The Head and the Heart reborn and back at Belly Up Aspen
IF YOU GO …
Who: The Head and the Heart
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Monday, Dec. 16, 9 p.m.
How much: $98-$230
Tickets: Belly Up box office; bellyupaspen.com
Members of the folk band The Head and the Heart went into the California desert last year to figure out who they were.
The band’s trajectory to that point had been the stuff of throwback rock ’n’ roll lore — scrappy Seattle beginnings, a rootsy and auspicious debut record, a sophomore album that crossed over into the pop mainstream, topped the charts and saw the band playing a sold-out Red Rocks and the main stage at Coachella. After a few years of that, naturally, came something like an identity crisis.
So they followed in the footsteps of rock stars past and retreated to Joshua Tree for three weeks of playing music together and recording.
“We had gotten to a place in our career where we knew who each other was based on who we were when we started the band,” drummer Tyler Williams said this week in a phone interview. “We realized, with 10 years gone by, that people are different. We wanted to re-establish who each person is. We wanted to explore and explode our relationships in the band.”
The result of that introspective process is “Living Mirage,” a surprising and triumphant fourth album from the band released in May. They played two nights at Belly Up Aspen in March, on what Williams called a “mountain-hopping” tour trying out the new songs before the release. They are back at Belly Up on Monday night, following a Saturday night show at Vail Snow Says. (In between the spring and winter Colorado runs this year, the band played two summer nights at Red Rocks.)
“Living Mirage” is the first Head and the Heart album since guitarist and vocalist Josiah Johnson left the band (amicably, they’ve said). Matt Gervais, husband of the singer and violinist Charity Rose Thielen, took his place and former keyboardist Kenny Hensley came back into the fold. They’ve written the new songs cooperatively, rather than with frontman Jonathan Russell taking the lead.
The Joshua Tree sessions were propelled by free-form jamming and working out musical ideas together without set song structures — a new process for the band.
“We may not be able to speak about it out loud, but we can have a conversation musically,” Williams explained. “We found where everyone’s thinking was in Joshua Tree through the music.”
The title track of the new record was the first song birthed out of those improvisatory sessions. It’s been trimmed in half from an original 10 minutes into a slow-building anthem, which steadily grows from a quietly dreamy and harmonica-tinged opening into a fist-pumping rocker. Unsurprisingly, Williams said, the track has become one of the high points of recent live sets.
And while the improvisatory writing and the soul-searching deep-dive in the desert might seem to be a recipe for rock ’n’ roll self-indulgence and navel-gazing, to the contrary, this record is filled with tight, catchy and irresistible pop songs like the lead single “Missed Connection” and the ballad “Honeybee,” which have been the big streaming hits so far from “Living Mirage.” The Head and the Heart didn’t set out to write loveable pop songs, though.
“The magic of this band is that we align ourselves while we’re doing it, but we don’t ever sit down and say, ‘OK, we’re going to write a song that sounds like this!’” Williams said. “It’s weird and mystical for us, too.”
The new songs introduce a more grand, more fun version of the folk rock that The Head and the Heart was making a decade ago. The band has grown since the bare-bones folk of their self-titled 2011 debut and defining early songs like “Lost in My Mind” and “Rivers and Roads,” and since the chart-topping and more radio-friendly 2013 album “Let’s Be Still.”
But they could just as easily turn around and make a more somber and no-frills album next time out (a live acoustic version of “Honeybee,” released online last week, proves they can still mesmerize with intimate folk songs). Williams said he and his bandmates love creatively adventurous artists like Bruce Springsteen and sonic U-turns like Springsteen’s early-1980s jump from the stark “Nebraska” to the anthemic “Born in the U.S.A.”
“Every new album we like to come in from a different place and not rehash the past,” Williams said, “to come in with new ideas that feel genuine and new.”