My great uncle used to fall asleep with his eyes open. If you didn’t already know Albert, you might’ve thought he was dead — shot or poisoned like some pale stiff in an old black and white movie. On your hands and knees looking around for shell casings or a bottle of arsenic until you heard him snore. I never met Albert because he’d fallen asleep for good, long before I was born, but there were stories and photos. I generally spend a lot of time alone, mostly chain-smoking cigarettes and overanalyzing the past. Sometimes I sit still for so long, I wonder if I look dead or asleep, just like Albert. Then, I wonder if I am actually one of the two and haven’t realized it yet.
If you close your eyes and recall the last two years, maybe you can relate. Maybe not.
Some people close their eyes during car accidents because they want to hide from the pain, forfeit sight to fear. I might not have closed my eyes during the pandemic, but I was still asleep at the wheel driving through it. Maybe even before. None of this did me any good, just protected me from reality. A lot of defense mechanisms get us nowhere. Life can do that.
Jonathan Russell of The Head and The Heart seemed to touch on something similar in “Hurts (But It Goes Away)” from the band’s new album Every Shade of Blue. Russell sings, “Coming back together / Different but the same / I know that I’m not the only one / Who feels the weight of it.” That sentiment seems to be all over Every Shade of Blue. Not heavy handed. Not self-righteous hipster wisdom. Not a finger pointed at anyone but the person Jon sees in the mirror and the people looking in the mirror with him. Seems like the entire band is pointing at the same reflection.
We all came back from the pandemic with something missing. Maybe it was years. Maybe it was loved ones. Maybe it was a piece of ourselves. Maybe it was the wool over our eyes.
It’s good to see people getting back together.
Released on April 29th, Every Shade of Blue is the fifth album by The Head and The Heart and their third release for Warner Bros/Reprise. They played the single “Virginia (Wind In The Night)” live on the Tonight Show in March, and the single “Hurts (But It Goes Away)” May 5th on Jimmy Kimmel. The Head and The Heart begin their US headlining tour in support of their new album this month in St. Petersburg, Florida. They will be making stops at the Hangout Music Fest in Alabama, the Ladder To The Moon festival in New Mexico, and a SOLD OUT September 15th date at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colorado.
When I got on the phone with Jon last week, I didn’t really know what to ask him. Most of the time these days it feels like I’ve forgotten how to talk to people. Speaking on the phone is awkward now. The ringer stays on silent. We all came back missing something from the pandemic. I pretended Jon and I were sitting on one of the benches in Jefferson Park in Church Hill instead of being separated by 2,630 miles. We both call this city home. I used to go to that park to sit when I had something to think about. We’ve all done a lot of pretending the last bunch of years. It’s good to be in a familiar headspace when you’re going to start a conversation with a stranger about his new record and the weight of all of it.
Ryan Kent: How do you think the head and the heart of the United States has changed since the pandemic? It seems like you were using the single, “Virginia (Wind In The Night),” as kind of a metaphor for that. Or at least that’s what I was thinking when I was listening to it.
Jonathan Russell: Well, it’s funny. I mean, I feel like that definitely, intentionally left that open for interpretation, because not everyone’s from Virginia. So, you know, the moment you get too specific, some people start tuning out, think it’s not really relevant to them. So, personally, it’s about a place for myself in terms of that song — this is almost a two-question part here. But in terms of the “Virginia (Wind In The Night)” song itself — yeah, I guess I see what you’re saying. I agree. There are some layers and some symbolic references to it. But really, I guess, the literal sense of me seeing it and feeling it was me coming and going from Richmond, Virginia over the years — from, basically, 2004 until now. Seeing myself almost as a reflection — like, one place as a reference point as my life changes, in terms of my personality, my personal growth, my actual work. When I left Richmond the first time, I was a busboy. So, to come back [as] a professional musician was quite a mindfuck. But yeah, the song “Virginia,” to me, was my way of tracking time, and time changing, and yourself.
I find it interesting to use a place almost like a mirror. Where you can have the perception of who you are, and who you’ve turned into. [I’m] 37 now. Instead of writing songs about missing home and leaving home, you start becoming a little more self-reflective. And not to mention, just personal age, on top of what the last few years were like. So, to go back to your initial question: “How do you feel the state of the head and the heart is in the United States?” [laughs] It’s interesting. Actually, last night I was talking to someone. Everyone was going through this sense of isolation, this sense of panic, fear, anxiety. Learning how to cope, learning how to stabilize yourself. Not really being able to rely on anything, necessarily, other than your own ability to cope and move through the world, and decide how you want to do that. In a strange way, it almost recalibrated humanity, you know what I mean?
That sounds like a pretty heavy statement, and I don’t even know what I mean [laughs]. Like I said, this was a conversation I was having last night, so it’s not like some fully [formed] concept yet. But in a strange way, after feeling relatively disconnected from society, I feel like… maybe I’m just searching for that silver lining of what just happened the last few years — as I tend to do, even in my songwriting. I think there was something that touched everyone and acts as a calibration system for all of us. So, what that means exactly? Who fucking knows? [laughs]
RK: Has it influenced the rest of the record, along with the departure of [founding member] Josiah Johnson?
JR: Well, in terms of the Josiah Johnson thing — I feel that’s like when you’re leaving a town, and you can see more than one street. And then the further you get away, you just see the one that’s behind you. Josiah Johnson is a cross street, and that’s no longer in the rearview mirror. I mean, we’re homies, but his story is his story. And our story is our story. I see very few intersections anymore — other than our friendship, which is beautiful. In terms of how the last couple of years would have shaped the music, I think, in kind of a microcosm way, what we chose to do as a band was to take advantage of the physical isolation and realize what it was allowing us and giving us, for the first time maybe ever, was the ability to have real conversations as a band, as a family, as a polygamous marriage, or however you want to look at it. It was the first time that we hadn’t had to walk into some sort of really intense situation following a conversation. Normally, we’re all together, and the last thing you want to do is have somebody on the verge of a breakdown. [Then] it’s an interview, and then it’s TV, or then it’s a concert, and it’s a meet and greet, or it’s radio, or whatever it is. You always just have to put a band-aid on it. And we did that for 10 years.
So, we brought in a therapist and a specialist. Somebody to be like a referee for us and create a safe space. And as much as I am really burned out on having to be on camera for a zoom call, that did allow this — little subtle, unintentional things. You can read people’s body language. People listen better. There’s a vast personality difference in this band. People will talk over people, and some people care about that, and some people don’t. But bringing in someone to work with us and work on our communication skills, essentially put the focus on mental health, in that regard. The last few years gave us a framework to do that. But I think it’s the work we’ve done on our personal relationships with one another that had the biggest impact on our music. People are respecting each other and listening to one another and trusting each other. So, to circle back to your initial question on the greater state of the United States or just the world, anything we learned as a band, it’s about communication, and feeling respected, and feeling like there’s a trust in the room. You don’t have to agree with everything everyone thinks or says, just give them the fucking space. Give them the floor.
RK: You should feel comfortable being able to do that in your place.
JR: If there’s anything I’ve noticed from the six people that I’ve known for 12 years — that’s easier said than done. I mean, it’s an even a larger conversation, going into strangers, having that type of trust with total strangers. There’s a lot of rebuilding to do. There’s a lot of communication. There’s a lot of love that needs to be spread around. Not to get all hippie on it, but what good is doing the opposite? It’s just not working for us. So yeah, I feel like I do enjoy the tendency to zoom out and zoom back in. But I don’t want to pretend to be able to speak on all of these things. I guess I can only really speak to what the six of us went through in [these] last few years. If there’s anything I can take from that, this was a band that was ready to say, “this might be our last one.” If we can come back from that and make one of the most vulnerable and bold records we’ve ever made — other than our first one, because we didn’t even know one another — to me, that gives me hope.
RK: Each album by The Head and The Heart has increased its lean towards pop instrumentation. Even more so with Every Shade of Blue. Was that a conscious thing, or was that just an evolution of the band?
JR: I think maybe both. I started collaborating with different writers, with different producers, in my off time. I think maybe I was just in a place where Living Mirage, the previous record, was, so… I think it had to happen. I was reading an interview that I did three years ago, around that record, and it blows my mind how heavy I was. How heavy my thoughts were. So, it doesn’t surprise me that we made a record that’s kind of a deep purple. Heavy colors [are] attached to that record in my mind. So, once that was out of my system, I was looking for a lime green and a yellow, like a bright orange. I ended up working with Jesse Shatkin, who I met in Los Angeles. [He] does a lot of pop, and we just had fun when we were in together. “Tiebreaker” [from Every Shade of Blue] was one of the first songs I ever did with him, and it was just so light and fun, but also compelling in a way, sonically. I think I use this phrase somewhere else, but honestly, it just hits it on the head. He kind of champions my freak flag a little bit.
That song “Tiebreaker” is pretty unusual, at least from a band who started out with an acoustic-guitar folk message. To me, that was so much fun. There’s so many types, there’s some angles to everyone’s personality. And if you’re fortunate enough, as we are, to have a fifth record, eventually you’re going to start seeing more and more of these individuals. And a song like “Tiebreaker” — working with a producer like Jesse Shatkin just really added this new layer of trust and confidence into a personality of mine that I wasn’t necessarily always exposing to people, unless it was just for fun. Behind closed doors, just having fun with shit. I think for the longest time I was really drawn to more of a serious tone. At least that’s maybe why I was using songwriting. I needed to get some heavier, serious topics off my shoulders. You know, coming as a pendulum. Reacting to being in quite a heavy state during Living Mirage — it just felt really nice to… not keep it light, there’s still real topics on this record, [but] kind of what you were saying initially, pop can kind of make you feel good.
RK: Looking at each album, over time it’s like looking at a version of yourself, and you have an opinion of each record, which will evolve as you evolve. With that being said, how do you think your opinion of Every Shade of Blue will evolve over time?
JR: Yeah, that’s a great question, and great insight you have there. I guess where we’re at now is kind of its infancy, in terms of being introduced into the world. Other people can now touch it and listen to it and critique it, both in good and bad ways. Which I think is fair, and as it should be done. To me, it feels like a stamp in time of the band’s relationship. Whereas I really feel like, for a while, I was always sort of thinking of records in terms of my relationship with myself. This is the first record where I’m hearing it and viewing it, and the imagery it gives me are memories of this group having breakthrough moments. Yes. It feels like a group.
RK: Now, it’s everybody’s success.
JR: Yes! We played a really small but beautiful acoustic set last night here in Los Angeles, at this place called the Winston House. It was just really half the band doing the acoustic set. If you watch in your present, with those around you — this whole ride, this whole life experience, this whole putting a smile on someone’s face and making them feel good or whatever… It’s like, just be present with those around you. Let their beauty and their pain and their excitement and their nervousness, let that go through you too. This is maybe a weird way of getting to something we had already mentioned, but it being about the group just feels like you don’t have to be the sole provider, or the only person in charge who is making sure shit works. I feel like we are unraveling something that you and I have already said, so maybe I’ll just leave it at that.
RK: It’s like a new comfort level that you have. I would think being able to do that is almost like stretching completely, to your full potential. In your head, when you were making Every Shade of Blue, did you feel like you were making a great record? Like you hear artists say, “I knew that was a hit when I wrote it.” And they’re not being arrogant, they just had that feeling. Did you have that feeling at all when you were writing and recording this?
JR: Yeah, well, you know… what’s funny is, I feel like in the inception stage of certain songs, I definitely feel that way, from time to time. I think because of the void in which this record was being made. By that, I mean the last few years. It was almost scary to feel that way and then have, like, a vast silence come back to you. I’ve never questioned my own barometer so heavily, and I think maybe through that process, I let go of trying to decide whether something is really good or not.
RK: Yeah, I understand. You quit questioning and, like I said, you kind of stretched, and were just like, “this is good.” The Head and The Heart are playing in Richmond at the Altria on September 17th, which is two days before my 40th birthday. You said you’re 37 years old, and you’ve written five records. Toured all over the place. You’ve done a lot of stuff in 37 years. Weird question here: not like any of these have been fucking normal or anything, but what advice would you give to a 40-year-old?
JR: [laughing] Oh god. I don’t know. Is the younger supposed to be giving advice to the elder? I’m not sure.
RK: I mean, we can all take advice [laughing].
JR: I don’t mean to call you an elder [laughing].
RK: We can all take advice from everybody, especially on life experience. I dunno, man. I’m gonna be 40. So…
JR: Right. Start exercising again. [laughing]
RK: Great answer!
JR: [laughing] In all honesty, man, I’ve realized the difference [from] 34 coming off the road, and 37 going back out feels like a different body. And a different mind. I think I took for granted somewhat good genetics, and I’ve always been somewhat athletic. I grew up skateboarding. But it’s time to get fucking real. Especially if I want to go out and feel young, and feel healthy, and feel excited. And able to bend down, smash the fucking pedal and jump back up and seeing like… bro, it’s time to get back out there, man [laughing]. I’m trying to stick to this. I started working with someone to help guide me getting back into it. And it’s honestly, it’s been, like, a week and a half, and it’s very noticeable. So, my advice: take physical health a lot more seriously than you did when you’re 30 or 35 or whatever, you know? Yeah, that’s where I’m at.
RK: I’ve been trying to drink more water. I used to do push-ups. I’m like, “Yeah, I’m gonna do them tomorrow.” And tomorrow comes and I just don’t do anything, so thanks for the reminder. [laughing]
JR: Dude, I’ve even started doing the lady push-ups. I don’t give a shit. I just started doing them. I’m sure at some point, I’ll be able to get back to doing real push-ups, but like, whatever it takes to not feel like you can’t do it. Just eliminate that shit.
RK: It’s only gonna get better if you do it, I guess.
JR: Yeah. I just normally have a lot of anxiety around doing stuff like this, for the record. I just kind of stew. But there’s been something like an unlock or a release from just doing, like, 30 to 45 minutes of stretching, cardio, whatever it is. Just low impact stuff, because my knees are kind of jacked now from running. But yeah, it just calms you down.
RK: [laughing] I’ll take that advice.
JR: And hopefully, we’ll see you at the Altria Theater, man. A birthday gift. I mean, I would love to do that for you.
RK: Jesus. That would be great. Thank you very much for that.
JR: Of course, I really enjoyed this interview. It’s like… sneaky, left of center questions. They don’t come out sounding wild or pretentious, but you’ve got a sneaky ability to stay off the obvious.
RK: Man, I didn’t want to ask you the same shit. I wanted it to be like we’re sitting next to each other somewhere, and we got on some weird topics. So, thanks for that, Jon. Mind if I ask you one more?
JR: Yeah, for sure.
RK: You were mentioning different shades [before]. I remember reading this interview about Liz Phair, when she was writing Exile In Guyville. Somebody said [Liz Phair] wanted one of these songs to sound [like the color] brown. I never forgot that, because I’d never thought of a sound as a color before. So, to bring it back to Richmond, what’s the color you think of when you think of Richmond?
JR: One color… [pauses] That’s tough. I mean, if we’re talking about the James River — brown [laughing]. I think I have to come at it from a different angle for a minute. What I noticed when I was living in San Francisco for six years and kept my apartment in Church Hill the whole time — and that’s what I’m back into now. Whenever I’ve come back to my apartment, my songs seem to be piano based and more mid-tempo, and I don’t know if that’s just because I needed to contrast from the way I was writing in SF, which was more upbeat and sporadic. To me, Richmond is somewhat grounding, and I’m calmer. I love the fact that I can hear a fucking leaf being blown down the street. The dryness. That kind of like [makes crunching sounds]. That’s what I love about being in Richmond, especially in the east side of it. As often as I used color to describe sound, that place to me is more like a tempo thing. And the tempo, to me, feels calm and mid-tempo, which I love.
The Head And The Heart comes to Richmond’s Altria Theater on Saturday, September 17, with special guests Shakey Graves. Tickets are on sale now at the Altria’s website. The Head And The Heart’s new album, Every Shade Of Blue, is available on vinyl and CD from the band’s website, and can be found on all streaming platforms.
Photos via The Head And The Heart/Facebook