On the new album by Seattle folk-rock stars The Head and the Heart, “Signs of Light,” violinist and singer Charity Rose Thielen stitches a long, soul-searching narrative quilt, “Library Magic,” which looks back at the tumultuous history of a group returning from a much-needed breather.
“Quit the band one too many times,” she sings, “Serious enough to get a rise/But he’ll hop in the next mornin’ for another drive/That’s a promise.”
It’s a hopeful song on an endearingly hopeful album, but given what’s actually going on with the band, it’s a serious leap of faith. Now with , THATH out on tour (they’re at the INB on Monday), it is as an abbreviated five-piece, since singer and guitarist Josiah Johnson is at home, in recovery from drug addiction.
This is just one item from a band with a lot of news. “Signs of Light” marks the first time THATH has worked with a studio producer. The members are now veterans of a major TV appearance, having played themselves in the fast-paced first episode of Cameron Crowe’s Showtime series, “Roadies.”
Thielen has an inspiring songwriting credit with Mavis Staples (“If It’s a Light”), and the band’s fetchingly catchy single, “All We Ever Knew,” has notched No. 1 on Billboard’s Adult Album Alternative chart.
“I feel like we’ve finally filled the shoes we’ve been growing to fill,” said Thielen, at a typically outdoorsy, symbolic location she picked for our interview — the Statue of Liberty, on West Seattle’s Alki Beach. “We feel like we’ve gone through the challenge of being a touring band and we’ve come out the other side and we’re stronger because of it.”
The Head and the Heart formed in 2009, when Johnson, raised in Orange County, Calif., hit it off with singer-songwriter Jonathan Russell at an open mic at the Ballard Irish bar Conor Byrne. Russell and drummer Tyler Williams had come from Richmond, Va. Seattleite Chris Zasche was recruited to play bass; Thielen, from Lake Forest Park, violin; and Californian Kenny Hensley, piano.
The band’s first album was picked up (and reworked) by Sub Pop, which propelled the band’s second one, “Let’s Be Still” (2013) into the Billboard albums Top 10. The two albums have sold 650,000 copies combined.
“Signs of Light” is the band’s first effort for a major label, Warner Bros. Though it occasionally slips into overenthusiastically jangly, synthetically textured production, it is far and away the most accomplished and organically coherent of its career.
The zippy opener, “All We Ever Knew,” which the band sang on “Roadies,” was a natural opener, said Thielen, because it bridges THATH’s folksier, early sound and the rocked-out attitude of the new album. They finished the song just in time for the TV show, which was a blast to do, Thielen said.
Russell’s “Dreamer” is another high point, a triplet-driven, slow-dance rock ’n’ roll song (think “The Great Pretender”) with an odd chord progression and sonic distortions that reflect Russell’s recent infatuation with jazz.
“I’m so proud of that,” said Russell in a phone interview from Malibu, where he has been hanging out with Johnson. “I typically write three-chord songs.”
“Dreamer” also reflects how the band let many of their new songs simmer and mature. Russell brought the “outline” of “Dreamer” to a session a year ago in an idyllic, acoustically pristine house with a view of Stinson Beach, in Marin County. There, Thielen “hopped on,” she said, and came up with a verse. At El Paso’s Sonic Ranch studio, where WB checked in on their progress, they decided to make it “more of a Queen song,” Thielen said. They then brought it to Nashville producer Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Cage the Elephant), who added guitar and Thielen got “super inspired on violin, with counter melodies.”
By contrast, Russell’s joyously rocking come-on song, “Rhythm & Blues,” came in “fully fleshed out,” said Russell, who plays a kickin’ electric guitar solo on it. (When he told Joyce he wanted to make a slight tweak to the solo, Joyce replied, “Are you crazy? People spend days trying to get that take.”)
Thielen and Russell sing celestial harmonies on Russell’s meditative “Take A Walk,” which started out years ago as a song about jealousy but evolved into a yearning question sparked by Johnson’s travails: “Why is it so hard just to find peace of mind?”
The Head and the Heart doesn’t normally record cover songs, but the band made an exception for the shimmering, atmospheric “False Alarm,” written by their friend Matt Hopper. “Colors,” a breakup ballad about a relationship Russell returned to in Virginia, has one of the album’s best hooks, sung with a Roy Orbison-like quaver.
Thielen spontaneously picked up a 12-string guitar lying around the studio on Russell’s “Your Mother’s Eyes,” a dreamy lullaby that imagines a girlfriend looking down at the baby they might one day have.
“It was a magical, soupy mess,” Thielen said of their long, collaborative studio process.
In truth, some of the tracks are more mess than magic. The twee, anthemic “City of Angels” lands somewhere between the Limelighters and the Archies, and “Turn It Around” evokes the ’70s pop of the Jackson Five. “Oh, My Dear” could easily have been omitted.
The healing hymn that so effectively closes the album, “Signs of Light,” was ironically written by the now-absent Johnson, who was ejected after the band decided he had become unreliable.
Will Johnson come back to the fold?
Thielen is convinced he will.
“I just saw him yesterday,” she said. “He’s doing well. But it’s one of those things where I think that his health and life is more important than anything. … But it’s very much the intention for him to come back.”