Photograph by James Joiner
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Kenny Hensley enjoys a moment of morning quiet at a Stinson Beach boulder during the writing of Signs of Light.
Photograph by James Joiner

As His Band Climbs the Charts, He Climbs Walls

Kenny Hensley, keyboardist for the indie band the Head and the Heart, ascends rock to stay grounded.

Northern California’s signature fog blew slowly off the Pacific, and breaking waves drowned out much of the sounds coming from the town of Stinson Beach as it woke up to a soon-to-be-sunny summer day. In the sand just above the high tide line, Kenny Hensley, the piano and keyboard player for folkie rock group the Head and the Heart, swung by one arm. He lunged upward, stretching past the white chalk paw prints splatter-painted on the side of a large blue-gray boulder. Finding a finger grip, he pulled himself to the top.

He paused, looking over his shoulder at the redwood trees emerging from the mist behind him, and then jumped down into the sand. Gathering his bag, he walked back down the beach toward another day of writing music.

Since that morning last September, Hensley, 28, has been busy.

He and his band are returning triumphantly from a yearlong hiatus, writing and recording their new record, Signs of Light. Since its debut on September 9, it reached the top spot on Billboard’s rock album chart and hit number 17 in the world, ahead of contemporaries such as Wilco and Local Natives. Now, after an epic August show at Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre and a red-eyed whirlwind of high-profile appearances ranging from the Late Show with Stephen Colbert to the Ellen DeGeneres Show, Hensley is booked through the fall and winter with a rapidly selling out run of concerts that spans the globe.

Among the growing pressure of fame and the grind of constant touring, Hensley defies the rock-star stereotype by staying humble and taking his stress out on the climbing wall. National Geographic Adventure caught up with him for his take on climbing while touring and a quick playlist of music that gets him inspired.

How did you get into climbing?

When I was living in Seattle, from 2009 to 2015, I lived close to a climbing gym called Stone Gardens. My friend Brad and I started going in 2012 or so, but he had an elbow issue and, shortly after starting up, had to back off and avoid climbing. I totally caught the bug then but didn't keep it up because I was busy with touring, and it wasn't as enjoyable without a partner. In the summer of ’15 I joined a gym here in L.A. with a friend and haven't looked back. I was also starting to get a little chunky around the waist, so climbing helped me get back into better shape.

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Hensley gets creative, musically and otherwise, at the Panoramic House in Stinson Beach.

You mentioned catching the bug—what appeals to you most about climbing?

It’s just one of the most therapeutic times for me. Like any sport or hobby that one might love doing, it takes your mind off of any stress or anxiety you have, and I think that's a positive no matter what. I love the challenge, and I’m also pretty OCD, so I love that I can keep track of my improvement via a decimal system. I've also been pretty terrified of heights for most of my life, so climbing has been a good way to try and get over that.

Climbing can wreak havoc on your hands. Are you ever worried it will affect your ability to play music?

Nah—if anything, I've gained some endurance since strengthening my hands and forearms. It might not seem like it, but playing 17 or 18 songs every night can be pretty taxing on the tendons, especially on piano, because I'm stretching my fingers all over the place. I've found I can play longer without feeling the tension.

But you can also get hurt. Since the Head and the Heart just released its third record, and the first on a major label, does that possibility enter your head?

Of course it's entered my head, but I don't worry about it. I've always been active, whether it was skateboarding, which was a passion for most of my life, or climbing now. I'm a pretty safe person overall. I know my limits and don't cross them unless I have a good reason to. I'm also pretty stubborn when it comes to people telling me what I should or shouldn't do and have found the most success in my life when sticking to my gut. If someone told me I should give up climbing because it can be dangerous, it would go in one ear and out the other.

Do you climb on tour?

We took so much time off last year when I was really getting into it that I haven’t experienced much tour climbing. I had a membership to a gym when we recorded the record in Nashville, and I went three to four mornings a week before heading into studio. My goal is to do some research before each tour and email local climbing gyms to offer a few guest-list spots to our show in exchange for a day pass.

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Hensley plays piano on stage on the Head and the Heart’s 2014 winter tour.

Climbing and music are both creative passions. In your experience, do they complement each other?

Definitely. I began playing music because it was therapeutic for me. Until I moved to Seattle and the band started, I was a closet musician. I had never been in a band, and most of my friends didn't even know it was something I did. I would just play and write at home purely to get my mind off things. Now music is a job, and as much as I love it, the intimacy is gone because it’s so exposed, and when I have a break from the band I tend to stay away from it. Climbing takes its place in that sense. What used to be waking up and sitting at the piano is now driving myself to the gym and climbing, usually by myself. I’m not at all opposed to having more climber friends and being involved in the community, but that's where I'm at, just like I was with music before moving up north and diving into the thick of it.

Who are some of your favorite climbers?

I wish had more knowledge for this question! I feel like the kid in high school who wanted to be a skater but didn't know enough so he’d claim his favorite was Tony Hawk and always get made fun of. [Laughs] I love the idea of big wall climbing. I grew up going on camping trips to Yosemite with my family every year, and that place holds a very special place in my heart. Next time we have a chunk of time off I plan on going and living there for a little while to climb. As amazing as it is to watch guys like Adam Ondra or [Chris] Sharma, I think I look up to Hans Florine, Tommy Caldwell, and Alex Honnold the most.

What is your dream climb or current goal?

Going back to fighting my fear of heights. I have this idea that I will climb the Nose on El Cap and/or northwest face of Half Dome. Whether that will be in five or 10 years, I have no idea, but I've decided I will, so I'm at the very least going to keep climbing and getting stronger with the goal of being experienced enough to try a climb like one of those in the future. I've got a big ol’ framed route map of El Capitan in my living room to remind me. Right now, my goal is just to keep at it.