If your band is going to take a hiatus, you might as well make the most of it.
This was the thought process pianist Kenny Hensley embraced when his group, The Head and the Heart, decided to take some time off last year. He and a buddy went to China, boarding at a Shaolin temple and studying Kung Fu for a month.
“All of our friends thought it was ridiculous and that we would never do it,” Hensley recalls. “It was really crazy, but a great experience.”
After his martial arts training was finished, Hensley returned to Los Angeles where he got halfway towards getting his pilot license before his band got back to work. (Hensley plans to complete the program when The Head and the Heart finish their current album cycle.)
But for now, his focus is on Signs of Light, the group’s third studio album and its first since founding member and frontman Josiah Johnson took a leave of absence to battle addiction issues. Hensley says Johnson is in “a much better place” than he was a year ago. In the interim, the band promoted Jonathan Russell to take over for Johnson.
The folk-rock quintet (originally a sextet) first gained recognition in 2011 with their self-tilted debut. Built around vocal harmonies and piano and violin melodies, The Head and the Heart drew immediate comparisons to acts like The Avett Brothers and Sub Pop labelmates Fleet Foxes. Their second effort, 2013’s Let’s Be Still, embraced the same sonic energy but benefited from lusher production, eventually charting at No. 10 on the Billboard 200 with warm songs about taking life slow and forlorn ballads about past relationships.
As the second album started getting noticed, the group began touring with more established acts like Iron & Wine and The Decemberists. Hensley says it was another Seattle-based act that first clued him in that The Head and the Heart might really be taking off.
“Death Cab for Cutie was hugely influential to me personally,” he says. “That was the first time we were an opening act where I found myself watching every soundcheck because I felt like I was in a dream.”
When it came time to start Signs of Light, Hensley and his bandmates decided to spend a month at Stinson Beach’s Panoramic Studios. For all of last August, they worked in the West Marin building that had been recommended to them by a member of My Morning Jacket. Hensley calls Panoramic “an amazing location,” specifically because of the space’s floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto the Pacific Ocean.
From the beaches of Northern California, the band headed to Nashville to work with producer Jay Joyce, who has produced for acts like Cage the Elephant, Eric Church, and Carrie Underwood. Before Signs of Life, The Head and the Heart had never worked with a producer, but the experience, Hensley says, was ultimately amazing.
“Once we got settled in, I think we all had a great experience with him,” he says. “He’s a total genius. He’s a weird guy, too. He never leaves the studio, and we never saw him eat. I think he really made these songs turn into something that we couldn’t have done on our own.”
Signs of Light was released on Sept. 9, and fans immediately noted a more substantial electric sound than in records past. But that change in sound, Hensley says, came about organically.
“We didn’t sit down at a chalkboard and decide how we were we going to be different,” he laughs. “John [Russell] was playing more electric guitar over the last couple of years and so the songs were written that way. I really think it was just our natural progressions as musicians.”
This makes sense. While Hensley was off in China learning Kung Fu, Russell was doing charitable work in Haiti and bassist Chris Zasche was touring the Pacific Northwest in a camper van and getting “really into” the Eagles. Along with vocalist Charity Rose Thielen and drummer Tyler Williams, The Head and Heart may have temporarily lost a core member, but they’ve also done a lot of quality living.
So does Hensley think the hiatus and The Head and the Heart’s efforts to overcome the absence of Josiah Johnson have made their band stronger?
“I think in a lot of ways it did, because it was like pushing through adversity,” he says. “You have these tough times and on the other side of it, you feel like you’ve grown. Now we’re closer as a band.”
The Head and the Heart play with The Tallest Man on Earth at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 8. More info here.