The Seattle folkies have hadn’t an easy 2016: Founding member Josiah Johnson announced in March that he was taking a hiatus to go to rehab, leaving the band without a singer for a summer tour. But the Head and the Heart haven’t completely lost their heads.
For their third album, Signs of Light, out Sept. 9, they signed to a major label and went to Nashville to work with rock producer Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Cage the Elephant). Here, primary lyricist and newly appointed frontman Jonathan Russell and violinist/vocalist Charity Rose tell EW about getting out of their comfort zones to make their most uplifting record yet.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Signs of Light is a lot more plugged in than your past two records. Were you intentionally exploring more electric instruments?
Charity Rose: The first album was especially acoustic because we were busking and playing open mics and had mobile guitars and instruments. And the venues we were playing lent themselves to that, but when we started touring more, we wanted to fill up the space more — so the second album kind of changed from there.
This is your first time working with a producer, and you guys enlisted Nashville powerhouse Jay Joyce. What was that like?
C.R.: His studio is so rad. It’s this big, open live room and his console is in the room with us. So we’re all in there looking at each other, Jay is chain smoking at the board, and it was this old-school vibe of trying to get the live sound.
Why did you want to work with him?
Jonathan Russell: We met with a couple of other guys, but when we met with Jay we were in his studio and he has these adorable Great Dane puppies — it feels crazy to call them puppies because they’re like f—ing horses — and he was so laid back. I felt like I could go on a f—ing fishing trip with this guy and hang out and talk music. And that intuition paid off. I like his style.
Is there something you can achieve with a producer that you guys couldn’t on your own?
J.R.: We tend to self-edit to a fault, so sometimes the magic is lost because you’re so quick to say, “That was a f–k up, let’s try again.” Jay would be like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! That’s the f–ing take!” He was really good at teaching up to live with what was coming out, all-inclusive of the flas and the magic.
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“Signs of Light” was written by Josiah, who announced he was taking a hiatus in March to enter rehab for drug addiction, why was it right to name the album after it?
C.R.: Signs of Light is a two-sided coin: there’s a loneliness and darkness, but also a silver lining to it. You can see it both ways. That’s a really powerful, real thing about life.
J.R.: It was definitely a nod of a hat [to Johnson]. He was stoked. It’s been an interesting path. The first album was really collaborative but then with the second album, we had, like, two months between touring and going back into the studio. It was like, “Well, Jon has a lot of songs, we’re going to use a lot of those.” It became a psychological thing [for him] like, “Why aren’t my songs getting picked?” So I’m glad that at least one of the songs that Josiah brought to the table is one that got picked.
It applies to what seems like the over-arching theme of the record, that there is this hope in loneliness, this idea that things might not be great right now but there’s an end in sight.
J.R.: It’s nearly impossible for me to walk through life and not collect some of the dirt that’s in the air. [But] with this record, instead of, “Life’s a bummer,” I wanted to be like, “Life’s hard, but remember the good things that have happened.” I wanted to make that f—ing record.”