A few hours before the Head and the Heart take the stage in New York, the band’s tall, sociable-dude bass player, Chris Zasche, shows off a few photos on his phone. The shots are of an empty stage, horizontal lights zig-zagging around it — not quite a U2-style spectacle, yet not quite something one would associate with the natural-beauty pop of a band like his. “This is kind of our first tour with actual stage design,” Zasche says, somewhat sheepishly. “The rooms are a little bigger, so we’re playing into that.”
Sitting next to him in their hotel restaurant, the band’s singer and guitarist, Jonathan Russell, concurs before being distracted by a barrage of messages on his own phone — coincidentally, on the same topic. “I just got five texts on a thread about creative design,” he says. “What type of material we want on stage, the height of the risers…”
“We’re putting a little bit more into the show, as opposed to …” Zasche pauses, in search of the right phrase. “A band that just gets up and plays?”
These are heady days for the Head and the Heart. They’re unveiling Living Mirage, their first record in three years, and the previous night they guested on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show. “Missed Connection,” the new album’s gently propulsive, breathily harmonized first single, is showing signs of becoming a crossover pop hit. Their gig tonight will serve as a warm-up to a headlining summer tour at larger venues. The promotional chores are so relentless that band members have been happy to grab dinner at a Whole Foods near their hotel and crash in their rooms at un-rock & roll, pre-midnight hours.
Living Mirage is the band’s sleekest and poppiest album, one that’s unafraid of indulging in power chords, Eighties-style synthesizers and shouted-out vocal hooks. But it emerged from the most traumatic and challenging time in the band’s history. They lost one member to drug addiction and recovery, another to road burnout, and the band almost collapsed a few days into the early rehearsals and songwriting sessions for Living Mirage. In a step that would’ve been unimaginable when they began playing in Seattle bars ten years ago, they turned to outside, hit-proven songwriters to help them finish the album after realizing they were essentially stuck in the same groove.
But as the set-design photos on Zasche’s phone demonstrate, they rolled with the changes. After watching some of their 2000s indie rock peers flounder, the Head and the Heart decided to bear down and become what once might have been unthinkable — a more disciplined pop group. “We’ve seen some bands who started in similar places, and the difference in whether you’re in a van or on two buses is if you’re on the radio,” says Russell, unapologetically. “If you’re continuing to grow and make a living, it’s part of the game.”
Yet a part of the band is still learning to adjust to the new mainstream world they’ve chosen to invade. Have they heard “Missed Connection” on the radio yet? Zasche says no; he lives in a small Northwestern town with only one station, which plays country. Russell, now sporting a clean-shaven look that makes him look like Liev Schreiber’s younger brother, also shrugs. “I haven’t either — I don’t really listen to radio!” He laughs, but then catches himself: “I don’t know if I’m supposed to say that or not.”
During the late 2000s, indie rock turned all woodsy, hirsute and harmony-vocal inclined, and few bands more embodied that shift to communal thrift-store pop than the Head and the Heart. The group began casually, with Russell and transplanted Californian and computer-science major Josiah Johnson meeting at an Irish pub in Seattle and playing together. Other members, including violinist and singer Charity Rose Thielen, joined up, and soon a band had emerged. Their self-released 2009 debut cemented their sound: fragile melodies and enveloping harmonies that occasionally worked themselves up into emotional whirlwinds. The record sold so well in their part of the country that it was picked up for national release by Sub Pop, becoming one of the label’s best-selling albums of that era.
At the same time, the Head and the Heart were ambitious. Each album gently expanded on the group’s sound. They licensed a song (“Let’s Be Still,” the title track of their 2013 album) for a Corona beer ad, and by 2016 they had left the indie world behind for a major label, Warner Brothers. But before they were to record Signs of Light, their Warner debut, trouble struck: They announced that Johnson, who had been grappling with drugs and alcohol, would be taking a break from the band to start a recovery program. He contributed little to that album, and when it was done, the group went on the road without its co-founder and frequent lead singer.
The Head and the Heart made it through the tour, and that album’s “All We Ever Knew” became their first song to top the alternative rock charts. But the turmoil only deepened a few months after the roadwork ended, when they congregated in a low-key studio just north of Joshua Tree, California, to write material for the follow-up to Signs of Light. Johnson had yet to rejoin, and keyboardist Kenny Hensley, worn down from touring, also took a break from the band; he’s been replaced by Matt Gervais, who’s married to Thielen. “We hadn’t written together in three years,” says Zasche. “Two people are missing. There’s a new person in the band. You had no idea how it was going to go.”
The musicians learned soon enough, when they began working up a song very much in their old style. As Zasche says, “It totally failed.” With Johnson missing in action, it fell to Russell to lead the band and commandeer the songs, and the taciturn frontman admits he didn’t quite have the skill set to handle the role. “I was being a little too presumptuous that people could read my mind,” he says. “Josiah was checking out and I was doing my job, but others in the band felt, ‘Jonathan wants people to play whatever he wants them to play.’ That scared a lot of people. It freaked a lot of people out.”
Newly clean and sober, Johnson did regroup with the band in Joshua Tree, but according to Russell, the casual, more ramshackle collaborative spirit of their early years together was no longer in evidence. “It was, ‘Let’s give it a try — there’s no reason not to,’” says Russell. “But it was quickly evident that we weren’t in the same place any more musically. His music is very self-reflective about his life — and there’s a lot he should be writing about — but it was apples and oranges from what I wanted do. Separately, it was great entities, but when you combined them, they’d bring each other down. We had this very specific and intentional focus, instead of the usual ‘Let’s see what happens.’ We don’t have time to see what happens. So we were very blunt. There was no sugar coating.”
“Running Through Hell,” a Johnson co-write that sounds like a lost synth-pop hit from the Reagan era, made it onto Living Mirage, but the band and its co-founder soon parted ways again. As Zasche puts it, “It felt pretty mutual, like, ‘You’re not the best person for me, and I’m not the best person for you.’”
Johnson’s memory of those sessions matches the band’s. “Musically, we were on different paths,” he tells Rolling Stone. “We had been apart for a couple years and had gone through some very transformative times, each separately. They worked so hard and leveled up musically, and learned who they were with a new lineup. I worked so hard, looked at my demons, started to heal and process the past. Albums tell stories, and we had very different stories we wanted to tell. It still felt wonderful to be in a room with them when we were playing, and it felt natural the way it always has, which was beautiful and made it really difficult to decide it wasn’t the time to come back to working together.”
When it was over, the Head and the Heart emerged with album-ready tunes, but they all remained rooted in Russell’s comfortable melodic zone. “I’m the midtempo king,” he admits. “If I could make midtempo music the rest of my life, I would. I never want to break beyond that vibe.” (“Lots of Eagles tempos,” Zasche adds with a chuckle, and Russell breaks into an unironically delivered chorus of Don Henley’s “New York Minute.”) But the album in progress was sounding a little same-y as a result. “You know those records you put on,” Russell says, “and by song six you’re like, ‘Um, I don’t know if there are going to be any more surprises here’? It felt like we had one dimension covered, but it was apparent that if we wanted this to be a great record, let’s explore other rules of writing.” As Zasche says, “It made us all realize, ‘Hey, we can’t put things through the usual Head and Heart assembly line. We’re not that band right now. We have to reinvent how we do this.’”
When their label suggested they work with outside writers, Russell says he initially bristled. “Our A&R guy said, ‘Have you ever thought of co-writing with someone who isn’t in the band?’” he says. “And we’re like, ‘Actually … no.’ Your ego goes into, ‘Does this mean we don’t do it good enough?’”
But they agreed to try it, and Russell spent time by himself in Los Angeles, holing up with such writers for hire as Busbee (who’s written for 5 Seconds of Summer, Rascal Flatts, and others), John Hill (co-writer of Portugal. The Man’s “Feel It Still” as well as songs for Imagine Dragons and Florence and the Machine), and Nate Cyphert (who’s contributed songs to Florida Georgia Line and Carly Rae Jepsen albums). Russell isn’t sure how many of them knew who the Head and the Heart were, but he nonetheless learned from the experience. “I got to work with people who write pop songs for pop singers,” he says, “and I finally got it. It was a hit-refresh button every day.”
Leaving one session after the writing of “Missed Connection,” Russell drove around L.A. and felt confident: “I loved the song, and it was stuck in my head and it was all sunny, but I thought, ‘Is anyone in the band going to welcome this shift?’” Luckily, the band seemed to. “It was a great idea,” Zasche says. “It felt like the right time to shuffle the routine, to shake things up and make it interesting.” The bassist had himself been obsessing over rock albums made between 1986 and 1987, when, he says, “There was new technology and synthesizers and keyboards and everyone was trying them.” (He mentions Bruce Hornsby records, Don Henley’s The End of the Innocence, and the non-synthy The Lonesome Jubilee by John Mellencamp as among his favorites from the era.)
The band’s new sonic makeup was complete when they recruited producers Tyler Johnson and Alex Salibian to helm some of its tracks. Together or separately, the duo have worked with everyone from Ed Sheeran to John Legend, but it was their contributions to Harry Styles’ post-One Direction solo debut that proved alluring to the Head and the Heart. “Harry Styles leaving such a big pop band and his first album having so much integrity made me trust them a lot,” Russell says. “It gave us an example of doing things out of the wheelhouse and still having integrity.”
For all the makeover work that went into it, Living Mirage feels very much like a continuation of their previous records. The sonic uplift of the music still counters their tales of psychic and romantic turmoil. (“Getting to hear the album they made in its entirety, I’m so glad they followed their instincts,” says Johnson. “It’s really powerful to hear.“) Yet one still wonders what the band would have thought of it all — out with Johnson, in with Top 40 songwriters and a costlier stage set — when they first began playing coffeehouses a decade ago.
“I was 24 then, and I would’ve been like, ‘Fuck that — I’d rather do it in my basement!’” Russell says. “Twenty-four is a beautiful age, but [at that age] you really don’t make much sense.”
Once again, he realizes he’s spouted something potentially controversial, but again he lets it go. “There go all our fans,” he chortles. “In one stroke, they’re all gone!”