The Head and the Heart on How New Album 'Living Mirage' 'Holds a Mirror' Up to Themselves
Eureka, the triumphant declaration that loosely translates to “I’ve got it!,” follows good ideas and accidental epiphanies. It’s also the motto for the state of California and a fitting one at that, as countless artists have sought out its fertile landscape in the hopes of digging up inspiration and harvesting a breakthrough.
For The Head and the Heart, their Eureka manifested in a dusty stretch of California desert. Jonathan Russell, the folk-rock outfit’s lead vocalist and chief lyricist, was tuning his electric guitar in the Joshua Tree studio they’d moved into. The two-note tuning sequence barely qualified as a riff, but bassist Chris Zasche paused, listened and asked Russell to keep going when he heard potential in the reverb.
"It was literally Jon tuning a guitar, playing that riff, and I was like, 'Jon, just keep playing those two notes over and over!'" Zasche tells Billboard. "We did this jam for like, twenty minutes. We listened back, and it had this feeling of newness. It had a feeling of something we never could’ve created before."
The point of the Joshua Tree retreat was to write new music and -- hopefully -- follow-up their third album, 2015’s Signs of Light. (The LP is their highest-charting effort to date, peaking at No. 5 on the Billboard 200.) It was an effort to gather the far-flung members of the group far from familiar distractions and obligations and see if they even could work together, frankly. Russell, Zasche and their bandmates no longer called the same city home, and hadn’t for quite some time; a decade has passed since they first met at a Seattle open mic night, and some members have since scattered to both coasts, reconvening for tours and the occasional shoot or recording session in between albums.
Their styles and tastes had changed, as had their lineup: founding members Josiah Johnson and Kenny Hensley had moved on, Matt Gervais had joined and the sounds and relationships shifted accordingly. The band that gathered in California wasn’t a group of strangers, but it hardly felt like they shared the same kinship that took root in a rainy city a lifetime ago. They had two options: write through it and remain, or arrive at the realization that they couldn’t and accept that they’d grown into something else, even if it meant growing apart.
They achieved the former, and Living Mirage is the result of that fractured moment in Joshua Tree. Vulnerable ballads and sweeping choruses fit for festival fields run through it, but a poppier, adventurous musical palette (on lead singles "Missed Connection" and "Honeybee," which came from a songwriting exercise with alt-pop singer-songwriter Ryn Weaver, especially) signifies a new beginning thanks in no small part to the production and guidance of Tyler Johnson and Alex Salibian, who worked with Harry Styles on his self-titled debut.
Below, Russell, Zasche and multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Charity Rose Thielen dig into Living Mirage’s transformative properties and explain how this album successfully lured the band away from the breaking point.
How did Living Mirage make you look at your bandmates in a whole new light?
Jonathan Russell: One of the most daunting but rewarding things about making the new record is it kind of holds a mirror back up to all of [us] again. It reveals what’s truly there. We went down to Joshua Tree to try and start from scratch with music and see what would come out of it. It became pretty evident pretty quickly how fractured our friendships were. When you’re popping on and off tour, you can keep the Band-Aid on: You kind of feel like you have to, because nobody wants to have that big sit-down talk and walk on stage or do promo or go to a radio station. You’re also in tears because you have to address some pretty gnarly issues that have been developing over ten years.
This record kind of became beautiful: It started out as this pretty involved process of trying to become friends again, trying to actually be humans with each other and not just talking at each other. We’re talking to one another again, literally, but with music -- it feels more harmonious but there’s hints of discord.
Charity Rose Thielen: The dynamic exchange was kind of transformed before with losing a member and adding a member. We were figuring it out as we were making music. We were processing things in Joshua Tree. That was the genesis of this record and demoing: processing things while we were making music. As an empath, I’m hyper-aware of relationship dynamics, and I’m kind of a peacemaker. For our band, being a democratic band, friends, music is always an extension and directly related to those dynamics. This was especially unique, making this record, because of that.
Chris Zasche: I feel like this record had a lot of growing pains for us. Some [band members] were more ready for the change, and others weren’t. We all kind of like got to this place differently and at different times... it goes back to having to redefine who you are in the moment and not feel like you can’t do something just because you haven’t done it before. I feel like we had a lot of moments of breaking into uncomfortable territory that felt natural and felt like it made sense, like all these moments fit these songs.
It was just new, and I think anything new is hard -- not only for making music, but sometimes it can be hard for listeners to hear [new] things from bands they like. We had a couple of those songs where at first, we were like, “This doesn’t sound like our song. How do we, what do we do with it?” Then we’d start playing with it.
When was your Eureka moment on Living Mirage?
CZ: [“Living Mirage”] was pretty much the first song that we wrote for this album. We had a rough couple of days of starting and not really gelling right off the bat -- no one really knew what we were supposed to be doing because there wasn’t a lot of structure. Then that song came together, and it was literally Jon tuning a guitar, playing that riff, and I was like, “Jon, just keep playing those two notes over and over.” We did this jam for like, twenty minutes. We listened back, and it had this feeling of newness. It had a feeling of something we never could’ve created before.
It’s kind of a departure for Jon as well: He’s always really good with imagery, but it’s a painting as opposed to a story. Everything about that song, that was like the whole process in Joshua Tree -- we can just do whatever we want. It doesn’t have to sound like this; it doesn’t have to sound like that. We just have to sound like the moment.
JR: If you go back and listen to “Living Mirage,” it’s E and F the whole fuckin’ song, and I don’t think anyone would sit down and think it’s something profound. It’s not; it’s something a kid could play, but it somehow created this hypnotic pull for me. The band fills in around this riff in such a way that I’m kind of the spine of the body and the band becomes the limbs. They make what a child can do on the guitar work and make it really interesting. That song, to me, was the a-Ha! moment of like, “Okay, cool: I’m hearing the band again. I’m not just hearing Jon the Songwriter.”
“Living Mirage” felt like we were drawing out personality types, musically, which is exactly what we were hoping for when we went to Joshua Tree -- to just try and let the old thing rest. No rules anymore. Let’s just see what happens with this kind of a new band -- no Kenny, no Josiah, we have Matty now, who’s a songwriter and also a phenomenal musician. I don’t know if it was because we were in the desert or because I was just sort of sick of everything I had already been doing. I wanted to go with stream-of-consciousness and see what would come out. I think I went back and changed, like, six of those words, but for the most part, it was just one or two takes. That song kind of changed the compass and started us in a new direction.
What was a songwriting breakthrough for you that represents your eagerness to try something new?
CT: It was great to have Jon fly up to Seattle and go to Whidbey Island with Matty, him and I. We had some really, really special writing come out of that. Jon brought “Honeybee,” and lyrically, Matty and I filled in bridges that was empty space before to those songs. We hadn’t really written in Seattle in a long time. It was really refreshing.
JR: I explored writing with other people outside the band for the first time. “Honeybee” was really Ryn Weaver and I. That was kind of me drawing out a reality she was dealing with in her life. [With] good songwriting, you can see yourself in that song. I added a bit of my life into it, as did Charity and Matty. That’s one of those songs that’s basically like, don’t go through your whole life without saying the things you wish you would have said to this person. I’ve always enjoyed putting happy music, bright, colorful music, around something that can be dark or heavy. Even with “Honeybee,” it can also be a sultry, sexy song, but meanwhile, it’s kind of like, this person’s about to die, and if I don’t say it now I’ll never say it. At the same time, you kind of want to groove and dance with this person.
CZ: “Honeybee” creates a moment that we don’t have in our set. We don’t have that feeling. To have a new song that has a new emotion, a new color within our set, I just love it. It’s a song [Tyler and Alex] brought a lot to.
JR: It seemed like the record needed another puzzle piece that wasn’t in existence yet. We had this amazing team around us that we only scratched the surface on. Leaning on [Tyler and Alex] helped: “Hey, what are some interesting writers that you know that you’ve seen other artists work with? Who are they? Why don’t I go down to L.A. for a few weeks and meet these people? Maybe I’ll enjoy writing with them.” That’s what got me down there to meet Ryn.
Funnily enough, we were working all day on a completely different song, and it wasn’t really working. I was like, "I don’t know, man, you’re such an amazing artist, but you’re so crazy" -- good crazy, but we just weren’t vibing at all musically. We just went outside, and I was like, “So you said you just took a red eye from New York, what were you doing there?” I just started asking her questions. She started talking about what she’s going through, and we just turned it into what it is now. I was in a pool, she was sitting on the side, and she’s like, talking about lyrics, writing lyrics, and singing this melody. We went inside and added a floor stomp handclap beat.
It kind of had this Fugees/Lauryn Hill vibe. It started out as this R&B thing, just all a cappella, and then I took it to the band. It shows the maturity and restraint and the expertise of what the band are able to do now. It took something that was really a blueprint, a beautiful story with great melodies that you could really easily over-do and just ruin the entire feel of that song. The amount of restraint Tyler [Williams, drums] and Chris show on that song, I was just blown away by it. I think we all turned it into something really unique.
How did Living Mirage redefine your role in The Head and the Heart?
CT: My role in this band has always had the greatest allowance to ebb and flow, if that makes sense: I’m not holding down a rhythm instrument; I’m not playing instrumentally consistently. That’s always excited me, that grey area, where I’m gonna fit in, what I’m gonna bring and at what time while considering things on a macro level, what do we need, what can I do. It’s always changing with each album. That confusion or that mystery can sometimes be emotionally draining for me personally. It’s always keeping me on my toes and engaged.
JR: We’ve been playing half the new record [on tour]. With “Missed Connection” -- which was kind of my biggest fear, because it’s such a departure -- I don’t even play an instrument on that song. It’s really just a three-piece band if you listen to it, bass drums and piano, I don’t think there’s an electric guitar on it. I’m now just like a frontman on that song, and it’s so exciting and terrifying at the same time. On the good day where I forget about how different it is and let myself go there, it’s one of the biggest highs of the entire show… I feel like we’ve been getting some love on the radio for that song, which is never taken for granted, because there’s not a better feeling than playing a song like that to a big audience and having them just chant the words. Everyone’s singing together. It’s just about that feeling.