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A Musician Who Thinks the Outdoors Rocks: Josiah Johnson of The Head and the Heart

He was performing on stage at Bonnaroo, but Josiah Johnson was having a flashback to cycling on a hot day in the Sierras.

Johnson is an outdoor-loving guitarist, vocalist and songwriter in The Head and the Heart, a fast-rising Seattle folk-rock band that was one of 100-plus acts that played last month at Bonnaroo, the sprawling music festival in Manchester, Tenn., that ended June 12.

Hot? Midday temps topped 90° as THATH played on Bonnaroo's last day.

"Halfway through the set I remembered being on a bike ride somewhere in Yosemite," Johnson said.

"It was a hot day and I didn't hydrate enough. I finally ended up pulling off to the side of the road and, um, throwing up.

"Up on stage I thought, 'I remember what that feels like.' So I started just chugging all the water I could. Otherwise you'll feel like you're going to faint."

Despite the heat, Johnson and his 5 bandmates delivered a spirited performance in front of a sweaty overflow crowd. The Head and the Heart, showcased earlier this year in Rolling Stone, is riding a wave of popularity generated by its well-received eponymous debut recording.

At Bonnaroo, THATH was playing in front of listeners who spent their nights camping in pastures of a converted 700-acre farm. Johnson, who camped many summer nights as a youth with his family in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, identifies with the festival's camping vibe.

"I went camping for a couple of weeks at Mammoth (Lakes) every summer from when I was 4 until I was 18," said Johnson, 26. "We were always going hiking and fishing, and I climbed Mount Whitney a couple of times with my dad."

Johnson's father is a career information technology professional. His deeper ambition, though, was to work in a national park.

"He contemplated being a park ranger for a long time," Johnson said. "As much as he loved the outdoors, he wanted a family and to provide for us well. But my dad really loves the outdoors. It's why I grew up loving it."

Among Johnson's memories of his Sierra camping trips: bumping into black bears at trash dumpsters in campgrounds.

"You open the lid to the big bin to throw in your trash and the head of a bear rummaging around inside pops up," he said. "It's humorous in hindsight, but it was scary at the time."

Johnson grew up in Southern California, learned guitar in high school, graduated from UC Irvine and entered grad school (studying information technology, ironically) at the University of Washington in 2008. Over time that career path didn't feel quite right so, unlike his dad, Johnson let his head follow his heart.

"Some people thrive on working in an office," says Johnson. "I just don't. Around that time I met Jon (fellow guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Jonathan Russell, a Virginia native) and we started playing music together. I just didn't go back to grad school for my second year. This (the band) took off and it's worked out."

Nature is a co-star in the group's video for "Lost in My Mind," the hit track from its debut recording. The clip was filmed outdoors, which was planned. Unplanned was how cold the day last January turned out to be high in Washington state's Central Cascades (near Stevens Pass, for those familiar with the Northwest).

"The celebratory nature of the song felt best in an outdoor setting," Johnson said. "Just for that reason we thought it would be cool to shoot it outdoors.

"But it was snowing and really cold when we got to the spot where we were going to film, and Jon had to wear these fingerless gloves just so he could strum his guitar while we walked in the snow. We filmed all these takes, too. It was a brutal thing to do over and over again. But we like how it turned out."

Outdoor spaces also played a role in some tracks on the band's debut recording.

"We're not an outdoor band overall, but the outdoors is something that has helped me creatively," he said. "You know Discovery Park in Seattle? (It's a waterfront park overlooking Puget Sound.) When Jon and I were first writing, sometimes we would walk out to the point or down to the beach with a guitar.

"We ended up finishing songs outside when we got stuck, wondering where to go next with them. 'Heaven Go Easy on Me' and 'Coeur d'Alene' were written out there. That was the place where we got away to clear our heads."


The Head and the Heart, left to right: bassist Chris Zasche, guitarist/vocalist Josiah Johnson (on tambourine), guitarist/vocalist Jonathan Russell and violinist/vocalist Charity Rose Thielen. Not visible: drummer Tyler Williams and keyboardist Kenny Hensley. Photo courtesy of Graeme Phillips, Now magazine (Toronto).

While touring this summer, band members aim to make a visit to Yellowstone during a break after playing venues in the Rocky Mountains. "I have always wanted to go to Yellowstone," Johnson says. "It's on the way back to Seattle, and I'm driving the van. Seeing buffalo along the side of the road seems like the most incredible, ridiculous thing to me."

Posted on at 10:24 PM

Tagged: Bonnaroo, Josiah Johnson, The Head and the Heart, camping, mammoth lakes and seattle

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