Recess Interviews: Heather McEntire of Mount Moriah

Next Tuesday, Feb. 26, Durham-based band Mount Moriah will release their highly anticipated second album, Miracle Temple, and perform a free show at Bull City Records. Heading the group as lead singer and lyricist is all-around Triangle music veteran Heather McEntire, known outside Mount Moriah as a member of Bellafea, Un Deux Trois, creative director of Girls Rock NC and co-founder, along with bandmate Jenks Miller, of the independent record label Holidays for Quince. Recess Editor and longtime Mount Moriah enthusiast Michaela Dwyer spoke with McEntire about the best and worst ways Mount Moriah’s music has been described, McEntire’s creative writing background and the artistic magnetism of the American South.

Recess: I’ve been listening to the new album almost exclusively since I got a press copy in December, and I just feel totally subsumed in it when I’m listening to it. I had the same reaction to the first album, but I think Miracle Temple plays quite differently, and I’d like to know how your approach to this album was different from the previous one—musically, lyrically, conceptually.

Heather McEntire: The first record [Mount Moriah] was immediate; it was raw. I think that [Miracle Temple] is a more confident record in a lot of ways. I think it just took some time for us to trust each other, and [in that way] how we approached this new record is different. We wrote collectively; that creative process was different. Vocally, I have matured a lot since the last record. I think a lot had to do with really becoming familiar with my voice as an instrument, but also in a little deeper way, and who I am and what I feel empowered to share about my personal life experience. So, in those ways, Miracle Temple feels like a more confident record. Even the arrangements are more thought-out. We went into the recording process knowing exactly what we wanted.

R: I’m interested in what you were saying about how you’ve changed and what you feel more empowered to write about or share now compared to a few years ago.

HM: Well, [on] the first record…for me, the song “Reckoning” [a song in which a daughter speaks to her mother about a female lover] was pretty intense for me to put out there. And I’ve come out to my family over the last year, and put myself in some vulnerable and strong places. I feel like if [“Reckoning”] is my coming-out song, it frees me up to expand and explore more. The experience of an artist living in the South isn’t just about my experience, about my struggle with my sexuality; it’s not about my struggle with identity. It’s much larger than that, and much more complex. There’s a lot of forgiveness in [Miracle Temple], so I guess this record has felt like a rebirth of sorts for me—but I’m still searching.

R: You studied creative writing in college [at UNC-Wilmington]—poetry, specifically. How did that inform your lyrical writing, which to me retains more of a prose-like quality? I’m curious about how you translated that background to the music you make now.

HM: [In college] I had excess prose and poetry pieces. I wanted to do something with them, so I put melodies over them and learned how to play the guitar. I’ve been thinking about this recently, because I collaborated on a song on this record, “Union Street Bridge,” with my writing mentor and undergrad professor, Sarah Messer. I’m someone who’s very inspired by poets and storytellers. I definitely wouldn’t be involved in music if I hadn’t first fallen in love with writing. And I know I wouldn’t be able to do that If I hadn’t been under the wings of really skilled poets who really did see something in me— a really curious young woman who was just so green but who wanted to understand her life and her family and how it all fit together.

R: I was walking a few weeks ago and I was listening to “Plane,” from your first record, and I had this moment when you’re singing about the “the red, red clay,” and I looked down and was standing on clay. I think your songs have a way of really attuning us to physical place on a micro, personal level—but also, and especially on the new record, you’re singing a lot about actual locations, many in North Carolina—“Connecticut to Carolina,” “Swannanoa,” etc.

HM: That’s totally true. There’s a lot of geography. I wrote a lot of these songs or at least started writing them when I was on tour all over the country. I’m very inspired by landscapes that are not very familiar to me, like the West Coast. That element of being far away from home and then returning and having this wealth of experience. When you’re out on tour and spend two and a half weeks in the desert, it brings up a lot of stuff. I do find that I’m really moved by place. I associate a lot of my memories with place. I’ve always had a fondness for maps, and I love travel; it’s not something I did a lot growing up.

R: That’s also related to this question of you all being Southern musicians, or if [Mount Moriah] is the new Southern music. The “New South” is one phrase that often gets attached to your music. And that relates to your singing about nontraditional sexuality. At this point, how do you feel those labels define you? Do you want to totally reject them?

HM: I think people are gonna define it how they will, and interpret songs as they will. I wouldn’t say Mount Moriah has this mission to spearhead this “New South” movement. But we are definitely a band who asks a lot of questions. As the person who’s writing the lyrics…my intentions are not to be super-political. [We’re] kind of opening up that discussion of what does it mean to make art and music in the South, what are we up against and what do we have that’s valuable that other areas don’t. I know people like to talk about sexuality and like to talk about these confrontational themes. They’re there, and I’m aware of it: I write it and I live it. It would be great [if] there was a time when it was just about the music, but I think I’m engaged with this band because of those things, too. So I understand their power, understand their importance. If we are unique in those ways, in this sea of country Americana folk bands, I’m proud to be unique in those ways.

R: I’m wondering if you all have ever felt a pressure or a need to go elsewhere to promote yourselves in more national way. The music scene here, in the Triangle, is obviously so thriving and the creative community itself is so amazing. This is something I’m feeling a lot, being from here and about to graduate. What is it about here that makes you all want to stay, and what is it that sustains artists here?

HM: I’ve witnessed a lot of friends and seen a lot of fellow musicians make that exit. I personally haven’t done that. I’ve been in the area ten years, almost. I think it’s important for me to be a part of a community, and really create in the space that is rich with people who are passionate about music, and who are really devoted to that creative process. For me, I haven’t desired going to those big cities. I don’t mean to offend anyone, but it can be a very cliché thing. It can also be exactly what someone needs. Maybe sometime down the line I’ll feel that pull. For now, and especially with Mount Moriah, I’m just starting to understand really how loaded it is, creating here and living here. I think if I were to remove myself from this region right now, I would be a little lost. Part of my quest to understand the South is I feel like I have to put myself in the middle of it. And [I want to] see if I was really loyal to a community, and let it mentor me, how I could grow. If you’re gonna choose to be a musician or artist…in this country, you’re up against a lot. I guess for me I would rather not struggle over my rent. I’d rather be inspired by different kinds of struggle, you know what I mean?

R: When you were growing up, did you have a lot of exposure to and experience with music?

HM: Oddly, there wasn’t music playing in my house. My family had a farm, and we all lived on the same road. My uncle ran a mechanic shop, so I’d go over and help him and all he’d be playing was country music. So that was pretty formative, as well as the hymns in the church, because I grew up in the church. That certainly informed a lot of my focus on melody and harmony. But…there wasn’t a lot [of music]. When I said I wanted to discover music it was like bridging a new world that was full of emotion and expression.

R: What’s the best and worst way you’ve heard your music described?

HM: You know, when someone asks me, I don’t really know what to say. If I’m back home and one of my dad’s friends is like, “Well, whaddya sound like?” I think about what other people might have for their frame of reference. So sometimes I’ll be, like, “Oh, it’s country.” But offhand I don’t like the word “alt-country.” I don’t know what that means, and, honestly, I don’t really know what “Americana” means, but I’ve said it. When [Mount Moriah] first started I said we were secular gospel. I have since felt very weird about that, so I’ve kind of taken that off, because I’m trying to get in touch with my spiritual side. And that’s part of [this question of] how do I intersect with this world that I grew up in? I was bitter for a long time about religion; I didn’t let anything in. Now I feel like my heart is really open and my mind is open, and I think gospel is gospel. And if I’m feeling the spirit, that can mean a lot of different things. So I stopped saying we were secular. It felt kind of pretentious.

R: There’s this connection I sense between how scenic your music is, your album art and your music videos. I’m really curious about the band’s visual sensibility and interests.

HM: We’re moved by the visual—mostly photography. We knew we wanted images for both of these records that were really powerful, that made you want to open it up and say, what is this? The [album art] for the first record is very curious, like, what’s going on in there? It’s—dare I say—Americana. In the first record, for me, there are a lot of references to home. Even just feeling enclosed in a lot of different ways. And the second record…when we were collaborating with the Merge art director, I told her I was really interested in dams. There’s something really powerful in holding back a big force and then and the release. She came across this picture—burning this barn so people can build a dam there. It just spoke to us on so many levels. With our music videos [produced by Durham-based Hueism Pictures] as well, I’m interested in how other artists visually interpret the stories that I write and the music I make. It really does put you in a vulnerable place, because someone else is interpreting what you do.

R: I know you’re involved with Girls Rock NC. Could you talk a little bit about that and what you’re doing there now?

HM: In 2008 I came and played for one of the summer camps, and I had such a powerful experience. I’m now the creative director there. It’s another reason I want to stay here and keep maintaining that nonprofit. Now I work with really great women, and [the mission] is dear to my heart. And it’s not just about music. It’s really just a brilliant front for empowering girls and letting them have this artistic freedom and kind of instilling these feminist ideals into them, and it’s great. I remember the first time I volunteered, thinking, wow, if this had been around for me...I would’ve gotten involved in music so much earlier. With these girls, there’s so much creativity, there’s so much confidence, and I can’t wait to see what happens to them in ten years.


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