The Head and the Heart: “We could do better”

Posted December 12

The Head and the Heart have had quite the year: They re-released their self-titled album on Sub Pop to great critical acclaim, and scored their share of mentions on the ubiquitous “Best of 2011″ lists. And, perhaps most importantly, they were burning at the MTV Music Meter last week, which is why we’ve chosen to talk to the band for this week’s Music Meter Monday.

The Head and the Heart occupies the same wistful, country road-recalling oeuvre as bands like Iron & Wine and Mumford & Sons (you know, bands with conjunctions in their names) — their debut album a lovely little patch of what promises to be a richer, more diverse landscape. In fact, according to the band’s lead singer Josiah Johnson, when it comes to the band’s sound, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Johnson spoke with the O Music Blog — before jetting off to Australia this January — about the debut disc, settling in at Sub Pop and how the band plans to “do better” when it comes time to make the next record. Check out our conversation below:

We’re coming up on the end of the year and I’m seeing you guys on tons of ‘Best of 2011′ lists. That must be a pretty good feeling that this first album has been so successful and people have liked it so much.
We recorded it a really long time ago and to think that people would still be wanting to hear the songs or are still hearing the songs for the first time or anything like that is beyond what we anticipated when we were working on the album.

It’s crazy. I don’t think I ever really worried about end of year lists because I didn’t think we’d be on them, and then all of a sudden it’s like, ‘Oh, wow, we are doing a lot better.’

Yeah, and all of a sudden people are like, ‘The Grammys snubbed The Head and the Heart!’
I honestly think we had a crazy year, a breakout year and wrote songs that I really like, but definitely we could do a lot better. When we recorded this album we thought it was going to be a demo to send to venues so that they knew what we sounded like and we could book shows. It wasn’t meant to have that kind of staying power or legs or anything like that.

So when people go, ‘Oh, I’m pretty sure this other artist deserves a Grammy over you,’ I’m like, ‘You know, yeah. Let me actually spend time and develop an album and all that.’ I have no problem not being nominated for a Grammy, because we didn’t put that kind of work into this album. I look forward to the challenge. But it’s nuts to think that that was even a possibility.

Is it really that nuts?
The Grammys are just legendary. It’s so out of reach for most musicians. And that really puts you in this place where you’re like, ‘Oh, wow, we’re at a level where that was even a consideration.’ Just re-centers your thinking.

When you say you could do better — are you working on your next album? What are you doing this time around to do better, or to get the sound that you really want?

[Note: Josiah emailed me after the interview to amend his answer to this question because he felt like he had rambled too much. The below is from the email.]

I think that when you’re recording an album, you have two main chances to experiment and be creative. One is when you’re writing the songs, the lyrics, structure of the song, the builds and the tension in the soft parts. I think we wrote some great songs, I’ll stand by those.

The second chance you have to be creative is in the studio, giving yourself time to mess around with different sounds, tones and layers that maybe you don’t do or can’t do live with just the six of us, but they add to the ambience or feel of the album.

That’s what I think we can grow on in the next album. Spending time just creating a unique atmosphere around the songs you’ve written. When we recorded this album, we just went in, recorded our parts the way we played them live, and that was that. It was a time issue, we didn’t have the money to do anything more. Next time around, that’s where we’ll be able to really grow and create something we didn’t do this time around.

You signed to Sub Pop last year. That must be pretty awesome.
Oh, yeah. We went into their office in Seattle and met everyone. You’re walking through the warehouse and you see Nirvana and The Shins, Fleet Foxes, Beach House — all these albums just back to back in the warehouse that they ship out from. And when we went back six months later our record was right there next to all of those. And that’s totally a crazy feeling.

When we were talking to different record labels we talked to quite a few and I remember one of the things someone told me was, ‘A lot of how you perceive a band ends up just coming from the record label because the band’s on tour — they don’t have time to make every little decision. So it’s important that the instincts of the people working at the record label jibe with yours.’ Like, ‘Would it be OK if your song was put in this place?’

Fleet Foxes feels cool to me. Beach House feels cool to me. There’s the right amount of them being in the mainstream — people know who they are. It’s a good balance.

You were talking about music licensing. Your music has been on a lot of shows and whatnot this year. How have you felt about that? Have you watched those shows?
Actually, I have watched most of them. It’s funny because sometimes you’ve heard of the show beforehand or you have friends that like the show or you like the show or whatever. All the shows that our song has been in I’ve never watched personally. It got placed in Parenthood and my sister and some other people were like, ‘Oh my gosh, I love that show! That’s so cool!’ That part of it feels pretty nice.

It was also in that show Chelsea Settles. The song is used in the appropriate context. The feeling of the song matches the feeling of the scene. That’s a good feeling.

As a band that has done a ton of licensing this year, what do you think of the fact that TV is becoming a place for people to discover new — indie — music?
I think for every band there’s going to be a wide range of how comfortable they feel with that.

I don’t want my song in Keeping Up With The Kardashians. That’s not going to do it for me. There’s a certain type of TV show that I wouldn’t want to associate with, but otherwise I don’t, like, not watch TV. I think it’s cool to have my song be associated with something I like. And it is rad, because you can sell a shit-ton of records and still not make a whole lot of money. And so to be able to do that in this way — it feels good.

But I definitely have friends who don’t want their words that they crafted about their life to be associated with images other than the ones that they want to put them to. They need that level of control, and I just am not like that.

Yeah, I’ve been seeing a lot of Twitter arguments — Titus Andronicus and Kurt Vile, Bon Iver and The Avalanches — about licensing and selling out.
It’s funny, I remember Kevin Barnes from of Montreal — do you remember he wrote an open letter? He changed the words to one of his songs to say, ‘Let’s go to Outback tonight.’ For Outback Steakhouse. And also the band appeared in a T-Mobile commercial. But all these people were so outraged. And this was in the early 2000s — back when this wasn’t happening that often. Now it’s a lot more common for shows to reach out to Sub Pop-level bands.

And he was just like, ‘Look, three quarters of you who are listening to our music downloaded it for free, and you’re worried about me selling out and trying to make money off of it. That seems ridiculous. And I’m totally fine with it and I’m probably going to keep doing it.’

There’s a fear that people have that an artist who made an album when they weren’t well off, when they get well off they’ll forget the feeling, the emotions that they had when they were more exposed financially. And it’s a valid concern, because I think for them, they don’t want you to go, ‘Oh, now I can just treat this like a job and write the same song over and over again.’

But I think if you’re a songwriter with any sort of conscience you’ll do your best to figure out what you have to do to [avoid that]. Because it is hard once you’ve written a song that you’ve heard people sing along back to you or has been in a commercial or on the radio or whatever, to write a song that sounds different than that and put it out there and hope people like it. But I think that’s why you started writing songs. Because you like creating things and the challenge of creating something new should trump any sort of safety net that you feel.

Along those lines, I saw that you guys were curating a playlist for Slacker Radio. What do you think about streaming music? I know some artists, like The Black Keys, are declining to put their music on subscription services because they feel like it’s damaging their record sales. What do you think? I know your music is on Spotify, etc.
I’m honestly not entirely sure. I know why this time I was OK with it. I think it was because when you’re a new artist and you feel like you want anyone and everyone to hear your music, the last thing you want to do is close off a free way for people to check your music out. I can see how if you’re a big band and everybody already knows about you, you would say, ‘They can either pay for my album or not.’

I think it remains to be seen whether or not that will keep people from buying albums, or if they’ll use it as a way to check out bands and then buy their albums. I’m not really too sure. I mean, I love it, I use it.

By Brenna Ehrlich