The Head and the Heart have the holy grail of indie rock band success: One good male singer, one good female singer. It’s a combination, along with a well-timed whistle or catchy chant, that has made Peter Bjorn and John, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Gotye, and a handful of others huge overnight sensations on the strength of one song.
But The Head and the Heart don’t have a “Young Folks.” They don’t have a “Home.” And they have yet to write their “Somebody That I Used to Know.”
When the six-piece folk rock band plays the nTelos Wireless pavilion on September 26, Charlottesville is bound to find out why. The Seattle-based folksters are too moody, too brooding, and a bit too off-kilter to crank out one of those windows-down-sing-your-heart-out pop sensations.
“We would never go out and try to write something like that,” singer and violinist Charity Rose Thielen told C-VILLE Weekly in a recent interview. “We’re never trying so hard to be something.”
The band has come closest to producing a seminal modern duet on its latest record, Let’s Be Still. On the LP’s title track, Thielen warbles alongside honey-tongued Josiah Johnson to produce an eminently listenable two-part sing-along with some measure of catchiness. Still, it’s not the crossover blockbuster some might have thought The Head and the Heart could produce.
“That song is one of the songs on the album I can just listen to over and over again on repeat and never get sick of it,” Thielen said. “It is sonically easy on the ears…but we didn’t do it just because we understand that it could be cutesy to have a duet between me and one of the guys.”
The lack of commercialism of The Head and the Heart is likely due to Thielen’s own unique voice. She’s not the polished singer Johnson is—she’d fall more in the Joanna Newsome camp than that of Norah Jones if she were a solo act. And it’s no wonder the first breakout hit The Head and the Heart produced, “Lost in My Mind,” rode the wave of the male lead’s swelling vocal.
Johnson is indeed the driving creative force behind the band’s updated folk sensibility, though guitar player and singer Jonathan Russell also contributes a good deal of songwriting, and Thielen kicks in as necessary, as well.
“For the first album, [someone] would write half a song, and someone else would finish it,” Thielen said. “For the second album, we had been with each other so much from touring, anytime we could get alone we would revel in it.”
That doesn’t mean the second record was produced without collaboration, and indeed Let’s Be Still sounds in many ways like The Head and the Heart’s full-length debut as a realized band. At just nine songs with some around the two-minute mark, the first record comes off more like an EP or a particularly well-polished demo, written and produced in a dreamy college student’s dorm room. There’s a hint of angst in the music, a me-against-the-world mentality, but it’s also laden with up-tempo hope and earnest optimism.
Let’s Be Still is a more complex and layered musical effort—with Thielen providing her violin chops sparingly but effectively, Chris Zasche dropping steady basslines, Kenny Hensley finding his place on the keys, and Tyler Williams keeping the beat. The song lyrics feel more grounded and realistic.
“The album is a little more mid-tempo-y, moody, and contemplative than the first,” Thielen said. “Both albums are an expression of where we were at the time. For the second, we’ve had some time just to be and a longer time to write and record. We are really excited about that because we haven’t had that as a band.”
Excitement is in the air for the next effort, as well. Thielen said with the current record about a year old, the band is now plotting its next move. The tour that swings through Charlottesville this week will wrap up in December, and The Head and the Heart is hoping to get back to writing and recording as soon as they have some time off.
What has not been plotted is what direction that album will take, according to Thielen.
“Who knows how the third will sound,” she said. “I think it will be our best record yet. We have so much in us that hasn’t been exercised. These first couple of albums were incredible, being on Sub Pop which allowed us to solidify our vision and unify as a band. Everyone has grown so much, and I think we are bursting at the seams.”
The Head and the Heart’s stop in Charlottesville will be a welcome respite as the band finishes up its 2014 road trip, according to Thielen. Two of the band members, Russell and Williams, grew up in the Richmond area and still call Virginia home.
“I’m sure they’ll try and go home and do laundry,” Thielen said. “Whenever we have come back and played Charlottesville or Richmond, it resonates with me. I feel like an adopted hometown-ian. We’re excited to come back to our second home.”