From the outside, Seattle pop-folk outfit The Head and the Heart looks like yet another slightly aged breakout act headed to an Alaska stage this summer. The sextet comes on the heels of last year's highly anticipated performances with similarly popular reach, like MGMT, Foster The People, Beach House, Cults, Sea Wolf, Grouplove and others. But this group's reason for making the trip north runs a little deeper than the usual story.
Frontman Josiah Johnson and his self-professed best friend Jonathan Russell formed The Head and the Heart back in 2009. Eventually the duo added other members, and today, bassist Chris Zasche, pianist Kenny Hensley, drummer Tyler Williams and multi-instrumentalist and singer Charity Rose Thielen fill out the group.
The band released its first recording, a self-titled 10-track album, in 2011 to a barrage of mixed press, including a harsh review from music tastemakers at Pitchfork.com.
"The thing that I always imagined -- the reason why I wrote songs when I was growing up -- was for those dark moments that we all have," Johnson explained in a phone interview, the ambient street noise of Toronto in the background. "When a song reaches you during a hard time and you put it on repeat and then everything makes sense, or gets better. My fantasy, with songwriting, has always been for someone to have that kind of connection with a song that I wrote. And so, yeah, it hurt when writers were like, 'Meh, it sounds like stuff I've heard before.'
"But, I think, we were really proud of the fact that we didn't really release our songs in a vacuum, and they were heard, and they were panned, but they were out there."
Negative press didn't overwhelm the band's desire to move forward. The Head and the Heart continued to tour on its self-titled album before launching into the recording of 2013's "Let's Be Still."
Ultimately, and perhaps unknowingly, the sophomore album demonstrates the group's resilience and its ability to flourish despite jaded critics. Johnson added that fans really responded to the group's live sets and while The Head and the Heart was getting abused in the press, the group's networking skills and extensive fan base helped guide it into its second album.
Johnson confessed, "The second album was a little leery, and I'm not sure if that's illustrated in the lyrics or not. It might have just been me."
"Let's Be Still" was written during an almost nonstop year of touring, he said. While on the road, The Head and the Heart connected with Utah's The Devil Whale and Oregon-based band Quiet Life, both groups with direct experience of doing self-made tours of Alaska, and Alaska singer-songwriter Matt Hopper, who currently lives in Idaho.
"Both of them (Quiet Life and The Devil Whale) had been up and done a handful of shows and then taken a week to explore (the state)," Johnson said, adding that both bands had shared memorable stories about touring Alaska. "It sounded great, and we thought, 'We need to get up there!' "
The band, of course, preferred a summer visit over a winter visit. They almost took a spot at the Alaska State Fair, but ultimately declined the offer due to tour dates on either end of the slot that prevented them from spending extra time here.
"We've been considering coming up probably since the fall of 2011 when Devil Whale told us about it, but it was always like, 'Oh, we're recording that summer,' or 'Oh, we have this open tour.' So this year was the year. It's an off year for us, and right now we have nothing but time to go do things and not worry about it."
Part of that "free time" has been spent crafting a third album, Johnson added. "The last time I had space and time to write songs at a natural pace, I was 25 and I wasn't in a serious relationship and I was just dating and, essentially, was on tour with this band for almost five years. Now I'm back and I have space -- I'm in a serious relationship -- and I feel like that's the case for a lot of people in this band. You realize that you've changed so much in those past five years."
"Each album -- I heard this somewhere, so it's not mine -- is like a snapshot of your life at the time you make it," Johnson said of the group's forthcoming release. "I feel like I'm really excited about where I am in life and where we as a band are in life, and so this snapshot will be a really exciting one."
Johnson and Alaska's Hopper have also co-written a song about breaking up and moving on. The song has been recorded, but no plans have yet been made for its release.
"I have no idea what anyone is going to do with it. It's not my song, I just sing a verse on it," Johnson said. "It's pretty sweet, though. I really love the way it turned out."
The Head and the Heart
When: 6 p.m. Saturday, June 6
Where: Moose's Tooth Pub & Pizzeria, 3300 Old Seward Highway
Tickets: General admission is $47.50, available via beartooth.net
21 and over only.
Katie Medred is a freelance music writer living and working in Anchorage. Visit her blog, Beat & Pulse, Alaska, at beatandpulsealaska.tumblr.com for more.