Rocket Queen: Family Affair

The Head and the Heart's natural union.

The collective psyche of a young band is a fickle thing. Often young musicians, hovering under a recently erected umbrella of comradeship, have a plausible sense of fierce union—a loving, family vibe replete with inside jokes, nicknames, and the jovial mindset of untainted artists reveling in newborn ambition. It's a beautiful thing to witness, but it's a delicate bond prone to dramatic dissolution—especially when the spotlight turns on quick and shines bright. Rarest, however, are collectives that exude elastic strength, natural integrity, and heartstopping creativity. Let's hope local band The Head and the Heart perform that elusive hat trick for a long time to come.

It's just after midnight on a Thursday night; singer/multi-instrumentalist Josiah Johnson and vocalist/violinist Charity Thielen are perched on the edge of the stage at Conor Byrne, with Thielen softly strumming an acoustic guitar and harmonizing quietly with Johnson. It's the end of an evening of stunning solo performances by three of the band's six members at the Ballard venue where Johnson met another singer/multi-instrumentalist named Jon Russell in the spring of 2009. After mutual admiration led them to become regular supporters of each other's appearances at the club's weekly open-mike nights, the pair started to collaborate, eventually pulling in Thielen, drummer Tyler Williams, bassist Chris Zasche, and later pianist Kenny Hensley.

The Head and the Heart's lilting, melancholy compositions are obviously informed deeply by country, but with a bright strip of pop euphoria at their core. Much like the New Pornographers' or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's joyous fusion of wistful twang and buoyant hooks, the songs on their eponymous debut album soar with a soulfulness bolstered by an easy sense of harmony and the sort of confident playing that comes from a lifelong companionship with an instrument. Though that debut has only been on shelves a little over a month, it's taken up permanent residence on local record-store and radio-station charts, earning them immediate courtship from big-league booking agents and ongoing conversations with a number of record labels.

The night before, all of them except for Zasche meet at a Greenwood bar, graciously unencumbered by the rambunctious, pirate-driven parade outside, its spectators spilling inside. It's crowded, loud, and confusing. We order a cheese plate; Johnson promptly spills a glass of champagne, apologizing profusely; and Russell launches into a description of how he first fell in love with music listening to classic crooner Vince Gill while growing up outside Jacksonville., Fla. "There's just something about those [memories of] trips to Grandma's. And I'd have my head outside the window, listening to these heart-wrenching country ballads."

Los Angeles-bred Hensley also took to tunes at a young age, though pop was his first love. "I first got into music through my dad, and [during the holidays] he'd have a bottle of wine—all the kids would get the faux eggnog or whatever—and he'd get out the acoustic guitar and play "Norwegian Wood." I never got the song 'til I was older, but I liked the melody. Eventually I liked the construction of the song. It was deeper than the folk ballads that he usually played."

Johnson had a more conservative initiation in Orange County, Calif. "I listened to a lot of bad music growing up...a lot of Christian rock," he says, adjusting himself in the patio seats we've moved to now that the parade has dissipated. A forbidden intersection with Radiohead was a formative moment. "I was listening to [Radiohead's first single] 'Creep' in my bedroom, and I remember my dad told me I couldn't listen to it because it had the word 'hell' in it. I listened to Radiohead for probably five months straight. Thom Yorke's voice isn't sonically pleasing, but I think that was the first time I heard someone singing and it meant something more [than just the lyrics]."

Graceful violinist and silver-throated vocalist Thielen grew up in Minnesota, and it was her grandmother's innate love of singing that lit her fire. "I picked up the violin in second grade and my dad gave me jazz," she says. "But I have strong memories of learning to sing four-part harmonies with my sisters in the backseat of my grandma's car. For my grandma, singing music was like breathing."

The next night, at Conor Byrne, Russell grabs a drink and settles into a booth to watch Johnson take the stage. "We love this place, it's comforting," says Russell. "It's like tomato soup and grilled cheese." They cheer each other on as they take turns at the mike, occasionally collaborating but mostly stepping back to let one another shine on their own.

rocketqueen@seattleweekly.com

 
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