Giving Full Measure to His Own Head and Heart, Josiah Johnson Puts Passion into Practice

Josiah Johnson | Every Feeling On a Loop | (Anti-)
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It takes a certain amount of daring to depart a group that’s on its way up as far as both promise and prominence are concerned. Not surprisingly then, Josiah Johnson’s decision to take a leave of absence from the well-received alt-indie folk combo The Head and the Heart wasn’t made was lightly. When he sings “I’m getting used to dropping my pride, I laid it all out for you, I’m putting it all on the line” on “I Wish I Had,” the first offering on his stirring new solo album Every Feeling On a Loop, the motivation for that move becomes clear.

“I went to rehab for a month and a half,” Johnson responds when asked about his reason to leave the band when he did. “I saw this spark of the possibility of freedom from a lot of the self-destructive behaviors I had been using to deal with life. I came out to rejoin the band during the recording of Signs of Lights, but it was clear that what I’d learned was just the tip of the iceberg, and that the road would be a long one.”

Fortunately, his individual efforts paid off through a series of songs that lay bare his emotions while opening up an opportunity to filter them through his own sounds and sensibilities. Indeed, Every Feeling On a Loop finds Johnson offering up a series of confessional songs, all enhanced with the tones, textures and sumptuous arrangements that had been a touchstone of The Head and the Heart’s articulate tableau since the very beginning.

“The cello and trumpet interweave masterfully and playfully throughout these new songs,” Johnson himself observes. “That’s Dan Brantigan on trumpet and Emily Hope Price on cello. It gets lush. There’ are swelling feelings that overflow and that wasn’t limited by what band member was playing the parts. Go electronic. There’s a song, ‘Waiting on You,’ that is built around roiling echoing drum machine parts and chaotic noises, and isn’t meant to be replicated live by a band. It steps in the direction of music that I love that I couldn’t see getting the band onboard for.”

Not surprisingly then, Johnson’s struggles with addiction are reflected here from both dire and daring perspectives. While “I Wish I Had,” “Rise Up,” “Solve Problems” and “Hey Kid” find their singer in a decidedly mellow mood, the innate expression rings through both creativity and conviction. Happily though, he doesn’t allowing his more melancholy musings to entrap him entirely. A series of upbeat offerings — “Nobody Knows,” “World’s Not Gonna End” and “Same Old Brick” — suggest a certain optimism and exuberance was left in the wake of his desire to abandon his harmful habits and strike out anew. 

Johnson himself shared some personal perspective with American Songwriter while elaborating on several songs in the set and offering additional insight into the thoughts and feelings that initially inspired him to proceed with the project

“‘False Alarms’ is a song that got started late one night when I had one of those ‘help, I need a friend to talk to’ phone calls,” he recalls. “I was over at my friend’s, processing how sure I was that I was on the right path, and how much I missed the life with the band at the same time. I was holding both I love you and I’m letting you go.”

He says that “Waiting on You” emerged out of sheer desperation. “It was written right in the middle of the worst times, when I was using a lot,” he explains. “I was trying to keep it together as I watched it slip through my hands. I had a lot of dreams that my teeth were all falling out. And I started to see how it was affecting the people who loved me. You can watch yourself make poor decisions, and go, ‘come on buddy, not this time! Turn yourself around! I believe in you!’ That was a surreal and heavy time, and I try to keep it in my pocket, like, ‘remember why it is worth it to do all the hard work of keeping yourself upright.’” 

“Solve Problems” was wrought from a different perspective. “It got written when I got home from a Laura Marling show at Sweetwater Music Hall north of San Francisco,” Johnson remembers. “I say that because she is absolutely the master of real tough love, and I just channeled that.”

The song “Rise Up” was borne from basic sentiment. “It’s the kindest song for you, when you are at the lowest point,” he reflects.

Ironically, Johnson was ready to leave music behind entirely, but ultimately changed his mind and decided to give it another go. In retrospect, his reasons for returning seem clear cut. “Music is the best,” he suggests, his unabashed enthusiasm rising to the fore. “I love the circus…That what I make brings joy and good times to people.”

Happily, the band allowed him to take whatever time he needed, easing the pressure and leaving the door open for him to reconvene with them in the future.

“The band was supportive. “They suggested the break for an album cycle and the hope for a return,” he insists. “Before they made Living Mirage, we connected and played music together again. That was so beautiful! They had a space out in Joshua Tree, and we went there and wrote and hung out for the first time all together in years, and it was so sweet. And at the same time, we had diverged, and I had this really specific idea of birthing this batch of songs. They also had grown to where they are now, and there was a sense that it wasn’t the time to bridge the gap. It feels like family to me, and I miss them often, and I feel excited to be building what I’m doing now, sometimes all in the same breath.”

As a result, Johnson says that his goal now is to make more music and retain the positive perspective he needs to move forward. “Even if I rejoin The Head and The Heart at some point, there’s too much to do,” he muses. “There are too many sounds and ideas and feelings and people to play with. I’m solidly musically polyamorous now. I feel really grateful to be working with ANTI- Records to put out my solo stuff. They are home to such a crew of lifers with big visions, and I’m on that squad.”

Even so, Johnson realized he was taking a risk by opening himself up entirely. Yet it was a challenge he was willing to take. “It sometimes is,” he replies when asked if it’s scary to tie that verve to such vulnerability. “But that doesn’t make me want to shrink ultimately. It makes me grateful to have such an amazing crew of friends that have my back. It is a real gift that people have given me, to be vulnerable to me, and it gave me permission to be vulnerable back. I want to give that gift forward to people as much as I can. I think we have to if we’re going to survive.”

For Johnson, the process has imbued him with lessons learned and it’s that very optimism he hopes to share with others.

“Go easy on yourself,” he advises. “We’re in a pandemic. I hope you’re getting breaths of fresh air. Remember that your anger is better used in the service of change than at throwing insults at stupid-heads. I see you, we got this. I feel silly giving you all these sayings, but who knows who needs to read them. I hope the songs help. If you enjoy them, pass them on to a friend!”

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