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How The Head & The Heart Were Saved By Their New Album: "We Got A Chance To Start Rewriting Our Own Future"
The Head & The Heart

Photo: Shervin Lainez

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How The Head & The Heart Were Saved By Their New Album: "We Got A Chance To Start Rewriting Our Own Future"

From group therapy to tough personal realizations, the indie rock group endured an emotional journey to their latest album. The group's frontman, Jonathan Russell, tells the candid story of The Head & The Heart's 'Every Shade of Blue.'

GRAMMYs/Apr 29, 2022 - 03:08 pm

In the opening verse of The Head & The Heart's song "Every Shade of Blue" — the title track to the group's fifth studio album — frontman Jonathan Russell sings, "It's been a long year, The wrong year, To be left alone."

Upon first listen, it may be easy to assume that the song (and perhaps subsequently, the album) was derived from the pandemic. Sure, the project came together during the downtime. As Russell insists, though, the story behind Every Shade of Blue is much deeper than that.

"Whether this pandemic happened or not, this record was clearly influenced by things that did happen," he says. "But based on where we're at now, I want this record to feel good."

The Head & The Heart want fans to feel good because they feel good. Russell suggests that he and his band members — violinist/co-vocalist Charity Rose Thielen, bassist Chris Zasche, pianist Kenny Hensley, drummer Tyler Williams, and multi-instrumentalist Matt Gervais — are in the best place they've been since forming 12 years ago.

But that didn't come without a lot of hard work — and the near end of the group altogether. The Head & The Heart spent the last couple of years going to therapy as a band, an experience that helped unleash Every Shade of Blue, their most ambitious record to date.

The album's 16 tracks see the indie-folk group implementing more synths and punchy beats than ever before, particularly evidenced in songs like "Hurts (But It Goes Away)" and "Paradigm." Naturally, vulnerability rings loud across the entire LP, from the forthright "Don't Show Your Weakness" to the confessional "Taking My Time (Wrong Woman)." As a whole, Every Shade of Blue is as sonically all-encompassing as its colorful title.

Russell detailed the introspective journey that led to The Head & The Heart's fifth album in a candid conversation with GRAMMY.com. Below, in Russell's own words, find out why Every Shade of Blue isn't just another album in the band's catalog — it's a rebirth.

Anytime you make a bold statement or a change of direction — which, for me, as an artist, is why I get up in the morning, to continue to explore what's out there, and just play around with different mediums, different emotions and different production styles — you just have to accept that some people are gonna always wish you made your first record again.

It's an impossible ask. I don't want to harp on that too much, because I also have respect for those fans that are just kind of purists. And God bless 'em — they remind us to always show up and remember who we were then, and that's a beautiful thing.

But I enjoy pushing into the future, and pushing the envelope a little bit. It's part of the risk that, I think, is always worth taking.

Maybe five years ago now, I did my first write with other artists. Through that process, I met Jesse Shatkin, who is a producer. He did most of the songs with us on this record, but I started making demos with him, like, four years ago. What became "Tiebreaker" was the first time we ever met. It was just one of those collaborations where I would throw something out there like, "Oh God, that was kind of weird, what's he gonna think?" and he would hit me immediately back with a response that matched it.

This man has such an ability to understand something that's out of context, and maybe a little strange, and put it within context. It champions your freak flag a little bit, as well as harnesses it.

I had these starting places of [songs] that were outside of the typical box for me. Then I started sharing [them] with the band, and based on a lot of interpersonal relationship work that we were doing as friends — through therapy and all of this time away from touring — I think we were more prepared for [boundary-pushing songwriting] than we ever had been in the past. The band was just listening to one another again, trusting one another again. We were excited and ready to go.

More so than anything else, what affected the way we made this record — which affected the songwriting, the sounds — it's all been stemming from our relationships together. We finally had the time to sit down and rip off a lot of Band-Aids, to speak to each other truthfully, hire a therapist, work on ourselves, and have a really honest, open dialogue outside of music.

Something we didn't really anticipate was — now that we're together in a room with our instruments — we're much better at being open and honest and vulnerable. And that is when you're making your best art: when your idea is 100% presented. You're not holding anything back to preserve your ego.

Because we started doing so much work together with our mental health and our relationships, and just trusting each other again, we started making these really bold statements. And it's cool to see it, because it feels like a reward.

It's something I've always wanted, and I didn't realize that our product is a reflection of who we are. I can listen to the first record and trace it all the way to now, and what I hear when I hear those records aren't lyrics, aren't notes, aren't songs. I see our relationship. How did I not realize that? It took me 12 years to realize that.

I'm glad that this record is translating in a way that I think our relationship is being represented, which is a very nice celebration. It just feels good. So yeah, therapy — I highly recommend it. And I should say, Charity, for a while, was like, "Can we get a therapist?" Unfortunately it took a lot of us longer than it should have to agree.

As individuals — and then as a collective — learning boundaries, learning to respect your own needs, learning to say no to things is something that isn't really part of the business model [for] successful touring bands. We all got a chance to sort of start rewriting our own future. Part of that comes from being fortunate enough to be in that situation — which I'm aware of, and I think my lucky stars that we are. But it also doesn't mean that you can't have your own demands and your own respect for yourself, and your own boundaries.

Like, I genuinely would rather you tell me no — let's hear it up front, and let's think of a better idea, instead of all just begrudgingly saying, "Yeah, we can make that work." It's all these little minor adjustments you're going to continuously try and work on as you move through your life and the world. That was definitely one of the silver linings for us with all the time off.

To be honest with you, I don't know that we would have been a band much longer if this pandemic didn't happen. By the end of [our last] tour, I was like, "This was not the answer."

[Our previous record] Living Mirage was the beginning of the end if we didn't take drastic measures. Making the record, and then touring the record, was the beginning of awareness for myself, of realizing, like, "This is a culmination of how not to do it."

We weren't talking. It was like half the band was fully open, and the other half was just confused, not being heard, not being represented, not really being considered. And not necessarily intentionally.

You know, the middle part of our band's lineage was pretty tumultuous. A lot of things changed. My way of dealing with it was to put my head down and f***ing work — turn out songs, isolate yourself, show up with as many f***ing songs as you possibly can. And unfortunately, I think the opposite was what was really needed at the time, which was [asking], "Hey, how are you dealing with this trauma? This is how I'm dealing with this trauma."

Trauma meaning, we had lost a band member who was a founding member. Thank God he's healthy now, but he was really not for a long time. He is no longer in the band. And then we had another member leave for a year.

It's like, any time you're acting out in school, the first thing they ask is, "How's your home life?" Home life was rocky.

So Living Mirage — and I honestly never understood what it meant; I've finally realized what I think I meant when I said it — it was a mirage that we were still living. That we were still just happy-go-lucky. It was a facade.

[And at the time, Living Mirage was] what I thought was our greatest achievement. What that says to me is that's how oblivious I was. I was thinking that this was our greatest achievement yet, and I had half a band waiting for me to wake up and realize that I haven't been listening to them.

That's a humbling thing to realize. However, I'm glad that I'm at least on this side of the fence.

I learned a lot about connection, ironically, through the pandemic. I don't know that that was necessarily something I'd really put high up on the priority list. My wife will hate me for saying this, but a stupid little thing we say is, "Better together!" Which is so corny, and so lame, but it's so true.

We brought everybody in, and we went through this together. This is the new record, and this is — I'm gonna say it again — my greatest achievement. [Laughs.]

Trying to name anything is like, my biggest nightmare. Even a song. So when the title [Every Shade of Blue] came around — well, first of all, I feel like I have to say this: I send my demos to my mom.

She had already heard a handful of the songs, and I sent her ["Every Shade of Blue"]. Before she even replied [about] the music, she was like, "That's your album title." And I was just like, "What?" Then I started thinking about it, and all of a sudden I'm now considering what the meaning was. Hearing that gave me a different perspective.

I started thinking about how we are all going to be very changed from having gone through this. The idea of Every Shade of Blue, to me, did feel like this sort of symbolism, which is a spectrum of emotions. The color blue can be a really deep ocean, which is brooding and moody, and that part of yourself that you don't always want to see. But it can also be a really perfect blue sky on a spring day with no clouds, and it's the total opposite feeling, but it's the same color.

It sort of presented itself as something that was going to work as an umbrella. Almost like a tent for all of these circus freaks to live in — which is kind of how I think of our 16-song record, it is like a traveling circus.

This is maybe the most vulnerable I've ever felt before a tour, but I'm also the most excited about this tour. I'm looking forward to getting on stage again, finding those teachable moments, and actually being present for them.

The first 12 years were a lot of fun, but I'm now actually looking for more of a connection than I am just a singular sort of like, "That was a great time!" I definitely feel like the band connection is back, which had been missing for a little while — and maybe that's why I was incapable of [being present].

The scariest thing for me is to look people in the eye when I'm singing. It scares the s*** out of me. It feels like accountability. Like, "Yes, I believe this." Like, "Is this guy for real?" Yes he's f***ing for real, he's just a little scared. That, to me, is the next step — working on that.

I remember when I first started working on "Tiebreaker." It felt like a new expression. It's a completely new way of singing, but it has utter confidence in its approach. And it's very sexy, it's got a lot of swagger to it. I'm gonna have to own that s***. In front of people!

When I'm [singing that song] alone, I'm sliding around [like] I'm f***ing James Brown! But in front of people, I'm like, "I don't know if I can be that person." That's gonna be a challenge for me, but one that I'm also excited and ready to take on.

There's always more growth ahead, but it's a really beautiful place that we're in right now. Our intentions are good. As simple as that sounds, our intentions are good. And I don't know that they always have been.

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