Open-Mic Success Story: The Head and the Heart

[caption id="attachment_1554" align="aligncenter" width="630" caption="Photo: Ryan Johnson"][/caption]

An open-mic night in Seattle kinda sounds like a playground for dirty folkies and pretentious wannabes; singer-songwriters boasting acoustic guitars, sandaled feet, granola breath and half-baked ideas, where the talent's better off not quitting their day jobs.

But Northwest coffee shop stereotypes be damned! New band on the rise the Head and the Heart proves not only can hitting the open mic circuit allow you to, in fact, quit that day job, but in doing so, you can start a potentially lucrative career.

Of course, it takes, you know, some talent to successfully pursue music full time. In the case of the Head and the Heart, the group’s harmonic inclinations, Americana roots and damn catchy choruses help the cause. Think Fleet Foxes meets Crosby Stills Nash and Young meets Dr. Dog in one scruffy (and non-scruffy -- there’s a lady present, thank you very much) sextet.

Composed of a group of Seattle transplants, the Head and the Heart co-frontmen Josiah Johnson and Jonathan Russell first met playing local open mic nights just two-and-a-half years ago. Johnson, moving from California, and Russell, a Virginia native, started out songwriting together before adding keyboardist Kenny Hensley to the mix, who had also moved from the Golden State to pursue a career in score writing.

Fellow open-micer, (and resident non-scruff) violin and vocalist Charity Rose Thielen, joined the group following an academic pursuit in Paris, as did bassist Chris Zache, who was a bartender at Conor Bryne where the group used to play. Russell’s drummer friend Tyler Williams, the only member not met through open mic gigs, rounded out the group after throwing caution to the wind and up and leaving a band in Virginia, and voila! The Head and the Heart was born.

Only … they didn’t have a band name at first. “We had about one-half to two-thirds of the songs on our [eponymous] debut written before we had a band name,” Johnson says. He notes the debut didn’t start out as a full album, either. Last March the group went into it planning to record a demo, but things morphed into something much bigger.  The release quickly signaled what Johnson describes as a “weird shift” in the band’s career as buzz started to build on local blogs surrounding the effort, as well as the band’s live show.

Good weird? “Yes, good weird. Unexpected,” he explains. Which is more than an understatement: Through the course of the year, the Head and the Heart went from buzz band to KEXP darlings, to the 2010 top-seller at Seattle record store Sonic Boom, to opening two nights for Vampire Weekend, to signing with Sub Pop.

The remarkable thing about these beginnings, is that the Head and the Heart’s debut boasts a sincerity not heard by many of the genre’s biggest names, which maybe has something to do with playing the crunchy open mic pack circuit to begin with, where expectations are typically rather low. “We just put our head down and started going,” Johnson says of the band's origins. “Then basically this all just happened.”

The Head and the Heart is out now on Sub Pop.