room with a bunch of stuff and get the sound that they want, and then live shows are just, like, a necessary form of promotion,” he explains. “For us, playing the shows was kind of part and parcel with writing songs. Once you write the song, the place that they exist most vibrantly is on stage. So even if you’re not in the best mood or not feeling it, 10 minutes before you go on stage everyone’s goal is to have a great show. That’s everyone’s goal, to have a great, transcendent show. I think that happens a lot for us, more than for other bands. It's not just, ‘Well, I guess I’ll get drunk and I have to do this.’ It’s more than that to us.”