IN A PERFECT WORLD, every group would come together at an open mic night. Bandless musicians would mingle unfettered among their available peers, eventually settling in with those whose musical compatibility matched their own. Bands would soon blossom and the open mic night would act as a beacon for all available musicians, a mandatory stepping stone to eventual banddom and beyond. Except, of course, this never happens. While not all open mics are sad islands of misfit musicians, the sheer odds of hearing an overtly dramatic cover of an Ani DiFranco's "Angry Anymore" is enough to keep most folks far, far away.
Yet in 2009 something strange occurred over the course of a few open mic nights at Conor Byrne Pub. Onstage at the Seattle bar, a pair of Pacific Northwest transplants—Josiah Johnson and Jon Russell—bonded over their songs at the weekly event, and soon a band of sorts was formed at the open mic, growing with each passing week. A spontaneous session outside the pub's front door caught the attention of Charity Thielen, and even bartender Chris Zasche soon joined their ranks. Thus, the Head and the Heart was born.
"We've all done this and been disappointed before," explains Johnson about their collective reluctance to form a band. "Then it just happened so naturally... it just was really fun until it turned into something that was actually a thing."
If their conception was impressive, this thing became something to behold. This accidental band became a startling overnight sensation as opening slots soon gave way to sold-out headlining dates, Dave Matthews came calling (not exactly the most ringing of quality endorsements, but impressive nonetheless), major labels flocked to Seattle in a rush not seen since the early '90s, and the band spent time on the road supporting Dr. Dog and Vampire Weekend. Despite the instantaneous glare of the national spotlight, the Head and the Heart's dance card remains clear; having kept the deep-pocketed suitors at bay, the band self-released their eponymous debut album last year (it's just been announced that Sub Pop will reissue it in April).
The album itself is a startling collection of masterfully developed songs that cull from some of the best domestic releases of the past decade: the charismatic drunken rasp of a young Ryan Adams, the exposed harmonies of Fleet Foxes, the inviting barren folk of Blind Pilot, and even some of that rambunctious energy that put the Avett Brothers on the map. Arguably the most apt portrayal of the band comes courtesy of Eric Grandy at The Stranger, who described the Head and the Heart as "a Carissa's Wierd that never had a really bad day in their lives." It's hard to argue with that, as the band possesses all the downtrodden sincerity of the underappreciated Carissa's Wierd, but without the desire to take a rusty blade to an exposed vein.
Yet such instantaneous attention hasn't derailed the Head and the Heart from their earliest roots, including the occasional busking stint. If detractors of the band are few and far between, the same thing can't be said for the tossed fish and tourists at Pike Place Market. "When people are walking by and you're playing your songs and they're not all paying attention—like they are at a show—it's the biggest blow to your ego you can possibly imagine," says Johnson. "You're so self-conscious just standing on a street corner hoping someone pays attention to you." He might want to cherish that experience, since for the Head and the Heart the days of being ignored are a thing of the past.