When we first chatted with Josiah Johnson, singer and guitarist for The Head and the Heart, the band was about to embark on its first headlining tour. By then the band had already built a fan base in Milwaukee with a gig at Turner Hall.
Not long after The Head and the Heart returned to that venue to play to a packed house and film some shots for a video for a track on the band's self-titled debut disc, which was reissued last year by Sub Pop Records.
Now, The Head and the Heart returns to perform its melodic, often piano-based pop at Summerfest. You can see the group Sunday, July 1 at 10 p.m. at the Briggs and Stratton Big Backyard.
In the meantime, we caught up with Johnson again to ask about what's been up with The Head and the Heart since we last spoke nine months ago.
OnMilwaukee.com: So, things have changed for the band since the last time we talked. You guys were getting ready to go out on your first headlining tour. How did that go? Did it meet your expectations?
Josiah Johnson: It did. We got a great reaction as the opening band on the several tours we did before we finally started these headlining tours, and I expected to see more of that excitement. That expectation was definitely met.
What still throws me off and is even more gratifying than simple excitement or energy at shows is hearing stories of people who tell us that our music has helped or is helping them through tough life situations, and there's been a love shared with us on that the road is beyond expectations. That comes across when the music is playing, that there's this great audience to band chemistry with everyone singing along and feeling a part of something bigger. That's exhilarating.
OMC: Do you remember the last Turner Hall gig here in Milwaukee? I was there and it seemed great. Was that indicative of the rest of the tour?
JJ: Of course I remember! Both times we've been to Turner Hall (opening for Iron and Wine and that headline show), I'm always struck by those creaking, uneven wood floors and the vastness of the place. It's got a great feel. And the show was great indeed!
There's a bunch of shots of the crowd specifically at Turner Hall in the "Down in the Valley" video we made from footage on that tour, and they are having a blast. Oh, and the best food we've had on tour in the U.S. is at Turner Hall. They take it seriously, which is awesome, and are super legit.
But the rest of the tour was very similar in terms of that energy. The opening bands that we brought out on that tour (Thao and the Get Down Stay Down & The Devil Whale) also made that a very memorable first headlining tour. If you caught them too, you know what I mean.
OMC: Have you managed to sneak any writing and recording into what's been a pretty busy schedule? Any movement, that is, toward a new record?
JJ: Yes and no. We do have a few new songs that we didn't play on that tour last that we've been playing on the subsequent tours this year, which we're really excited about. They've been getting good reactions and hold their own. Jon's (singer and guitarist Jon Russell) been playing electric on some newer stuff, and there's starting to be a sense of shifting directions musically.
We're doing the age-old dance that bands do where you want to try out new stuff, but still finding ways to make it jive with what you've already done, so that you can feel the progression.
That said, because of all this touring, the majority of our newer songs are still in that infancy stage, where Jon or I can play them on acoustic or piano, but the band hasn't had time to arrange around that core of the song.
OMC: Will we hear any new material when you play at Summerfest?
JJ: You probably will, we're definitely itching to play new songs live.
OMC: Are you looking forward to coming back to Milwaukee? You seem to have a good rapport with fans here.
JJ: I'm not necessarily looking forward to how hot and humid I imagine it will be in July in Milwaukee, but I am looking forward to coming back. It'll be different at a festival. There are people that I've met and seen and remember each successive time we come back at the shows we've played in Milwaukee – they sometimes even show up in Chicago – and I hope in all the chaos of the festival that those connections still happen. That's one of the nice things about touring as much as we have, those familiar faces the next time around.
I also imagine Charity (Rose Thielen) will talk up Spotted Cow again. She loves that stuff. Someone from Milwaukee even brought her a case of it to our last set of Chicago shows back in March because she has made such a deal of it from stage. That kind of thoughtfulness from fans is really cool for us when we're on the road.
OMC: Anything you're eager to see or do while you're here? You've been in Milwaukee a couple times now, have you had time to explore at all?
JJ: We haven't had too much time to explore, all of what we've experienced and remember from touring usually comes around the venue and the show. You drive in that afternoon, soundcheck, eat dinner, maybe walk around, play a show and hang with people after. Typical day.
I am excited because I hear the Summerfest grounds are right on the lake, yes? All those times to Milwaukee and I never even made it to Lake Michigan! I'll probably spend a lot of time by the lake with the festival music in the background as my soundtrack for the day.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.