Jonathan Russell Of The Head And The Heart Talks About The Band’s New Album Living Mirage, And Their Songwriting

The Head and the Heart (Jonathan Russell, pictured far right)
(photo credit: Alex Currie)

Since they formed in 2009, The Head and the Heart has built a reputation as a successful, acclaimed band, releasing high-quality albums, accumulating hit singles on rock radio, and building a large following with their strong live shows and touring. They’ve created a unique blend of rock, folk and soul music.

The Head and the Heart has just released their fourth album, called Living Mirage (on Warner Bros. Records). This album contains their excellent new single “Missed Connection,” which is already #2 and rising on Billboard’s Adult Alternative Songs chart, and is Top 20 on Billboard’s Rock Airplay and Alternative Songs charts. ”Missed Connection” is a propulsive rock cut that features a hooky chorus, soulful lead vocals by Jonathan Russell, and full harmonies by the other band members.

The Head and the Heart consists of lead singer & main songwriter Russell, Charity Rose Thielen (vocals, violin & guitar), Chris Zasche (bass), Kenny Hensley (keyboards), Tyler Williams (drums) and Matt Gervais (guitar, vocals).

We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Jonathan Russell. He discusses the making of their new album Living Mirage, and how the band wrote and recorded several songs at a studio near Joshua Tree National Park in the Mojave Desert in California. He explains how the band writes together, and how he also collaborated with hit songwriters John Hill (who has worked with Portugal. The Man and Cage the Elephant) and Scott Harris (Shawn Mendes, the Chainsmokers).

Before we get started with the interview, here’s a brief discography of their album releases and key singles. Their four albums are: The Head and the Heart (2011), Let’s Be Still (2013), Signs of Light (2016) and Living Mirage (2019). Their chart singles include “Lost in My Mind,” “Down in the Valley,” “Shake,” “Another Story,” “All We Ever Knew” (their biggest hit), “Rhythm & Blues,” “City of Angels” and “Missed Connection.” On their new album Living Mirage, some of the key songs are “Missed Connection,” the title cut “Living Mirage,” “People Need A Melody,” “See You Through My Eyes,” “I Found Out,” “Running Through Hell” and “Honeybee.”

Here’s our interview with Jonathan Russell of The Head and the Heart:

DK: I like your new album, Living Mirage. Can you talk about the making of the album?

Jonathan Russell: We started working on the album in January 2018. We had finished our last tour, and we wanted to come up with a fresh approach for our next album. It was exciting for us to imagine what that would be like. Then we had the idea of going to Joshua Tree (National Park) in California and go out to the desert. That area has it’s own personality—it’s a beautiful landscape, but it’s very stark out there.

DK: Did you bring your studio gear to the desert, or did you find a studio near Joshua Tree?

Russell: There was a studio out there that our friends in the band Dr. Dog had recommended. There was a house that had a studio in a renovated garage. Outside, you’re obviously surrounded by dirt and cactus, but inside there was this big live room and a control room. It was this little compound that was really sweet.


Here’s the video of The Head and the Heart’s hit, “Missed
Connection.”

DK: Did you and the band write some of the new songs there?

Russell: Yes. One of the first songs that we worked on was the title track, “Living Mirage.” That song almost came straight out of the ether. I mean, there was no premeditation whatsoever. I was tuning my electric guitar, and just playing this little hypnotic riff, to find the right tone to capture the feeling of the room. There was an open floor space where everyone was tracking live together, and we were kind of using the studio as a writing tool. We wanted to find different sounds and noises and different energy levels together, and then react to that [as we wrote the songs]. For “Living Mirage,” the song started as an 11-minute jam that we whittled down over time. And I sang [the melody and lyrics] in a stream of consciousness way.

DK: I like your new hit, “Missed Connection.” How did you and the band write that song?

Russell: That song was written in a much different way from how we approached the songs at Joshua Tree. We had about five songs that we wrote in this loose, less structured way. Then we decided we wanted to try to counterbalance the record by writing more concise, [structured] songs. This was new for us…up until then, we’d only written within the band. But it felt like the right time to stretch out and try to push yourself, by writing with people outside the band.

“Missed Connection” was the very first session that I did in L.A., with (hit songwriters) John Hill and Scott Harris. They’re phenomenal songwriters. I was very blessed to have a first session, to walk in and work with two people like that.

At first, it was a bit awkward, because they could tell that I wasn’t used to writing [with songwriters outside the band]. But they asked me about myself, and I started telling them the story about how I met my girlfriend…we’ve been together almost two years now. I was trying to fly from Memphis to Richmond, but because of a missed connection, I got stuck in Chicago. Then my manager (who’s involved with the Lollapalooza festival) invited me to Lollapalooza, which was happening that weekend.

Typically, I’m not a big festival-goer, but I decided to go, just trying to make the best of the situation. And that night at Lollapalooza, I met this girl who’s now a huge part of my life. So that’s how the story of “Missed Connection” began, and the song spawned from the first co-writing session that I ever did.

DK:  I like your new ballad, “People Need A Melody.” What inspired you to write a song about the power of music and melody?


Here’s the audio of The Head and The Heart’s new song, “People
Need A Melody.”

Russell: I had written the chorus somewhere on tour, about a year-and-a-half ago. The chorus came to me after a show one night. I was playing a piano in a hallway after hours, and there was this custodian woman who was cleaning and going up and down the corridor. And I noticed she kept taking shorter and shorter trips, so she could hear the music. I was singing this melody, and it just came to me…People need a melody. This woman was coming around more, because she really liked hearing the melody.

That line also makes me think of my grandmother who was dealing with Alzheimer’s, and what a song can do to unlock memories…it’s such a beautiful phenomenon. And so on one hand the title of the song is quite literal, and on the other hand it just feels like the right kind of anthem.

DK: On several songs on the new album, your bandmate Charity Rose Thielen sings some key vocal parts. Did you and Charity write these songs together and create the vocal parts?

Russell: Yeah, those songs turned out nicely. I went up to Seattle, where Charity and her husband (and band member) Matt Gervais live. I had the songs “Honeybee” and “People Need A Melody,” and both bridges for the songs were written by Charity and Matt. I think this adds a very nice counterpoint to what I do, because Charity has her own meter and way of singing and writing that’s different from my own, as does Matty.

I remember playing “People Need A Melody,” and it needed a counterpoint, that bridge moment. We all knew it but we didn’t have an idea yet. Then Charity disappeared for about 20 minutes…she went upstairs to the attic. Then she comes back down and hands us a piece of paper, and she was like, “Let’s run it again.” And when we run it again, and she brings in this bridge (he sings the bridge part), and it was great. Charity’s like our secret weapon—she’s such a talented singer and a phenomenal songwriter. Whenever you hear her singing on the record, she’s mostly written those parts.

DK: Besides the songs we’ve talked about, what are your other favorite songs on the album?

Russell: My favorite song is actually “Running Through Hell.” To hear that bassline and drumbeat and my electric guitar part, it just puts me in this great headspace. Another song I like is “I Found Out,” which has a story that’s much bigger than the band’s. I’ve traveled to Haiti a few times in the last couple years, and worked for a non-profit organization called Artists for Peace and Justice (founded by film director Paul Haggis). I’ve gotten to know Jackson Browne through that. He and I were playing music there one day, and we were out on the beach at night, and a few people were walking by and they stopped. And these three guys come over with hand drums, and one of the guys was (musician/artist) Paul Beaubrun; he’s Haitian but he now lives in New York. They were playing these traditional Haitian rhythms, with this weird 7/8 rhythm, and they were speaking in Creole.


Here’s the audio of The Head and the Heart’s new song,
“I Found Out.”

At first, Jackson and I weren’t sure [how we could collaborate]. But then I just kind of started chanting, and I had a tribal rhythm and melody going. And within an hour I kind of whittled it down to these words…(he sings) ”I found out, it’s not the love that’s in your mind, it’s the love that you might find…” I was basically just following their actions and their rhythms, and came up with that chorus. And then Jackson was like, “Why don’t we go back in the studio and work on that?” So that’s what ended up happening. We worked that song out in Haiti. “I Found Out” and “Saving Grace” (which is also on the new album) were both written down in Haiti. And these songs will also be released as a collective that we put together called The Song Summit. And a label will be putting that record out. So there are two, very different versions of “I Found Out” and ‘Saving Grace” that we recorded in Haiti and finished in Jackson’s studio in Malibu.

DK: Thank you Jonathan for doing this interview. Is there anything that we haven’t talked about yet, that you’d like to mention for this article?

Russell: The main thing that I think of with this new record, [is that it feels] almost like our first record. Sonically, it doesn’t sound like our first record, but the interplay of the musicians and the lack of rules…we removed the idea of having any rules for ourselves. With this new album we got to this early feeling of, “there’s no rules, we don’t have to play anything like we’ve had before. Let’s just approach every single song as it should be and needs to be.”