The Head and the Heart—Like a Desert Mirage

After a busy touring schedule in 2018, Seattle’s The Head and the Heart found themselves in a unique position once they began to get to work on their next LP. For starters, they were down two founding, integral members of the group; both pianist Kenny Hensley, and guitarist, vocalist, and contributing songwriter Josiah Johnson, were taking indefinite leave from the band. But, beyond that, there was already a desire from within the band to start shaking things up, in an attempt to reopen The Head and the Heart’s musical chakras. So, they did what any band in need of inspiration does: they went to the Joshua Tree for a week of pre-production and writing. 

The trip appears to have been just what The Head and the Heart needed, as out of those early sessions came Living Mirage—the band’s fourth album, which is an uplifting, sonically smooth, collection of songs that are reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac—only given a modern folk-pop twist, like only The Head and the Heart can.

Recently, AQ spoke with singer, guitarist, songwriter, and founding member of The Head and the Heart, Jonathan Russell, to talk about the band’s crucial desert trip and the influence it had on Living Mirage.

How did pre-recording sessions in the Joshua Tree set the tone for Living Mirage?

You know, we were at the end of the previous tour, which would have been last year. A few of us kind of had this sense of wanting to somehow re-approach music in a way that we could just forget what we had already done. That’s easier said than done. And so, a place like Joshua Tree, where you kind of have… I don’t want to say no identity, but less than I do see of what you possess elsewhere. There’s just something very freeing about being in the desert and in Joshua Tree, especially. I mean, I remember when I went there, I shaved my head, and I shaved my face, except for, like, mutton chops or something. I got yellow aviator glasses. I borrowed these black and white Levi’s from my fiancé that somehow magically fit me, and just treaded into the desert…. I just wanted so bad to just start over in a way and I think a lot of us did.

It sounds like you guys just wanted to get weird and shake it up a little.

That is exactly right.

With some original members taking some time off and with new members coming into the fold, did that new dynamic shape up the finished product?

Yeah…. In retrospect, I think it was a blessing in disguise, because I think just having the old arsenal around, you more quickly or a little more easily fall into an old routine. And, in this idea of us trying to explore and find new sounds and find new ways of playing, reacting to one another, I think we had no choice. Kenny had taken a year off, so, our main, melodic piano players was out; Josiah is no longer with us, so there’s less of his perspective in terms of writing. Charity’s husband, Matty, is now in the picture and he’s a great songwriter…. So, I think it left more space in the room or at least left more question marks around, which was like I said, a really positive thing… it just caused everyone to pick up instruments regardless of what their primary goal was. You know, like Chris, our bass player—he would pick up the bass last; he might pick up an electric guitar or he might get on a set of bells or just sit and listen. It just allowed us to free up this identity that we have had for the last nine years. 

I remember going into it like, ‘Man, this train might get off the rails or might just blow up,’ because there was no way of knowing if the chemistry was going to be there. The dynamic was just so different. But I think it allowed us to approach it in the exact way we wanted to, which was [to have] no rules. It kind of reminds me of when we made our first record, because no one really knew what they were doing, and no one really knew what they could or couldn’t do. And that’s kind of what we wanted to try to get back to you on this record. It was like, ‘Can The Head and the Heart do that? Does it feel right? Yes? Do it.’

You just spoke about the instrumentation a moment ago. My understanding is that you personally wanted to focus more on the electric guitar, for example. Was that in itself an example of breaking it down and building it back up again?

Well, electric guitars, for sure, but even more than that…. For so many albums, I would bring songs to the table, and a lot of the time when I’m writing, I will use demos to sort of build out sections of songs that are kind of reliant upon certain instruments or melodies. So, you’re already removing some room for everyone else in the band to fill. I could feel that out on tour…. The less ownership somebody has over what they’re playing, the less you can really dive into it. And that was never anything that was intentional, it just sort of happened. This time around, I really wanted to be a more reactionary writer. There’s songs like “Living Mirage” and “Running Through Hell,” where I am playing electric guitar…. Both of those songs were like epic, 15-minute jams, and then we would go sleep, wake up the next day, and we’d play back what we did, and we would just find like the good bits and then we would sort of boil it down until we felt like we had a song. 

Do you think as a result of all these different approaches to songwriting that Living Mirage is a departure from your previous albums? 

Ah, you know, it’s funny. I mean, I’ve definitely had friends use that word…. I’m [one of] the quickest ones to want to change directions, or just try something different. So, everything to me is the departure, therefore nothing is a departure, not to be too petty about it. But, I listen to our records and every single record, to me, sounds vastly different, at least sonically. And I’ve never really been happy with any of them, which I think is just part of being an artist. You’re never content, therefore you make more art, because you constantly have a chance to prove to yourself that you can do it better.

Well, if it’s not a departure, then I would just say that it’s an excellent extension of the band’s trajectory, because it’s a great album. 

Thank you so much, man. I appreciate it.