The Head and the Heart Return to Ann Arbor With New Pop Sound

a group of people posing for a picture.
Photo by Alex Currie.

The Head and The Heart’s Jonathan Russell still isn’t sure how the songs from the band’s latest album, “Every Shade of Blue,” are going over in concert.

That’s after a year of touring behind the 2022 album that saw Russell, the group’s frontman and songwriter, move even farther into the pop lane with help from producer and songwriter Jesse Shatkin.

Songs like the slinky, beat driven “Starstruck” are a big step away from the indie folk of “Down in the Valley” and “Rivers and Roads,” songs from the band’s self-titled album that 12 years ago got The Head and The Heart tagged as Seattle’s best new band.

That’s especially the case with “Paradigm,” a song from “Every Shade of Blue,” which wraps its sweet pop melody around a throbbing bass line.

“That one shakes people the most,” Russell said in a recent interview. “I’m not sure they know what to do with it. We played it for a while, but it was such a question mark after the show. It’s always ‘How did that go?’ ‘I don’t know, but I had a blast.’ “

Some new songs, like “Virginia (Wind in the Night),” are more in the folk/roots vein and have clearly connected with the band’s fans, on streaming services and when they turn up during shows.

“How are the pop songs going over? Who knows, dude,” Russell said. “At the end of the day, it’s with the fans. When you’re writing, you’re not thinking of the fans and I don’t think they want you to. What they’re after is your view of the world and how you wrap it up in the music. Sometimes I can look out and see how it’s going over. But I can’t be too concerned about that…I about wish you could actually do a poll at the end of the show. I’m always curious about that.”

For the first half of 2023, The Head and the Heart played festivals and one-off shows, without violinist/guitarist/vocalist Charity Rose Thielen, who’s been on maternity leave.

“It’s been an interesting five or six months,’ Russell said from his home in Richmond, Va. “It makes me really excited to get back on the road as a full band, get Charity back and get out there and find a rhythm. It’s difficult to fly in and do a festival. I find it difficult to hit the ground running. It’s going to be like a family reunion for The Head and The Heart camp.”

As The Head and The Heart continue touring, Russell said he’s looking forward to seeing how audiences interact with the songs from “Every Shade of Blue,” which was written and recorded during the pandemic with band members scattered from coast to coast, as Theilen and Gervais still live in Seattle.

“Anytime I write a new album, there’s new characters, if you get what I mean,” Russell said.  “When you’re performing those characters in a vacuum in the studio, it’s easy. Then taking that to the stage, with the fans who haven’t seen you for eight months, you have to be careful because they’re used to the old bandits, ‘Down in the Valley’…that combination of lyric and performance that creates a new character and you have to introduce them, give them to the audience.”

Some of those “characters” are really Russell, most notably in the semi-autobiographical “Family Man,” which presents a challenge on stage.

“You get a little self conscious when you’re doing that,” he said. “The difference between that and “Down in the Valley” is night and day. I look at Freddie Mercury, every performance he did what he wanted to do. I love performing like that. But it doesn’t always happen for me right away. I get up and do it, but it takes a while.”

On occasion, that “a while” can last for most of a concert. 

“I would always prefer to have a great show…I’m not trying to advocate for a bad show, but there are certain days when it’s hard to get out your head and start things,” Russell said. “Luckily there’s six of us and we’ve been doing it (for) 10 to 13 years. There’s always somebody picking up the rope for me.”

Those five bandmates joined Russell in group therapy during the pandemic, working through issues that had lingered in the group for years and emerging closer and better adjusted to each other.

In part, because of that and the level of success that band has sustained, Russell says he’s content with where The Head and the Heart is at a dozen years and five studio albums into their career and counting.

“It’s interesting,’ he said. “Bands start out as ‘We want to be The Beatles. We want to be the biggest band in the world’ We have a pretty good life. We’ve got great fans, we’ve got a lot of freedom and a lot of control. The grass is always greener. But I’m starting to realize our pasture is quite nice.”

The Head and the Heart will be playing at Michigan Theater on Nov. 6 at 7 p.m.

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