On a recent Thursday morning, Josiah Johnson, co-founder and former member of The Head and The Heart, is working on the New York Times crossword puzzle. I’m less ambitious. Having crossed my Ts for the week, I kill time with Small Town Murder before Johnson’s bi-coastal phone call.
Call eventually commences. It’s really windy where he is. It’s really Fall River where I am. I awkwardly ask if my caller ID came up as unknown (because it sometimes does!). It didn’t. Meanwhile, outside my window, a car almost hits a pedestrian in a crosswalk.
Johnson has an upcoming show at the venerable Columbus Theatre in Providence on Thursday, September 19th, but he’s no stranger to Rhode Island. In 2011 he played the legendary Newport Folk Festival with The Head and the Heart, gigged with hometown heroes The Low Anthem, and headlined a Westerly Sound show at the Knickerbocker Cafe back in February ‘18. “That show was special in a lot of ways,” says Johnson. Since breaking with The Head and the Heart a few years ago, it was his first time playing new music in front of a crowd. “I got together with friends in New York and we arranged all the songs.” The reception was warm and enthusiastic. “People were definitely grooving. You don’t always see that in a seated venue, people getting out of their seats. I was like, ‘Oh, okay, alright!’”
Johnson’s latest tour will see nine dates, eight states, and a full band of friends and talented musicians backing his solo effort. “I have no excuses this time around. I can afford to have a full band on the road with me and it feels exciting and meaningful to learn and grow with this crew.” Growth is a recurring theme throughout our conversation. Johnson joins a long canon of artists who’ve taken the ambitious and slightly terrifying leap from band to solo artist. He’s signing to a record label in September while his album release is looking toward spring. Having complete control over the creative parts of releasing his music, Johnson states he is the “decider of things now.” The colors and design of the album art, creating a music video, the logistics of putting a tour together — all the working parts of things are solely of his own accord.
I ask Johnson if he feels intimidated by the new venture. “Yes, totally! When I was in The Head and the Heart Chris designed our first set of shirts, and Charity already had an eye on what photographers she loved and so there were a lot of things you benefit from carrying the strength of six people instead of one person. So I’ve kind of had to shift from ‘Oh, I should know how to do everything already’ to ‘Oh, it’s okay that I don’t know how to do everything and I can ask and I can learn and I can find out.’ I feel really home at stage and at home taking things out of my head and putting them into song but all of the things around how it gets represented is new and totally intimidating and growing.”
I recently visited the Strawberry Banke Museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire where a tavern owner re-enactor gave me a new, gorgeous framework for my career and outlook on personal relationships. He was this unexpected oracle in 18th-century clothing who told me exactly what I needed to hear. My conversation with Johnson resonated similarly. He speaks candidly about his anxiety, about “making friends” with it and not letting it stop him from being on stage. As someone who struggles with their own personal brand of anxiety, it was helpful to hear from someone with that good perspective. “I only need to show up with what I have,” said Johnson. I’ve internalized this mantra since our conversation.
While in the Head and the Heart, Johnson adhered to the band’s one-drink maximum before shows to calm nerves and negative thoughts. Now, he is “sober…famously” and quells those insecurities by naming them, notably receiving support from friend and guitarist Rory Cloud who’s asked Johnson to “tell me the stories in your head right now” before performing on stage. “I’m really thankful for people that know how to hold space for your ‘crazy person.’ It has been, like, really wonderful learning to rely on other people’s presence. It has been a really wonderful thing about starting to tour.”
Once upon a time after a Replacements show in 2014, I sat next to a fellow concert-goer on the Green Line. He was quietly, earnestly singing along to a performance of “I Regret Not Leaving the Light On” while looking out the window at Government Center. While highly introspective, Johnson’s music is accessible and meaningful and, very simply, makes the listener want to sing along.
His new material appears to hold that same quality while reconciling toxic self-criticism with self-love. “I think I ended up writing songs to the scared part of myself. Probably half, two-thirds of the songs are love songs to myself when I’m feeling really ungrounded or uncertain about the future or really catastrophizing something that’s not the way I want it to be.”
In just a short conversation slightly disheveled by wind, city, and drivers in crosswalks, it is still very apparent that Johnson’s sobriety, improved mental health, and consistency of his creative life have lent themselves to a happiness that comes from owning and harnessing his personal power.
“All of these things can feel heavy — themes around anxiety or addiction, but also all of these things and the growth that comes through them and that they’re not like the end of the line for you. In the songs as they’re played and recorded they’re not heavy.” Johnson hesitates for a moment. “That’s important for me to say. It’s that all of these things are present…but the purpose is
Josiah Johnson plays the Columbus Theatre Thursday September 19th. The Sea The Sea open. Click here for details.