It’s been a whirlwind four years for the members of The Head and the Heart: Jonathan Russell, Josiah Johnson, Charity Rose Thielen, Kenny Hensley, Tyler Williams and Chris Zache. They went from singing at open mics in Seattle in 2009 to re-releasing their previously self-released debut album in 2011 on the legendary Sub Pop label. And then they took to the road, touring behind their demo-turned-LP non-stop. All of these wonderful -- albeit exhausting -- experiences coalesced in the best possible of ways: into a brand-new record, born of the road and the loneliness coming home breeds.
After playing the same songs they recorded three years ago over and over again at shows across the country, the prospect of shaping a new record thrilled the band. The jaunty and stirring folk-pop sounds of The Head and the Heart take on a darker perspective with their sophomore album, Let’s Be Still -- of experiences lived, of the toll that three years touring the country took on the group as a group and as individuals.
The six-person group took advantage of the new album and embraced the opportunity to reinvent their process. Band members tested out other roles: Thielen, normally the back-up singer and violinist, took lead vocals on “Summertime,” which she also wrote; while Russell played the synth, a new sound for the band.
Hive recently spoke to Russell -- who was in the middle of helping drummer Tyler Williams move in Richmond, Virginia -- and Johnson over the phone separately about reinventing their process, the loneliness of constantly being away, and the colors of the album.
The first album, The Head and the Heart, wasn’t created with an album in mind, it was more of a demo that picked up traction and became an album. With that behind you, how did the band approach developing the new album?
Johnson: I think it had been so long since we had been able to record songs or just work on new stuff as a band. Everyone was really open and excited. I just remember having moments in there as we were arranging [the new songs] where it was like, "Oh yeah, I remember when we all met," that feeling of how natural it was to play and to arrange and appreciating the strengths the different band members bring to how the songs grow and evolve.
Each song is its own animal, and depending on the song, you approach it whatever way feels right. Our focus is just first to write a great song and then to arrange it in such a way that it elevates it beyond -- into the best of our abilities and beyond what it started out as.
Russell: In all of that time, everybody in the band had been restricted to playing 10 to 12 songs with the same instruments day after day. By the time we all got to start working on these new songs, everybody was excited and wanted to be a little more adventurous and play something other than what they’ve been playing for the last three years. It’s like you’ve got all these kids that are allowed to run rampant in this studio who have been boxed up in daycare for three fucking years. We don’t have to approach this song like we would’ve approached it three years ago because we have more experience under our belt. People have become better players. We had enough money to spend time to experiment.
How would you describe the sound of this album?
Russell: We worked with a guy, Peter Katis (a producer/engineer/mixer who has worked with Jónsi and The National). He’s really good at taking something natural and making it almost surreal or unnatural sounding, but it’s still sounding like music, obviously. He’s like, "Well, listening to all of these songs, they all have a very natural feel. How far do you want me to take that?"
Ultimately, we wanted to keep things very natural; we wanted to somehow capture some of the energy and the feel that you get from our live show, because that’s where all of our evolving and progression was made -- from the first album to this album -- was made on the road. The songs [on the first album] were still really new and there wasn’t much of a vibe there. On this record, we tried to just loosen up while we were in there and get the best take with the right amount of feel and energy there and capture that live element.
As the band worked on songs and created the collection of songs that would end up in the album, were there certain themes that kept popping up?
Johnson: I don’t think that it really sounds like a road album at all. There’s no [sings] "I’ve been gone for so long and I’m missing my girl" -- nothing like that. But I do notice there were times when you feel like you were overwhelmed by the business and the craziness of the world, specifically the world that we were living in, and I think there were times when we got on autopilot, just trying to survive being gone from home and playing shows for months at a time.
The title song, “Let’s Be Still” was a big thing. John, when he was writing that song, was watching people lose their love for the songs that they were playing because they’ve been playing them for too long and not spending time creating new things -- just night after night after night kind of thing. So there’s a search for that center that you seem to have lost. There’s a line in “Fire/Fear”: "I want to feel fire again with you or anyone else." Something is missing, and I can’t put my finger on what, but I remember those initial early days where everything was exciting and new, and I want to find that again.
We write about what it is we’re living and I’m glad that [the songs] don’t all come across as super obvious as being "on the road" songs. I don’t think that anyone doubts that that is what we’re supposed to be doing, but it was getting to the point where something needed to change or something needed to break or something needed to give. Even in the midst of doing this thing that we all feel like we’re meant to do and love to do.
Russell: I don’t know if there is one, I haven’t really listened to it closely like that. I know I feel like the overall mood is darker and heavier. I feel like the color palate on the first album is just really bright -- there’s orange, light blue, green, and maybe some purple, but it doesn’t really get that dark. With this one, there’s stormy weather colors, like deep purples, dark greens, browns and blacks. It’s just like everything about it is darker and heavier.
Is there a reason for that?
Russell: We were all in very different places after three years of basically uprooting our entire life. I think a lot of it has to do with that: being in a tornado and trying to hold on and dealing with the effects of that. As cliched as it has to sound sometimes, just trying to keep your relationships going, When you’re home, there’s just the feeling of emptiness. After a while, people stop trying to reach out to you. Eventually, you’re just no longer on people’s lists.
Then you come home and it all catches up to you. Perspective sinks in and you’re like, "Holy shit, I don’t know anybody in this town anymore. Where did everybody go?" I think there’s more loneliness on this record, there’s more sadness on this record [laughs]. But I think there’s also still some undercurrent of hope and wanting to overcome these situations. I don’t think I’m like the most downer writer. I don’t necessarily write upbeat songs, but I don’t think they’re bleak, necessarily.
The things that I was really affected by in the last two to three years of my life were mostly felt in solitude, whereas on the first record, most of the things that were affecting us so heavily, we felt as a group. The city was lonesome, but we had each other to create our own little world. Those were the kinds of the songs we wrote on that first record. This next one was like, "Whoa, where did everybody go? Where are my friends?" All the missed connections and the lost relationships, which you don’t necessarily feel and realize that it’s happening when you’re still constantly moving on the road. Once we finally came home for more than two weeks at a time, your perspective just starts to set in and that definitely was the ether in the air when I was writing songs.
How did the songwriting process play out with this album -- after being together for a longer period of time?
Russell: Now the writing dynamic is totally different. I actually write on the road sometimes. I’ll start a song, I’ll come home, and finish a song -- whereas they’ll come home and just sort of disconnect and just want to do very normal things. A lot of these songs were finished with just one songwriter as opposed to a collaborative approach. There was always some sort of interbreeding of creative input in the songwriting process, and then, as a band, we would dress it up together. This time around, I just found myself writing songs from start to finish, and then I would bring it an entirely finished song to the band and everybody would dress it up.
There was already going to be a totally different-sounding record because of that dynamic shift, which was completely influenced by touring in a very indirect sense. The creative juices had been dammed up for so long that I had no idea what these songs were going to sound like. Halfway through it, we still had no idea what this record’s going to sound like. One song would sound Americana, the next would be, hey, “Summertime,” what the fuck is that? Can we really pull this off?
I’m playing a synth, there’s a disco beat, and Charity’s emoting on the mic and playing electric. This is fucking awesome, but it’s not Head and the Heart, or at least, it’s not what people think of The Head and the Heart. The more songs we wrote and finished together, the more we were like, "This strangely is kind of coming together. It’s strangely sounding like a collective record." I’m excited about it.
Let's Be Still is out October 15 on Sub Pop Records.