Points of Reference

How the Head and the Heart Turned Commune Vibes and Classic Rock Influences Into 'Signs of Light'

Charity Rose Thielen chats about how Leonard Cohen, the Eagles, and a German set designer helped in the creation of the band's latest album.

By Seth Sommerfeld December 6, 2016

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California dreamin' with the Head and the Heart.

It's a new era for the Head and the Heart. It's been a long time since the group started making a ruckus on the Conor Byrne Pub stage and peddled thousands of copies of its self-released debut record out of the back of its van. As the band found its audience and packed bigger and bigger venues, change was inevitable. The members are no longer plucky upstarts that live together in Seattle. In fact, they've mostly migrated to different cities. At this point, the Head and the Heart is more of a Seattle-based collective than a proper local band.

So it makes sense that the band's latest album, Signs of Light, would usher in a new sonic era as well. It doesn't take more than a few seconds of listening to hear the new record moving away from the group's signature folky Northwest melodies to a sunnier California classic rock soundscape. To put it in the Head and the Heart terms—it's a little less rivers and a little more roads. You can hear (and see) the new aesthetic live when the Head and the Heart takes the KeyArena stage tonight as part of 107.7 The End's Deck the Hall Ball.

For the latest edition of our Points of Reference series, we chatted with the Head and the Heart's Charity Rose Thielen about the pop culture—from the Eagles to a German set designer—that influenced wearing-sunglasses-inside vibes of Sign of Light.

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Panoramic House in Stinson Beach, California

You can feel that this is kind of a very sunny and refreshed album. This was kind of the first time we took a break after touring in support of the previous album. So I think when we met up together we were all pretty refreshed. And I think that the place were we did it was a factor too. We started writing and demoing it in Stinson Beach, a California coastal town north of San Francisco. It was the first time for us coming back together to record an album, because on the first two, there was a lot more spontaneity. We were living together, or living in the same city at least. But everyone pretty much moved home [after the last record], so, in hindsight, I think deciding upon that place to come back together really influenced the album.

We originally heard about Panoramic House studio from My Morning Jacket. They tracked The Waterfall there, and it sounded like a really beautiful place for a retreat. Basically the whole living room, we were just looking out on the Pacific Ocean, and the walls in the live room were just lined with floor-to-ceiling windows. So there were many times when we had to wear sunglasses while we were working on music inside. There’s such a sunniness to this album, and so much California that seeped into it.

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David Hockney's Guardian Interview

Around the time we were making the record, I stumbled upon an interview from The Guardian with a pop artist who I’d become familiar with named David Hockney. He was a Brit who moved and spent time in California. He’s a really interesting guy, and in this interview he was just talking about the concept and the idea of bohemia. And I found really interesting and kind of applicable to Stinson Beach. He said, “Bohemia was against the suburbs, and now the suburbs have taken over. ... Bohemia is gone now.”

Bohemia is a tolerant place. Essentially, it’s this idea of creating this realm that’s free of space and judgment. You don’t necessarily create good art by retreating, but I think artists are so emotionally sensitive to gathering perspective. We were able to come together from all corners of the States and live in this kind of California dream that’d been a mystery to a majority of us.

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The Eagles

We didn’t go into writing the album saying we’re going to create a “California album.” But I remember throughout the process Chris, our bass player, he kind of reinvigorated our love for the Eagles and Hotel California and One of These Nights. On the tour, we actually walk out to “One of These Nights.” It’s not that the Eagles hugely influenced the sound of the album, but I think that they kind of became our spirit animals in a way, and played into that myth of a band in California making music in the ‘70s and persevering in the midst great odds to create pop songs.

We also watched the Eagles documentary [History of the Eagles]. It reminds you how few bands out there that have multiple songwriters and remain democratic. I think we find that kind of intriguing, because that’s how our band is. It’s really difficult being in any band; it’s like a polygamous marriage. We were lucky to have stumbled upon forming in that way. It’s not easy, but I think this album and our art would be worth if it wasn’t. I think you can hear that Eagles-esque dynamic of our band and kind of our history from the last seven years in the song “Library Magic.”

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Mavis Staples

In our time off in between touring Let’s Be Still and writing Signs of Light, we were approached by the Mavis camp to write a song for her. So I ended up taking a song that I started on Let’s Be Still called “If It’s a Light,” finished it, and it’s on her M. Ward-produced album, Livin’ on a High Note. That was pretty incredible, because she’s been a hero of mine. We had a conversation with her—John, Josiah, and I—about the initial writing, and it was interesting because she was saying that she had written albums before that were more somber and more emotional, like the last with Jeff Tweedy [One True Vine], but she wanted to move beyond and sing an album of songs of hope. I found that really encouraging and inspiring. That kind of fit into my writing style going into Signs of Light. Intrinsically, part of me and my personality and how I approach songs is always—or at least often—trying to find the silver lining. You can hear that in “Library Magic” and in my verse in “Dreamer” as well.

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Leonard Cohen

At the Panoramic House, just beyond wall of windows, there is back deck that looks out into the Pacific. And it’s a pretty peaceful place to wake up. So I found myself coming down every morning, making coffee, and going out to the deck. I brought a pack of watercolors—which is a thing I’m not extremely skilled or ambitious about—just as a form of release and inspiration and meditation. And I would pretty much only listen to Songs of Love and Hate, Songs from a Room, and Death of a Ladies’ Man on repeat. [Laughs] A little somber, but you had to over-compensate for how damn sunny it was outside every morning, you know? It was amazing because I could ebb and flow out of focusing on lyricism or just having it as a background—which is not necessarily the recommended way to listen to Cohen, but when you start to consume it in your subconscious it becomes the ideal.

So anyway there’s a song of mine where you can hear that Cohen channel of inspiration called “Wandering Albatross.” We recorded, mixed, and mastered it, but it was only released on the Japanese version of Signs of Light. It’s kind of a somber, weird, mysterious song. I find a lot of his songs drenched in that too. I think as I’m growing into my shoes as a songwriter, I’m influenced by poetry a lot more, and Cohen is one of the greatest poet songwriters of our time.

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Klaus Grünberg

I take a lot of inspiration in the realm of design and aesthetics. And Signs of Light was the first time, we were able to assert cohesion in terms of cover art, packaging, set design, and all of those things. Trying to perfect every minute design detail is a huge passion of mine. The album photo shoot, for example, was in Topanga Canyon, and we kind of played upon that idea of Californian bohemia. As far as stage design goes, we tried to set the scene of like 1970s Palm Springs living room vibe with a little Hotel California.

There’s an interesting [set design] balance, especially with our band. We didn’t want to grow too soon and have crazy wild production, nor did we want production that detracts from the the music part of the experience. Live production is an extension that blankets the live music experience. We’re just kind of finding what’s true to us, not too distracting, but also beautiful and wonderful to gaze upon.

There’s an incredible stage and lighting designer who I discovered named Klaus Grünberg. I stumbled upon him when I was reading interviews with contemporary lighting designers and stage designers while doing research and going down that rabbit hole of the internet. And he is incredibly inspiring. His set design is minimalist, but with a kind of understated elegance. And he uses a lot of kind of monochromatic scenes, which I’m really drawn to personally. Anyway, I was really inspired by this specific production called Aida that that has these kind of suspended orbs... I could really nerd out on all this. [Laughs]

So [when coming up with the touring stage design] we choose a land of California palms, but also have varied plants that were chosen for their leaves and silhouettes. Split-leaf philodendrons and fiddle-leaf figs are kind of the go-tos in interior design, but we used them just because they project such interesting shadows. It was cool to infuse the initial set design with sunny California vibes in order to just be a cohesive extension of the music and the artwork.

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