July 18, 2016


How Travel Shaped The Head and the Heart’s ‘Signs of Light’

James Minchin
James Minchin

If The Head and the Heart kept track of all the ground they’ve covered in the last three years, the needle on that odometer would be worn down to a nub. It would be well-loved, well-used and well-done. It would be spent.

By the time the Head and the Heart had finished up touring behind their 2013 album Let’s Be Still, they had criss-crossed the country, played every music festival you could possibly think of and logged an absurd amount of miles. Instead of heading home to Richmond, Virginia at the end of 2014, Jonathan Russell—who stands at the head of the five-person ensemble as vocalist and guitarist—wasn't finished moving: he bought a van with a bed in the back, and he kept driving.

“I was definitely trying to make sure that I wasn’t just taking time off and just settle in—that can be dangerous," Russell explains. "I knew we were going to take 2015 off, so come January, I drove out to Los Angeles, and stayed out there for two or three months.”

Russell is on the move again; he's calling from a parking lot somewhere between Miami and the Florida Keys. He’s making the most of this calm spell before touring revs up again in support of Signs of Light, the Head and the Heart’s new album, out September 9. 

“On the way back, I visited my dad and my grandparents," he says. "All my family either lives in Mississippi—they live outside of Tupelo—or Florida, except for me and my mom in Virginia. I was going to drive around and travel and get my finger back on the pulse, you know? My band was touring so much that you’re reflecting back what you’re seeing, which is a really unrealistic bubble of the world. Unless you pop it, it’s not going to change. I’m trying to do my best at that.”

He popped it, all right. The visit to see his estranged father was “fuckin’ heavy,” he says, but good, since it sent him careening out of his comfort zone and into unfamiliar emotional territory. Before that, in Los Angeles, Russell and Josiah Johnson settled into a house perched on a hill in Montecito Heights that overlooked all of Los Angeles, where they started to lay pen to paper for lyrics that would eventually coalesce in the shape of Signs of Light

“City of Angels,” the bright, buoyant second track on Signs of Light, is one that was born on that hilltop, and the rest of the album follows suit: The stylistic shift from folk-rock to pop-infused experiments in sound carries throughout, and it was largely inspired by the constantly changing landscape. If Signs of Light is an intentional break from genre, it’s an intentional travelogue of sorts for the band, too.

“I always I think about where I was when I wrote the song,” Russell says of “City of Angels.” “‘All I Ever Knew’ I wrote when we were in Texas. We were getting out of the tour bus, it was hot as balls, sun scorching, and it was a flat area of Texas, and I was like, ‘Where are we? There’s nothing around here! Why are we doing this?’ For me at least, I think that the environment or the place that you’re in significantly shapes what you’re writing, whether it’s music or poetry or a novel. For me, that’s going back to the reason why I did that. Motivations don’t just strike you randomly. I have to set up little mind traps: ‘I’m going to L.A. for two months with my van to live in this really sweet house, and odds are, something’s going to work.’

"For me, as a writer, it’s really important to almost curate my surroundings," Russell continues, "which is why I think touring can get so hard sometimes, because you lose the control to do that. I intentionally did things like that to hopefully shape these songs in the way I wanted them to. Let’s Be Still, let’s be honest: It was a touring band’s second album, you know? We had no time, no perspective. It was kind of dark, darker than I’d like. It was nicer to do a comeback which a much brighter, happier record."

Drummer Tyler Williams agrees: For him, their time off set the members of the Head and the Heart up for a refreshing restart, in that they were able to live their lives and bring new tastes, textures and ideas back to their songwriting sessions. "It was kind of like when you go without talking to somebody for so long, and you see them again, and all of a sudden you have so many things to say—you have to catch them up on what you were doing," he says. "We kind of had to do that musically: It was like we were having conversations through our music to what we were listening to and what we had been doing and listening to during our time off. It just felt fresh."

The travel bug bit again, and once more in California, too: On the recommendation of My Morning Jacket, the members of the Head and the Heart convened in Stinson Beach. The house must’ve been built on some kind of cosmically-aligned fault line or something, one that channels creativity and cultivates it an hour north of San Francisco, as the band hit a stride in this gorgeous spot that they had never encountered before in their time spent writing together. This is where “City of Angels” grew from the bones set by Russell in Los Angeles to a full-fledged song, where they turned it into a “top-down rager” and “got in the metaphorical convertible.” If a Californian vibe wasn’t wholly apparent on Signs of Light before, it certainly came to the forefront in Stinson Beach.

“The biggest challenge was getting what was in our head out into the room and playing around with it with each other, and actually getting our musical conversation going on the level that we were hoping to reach,” says Williams of that phase in their writing process. “In August or September of last year, when we went to Stinson Beach, we did two weeks at this house that My Morning Jacket had told us about. They’d done Waterfall there, and this place was magical. That was where it really started to feel like we were meeting each other’s expectations. That house, the vibe there, just the general atmosphere of Stinson, there’s something mystical going on there. There was no fighting. We were just having fun playing listening to each other create parts to these songs that had been floating around for a minute.”

Now that Signs of Light is nearing its release date, the members of the Head and the Heart are dealing with additional changes, and ones that have less to do with movement and more to do with moving on. In March, the band announced that Johnson, who’s been with the band since its inception, would be sitting out touring for the foreseeable future as he was “battling addiction and focusing on his recovery.” While the change isn’t necessarily a permanent one—when Russell and Williams speak of Josiah’s absence, it’s in temporary terms—the Head and the Heart are feeling it and will continue to do so as they tour behind it.

The context for the record has changed slightly in that he won’t be there to perform songs he helped create for their live debut, but Johnson is very much a part of it: Signs of Light takes its title from the last track he wrote and sings, and it’s a fittingly optimistic closer. This chapter may end with him taking a step away, but it almost promises a return for the next one.

“I’ve been listening to this record more and more—I actually hadn’t listened to it in awhile, and I wanted to listen to sounds, whatever—I started realizing how often Josiah became the muse for a lot of us, I think,” says Russell. “Colors,” in particular, is an example of this: “I saw the colors fade away from you” is a stark and somber chorus, and it’s one that touches on the experience they shared with Johnson before making this decision. 

“I listen to some of [multi-instrumentalist] Charity [Rose Thielen]’s lyrics, and I listen to some of mine, and without realizing it, he sort of became our muse on this project. It makes a lot of sense. While it was going on, we were like, ‘Holy shit, we have no idea what our band is going to be like after this album comes out, because what the fuck are we going to do?’ It all wrapped itself up when he came up with that song ‘Signs of Light.’ We were like, ‘That kind of sums up the album, and we should definitely just call it that.’ Every song is just a patch on a quilt that just makes up this history of what happened before now.”

This patches serve as postcards, too: The trip was long and hard, but Signs of Light is the product of momentum, distance and change facilitated by steps in new directions. It was worth driving across the country for—and it was definitely worth giving that imaginary odometer a run for its money.