Here’s a secret for you: a solid 95-98% of things you’re going to do in life don’t come with instructions. There’s no rulebook on what to say to be the perfect friend, what emotion should occur in every situation, or how to make music. There are guidelines and suggested steps to take and a general outline of what might be the best course of action, but outside of that most of the rules for these things are self-imposed. And that can be a good thing! Self-imposed rules can provide a guardrail against the never-ending chaos that is life. But sticking too closely to those rules can be perilous. It can cause the process of artistry to go stale, relationships to fray, and the luster of life to fade. When that happens, the best solution can be to move back towards the chaos. Get rid of some of those restrictions, say what’s really on your mind, and move forward in a slightly new direction. Just ask The Head and The Heart. In the lead-up to their fourth album Living Mirage, the band–Jonathan Russell, Matt Gervais, Charity Rose Thielen, Kenny Hensley, Tyler Williams, and Chris Zasche–decided to cast off the rules that helped create their first three albums, have real conversations with one another, and come out stronger than ever. The result is a version of The Head and The Heart that is revitalized, branching into new directions while keeping the core of their music and band strong.

When we talk in early May, vocalist Jonathan Russell is in a park in San Francisco taking a moment to enjoy the quieter parts of life before Living Mirage‘s May 17 release date arrives. “I can’t complain about anything right now,” he says. This moment of quiet was well-earned and has been a long time coming. He says part of the challenge of Living Mirage is just the regular process of making an album and the lifecycle of a band. “At some point you make a record and then you spend anywhere from between one and three years touring on it, and you almost relinquish this ability to be creative together until you start all over again like three years later,” he explains. He muses how much the band’s personal lives have changed (he has a girlfriend in San Francisco, several members of the band are married, and Zasche has a child now), and compares restarting the album recording process to starting up an old machine that needs a little grease before it gets going again.

There was more to overcome this time around, though. While he declines to go into specifics, Russell says things were not good amongst all the band members when they first gathered together in Joshua Tree to begin work on Living Mirage. “Not good” doesn’t just mean minor squabbles, either. “Not good” in this case meant serious questions about the viability of the future of The Head And The Heart. He credits part of this realization to the almost-mystical power of Joshua Tree, saying “you almost feel like you’re upside-down, like the world is upside-down a little bit. I think it kinda rattles everything loose and you’re left with what’s exactly there.” In this case, what was there was the need to fix things on a personal level. “There’s a lot of broken relationships in this band and we either need to really address that and start over and start talking to each other again and working on the foundation of our friendship, or maybe just put out an EP,” he remembers thinking in those moments when the band was together there. While he laughs when he says “put out an EP,” he explains seriously that at the time it felt like anything more than that wouldn’t be possible with their relationships in such a state. It was not easy, but Russell says each member of the band realized that these fractures were standing in between them and their shared love of music, so trying to heal was the only way forward. “We had to learn how to talk to each other again and ask tough questions and be real and be adults, which thank God we did because I think it worked,” he says.

The main goal of these conversations was to get everything out in the open. Russell says “I think all of us just instead of holding all of these fears and these assumptions that we’ve made about one another inside of ourselves, we just let them all out. And some of them were real and some of them were not real and the ones that were real we just started addressing. And then we’re all together carrying this load.” He compares that in a way to how he now tries to carry that attitude out into the world with him and fueled the fire for the album that became Living Mirage. He says “Being able to do that with ourselves as a band allowed us the courage to ask universal questions and take on those topics in a genuine way.” This is where the title Living Mirage and the titular track comes from. “The actual title song ‘Living Mirage’ was me just looking it through the world as a duality of the same reality is in front of you, but you can choose to consider these hurdles as real or you can realize they’re probably just these little mirages that you see,” he explains. As an example, he says that growing up he always guarded himself against love out of fear of getting hurt, but once he worked through that fear and realized it was not based on anything in reality, he was able to open himself up and grow as a person. Each member of THATH went through a similar process. “Obviously it was something different for everybody in the band, but for me it was like me looking myself in the mirror and just saying ‘attitude adjustment, man,'” he says.

While the internal strife, resolution, and growth amongst the members of THATH was key to Living Mirage, that’s not all the record is. “I remember someone was asking me ‘is this a concept album?’ and I’m like ummm, you might be able to look for a common thread and I’m sure you could find it, but to me it’s more like a series of vignettes,” Russell says. One of his favorite examples of this on the album is “Brenda,” an ’80s synth-infused jam that floats and shimmers with a killer piano line and a lovesick tenderness. His voice beams with nostalgia and fond memories of his time as a lifeguard in his teenage years in his home state of Virginia, and the summer crushes that can define our youth. “That feeling of just being young and this carefree love like a cosmic crush. I just wanted to pour that into a song, and it might not lyrically say that, but the feeling I get every time I hear that song, I’m a teenager again and I just can’t wait to see that person again,” he explains. He then compares it to “Saving Grace,” a heavier piano ballad later on the record with a more serious message of finding the hope and joy in life that ends up saving you. He credits this range of emotion and topic to the wide-ranging writing sessions that ended up on Living Mirage, with writing taking place in Seattle and Wisconsin along with the Joshua Tree sessions.

If you’ve listened to previous THATH records (2011’s The Head and the Heart, 2013’s Let’s Be Still, and 2016’s Signs of Light), the term “’80s synth-infused jam” might not sound like a THATH track. While the core of the band’s folk sound remains, Living Mirage incorporates a bevy of new sounds. “The band’s been together for 10 years now, and inevitably you just grow as a musician,” Russell says of the new directions. He cites late-80s U2 and Talking Heads as music they listened to on their last tour, and they went into the studio with the goals of making similarly expansive sounds. “We wanted to go further out there. We let ourselves go further than we’ve ever gone. [We] kinda removed rules for ourselves on this record,” he says. He’s also quick to dole out praise for everyone involved in the new sound. Firstly, the other members of THATH for the willingness to go out on a limb. But also to the folks behind the scenes, namely producers Alex Salibian and Tyler Johnson and engineer Ryan Nasci. Russell says “working with them allowed us to break the rules a little more if you will, like ‘oh that’s not what The Head And The Heart would do,’ and we were like ‘that’s just stupid, we’re musicians and we love so many different genres of music, why don’t we start putting that into our music?'”

That thought also went into the decision to announce Living Mirage back in March with “Missed Connection” as the lead single. Russell says there was talk of leading with a “safer” track that sounded more like their old material, such as “People Need A Melody,” but they ultimately decided that went against the whole idea behind the album. “We were like ‘why don’t we lead with the idea that we’ve removed rules?’ We’re allowing ourselves to go places that fans might not have expected,” he explains. Russell also explains how “Missed Connection” is the perfect example of exploring new sounds while using much of the same instrumentation as previous records (piano, bass, and drums in this case).

With a new record and new sounds comes a new tour, which will kick off in earnest in July. Russell says the band has been playing roughly half of Living Mirage live already, but the upcoming dates will unveil more of it. “We’re trying to bring in some of the studio elements to the live show, but without losing us being a live band because I think where we come to life so well is especially live,” he says. He also reveals THATH worked with a creative director for the first time on Living Mirage, which has given them new ideas for their shows. “I’m really excited for these upcoming tours because I think it’s going to be just like this record, it’s a new territory we’re entering into and hopefully bringing people along on this journey when they come and see us live,” he says in summary.

The journey to Living Mirage was not a straightforward one for The Head And The Heart. It took hard, honest conversation to bring the six members together and spark the creative flame again. From there, they had to dispense of all the rules they used to play by and forge new ideas and sounds. If you ask any of them or just listen to the new music yourself, you’ll find that the journey has more than paid off. This isn’t a brand new The Head And The Heart, but it isn’t the old one, either. This version of The Head And The Heart is somewhere in between those two, but we don’t need to set any rules or definitions for them. They’ll just end up breaking them anyway.