His Head, His Heart, and a Fresh Start: An Interview with Josiah Johnson

Josiah Johnson © Bradley Cox
As Josiah Johnson gets underway with his own solo project, we’re learning his decision to leave The Head and The Heart was not only the best move at the time, but also the right choice to make.
Stream: “False Alarms” – Josiah Johnson




Josiah Johnson’s decision to leave The Head and The Heart came as a shock to many at the time, yet as the former frontman gets underway with his own solo project, we’re learning it was not only the best decision at the time, but also the right choice to make.

The former frontman has come into his own this year, his strong introspective voice driving a familiar, fresh folk rock sound on two new singles: “World’s Not Gonna End” and “False Alarms.”

World's Not Gonna End - Josiah Johnson

World’s Not Gonna End – Josiah Johnson

“It was important to tell the story that is mine to tell, Johnson tells Atwood Magazine. “Healing from addiction and shame, learning to reconcile with others and to love myself, to live in a new responsible way, and to step into a full, empowered, creative life, not knowing the way but trusting it, that is the story I get to carry with me making this Josiah Johnson record. Learning how to vision a life, to set parameters for myself and my creative process, learning and trusting my own rhythms, developing an accountability to myself before anyone else, those things have been the gifts of that choice.”

There was anger in my heart
But I come to you with my love
And open arms for myself
and for everyone
I had gotten it all wrong
I was buried in my own shit
Thought the order was too tall
To climb the life back out of it

Released in February, Johnson’s debut single “World’s Not Gonna End” reintroduced him with invigorating energy. “An uplifting, bright song with a resounding message of hope, perseverance, and the unbreakable human spirit” (as we wrote at the time), the track arrived as a guiding light in the midst of political tension and social unrest around the then-growing coronavirus epidemic. Within its folds, a series of intimate lyrics find Johnson learning to live with and accept himself, his actions, and his surroundings.

Josiah Johnson Captures Our Head & Our Heart with Solo Debut “World’s Not Gonna End”a

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Such is the nuance Johnson brings to his own material – a depth that feels even more pronounced in his sophomore single, “False Alarms.”

A 6.5 minute alt-folk odyssey into Johnson’s relationship with The Head and The Heart co-founder Jonathan Russell, the song rings out with an outpouring of honesty and raw, uninhibited vulnerability. “It’s a growing and allowing things to change, as painful as that can be, song,” Johnson shares. “I didn’t write it thinking about the band. The song was written, at least the heart of it, before any choices about returning to the band had been made.” A heartfelt unveiling of affection filled with glistening guitars and dazzling brass, “False Alarms” stands as a testament to human connection – showcasing not only who Josiah Johnson is, but also what he wants his artistry to be: Authentic, organic, meaningful, and true.

With a full-length album in the works, the sky’s the limit for Josiah Johnson. He is using his head and his heart to make a fresh start, and we cannot wait to join him on this journey.

Do you remember when we first met?
We were taking turns singing songs about grandmothers
I believed in the beauty of the unexpected connection
And drew in all of the good that I had been expecting
 
Do the work to keep yourself
open to other people’s magic?



A CONVERSATION WITH JOSIAH JOHNSON

Atwood Magazine: “False Alarms” follows the eerily timely “World’s Not Gonna End”; personally, this feels like the real jumping off point, for you – a layered narrative that puts things into perspective. Was this originally slated to be your debut, and how would you describe your relationship to this song?

Johnson: There was a lot of back and forth in my mind and collectively about the best song to release first, as you might imagine, and these two were the contenders. “World’s Not Gonna End” was decided on perhaps a month or two before any rumblings about the coronavirus were in my sphere, however. So, eerily timed, but coincidental. For “False Alarms”, it was absolutely my desire to tell the arc of our story: Relationships you think will be one thing forever, but get irrevocably altered, and how we have weathered that storm. “False Alarms” will be the first song on the album that is on the way later this year, though, so you are right to think that I intend to lead with it.

I appreciate how open both you and Jonathan have been about your friendship, and while the song says it all… do you feel like you could find yourself in a creative space with him again?

Johnson: Absolutely.

How do you differentiate Josiah Johnson’s artistic voice from The Head and The Heart’s artistry? Obviously what we’re hearing now has your name stamped on it, but I’ve been hearing your voice for upwards of a decade; I’d love to understand more about how “going solo” has impacted you, and what “freedoms” (using this term lightly) you’ve gained?

Johnson: Totally get that. My experience of my creativity all throughout my life, at least how I understand it currently, is that it works best when I put it in a ring with a lot of constraints, set it loose and spinning, and catch the sparks that fly off at the friction points. Which is to say, when I’m firing on all cylinders, I really like being in a band, bumping into other people’s contrary opinions, and letting the result of our collision be the thing that gets made. And THATH was a band full of people whose creative choices I admired and respected, and so it was a great creative place to be. There was a great Rolling Stone interview with all of us around the time I made the leaving more permanent that talks a lot about the reason for separating.

I’ll say going solo has been the longer way, but it helped me to learn lessons that I needed to learn. That, and feeling that it was important to tell the story that is mine to tell. Healing from addiction and shame, learning to reconcile with others and to love myself, to live in a new responsible way, and to step into a full, empowered, creative life, not knowing the way but trusting it, that is the story I get to carry with me making this Josiah Johnson record. Learning how to vision a life, to set parameters for myself and my creative process, learning and trusting my own rhythms, developing an accountability to myself before anyone else, those things have been the gifts of that choice.



Can you talk about the “false starts” and “false alarms” that inspired the chorus? How do you those experiences feel to you now, with hindsight?

Johnson: It’s the dreams that for some reason or another you never got to run down. It’s a door left open even as you move farther from it. It’s also the things that seemed so catastrophic that turned out to not be a big deal. It’s the way the past becomes ok with perspective and acceptance when you begin to make peace.

You devoured me whole like a ravenous animal
Every single thing you said was the best I’d ever heard
Couldn’t keep a job, you were dreaming yourself down and out, but
It only takes one fierce love to raise you up from the ground
But I stopped callin’ my momma, I tried to adopt yours
Tried to forget where I came from, and the hurt that I had caused
Thank god for the seers, who can perceive where we are heading
With patience for the long road we’ve been walking on
It takes a real big heart to hold that line
Don’t think, don’t be alarmed
This was always gonna break your hard heart
We had so many false starts
We set so many false alarms
– “False Alarms,” Josiah Johnson

I can only imagine how different this solo debut is from your debut with The Head and the Heart. How does your past experience in the recording studio and releasing commercial music inform what you’re making today?

Johnson: Oh my, I love what this question brings up for me. Throughout arranging/recording/producing/mixing, I had all these crystal clear flashes, where I could point to a moment or a way of working in Head and the Heart that was informing a creative choice I was making for this solo record. Over and over. Besides that, I am a child of The Head and the Heart, no doubt. I love big choruses and cathartic release, dynamic quiets and singing to the rafters. I really feel such kinship with the way we brought that into the world together, still.

That also brings up for me that early on in the process, I remember catching myself trying to recreate a path to success that looked like the band’s journey. It was falling for lightning striking the same place twice thinking. I had to keep coming back to trusting that following my nose towards the things that were the juiciest, most exciting things now was the only way forward.

“False Alarms” is sort of a breakup/love song with Jonathan; would you say that extends to THATH as a whole?

Johnson: I wouldn’t call it a breakup song. It’s a growing and allowing things to change, as painful as that can be, song. But I wouldn’t say breakup song, even if that seems like splitting hairs. I didn’t write it thinking about the band. The song was written, at least the heart of it, before any choices about returning to the band had been made.

No kidding?! This song also feels like such an embrace of a lush, wondrous instrumental palette. I’m reminded of Beirut and Revolver/Sgt Pepper’s era The Beatles in your current sound. Do you have any sonic inspirations at this point, or are you guided by something more intangible?

Johnson: I had a lot of ideas of how the record might sound, early on, and it sounds like none of them. I think it sounds a lot better than I could have imagined. It was more trying a lot of things and playing lots of shows with a lot of people and configurations, over a long period of time, and noticing when I lit up. So a lot of intuition and play and asking to try wild ideas just to see what could come of them.

Josiah Johnson music © Ben Fee

Josiah Johnson music © Ben Fee



I saw you a few years ago at an acoustic show, with Planes on Paper in Brooklyn; now obviously, that setting had much more limited scope of sound. What is driving your creative ear toward the French horn and the other instruments you’ve included here?

Johnson: The crew that recorded most of the record was brought together by Peter Lalish, who plays guitar in Lucius, for a one off show in New York at the end of 2018. I asked him for help finding players for this gig: “well, you’ll play guitar, and then drums and bass (preferably someone who can also play upright), and then I loooooooove cello, and I’ve always been curious about trumpet,” is probably what I said to Pete. We all got in a room together and said, “what can we make with all of these things, playing these songs, in one night”. And really, we lucked out. The gig was fun. A year later, everyone was in Woodstock making the bulk of the recordings. I was blessed by that crew. The way Emily [Hope Price] on cello and Dan [Brantigan] on trumpet played intuitively off of each other, no one could have planned for. Really magical when things like that come together.

Someone’s got to talk about the fact that this song is over six minutes long! You let it breathe and grow, which is obviously so antithetical to what “pop” music wants you to do. Is this one of the freedoms you get to have in starting anew? I guess plainly, “Why the long song, Josiah?

Johnson: Hm, it showed up like that. It’s just, you just know when a song is not done and when a song is done. A lot of things, I can overthink, but I know when a song has come through all the way versus when I still need to come with upturned palms and ask for more. Honestly, I wished it was shorter. But it had other plans.

You are built upon generations of love
When you forget where you are going, know that that’s what you are made of
We are built upon generations of love
It is the pleasure that I want for you, and you will know the depths of our love
With every single day I show up, a song of worship on my tongue
Don’t think, don’t be alarmed
This was always gonna break your hard heart
We had so many false starts
We set so many false alarms

— — — —

Josiah Johnson 2020

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Josiah Johnson Captures Our Head & Our Heart with Solo Debut “World’s Not Gonna End”

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Mitch Mosk

Mitch is the Editor-in-Chief of Atwood Magazine and a 2014 graduate from Tufts University, where he pursued his passions of music and psychology. He currently works at Universal Music Group in New York City. In his off hours, Mitch may be found songwriting, wandering about one of New York's many neighborhoods, or writing an article on your next favorite artist for Atwood. Mitch's words of wisdom to fellow musicians and music lovers are thus: Keep your eyes open and never stop exploring. No matter where you go, what you do or who you are with, you can always learn something new and inspire something amazing. Say hi here: mitch[at]atwoodmagazine[dot]com