“It’s very surreal being up here, growing up here in Seattle and being on this stage playing music. You know, we used to busk below the roof and ask for money, and ten years later we’re playing the roof and able to give money to people who need it. If you don’t believe that dreams come true, then this is a fucking dream.”
Standing atop the Pike Place Market and in front of the iconic clock-emblazoned sign, Charity Rose Thielen emotes this phrase to a sea of roughly 30,000 people that have shown up to see The Head and The Heart play a free show on a balmy August day in 2019. Flacked by her five band members, the singer/violinist conveys the personal magnitude of the scenario with appreciative aplomb. A frontwoman, in her element, able to recognize the existential without breaking performance.
Later, in the band's new concert documentary Rivers and Roads: The Head and The Heart - Live at Pike Place Market, Charity the Stage Performer shatters on camera when recollecting the moment, opening us up to Charity the Human Being. Such is the idea behind the film, which focuses only partially on the epic Seattle show, with the rest serving as a behind-the-scenes look into the complex dynamics and emotions of the band members.
Returning to their old haunt, Ballard’s Conor Byrne, the members share stories of their quick ascension a decade ago, the many fractures since, and the love that continues to bind. Josiah Johnson’s presence in the documentary is most telling of the last point. After leaving the band in 2018 due to substance abuse issues, the founding member is still able to look a the experience with love and affection. Especially towards his former founding partner, Jonathan Russell.
Amusing, assured, affable, and attractive, Russell makes for a perfect frontman. But, in speaking about his band members, especially Johnson and Rose Thielen, he’s incredibly affectionate and adoring. In the documentary, Russell speaks of Johnson as a “forever love” and in his conversation with KEXP says Rose Thielen is “omnipotent.” Perhaps it’s the Pisces in him.
Find out more about Russell’s Piscean thoughts on his band members, the absolutely mind-boggling experience of performance to 30,000 people on top of the Pike Place Market, and what’s next for The Head and The Heart in KEXP’s conversation with Russell below.
KEXP: I'm excited to speak with you! Just for some context, I saw you at Conor Byrne in 2010 like right before you were about to blow up.
Jonathan Russell: Whoa!
Yeah! It's always been kind of special to me because it's such a legendary story with the Head and the Heart and Conor Byrne at this point that it feels almost like lore. So I've always appreciated that I had that experience to witness this kind of iconic music origin story. I mean, I'm sure you get that all the time.
Well, not that specific, to be honest! So, it's pretty cool.
Yeah, not every band has an origin story that's so intrinsically tied to a place the way that you do. So I kind of love that you decided to shoot a lot of the interviews of the documentary there. What was it like being back in that space together?
I think it was more overwhelming than I really gave myself credit to appreciate, honestly. I guess watching the documentary back was more so when I felt awkward feelings or whatever. Because when we were in it, it was just a lot, for one, to circle back with the band, but also to bring Josiah into the fold for that, because obviously for the first five years of the band, him and I started that band and he was the big focal point. And it had been four years or more since we had really kicked it. I see him often because he's in Oakland but, as like the band dynamic, it had been a minute since we had all seen him and hung out with him. And then you add on top of like, "Yeah, meet us at Conor Byrne." You're like, what is happening? It was a lot. It was a lot.
I mean, I guess it was good. It was a beautiful thing. I guess I'm just one of those people that's always like, "I could have done that better." Like, it was just a lot to process. But you're watching that. I think that's one of the beautiful things about the documentary. I think the director did a really great job of...this wasn't a fluff piece for the band. You know, there's a lot of really real angles in there. It's not all praise either, necessarily. You know what I mean? We're spanning 10 years of time. Nobody was an angel. There are some very human things happening in this documentary and that we highlighted and that we went through.
Absolutely. Was it difficult to be that vulnerable about these people who are so close to you while you're on camera?
Yes! You know, I feel like in general — I think I've gotten better recently — but in general I actually really like to not be guarded. But unfortunately, from touring over the last 10 years, you start putting up walls because you realize that you're getting drained and you don't really know who the culprit is. And so you, unfortunately, can become quite guarded. And it's always really unfortunate when you see that come out, when it's like you and some really invested fans and they cross paths with you when you're in one of these moments when you don't know which way is north and so you just throw up these guards. Anyways, in this last year, I've been really trying to dismantle as many things like that as I can just because I want to get back out there and I want to be able to really be present with people.
But to answer your question, it was challenging. I think Josiah did a phenomenal job. I mean, for him, when he took the course of straightening out his personal life and his health, he started doing all of this amazing work and, honestly, seeing that while we were all there was something I think that planted this sort of subliminal seed in myself of like, "Wow, that's what we should all be doing." I'm just really glad that he's had the time to do that and it's something that I think we've all sort of taken as we saw it, we clocked it. And you're like, "He's doing what he should be doing right now. Maybe we could take a feather out of his cap." So, yeah, it was challenging, but it was also one of those really important, you know, lily pads of like stepping from one to the next. Sometimes you fall in the water a little bit more than the previous or the one after. And that was supposed to happen.
Yeah, I feel that really does come out. The biggest takeaway for me is the relationship between you and Josiah and how you called it like a "forever love." I really loved that part. It's just so beautiful. I guess you've been talking about your relationship with him lately in more recent press circuits, but is it difficult still or are you kind of like, "Okay, it's time to be open, let's get it out there"?
Yeah, I mean, it's always a little tricky because what my personal relationship is with him doesn't necessarily exactly overlap with what this band's relationship is with him. And so I'm in this sort of chair where I'm trying to navigate everyone else having the time to really reconnect with him and there's things we do for ourselves and there's things that we do as a band and there is some gray area there. So it just depends on if it's me on a one-on-one or if it's me kind of representing the band, there's different perspectives to take.
And I don't know, I guess the band scenario is a little more complex just because there's always this awareness of, "I don't want to get too emotionally attached to the what-ifs." That was something that was the hardest part in the very beginning when I first realized that he was suffering as much as he was from addiction and none of us really knew that that was going to mean him not being in the band, that sort of became an inevitable, unfortunately. Well, actually became fortunate, I think, for him and for us. But to not allow myself to go back to that place is always a tricky spot, even though sometimes it's like, "Hey, we want to get together, we want to meet up, we want to write songs." Like, trying to keep it as simple as possible because you just never know what's going to happen.
I feel like that was maybe a little bit of a rant and did not exactly answer your question. [laughs]
[laughs] No, it's totally fine. I mean, yeah, it's a complicated situation. I will say that, as vulnerable as the interviews were, it did kind of feel to me like there were a lot of kind of allusions to things or veiled statements where it did kind of feel like things were being held back.
Yeah. Because we're all there, too, with all of those interviews.
Oh, you're watching each other?!
Oh, my God! We're in the same room a lot of the time! Or in the next room and you can hear where you have to go from one to the next. And then it's like, "Okay, now we're all going to get together as a band and do this thing." Which is unfortunately just what being in a band is like, you know, like you wake up in the morning, you do promo, then you go to another promo, then you go to soundcheck, then you play a show, then you argue about the show. [laughs] So there's very rarely a moment to be real and not have to let the ripple effect exist. You have to move to the very next thing.
And so you start to learn to be a little more veiled or guarded or ambiguous with your responses. And that is honestly something that we have spent this last year really unpacking as a band, because we finally had the opportunity to be direct, be transparent. You're in your house, I'm in mine. Let's cool off and we'll talk in a day. We've never had that luxury. And I don't want to like pooh-pooh like, "Oh, woe is me!" But that's just kind of what the reality is of being in a band.
Right. The grind, the just a perpetual motion that you never get a chance to stop and think and digest everything.
Yeah, yeah. I mean between watching this documentary come out and also having all this time to self-reflect and to just have space, it's interesting. I mean, the band is, I'd say, the healthiest it's ever been. It's the closest we've ever been, which is really funny because we haven't physically been able to see one another in so long. But I don't know, it sort of created this almost self-imposed pause button that no one else was really willing to push. So, as displacing and as disheartening as a lot of these months have been for millions of people, I'd reckon that we're not the only ones who found some sort of silver lining in all of it. Hopefully, you know.
When you watched the documentary back, that must have been kind of a wild experience. What was your takeaway from it?
Yeah, it sat in the inbox for a while, you know, and then the management's like, "So we've got another edit. We need to know if this feels right or if we need to go through some changes." And I'm not really sure what I expected but, you know, that's always a hard part is like trying to not have expectations for something. Or if you ever catch yourself, maybe it's your ego or if it's your pride, you know, maybe you're seeing yourself for the first time when your memory was like, "Oh, wow, I thought it was much more eloquent or I thought I was actually pretty cool about that." And then you realize you're like, "Oh, I know what that look on my face means." You're super annoyed or you're clamming up or you're so uncomfortable.
But I err on the side of real, you know, I'd prefer it to be real. I mean, I would like to think that there's always more to the story to come. And so whatever is left that's feeling discomforting, that's probably supposed to be there because that's how we were feeling. And, knock on wood, we're going to be in the world for a much longer time as well and so you learn from it, you know what I mean?
So it was pretty um...I guess I will say this. It wasn't as cringe-worthy for myself to watch it. I actually enjoyed it! And for some of those shots, it's almost the only example that we really get to see it in that light because you're not having to be present in the moment and you're not actually doing that act. So just being able to watch it was actually pretty cool to just be like, "Oh, that's what that looks like." I don't know, I think I maybe took in what others were saying much better, if that makes sense?
Right, I mean, the actual concert part of the concert doc must have been crazy to watch. Thirty thousand people?! That's wild!
Yeah. Yes. From literally a bird's eye view, and we were up there. I mean, it was just so, so surreal. I keep saying this, but it's true, I really am just so thankful for Charity's connection while we were up there, because I think I was just so in, like, "Oh, my God, what are we doing here? How do I not mess this up?" mode. And, fortunately, Charity is just such a rock and she was so present. You know, Seattle's her hometown and she just inspired me so much being up there.
I think, while we're on stage, anything that came out of our mouths, I think she just did a really great job of conveying what it was like to be up there and how proud we were and how humbled we were. She has a line in there that's something like, "We started out playing for money below this roof and now we're playing on top of the roof and able to give money back to those who need it." Or something along those lines. And it's like, "Wow, she had that perspective while we were up there." Like, "Oh, that's incredible." It was just such great energy to feed off of.
Yeah, you're literally just thinking, like, "I've just got to play the right chords." And she's thinking about the whole like metaphysical bigger picture.
Totally! Yeah. Women are just so much more powerful than men. I mean, we don't have to go there but shout out to women, shout out to Charity. But yeah, I mean after that now this going to sound petty but I mean there were some new songs in there that I was literally, at the time, still trying to remember the difference between verse one and two in "Honeybee" because they're so similar. And I think I still screwed it up. But that's where my mind is at and here she is just like preaching. And I was like, "Oh, you're an angel!"
That's amazing, and it's also so, so incredible how she got so vulnerable in her one-on-one talking about the experience where she cries because she's like, "My family was there. This moment just meant so much to me." Beautiful.
Yeah, I have goosebumps right now. It's so funny, that girl has gone through...I mean, if you can imagine, it's five dudes and her. And for years and years we're crammed into vans, we're sharing two hotel rooms between six band members and a sound guy and whomever else. And I don't know when the age switched when I used to say, "I regret nothing." Well, that's definitely changed. I don't know if I regret it because I learned from the things, but just the amount of crap that that girl took from being in a band with five volunteered brothers, if you will.
I don't know, I guess maybe I'm getting off-topic, but going back to Richmond, I've played with other groups just for fun. And I'm like, "There's no girl here." Or for a while, I'd step back and be like, "Why does it feel so immature and crude?" I'm like, "Oh my God, there's no female in the building. And this is ridiculous." I was just like, I never knew the difference. I've always had that luxury of having Charity around to keep us in line. And it's just, I don't know, the things we sort of took for granted and thank God she's persevered. And I think she's done such a tremendous job with herself and keeping us in check. And I think we're better for it. I know that we're better for it.
Yeah, what is the band dynamic as far as the roles that everyone takes within the band currently?
Well, they listen to me because I'm always right.
[laughs] It's a dictatorship.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, it's not at all. Nobody listens to me. [laughs] No, it's an interesting dynamic. It really is. I mean, it shifts constantly. There's almost like a scenario by scenario where, you know, there is a leader for each scenario, in a sense, and even then we still have like this sort of democratic voting system. It's exhausting, but it feels like the best way to keep something just going, like, perpetually in the wrong direction. [laughs] I just cannot help but think about the unintentional parallels of what's going on around us right now.
But yeah, it's funny, my fiance works for Levi's and she leads a team and she's an Aquarius and she's just so much better at all of the things that I'm really bad at. And whenever she overhears these situations going on in the band, she's just like, "This is chaos." And I'm like, "What? No, no, no. Like, so in this situation..." And she's just like, "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard." And I'm like, "Ehh it might be, but it's how we've done it for ten years." And it does continue to evolve.
What are you, sign-wise?
Oh, I'm a Pisces. There's three Pisces in this band.
Oh! The emotions are high!
Yes. Oh my God. You can imagine. You'll never see Jon, Charity, and Kenny in one interview. It would either be a meltdown or muted like nobody wants to not be the tension in the room so we're just going to not do it. [laughs]
[laughs] That's hilarious. I love knowing band signs and thinking about how they all work together.
Totally. We started doing, like, what's your love language. It's really fascinating. Those little tests, you know, they just provide some pretty significant perspective or even like your...I think I'm like an I...N...T...P?
Oh, the Myers-Briggs!
Yeah, yeah. INTP...I feel like I'm missing one, but we did those as well. And it's just so fascinating because you just start hearing these ah-ha moments going around the room like, "Oh, that's why this doesn't work!" Or, "That's why that one time I did that, that was really cool." But it's so funny. Insightful.
Yeah, I love it. It's just understanding human behavior and, especially when you're in a group that's together all the time, I think that's helpful information.
Yeah. Guess whose idea all of this was?
I don't know, whose?
Oh, of course it was Charity's!
The omnipotent Charity!
Of course! She's like, "Band, I know what we need. We need to take the Myers-Briggs test right now." [laughs]
Totally. Yeah. Yes. And guess who was just like, "I don't know if that's necessary"? Everyone else. [laughs] No, we're like, "Wow that's a great idea." How about you, what's your sign?
I'm a Scorpio.
Is that like December?
I'm late-ish November but it's like late October to November. Do you guys know your full charts, like your rising sign, your moon sign and all that?
Not off the top of my head, like not the forefront of my mind but I've definitely gone down that road a long time ago. Yeah, it's...
It checks out for sure.
[whispers] I know. I'm super into it, don't tell anybody. [laughs]
[laughs] I'm so happy that it's become like a mainstream thing where it's totally okay to admit and if someone's like, "I'm not into astrology, I don't believe that." You can be like, "Well, fuck you!"
Yeah, I know. I actually did an interview before this and I feel like I should stop doing this because I realized if they're like, "Oh, I don't know, I don't really believe in that." Then I'm just kind of like, "I don't really believe in you!" [laughs] Like, "Shit, shit, shit, still gotta do the interview! Find a positive feature, find a positive feature! He's got great eyes. He's probably really nice. Don't blame him. He's probably an Aries, it's not his fault!" [laughs].
[laughs] "It's just ignorance, he's on his own journey!"
Yeah, "They'll get there, they'll get there. It's not up to you, John!"
"Can't save them all!" Well, anyway, back to this concert documentary. [laughs]
[laughs] Yeah, right, what were we talking about?
Okay, so how did this Pike Place Market event even come to be?
I feel like this is borderline ridiculous now, but Charity had an idea. [laughs] She threw out this insane idea of like, "Hey, do you think we could play on the top of a Pike Place Market?" And everyone was just like, "Uhh...I don't know, let's ask!" And, apparently, they were into it.
Who's "they"? Like, who do you reach out to?
That's a great question. I definitely was not the one making these phone calls. But I mean, I know they had to go through, like, the city and..I'm gonna sound like such an idiot here. [laughs] I have no clue! I don't know, like Santa Claus delivers presents and somebody's job is to get us on the roof! [laughs]
[laughs] You just ask your manager and things show up!
Yeah, shout out to managers. You know, honestly, like that whole thing, I really should know more of the specifics of how it went down. I think at some point, Amazon wanted to get involved. We've kind of maintained a pretty good relationship with them over the years and they've been big supporters, which is lovely, and I don't want to piss anybody off, but I want to say that maybe doing some sort of collaboration with Amazon was first and then we were like, "Okay, but let's make it interesting and make it us so let's do something around Seattle. And what if it is Pike Place Market?" And I think it kind of started trickling down from there. It's like, "Okay, right on. We'll go back to our old stomping ground to do interviews, document the whole thing." And then we're like, "Hey, we should probably record the concert." It wasn't like the first idea brainchild of, "Here's an idea." It sort of evolved over days and weeks and every new idea was like, "I don't know. Let's just ask."
Got it. That's amazing. Did you have any idea that 30,000 people would end up showing up?
We were promised 30,000 people, actually. [laughs] No, no, no. We had no clue what was going to happen. I mean, can you imagine if it's just like like 12 tourists and like your friends over there, just like by the free beer section? You're like, "Cool guys. Thanks for showing up!" [laughs]
[laughs] That would be tragic!
"Just keep the camera on the band, guys!" [laughs] So sad. No, we had no clue what to expect. Like even as we were up there, people just kept showing up and showing up and we were pretty shocked to hear the actual number after the fact. I think it was when we saw, like, I don't know if it was drone footage or what, but I couldn't believe it.
Wild. With such a high-pressure moment, did you spend a lot of time considering your outfit?
Oh, great question. Probably, knowing me. [laughs] I probably did.
Well, you looked great.
Thanks. Thanks. Yeah. You know, because also those of us who didn't live there, we all flew in...I'm trying to remember where I was before that, if it was San Francisco or Virginia. But yeah, trying to get nice clothing into a suitcase is always like a sweating moment. I started traveling with a travel steamer. Yeah. Handy tip out there, you know, get a travel size because you just never know. You never know. Even when we are on tour...I get so frustrated sometimes because we see bands that are like opening for us that have been doing it for two years and they are smart enough to have wardrobe cases. And I think because it's five guys and one girl, we're always just like, "We don't need a wardrobe case." And then I look around and am like, "Oh, that's because it's just me and Charity that actually dress up. I've got to fight for this or it's never going to happen." [laughs] So I've got all these, like, silk shirts just crammed into this one hanging area on the bus so I've gotten used to steaming stuff. It's a little fancy, but...
I love it. I love it. Got to be bougie sometimes. Gotta look good. So I think it was cool how you really did make it a Seattle thing by bringing Sub Pop into the doc. I'd actually never heard that Sub Pop cell phone story before which is really wild. What's your relationship with them now that you're on Warner Brothers?
Oh man. We are just arch enemies. We send hate mail daily. No, I mean they're actually great. I think if we all still lived there, we'd probably honestly be getting coffee with them once or twice a week. We always had a really great relationship together. I miss a lot of those guys and gals.
That's awesome. So what's kind of the current status of The Head and The Heart? Have you been working on music? Have you been able to get together at all during the pandemic? Are you kind of playing it safe?
Definitely playing it safe. Haven't physically gotten together, but we have been learning how to record remotely. In April we were due to fly into Seattle and work out of Bear Creek, which is just a little ways north of Seattle. Fleet Foxes made their first album there, I believe. And it's just a really cool studio that we were stoked to get into. And we very quickly realized that that was a bad idea. So we convinced the label to sort of take that budget and split it six ways so that each band member could get some essentials to just record at home. And we've actually been making like one or two songs with five different producers since April.
It's been really, really interesting. Challenging for sure. Like, right when you think you've figured it out, you start working with another guy and their verbiage is completely different, you know. And a couple of us were savvy to record, but a lot of us were trying to catch up and it's pretty intimidating because you sort of get to a certain place and you're like, "I feel okay about this." And then I have to go to do my vocal and I'm like, "This shouldn't be on the radio, man. Like, am I allowed to record my voice in a bedroom? It's going to be on the radio!"
Anyway, you can do so much from home now. So yeah, we've actually been working pretty hard on new songs, which is really great. It's probably been a huge, huge savior during all of this ambiguous direction this time. I don't want to make any false promises, but I believe in the next three or four months we're going to have at least a song or two to try and release and still just trying to put together, we don't know if it's going to be an EP or a full album, but I'm very, very excited about the music that we're doing.
It's cool. In a way, it's almost provided a more level playing field for everyone to really be in the loop at all times. And that might sound like it's the way it always is. But between going on and off the road, different members sort of mentally check out in different ways. And sometimes you get a little out of the loop with what's going on in the creation phase. And then all of a sudden, you know, now we're flying here in two weeks to, like, record and you're not as connected. So it's been a really interesting sort of refresh button on how we work. Yeah. It's brought different things to the table, I'd say, as well as working with these different producers from pretty different genres. It's kind of mind-blowing that it's working but it is. I think it's really cool what we're coming up with. So I'm really excited to start sharing it with the world again. It almost feels like you're dreaming a lot of the time because you're like, "Well, I can share it with my mom. She likes it." You know, and then that's it. [laughs] So it'll be cool to get it on the radio or just play it live.
Are you thinking of just releasing singles?
You know, that's the question. I mean, things have changed so much. A lot of us are really into so many different types of genres. And if you look at the pop-country model or the pop or hip hop model, you know, people are just putting out singles left and right. And as a listener, we eat it up. You don't have to, like, wait for a full album every two years and then do it all over again. There's a flow.
Personally, I love working really quickly. And if there's a new song, if I could have it my way, I would just record it and put it out the next day. But there's always reasons to try and hold back and wait for moments to put things out at the right time. So it's a little up in the air on how we're going to be releasing music next. The good thing is, I really love the music that we have.
That's what matters. So what do you hope is the biggest takeaway that fans will get from this documentary?
Um. I don't know. It's funny, I've never actually thought about that. I've only thought about what we as a band got from it because it's almost felt, in a sense, like if you went to a retreat and they documented it all and it's like this therapeutic retreat and then they're like, "Okay, we've edited this film for you to watch and learn from and come back from." So, yeah, uh, I don't know. I hope that it paints a pretty real perspective of the band.
And it's all of the people who have really had a big role in not just the music, but, you know, there's a lot of moving parts to a band's career in the industry. I think, for the most part, we really tried our best to maintain and to have very human relationships with people along the way. And you don't always get to see that, you know, it's an album, it's a song, it's a performance. But to tell more of the story and to shine a light on more faces that were working behind the scenes and then also to see that inner band dynamic is always interesting, I think.
I mean, that's one of my favorite things to do is to go down rabbit holes of band documentaries or interviews or, you know, just sort of the in-between, like the notes in between the notes, if you will, with the storytelling. I don't know if I ever thought we'd have one. I'm really proud that we get to have one. I think it's really fun.
Rivers and Roads: The Head and The Heart - Live from Pike Place Market is out now exclusively on Amazon Prime Video and Amazon Music. Below, watch The Head and The Heart's KEXP in-studio performance from 2019.
The concert will be live streamed via Amazon Music.
Sound & Vision airs on KEXP every Saturday from 7-9 AM PST, utilizing interviews, artistry, commentary, insight and conversation to that tell broader stories through music, and illustrate why music and art matter.
The former The Head and the Heart member performs solo on Dec. 27 at Hotel Albatross in Seattle.