Seattle folk-pop ensemble The Head and the Heart may be headlining three consecutive shows at The Fillmore next week, but it has not wandered too far away from its street busking, house party origins.
Don’t count them out as the entertainment at a pizza parlor, drummer Tyler Williams said during a recent chat from his native Virginia. Even after they were well established in Seattle, the six-piece still played unusual performing spaces, such as a local pizzeria or a high school classroom in Kansas.
“We still enjoy doing those kind of one-off little shows,” Williams said. “It’s a little harder to fit in with our schedule, but I don’t think we’d turn it down. Everybody in our band is not closed down. We’re not secluding ourselves from the general population.”
In 2009, singer-guitarist Josiah Johnson packed his bags and moved from Southern California and moved to Seattle to pursue graduate school. There, he got to know Richmond, Virginia transplant Jonathan Russell, also a vocalist and guitarist. The duo became the principal songwriters of the band and brought in fellow transplant Kenny Hensley, a keyboardist who was pursuing musical score-writing.
Seattle native Charity Rose Thielen, a violinist, had recently returned from a year studying government in Paris when she joined. Williams came aboard around the same time, and bassist Chris Zasche became the final permanent addition to the lineup after some turnover.
“Kenny was basically looking for a new start in Seattle,” Williams said. “He wanted to be a composer. Josiah ended up dropping out and having lots of student loans, but that’s a different story. Charity ended up being friends with a girl who was in the band originally. Jon wanted to leave Richmond because he felt he was being stifled here, as did I.”
Williams was playing in a Virginia band when his friend and former bandmate, Russell, shared an early demo for “Down in the Valley,” the folky, Americana song that would go on to shape the musical and thematic direction of the album Migration.
“I listened to it with my girlfriend for the first time, and I was pretty amazed at how mature the songwriting had become,” Williams said. “This seemed to be kind of like Jon coming to terms with life. It felt like, ‘Wow. Listen to this guy – my good old friend who was now blowing my mind.’”
In September 2009, Russell flew back to Virginia, and then he and Williams drove cross-country to Seattle.
The band members got to know each other while playing at open mic nights at a pub. After a handful of folks came and went, The Head and the Heart was short a bassist. Zasche was bartending at that pub, and volunteered. Finding a place to rehearse became the next challenge.
Any place with a piano or keyboard would do. That’s why one of the earliest rooms was a public library. Williams remembers their first rehearsal space, Hensley’s apartment.
“The place had holes in the walls … weird color schemes that completely threw everybody off, beer cans littered everywhere, cigarettes all over the place,” he said. “It was that kind of place.”
The band recorded and self-released a self-titled debut album in summer 2010, which was handed out to whoever would listen. It began to pick up steam with local radio stations and earned a pick-up by Seattle’s Sub Pop Records, which re-released it in 2011. Of course the album, which features multi-part harmonies and orchestral elements, also got poor reviews from a major news music blog and some local media, which ruffled the band’s feathers.
Some of that frustration was taken out as The Head and the Heart began work on a follow-up.
“It’s not a healthy criticism circle up there. It bore down on Jon. It came out in one song … it’s pretty angsty,” he said. A second song, going with the working title of “Bird With Her Own Cage” will have a “hair” of electronica. “It’s about unrequited love, when you were young. And now you can actually have love, when you’re older. Does it mean the same as that unrequited love?”
The new album, which doesn’t have a firm release date, will also be more personal, Williams said, partly due to everyone in the band tending to new relationships.
“We’re all relaxing and trying to get rest from the last year and a half (of touring),” he said. Which brings The Head and the Heart to the Fillmore shows.
“It’s kind of the climax of this (first) record,” he said. “The record has led to this point.”