It seems tossed off — cliché even. But The Head and the Heart is actually the best possible name that Josiah Johnson, Jonathan Russell, Charity Rose Thielen, Chris Zasche, Kenny Hensley and Tyler Williams could have picked for their folk- and Americana-leaning outfit.
On the one hand, the Seattle-based sextet has handled its surge to fame with admirable sagacity. Six months after forming in mid-2009, The Head and the Heart's self-recorded and self-released eponymous debut album had sold 10,000 copies based on word-of-mouth alone. Six months after that, the band turned down several lucrative major-label offers to sign with indie heavyweights Sub Pop Records. Six months after that, the band was opening for the likes of Vampire Weekend, Dave Matthews and The Decemberists and licensing early hits "Lost in My Mind," "Rivers and Roads" and "Down in the Valley" to TV shows and movies like How I Met Your Mother, Sons of Anarchy and Silver Linings Playbook. Six months after that, the band was headlining theaters and making major music festival appearances.
On the other hand, The Head and the Heart has retained plenty of the homespun soul that originally lit its collective fire. Once all six musicians coalesced around Seattle's open-mic circuit, local fans and critics latched onto their raucous performance style and butter-smooth group harmonies, twangy acoustic instrumentation and polished mix of folk, pop and rock. It seems simple at first, but the band's soul-stirring crescendos, soft-loud-soft dynamics and clear-eyed sentimentality are impossible to shake — even for the most skeptical listeners. As Seattle Times critic Andrew Matson noted in April 2011, "The Head and the Heart connect with a rising ‘heartland' theme that's close to critic-proof. … [They're] a fan favorite on an emotional level, where taste doesn't factor in."
If it all sounds very Mumford & Sonsesque, well, that's because it is: Bearded 20somethings strike a major nerve with a broad audience thanks to a rootsy vibe and a nostalgic-waxing perspective that's probably not all that authentic. But as The Head and the Heart drummer Tyler Williams told Folio Weekly in early April, the band refuses to lump itself into that simplistic folk-revival category. "We've never felt super-connected to that scene," he says. "That's not what we really listened to or drew inspiration from. It's not unfair: We also have acoustic guitars, that strumming pattern and honest lyrics. If that's what people want to call it, that's fine. I just think we may not always be playing that genre. It already feels kind of dead in my mind."
But wait: The Head and the Heart's 2013 sophomore album, Let's Be Still, does mine a similar vein of uplifting Americana, even as it injects subtle electric elements, sociopolitical lyrics and orchestral arrangements into the mix. Williams admitted that the record, which cracked the Billboard 200 Top 10 and topped the folk and independent charts, was written in snippets of free time stolen away from the band's grueling tour schedule — and recorded straight off the road. But he says things will be different on his and his bandmates' as-yet-unannounced third album. "The goal of that second record
was to enable us to make more records,"
he explains. "It was the proving ground. And judging by the response we've had, I think we passed that test. So in 2015, we're going to take some time off — which we haven't really done since 2009 — put our heads down, and come up with something totally unique."
The band will visit Florida for the first time in May before that much-needed break, brandishing an integrated set list of material from those first two releases. "We've been experimenting with a set list that's seamless and cohesive since before the release of [Let's Be Still]," Williams says. "But we only started to nail it down, putting the right songs in the right place and getting into a bit of a rhythm, while touring in Canada [in late March]."
Even that will probably soon change, Williams says, just as so much about The Head and the Heart has since 2009, when the band was subsisting in a communal house on $10 per day. "We've been playing new jams during soundcheck that have the same vibe and the same heart — just different instrumentation," he says. "We want to expand our boundaries and challenge ourselves. But it's good to know that we can try out new things and people will follow us wherever we go."
Note: The original version of this story included the incorrect concert date. The Head and The Heart and Lost in the Trees perform Thursday, May 8, at Ponte Vedra Concert Hall.