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Recess interviews: Kenny Hesley of "The Head and the Heart"

Folk band "The Head and the Heart" released their third album, “Signs of Light,” in early September. On Oct. 24, they played a show at the Ritz in Raleigh. The Chronicle had a chance to speak with keyboard player and founding member Kenny Hesley about the new album, learning to be an adult on tour and his time at a Shaolin Temple during the band’s hiatus.

The Chronicle: Three years ago you played The Ritz in Raleigh in Oct. right around an album release time. I was lucky enough to interview your drummer Tyler Williams then. What’s changed since then?

Kenny Hesley: We, for the first time as a band, sort of took a break after touring off that record. It’s hard to explain or hard to understand unless you do what we do or experienced it. But it can be incredibly taxing just being around each 24 hours a day for months and months and months. It’s hard. It’s like a brother-sister type relationship. It’s hard to stay close and stay positive. If you’re not in a good space in that sense, it’s hard to be creative together. So we took a big break, and, coming back to write this new record, we were all just charged up and ready. And it’s been the best experience we’ve had probably since we started. We’re all on great terms and having a really good time for the first time in a while, which is awesome. I feel like the last album we were kind of just exhausted the whole time. Like we were doing it because this is what you do, and it was great. But, at the same time, we were so tired and needed a break.

TC: Can we talk about the release of “Signs of Light”? How do you feel about the finished album?

KH: Yeah, we released it six weeks ago or so. We feel great about it. We’ve been on tour for a couple weeks. It’s our first tour supporting it, and every show has been super good. Just really positive and great.

TC: This album seems to move to an almost more classic rock vibe and away from the folk-rock of your last one and folk of the first album. What spurred that change?

KH: Yeah, there’s no definite reason. We never sat down and decided, “This is what direction we’re gonna move in.” It just kind of happened naturally in like what people are playing, like John wanting to play electric guitar in his spare time more than acoustic guitar.

As far as songwriting and composition of the record and recording goes, we just did what we were enjoying at the time. There was never really a real game plan, and it just came out sounding like it did because of what we wanted.

TC: How has the group dynamic changed this time around?

KH: It was great. After this big chunk of time off last year, we met up at this studio in Stinson Beach near San Francisco and lived there for about a month. We were just there writing at this amazing studio with these massive floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked the ocean. And we were in there all day every day, but it was super positive, and we were excited to get back at it. You can hear that in the record. A lot of the songs are more positive or uplifting or happy-sounding than some on the second record, where we felt more tired or beat down in a way.

TC: Were there hard parts about recording this album?

KH: I mean, not really. This is the first record we worked with a producer. We recorded in Nashville last November and December. And we were with our producer, Jay Joyce, who lives there. [The studio is] basically an old church that he bought and gutted and turned into his house and home studio. Having his helping hand was incredible and a great experience for us and a huge learning experience. I think we all came out of it better musicians and just better at recording and what we do in general.

It’s just a move that every band makes at some point. Some bands have producers for every single record, but we decided that, for the first couple, we had a good grasp on what we were doing. We just didn’t really need that seventh member. This time, we wanted this to be something bigger. You know, when you’re in the middle of it and you’re the one who is writing the music or writing the songs and doing all the touring, you want it to progress in some way. Because if it doesn’t, then you start to feel like it’s getting stale, and you get bored with it. And so we thought this was a necessary move to make it feel for us and sound like something bigger than we can do on our own.

TC: What has it been like moving from Sub Pop to Warner Bros?

KH: We signed with them almost a year before we started recording our first record. Our deal with Sub Pop was two records, so when that finished up, it wasn’t in any way like a breakup. We are still on great terms with them, but It just got to the point where we needed a little more power.

It’s so funny too because I remember being in high school, and every time a band I loved switched to a major label, I’d feel bummed because I didn’t want them to sell out. But being in that position, I get it now. I mean, it is our job, and you need something bigger if you have the ability to. And we had the chance to so we took it. But it was a really good transition and easy and happened right before our big break, so we kind of got to know the people that worked there before we were working. And now that we’re touring and pretty involved with all the label people at Warner, it’s pretty nice to have this foundation built over the last year and a half.

TC: So, let’s talk about this big break. What did you do during your time off?

KH: I did a bunch of stuff. When we finally finished touring off “Let’s Be Still,” a few of us moved back to our original homes. I moved back to LA where I’m from. A couple guys moved to Virginia where they’re originally from. But, yeah, I moved home and started house-hunting and found a house and bought a place.

I also did a couple random things that I’ve always wanted to do that I never had the time or money to do. I started taking flying lessons and working on my pilot’s license.

My best friend from high school and I always talked about how cool it would be to go to China and live at like a Kung Fu temple, as weird as that sounds. In high school, we’d joke around about it, and we’d always say we’d do it just for fun. I finally found myself with this chunk of time, and he was down to do it. So, the two of us went out to China and lived there for a month and lived at like a Shaolin Temple and basically got our butts whipped every day.

TC: Wow, that’s awesome! How does one even go about finding something like that? Can you Google it?

KH: Yeah, yeah! You can search Kung Fu schools in China, and there’s a bunch of them. Like we were at this school out in the middle of nowhere, and there were maybe 30 students and none of them were Chinese. A bunch of them were European, and there were some from the US and Canada.

Yeah, you can just go. It’s actually really cheap. I think it was something like $600 for the month, and that included room and board and meals and everything and 12 hours of classes from Monday through Saturday. Sunday was our day off.

It was pretty intense. It was way harder than I expected. And it was mostly for the experience, like I don’t practice Kung Fu. I didn’t continue after we got home! But it was definitely a life changing experience in many ways.

TC: That’s great. It’s almost like a gap year, I suppose, in college terms.

KH: [Laughing] Totally, except I was like 27 and did like no college at all in my life!

TC: So, I think The Head and the Heart has become a well-known name. Have you all felt this?

KH: It’s amazing. It’s one of those things that happen so…not slowly but kind of gradually? You know we weren’t thrown in the last month into this lifestyle. Like we got used to touring from being in a van to being in a bus to flying all over the place. You just kind of adapt to it over time. There are definitely moments—you know, like milestone moments—that hit you where you play specific venues maybe that are really famous or venues that you grew up going to.

But it does happen gradually. It is incredible, though. I can’t complain. It is exhausting at times, and, you know, you have to learn how to get along and be adults and not bicker at each other over dumb things. But we’re getting better at that as we get older. Yeah, it is one of those things that you just have to get used to over time. You adapt and just try to be the best you can and stay happy.

TC: What are your notable milestone moments?

KH: For me, all of the big ones were playing venues that I grew up going to, idolizing bands like they were just complete rock stars. And playing those same venues and realizing they were chasing a crowd, the same thing as us. That means a lot to me.

It’s always home shows for me, playing in Los Angeles. Even some in Seattle for me have some of the biggest moments. And festivals. We played Coachella for the first time, which was huge because I went three times when I was 17, 18, 19, so as a band it was a blast to be there, to be on stage, and to remember the times there when I was younger. Pretty nuts.

TC: I won’t get too into it, but how have you been holding up without Josiah [Johnson]? And how is he doing? [Ed: Johnson has been on hiatus from the band since March and is not touring with them. He is replaced by Matt Gervais.]

KH: Yeah, we’ve been doing really good. Matty, who has been replacing him lately, is a really, really close friend of all of ours. He’s the best guy ever, especially to have on tour. He’s such a positive dude and a great musician. So, it’s been super seamless and easy for us in that sense because he’s just made it easy for us.

It’s definitely hard. Josiah is really close to all of us. And we’ve kind of built this whole thing up together, and he’s a huge part of the band. But it just made sense. Him and us all agreed at the time that it would just be better for himself to take some time off.

We still keep in touch. He was even at our show a couple weeks ago. We were at Berkeley playing the Greek Theatre, and he came out. We were up for hours talking, catching up. The plan is totally to have him come back when he’s ready to. But you can’t just put a date on that, you know? If you have this timeline in your mind, I think it’s harder to get better. We just told him, “Take your time. Do whatever you need. No hard feelings or anything.” The idea is that in the future he’ll be back with us, and we’ll all be working again together. Right now, he’s just working on himself and doing things he needs to do to get better.

But he is doing really good though, compared to like a year ago even he’s doing a lot better.

TC: That’s great. To close, do you have any tips or thoughts for people who want to pursue music after school?

There was one point early on in the band - we had a couple of different members at the time because it was super early on - and one of my dad’s friends works at a label. They’ve known each other since they were in high school, and we recorded a demo of “Sounds Like Hallelujah” in the apartment. It was just a super rough demo with different members in the band. But he passed it on to his buddy who works at Warner Brothers. He listened to it and liked it enough to send somebody up to see us play. So we had this guy come up, this label dude come up, to Portland. We were playing a small show, opening a show, and he came up and saw us and told us that he thought we had great potential, but we needed to go out and play a couple hundred shows and practice our butts off and really work.

And we took that really to heart. We were all still working normal jobs like restaurant and bar jobs, but we decided to schedule practice like it was a 9-5. And we went in four or five days a week to our practice space and just worked and worked and worked and played the songs that we had over and over and over again and played around as much as possible. And that weeded out people who were playing with us who weren’t ready to commit compared to those who were. And, all of a sudden, there were six of us, and we were all in 100% and ready to commit to it. And, yeah, we’re here. But, yeah, I think it really was if you get your chance you have to take it and work as hard as you can because it just might pass up and then you lose it.

Signs of Light is out now on Warner Bros. Records.


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