Jonathan Russell moved from Virginia to Seattle, Washington in 2009 and accidentally created The Head and The Heart. It wasn’t really the goal; he thought his musical path was going to sound much more like The Killers than the folk rock AAA mainstay. But a chance encounter with Josiah Johnson led to what would become the band that released its third studio album, Signs of Light, in 2016.
Tracks like their first single, “Lost in My Mind,” and newer tracks like “All We Ever Knew” and “Rhythm and Blues” remain in regular rotation at Birmingham Mountain Radio. And the band took licensing to a new level when they physically appeared in the pilot of Cameron Crowe’s 2016 Showtime series Roadies.
But the path hasn’t been without struggle. A couple of years ago, Johnson battled addiction issues and took a hiatus from the road. Violinist and vocalist Charity Thielen’s husband, Matt Gervais, stepped into the role on tour, allowing Johnson time to work through it. The band has been supportive, and Johnson is on a hopeful path.
How is Josiah doing right now?
I think he’s doing good. He’s actually hanging out with me in Virginia (prior to leaving for the current tour). It’s been a couple of years now since everything hit the fan, and he’s been doing all of the right things; taking care of himself. I think he’s on the right path. He’s living in Oakland now, so I see him quite a lot, actually. I split my time between Virginia and San Francisco. Right now, we’re on a little writing trip together.
Has he started playing with you guys again? Is he ready to come back?
There’s really been no major decision about that. He’s popped up on a couple of shows; we had him out to Red Rocks and he came out and joined for the encore. But we pretty much decided to finish this album cycle without him and sort it out over time; see how writing goes, see how that feels again. We’re kind of leaving it up to him as to whether or not he comes back full time. Maybe he writes with us but doesn’t tour; maybe he tours some of the time. We’re just kind of leaving it all out there on the table for right now, because he has really developed a healthy lifestyle and getting back into the routine of a heavily touring band can be disruptive to anyone’s life. We’re all pretty open to the idea right now, so we’ll see what happens.
When you guys first had success, it’d be easy to say that you caught a trendy wave of folk rock bands, but you were selling homemade CD’s out of the trunk of your car. To what do you attribute that collective sound emerging coast-to-coast at the same time?
That’s interesting. When I moved to Seattle in 2009, I was moving from Virginia. Years before that, I had gone through a Ryan Adams phase; that sort of Americana thing. For me, I thought it was on the way out, but then I moved to Seattle, a place that I had always thought was Modest Mouse, The Shins and other indie rock stuff. And I got there and everyone was playing Americana, and I thought, “What the [expletive] is going on here? Everyone sounds like Ryan Adams. I don’t get it.”
That’s unfair. But a lot of people were doing more stripped-down things, more singer-songwriter. And I didn’t see that coming at all. I can’t really speak for the rest of the country, but I guess for us, when I met Josiah and we started writing songs together – which is what ended up turning into The Head and The Heart – we met at an open mic and he was covering this Bon Iver song “Skinny Love.” I had just heard that song on a playlist that my friend made me because she knew I was driving across the country. I didn’t even know who it was. And when I heard it again at this open mic at a bar called Conor Byrne, it was this guy, Josiah, singing. That sparked our interest in talking to one another, and because of the way that was going, I left all of my keyboards back in Virginia. I didn’t even really play guitar; I could barely even play guitar. I was mostly writing on piano, but I didn’t want to bring any of my stuff. So I was sort of – out of necessity – forced to start over again on guitar, and that fit into the way Josiah was writing at the time. Neither of us were really great players, we just had good voices.
Again, I can’t speak for the rest of the country, but for us, those limitations had a lot to do with it. It was really easy to go to an open mic and meet a ton of musicians and put something together. That’s what started to shape the sound we were making when we were writing together.
But I totally know what you mean. We had been playing “Lost in My Mind” around a while, and then it started getting picked up on the radio and it’s like, “Oh yeah, there’s Mumford and Sons. There’s Of Monsters and Men.” There were all of these bands doing this folk rock thing and I was just like, “Well, I guess this is the time for the 70’s to come back.”
It was funny. When I moved to Seattle, that was the last sound that I would have expected being a part of. I was way more into keyboards and synth; bands like Spoon and The Killers. But when it comes to songwriting, I’m mostly into Tom Petty and 90’s country. I fell into it quite naturally, but I definitely didn’t anticipate that being a thing.
There was also The Lumineers. We toured with them and we’d trade off; sometimes we’d open for them, sometimes they’d open for us. The more and more we’d travel around, we’d discover more bands doing this similar style of music.
Avett Brothers were doing that in this part of the country…
Yeah, they’re from North Carolina, right? It took us a long time to get to the East Coast. This was long before we had tour support from a label. Denver was the fartherest we’d gone, and that’s when we met The Lumineers guys.
How did the Roadies thing happen for you guys and was “acting” a natural thing for you?
Oh, God. No, acting was terrifying. Luckily he didn’t give us any lines. He was just like, “Pretend like you’re warming up backstage.” And it’s like, “Okay, we do that pretty much every day of our lives.”
“Then we’re gonna have you sound checking, like you’re working out a song.”
“Cool. Well this is pretty much everything we already do.”
So thank God we didn’t really have to act. But I mean, it was interesting and it was fun to do it for a couple of days, but man, those guys work hard and they work long days. I guess touring is similar in a way because it’s a full day – people only see an hour and a half of your day. But I don’t know if that world is for me. You never say never, but I don’t feel like I’m well suited for it. It was an honor to be able to work so closely with Cameron Crowe and all of those actors, but I definitely prefer hanging out with musicians instead of actors.
How important to your identity is Seattle? Are you still a Seattle band?
Someone asked me that the other day. “So you’re still based in Seattle, even though only two of you live there?” And I don’t know what’s gonna change that. I guess the world still knows us as a Seattle band. That’s where we formed. And I did live there – I lived there for about five years. But for me now, it’s just a place that I go visit some friends. Charity and Matt are the only two left there. I honestly identify mostly with Virginia, which is where I moved back to.
Which is where you grew up?
Actually, I grew up in Jacksonville, Florida. But I moved here in middle school, went to high school here. And I started learning music after high school in Richmond by myself; getting books an getting a little four track, trying to sell some of my songs. And once I got a few songs under my belt, that’s when I moved to Seattle.
I mostly identify with Virginia. I just got back here a week ago, and I felt like I could finally relax. I feel like that’s when you know where your home is.
Birmingham Mountain Radio presents The Head and The Heart comes to the Alabama Theater on Wednesday, October 4. Doors open at 7 p.m. and the show begins at 8 p.m. The Shelters will open.