For those that have followed them over the course of their decade long career, it comes as no surprise that the Seattle Washington-based band The Head and The Heart specialize in songs delivered with a certain spiritual sensibility. It’s implied in their name and realized over the course of ongoing albums that eschew turmoil for tenderness through their “nu-folk” flair.
It was that uplifting attitude that brought them to the attention of M. Ward after he was tapped to produce Mavis Staples’ 2016 release, the optimistically-titled Livin’ on a High Note. As Staples said at the time, she had tired of singing message songs and was hoping to deliver music that could be both inspiring and informative simultaneously.
That’s when Ward reached out to the Head and the Heart’s singer, violinist and guitar player Charity Rose Thielen, and asked if she would be interested in penning a song for Staples’ upcoming album. Naturally, Thielen agreed. During a ‘Behind the Mic’ performance she and her husband Matt Gervais — who also happens to be the band’s singer and guitarist — shared exclusively for American Songwriter, she related the story of how she came to contribute her song “If It’s a Light” to the legendary singer.
According to Thielen, the band had recorded the song towards the end of the sessions for their most recent record at the time, Let’s Be Still, but it was ultimately left off the finished album. “It had banjo, but it was pretty loose,” the pair recalled. “Mavis Staples was making a record and M. Ward was looking for people to write her some songs.”
Naturally, Thielen was delighted by the opportunity. “Mavis is amazing,” she insists. “She was a huge inspiration to me. So when her camp reached out and said they were looking for artists, it was a complete no-brainer. I called and talked to Mavis on the phone and she said she had reached the point where she didn’t want to record any more sad songs and wanted songs of faith and hope instead…observations that she had observed throughout her life.”
Thielen said that over the course of the phone call she felt like she had virtually connected with Staples. “I got teary-eyed,” she recalled. “I knew that this song, “If It’s a Light,” which I had written six months before, was the one. I already had it in my back pocket.”
Inspired by their conversation, she reworked some of the lyrics, tinkered with the melody and sent her demo to Ward for his consideration. It worked, and the song became the third track on the new album. Staples’ sweetly sung vocal fully conveys the uplifting attitude and abject affirmation embraced in the song’s persuasive sentiments. In their YouTube performance, Thielen and Gervais delivered that clear-eyed perspective with a moving rendition of their own.
Indeed, written pre-pandemic, the song resonates now more than ever before. At a time when isolation and uncertainty are obviously running rampant, “If It’s a Light” suggests there’s illumination that remains within reach.