It was hard to tell who was glowing more, Josiah Johnson or the tightly packed crowd huddled around the stage at Conor Byrne Pub earlier this year. The ex-member of The Head and the Heart was back at the Ballard tavern where the indie-folk giants formed, gearing up to launch his debut solo album, which after some delay, is set for a Sept. 4 release.
In the four-plus years since he left the band he co-founded while running the pub’s open mic night, Johnson’s quietly played a number of shows around the Ballard-Fremont area, including that February Conor Byrne gig. But that night felt like the beginning of a new chapter with a room full of old friends — including two members of his former band.
“I was just thinking about nights here, hanging out until 4 a.m., smoking inside,” Johnson professed from the stage he’d been on “a million times, in various states of mind.”
It was those mind-altering substances that forced him to take a sabbatical from The Head and the Heart during the making of 2016’s “Signs of Light” — its first for a major label. The Seattle folk rockers hadn’t slowed down since its Sub Pop debut catapulted THATH to indie-rock stardom at the height of the Northwest indie-folk boom. Johnson had been using drugs to help him come down from the road, and as the band regrouped to work on material for its first record with Warner Bros., the guitarist and frequent lead vocalist wasn’t prepared to contribute. Johnson left the group to focus on getting clean, initially thinking he’d sit out an album cycle and eventually resume his place in their trademark harmonies.
Johnson entered rehab. His relationship with his fiancée did not end in wedding bells (though they remain friends, he said). In conjunction with his recovery, breaking from the frenzied pace of rock star ascendancy afforded Johnson the time to examine and explore other parts of his life, including his sexuality.
Breezy soft rocker “Woman in a Man’s Life” — a standout from Johnson’s new album, “Every Feeling on a Loop” — finds the self-described nurturer “claiming some of the more feminine parts of my personality,” something that came up regularly during his recovery. While he believes everyone has masculine and feminine sides, those traits didn’t mesh with the stoic male archetype he grew up subscribing to.
“That just didn’t fit into what I thought I was supposed to be like,” said Johnson, who now lives in the Bay Area, during an August interview. “There’s a lot of shame that comes with that. And yeah, I’m bi[sexual], I identify as queer, and learning how that fits in my life is an ongoing thing that I wasn’t open to for a long time.”
Working toward sobriety also spurred a sort of “creative recovery” after feeling burned out from years on the road, and as Johnson progressed through this intense personal journey, the songs accumulated. Meanwhile, THATH had wrapped up touring around “Signs of Light,” playing to even bigger crowds. The group booked a Joshua Tree retreat in California to work on what would become last year’s glossier “Living Mirage” LP, a synth-brushed pivot toward the pop world. Armed with most of the material now filling “Every Feeling on a Loop,” Johnson joined them in the desert for what Jonathan Russell, who became THATH’s lone frontman when Johnson went into rehab, described as “a great check-in.”
It became clear to both sides that Johnson and the band he co-founded were in different places creatively.
“I had probably two or three years of coming to terms with what was inevitable,” Russell said in an interview last year. “He’s like my best friend. … We pushed each other into the songwriters and musicians that we’ve slowly turned into. There’s no one else like that in my life.”
The mutual decision to stay separated carried mixed emotions for Johnson, who felt his new songs were pieces to a story that needed to be told together, as opposed to parceling some off for a full-band effort.
“I think everyone wanted to make it work,” Johnson said. “I wanted to make it work. I miss playing with them. I just miss being part of that active family. So, it’s kind of a strange phenomenon to hold those seemingly contradictory feelings at the same time.”
After realizing a THATH reunion wasn’t in the cards, Johnson set off to figure out how he was going to record this batch of new songs, a process that led to a number of empowering firsts. About a month before the Joshua Tree session, Johnson played a one-off East Coast gig, recruiting several New York jazz players for a show that reignited his musical drive. From the radiant “Nobody Knows” to “World’s Not Gonna End” (co-produced by THATH’s Matt Gervais), Johnson’s solo debut is adorned with accent strings and trumpet, with Johnson stepping into more of a band director role than he had in a democratic THATH.
No longer sharing lead vocal duties, Johnson’s gently commanding baritone is the steady hand at the wheel, often sailing over harmonies he might have had equal footing in with THATH. In some ways, Johnson’s songwriting picks up right where he left off, with songs like confident folk-pop number “False Alarms” that could easily slip into a vintage THATH set. Still, he wasn’t afraid to dabble with sounds that might not fit into THATH’s world.
Laced with moody horns, haunted piano ballad “Waiting on You” finds Johnson toying with a vocal processor and a digitized percussive undercurrent that’s more Thom Yorke electro-twitch than the earth-tone indie folk of “Rivers and Roads.”
“There’s a lot of opportunity going into each record to learn a new palette, and that feels really good,” said Johnson, who’s slated to spend his release week as the artist in residence at Orcas Island’s Doe Bay Resort from Sept. 1-7. “It was hard when THATH started out because I didn’t really listen to most of the bands that we got connected with at the time, so I’ve been getting to make music that feels like it’s in the world I want to live in a little bit more.”
With a new creative license and idle pandemic time to explore his musical curiosities, whatever comes next for Johnson might put even more distance between him and his THATH days. While it’s not atop anyone’s priority list, neither Johnson nor his old band seem to have completely ruled out the idea of him returning to THATH one day. In an interview last summer, Russell wondered aloud whether their creative paths might cross again.
“Oh yeah,” Johnson said when asked if he’d ever consider a reunion. “I would be really excited if that presented itself. … If it made sense that we were going in the same direction or we started being connected on a creative level again, yeah, I would for sure welcome that.”
So would fans. But for now, Johnson has more exploring to do.