The Head and the Heart are rehearsing in a rented house in Denver, getting ready to play one of their biggest shows ever: a sold-out gig at Red Rocks. It’s a breakout moment for the Seattle group, which came out of the post–Mumford & Sons folk-pop boom a few years ago but also forged its own sound, full of bruised but determined optimism and three-part harmonies.
These rehearsals are more challenging than usual: Co-frontman Josiah Johnson – whose aching tenor was key to the Head and the Heart’s sound – is sidelined from touring as he battles addiction. For the band, figuring out how to play Johnson-sung fan favorites like “Rivers and Roads” has been a struggle. “I’ll get in touch with Josiah and feel out his comfort level,” says guitarist Jonathan Russell. “ ’Is this gonna weird you out if I do this song that’s basically yours?’ We’re sort of figuring it out as we go along.”
Johnson’s hiatus came at a crucial point for the Head and the Heart. Signs of Light is their first major-label album, and it moves away from their homespun, acoustic-based beginnings toward a more classic-rock-steeped sound. The band recorded in Nashville with Jay Joyce, the producer behind albums by Eric Church and Little Big Town, which frame rootsy songcraft with modern pop savvy. “A good producer is supposed to feel like an added band member – and he was it,” says violinist Charity Rose Thielen. “We were ready to get out of Seattle and have a fresh energy.”
But like their older material, Signs of Light draws its strength from three voices. “Colors” is a wistful Tom Petty–style ballad sung by Russell, Johnson and Thielen. Johnson, meanwhile, delivered the title track, about visiting a loved one in the hospital (“I need to know you’re thinking of me,” Johnson repeats). Says Russell, “I’m not sure I’ve listened to it without crying.”
Songs like these made Johnson the heart of the Head and the Heart, but by late 2015, his addiction problems (which the band prefers not to specify) were getting in the way of recording the album. “We had to tell him, ‘We can tell this really isn’t good for you, take some time off,’ ” says Russell. Johnson headed to rehab. “He’s doing better,” Russell adds. “I just spent a long weekend with him. But it’s a long road.”
For now, the band’s longtime friend Matty Gervais is filling in for Johnson, and the arrangement could become permanent, expanding the lineup to seven when Johnson returns. The fans are rooting hard for him, judging by the crowd at the Red Rocks show, which falls two days before Johnson’s 32nd birthday. They cheer wildly for “Rivers and Roads,” in which Russell sings now-poignant lines like “I miss your face like hell.” “It’s a damn shame he’s not here with us,” Russell tells the crowd. “He says to say hello to everyone. He misses you all.”