Josiah Johnson Talks Sobriety, Hiatus from The Head and the Heart, and New Solo Material

Interviews, Local Music
12/27/2018
Jake Uitti
photo by Dave Lichterman

Josiah Johnson, co-founder of the Seattle Americana group The Head and the Heart, has dealt with a lot of change in his life. From discovering a type of musical magic with the band’s co-founder, Jonathan Russell, ten years ago to playing on stage to thousands of people to leaving the group to get sober to working through new songs and a new solo career path, Johnson has had to adapt many times over. But now, feeling more confident in his own skin, Johnson is setting out to play shows – including one tonight at Ballard’s Hotel Albatross – and release a new solo record in 2019. We caught up with Johnson to preview the upcoming gig and talk about the new record and much more.

 

You’ve gone through a lot in the past 10 years, musically and relationally. What is your orientation to performing publically now?

I like doing it. I like doing it, which probably came back in the last year. The first couple years after I took a break from Head and the Heart, I wanted to like it but I just had a lot of anxiety around it for a while. But it kept feeling - I kept wanting to do it. So, I found ways and had friends that gave me great advice, which helped me work through that. Now I feel like I have a lot of fun doing it again.

You’ve been playing solo around the country for the past few months. Does your gig at Hotel Albatross feel like the culmination or continuation of anything?

Well, I played in Seattle back in June with Planes on Paper and Abakis, which was really great, at the Tractor Tavern. That was kind of like the first time I played a proper show in Seattle in a while. This week, my sister lives in Renton and so I’m here for Christmas. And Kevin Large from Widower, he also used to live here but doesn’t anymore, is in town. And Matty, who is now in Head and the Heart, is in town for the holidays and so the three of us and Mikey [Matty’s brother] and our friend Kaylee Cole, who also roles really deep in the music scene I came up in, we are just all in town and we wanted to put a show together. It’s like good old friends getting to hear each other’s songs because we’re all spread out now.

How did you first start singing and writing?

The first time I started singing was in worship team at church. I first started writing when a girl broke my heart in high school. I thought what better way to let her know how deeply I love her and how much I want her back than to write songs in my bedroom for hours at a time. It didn’t work well for the purposes of getting her back but I do find it a really great way to process my feelings and I still do for that purpose.

 

Do you remember what it felt like creatively playing with Jon at Conor Byrne that first time?

I don’t remember what it felt like the first time because we didn’t actually play together when we met. The first time I saw him, he had just moved to Seattle from Virginia. I do remember seeing him on stage and being, like, “Oh, wow, this guy is - I want to do whatever this guy’s doing.” I did have that feeling from the very first time I saw him play. And I was of the mindset at the time that I was just making friends with anyone that I felt like making friends with playing music. So, I just asked him if he wanted to play music at my house. We did Music Mondays where everyone came over and we’d have a couple beers and we’d jam out. But then we became closer than casual and we became best friends and musical best friends. I still don’t know anyone that I collaborate with as well as him. So, I do remember. It was pretty magical. I felt braver and more powerful than I felt any other time playing music playing with him, which is just fun. You can do whatever you want, it’s a freedom.

 

What is your relationship to the group today?

My relationship with the group today is – I mean, I think there’s not necessarily a relationship with the group because the group is just, like, everyone individually. So, I don’t know if I could say what my relationship is with the group. But my relationship with everyone I think is at different places with different people. With Jon, we spent the most concerted effort to reconnect and repair whatever damage was there from all the stuff that happened. And then everyone else has just depended. Some people move faster processing things than others. But it’s a lot better now with everyone than it was three years ago and that feels really great. I’m so thankful to be able to be repairing some of the broken bridges.

Does the process of writing music feel different than a decade ago?

It does and it doesn’t. The way that it feels the same is, for me, my favorite songs that I’ve written have always come when I’ve found a way to not decide what I’m writing, to not have a say in the matter and just, like, clear space and hold my hands out and open my mouth and just trust that the universe is going to send something through me. And oftentimes there’s a meaning to it that my subconscious knows that I don’t know. Months later I go, “Oh, that’s what that’s about, I get it!” So, however it’s changed or stayed the same, it’s just a matter of how I get to that place.

I think the biggest impediment to that is my brain trying to make something that either makes me look good or makes me seem so clever or is just the best song ever. Sometimes I have an idea of what I want to write but hardly ever does it line up with what comes out or what shows up, which I think is a pretty human thing. We often find ourselves a little different internally than how we wish we were.

So, I feel like the way the writing’s changed is the way I used to get to that place - to stop thinking and let your instincts do the work while being in receptive mode to whatever the universe wants to give you – that used to come really well with people that I felt super free with, like Jon and Charity [Rose Thielen]. The three of us, and then the band by extension, had that relationship really well. And I don’t have people like that who I write with now. I have cultivated and created some friendships with new people, but we don’t play musically - like, we don’t have a project together. But I have found some people that I can hang out with and strum guitars together and the peace that’s generated with how we relate clears the way for stuff to come out.

Or also it’s just like having a day when I don’t have my phone around. Or it’s like waking up in the middle of the night and humming a melody with some words attached to it. Or, I’ll be taking up meditation and I’ll be mid-that. One of the new songs I have, I had half of it for a good year and a half and I was, like, mid-meditating and the other half dropped out of the sky and I had to pull out my phone and record what was coming. It’s just like looking for moments when everything’s clear. I just had a song that I finished by showing up everyday from noon-to-two. Like, I have this chorus, what else wants to show up? Playing for a week nothing came but then one day all the rest of it came pouring out. It’s about clearing space.

What does the concept of sobriety mean to you now?

There’s a couple of things. There’s balance and learning to maintain balance even as the world changes, either positively or negatively. I’m a fairly extreme emotional person and I have tended to let myself be dictated by my emotions, positively or negatively. And I think one of the big things is letting things happen and by letting them happen you’re going to have ups and downs. So, you have to maintain your balance and not let things tip you over. The other thing they say in 12-step programs all the time is learning to live with life on life’s terms as opposed to thinking that you deserve something different. I want to maintain a positive attitude whether or not I think what I’m getting - whether or not the world is just to me, I still want to maintain a positive outlook and positive momentum. It’s a lot more than just not using and not drinking. Not using or not drinking is just the bare minimum to then get to do the work of maintaining balance and learning to live with life as it comes, which is tough, really tough.

Did you experience any creative revelations over the holiday season?

No, not really. But tomorrow I’m going to try recording - there’s a couple more songs to do for an album, so maybe I’ll have those creative revelations tomorrow. That’s the plan!

Do you have any goals for 2019?

Yeah, finish a record. And figure out how to relate to making a living in music in a more balanced way while still being in community with people at home and being a good giving half in friendships with people. I’ve found that when I toured with Head and the Heart we were gone so much that I let go of those roots. In 2019 I’m probably going to be touring a bit more. So, finding a way to do that with good balance is important.

Your music often touches on themes of change. Do your songs ever feel predictive?

I’ve thought about that before. Like, if you write a song and you sing it over and over again then that creates the pathways in your brain for it to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. I definitely have lived with songs for so long that I start to believe them, as opposed to letting them be a story that happened once and then I can find a new story. I’ve started writing some songs that are more healing. Then, by singing them over and over again the self-fulfilling prophecy will be for wholeness. A lot of the songs I used to write were, like, about the way things aren’t the way they used to be, they’re changing, I don’t have what I wanted to have, which are all totally valid things to mourn, but when I lived in them for so long, I believed it was the story of my life. But the story of my life is that I’m very privileged and I have tons of wonderful things and so I’ve been trying to both acknowledge the things that are painful and also have songs that have the perspective of the wholeness. I come from wonderful privilege and I have people who love me and care about me and whatever loss happens to me isn’t the end of the world. In fact, I’m still here and I’m still doing well, even if it’s hard.

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