Intriguing, unflappable, intertwining and ineffable… that’s the new weird Americana as envisioned by these North Carolina artists.
BY JORDAN LAWRENCE
Shortly before Mount Moriah’s recent interview with Blurt, Heather McEntire, the Durham, N.C., band’s unfailingly polite lead singer is finishing up a phone conversation with another publication. She mouths an apology and turns her attention to the question at hand, which somehow leads her into an earnest but fumbling attempt to define “Americana,” one of those far-reaching music terms that means so much that it ultimately means nothing.
She sputters for a minute and exasperatedly admits, “I don’t know what Americana means.” She then excuses herself and exits the coffee-shop meeting room to finish her call as her bandmates, guitarist Jenks Miller and bassist Casey Toll, arrive and settle into their seats. She doesn’t want to get in the way of any pre-interview pleasantries. After all, she is nothing if not polite.
Still, despite her inherent niceness, it’s easy to tell that she’s somewhat perturbed at the catch-all genre tag she finds herself talking around. Her frustration is understandable. Though Mount Moriah’s smoldering gems occupy sparse country-rock territory that bears the footprints of countless musicians, both present and past, the band draws frequently from other wellsprings.
McEntire cut her songwriting teeth in Bellafea, an explosive post-punk dynamo that found her warm Southern warble twisted into a cathartic shriek. Miller is the sole creative force behind Horseback, a heavy-minded avant-garde project that finds miraculous common ground between blistering black metal and minimalist folk-rock. Mount Moriah draws from this experience, marking its music with subtle inflections — the tense, often foreboding tones deployed by Miller, McEntire’s tendency to give her more powerful belts blunt endings reminiscent of her Bellafea shouts — that challenge Americana’s broad but rigid boundaries. Also impactful is McEntire’s bisexuality; her struggle to find acceptance in a region where many disapprove of her lifestyle is reflected in songs that utilize the pointed pronouns to add bite to familiar country constructs. Indeed, this is a band that is not so easy to define.
“Even with our poppier songs or more driving songs, there’s still a lot of darkness,” McEntire explains. “I like that juxtaposition. That’s what can make us unique. You have to listen to us a few times and read the lyrics and think about what we could have added and what we left out.”
By the time she says this, the conversation has moved across the street from the quiet coffee shop to a bustling Jason’s Deli. The family-friendly chain has a decent salad bar, and Miller was hungry for some lunch. The decision to move took a few minutes as the band members half-heartedly batted the idea back and forth before making up their minds. It was a scene reminiscent of an indecisive family deciding where to eat for dinner, an apt indicator of the trust that defines Mount Moriah’s artistic dynamic.
Toll, who has toured with the band since 2010, became a full-time member as Mount Moriah began ramping up for Miracle Temple, the group’s sophomore effort, recently released by Durham’s Merge Records. This was a big deal for McEntire and Miller, who had been the project’s only consistent members since reviving the moniker, which was earlier used as the name for Miller’s folk-ish collaboration with local musician Aaron Smithers. The two met in 2006 as clerks at the storied Chapel Hill outpost of Schoolkids Records, which has since been shuttered. Their friendship was strong and immediate, he having her back as she tried to reconcile her liberated lifestyle with a religious and conservative family, she serving as a reliable anchor as he came to grips with an at-times-crippling obsessive-compulsive disorder — Horseback’s manicured heft has become his unconventional therapy.
Their relationship has never been romantic, but they trust each other implicitly. They seem linked, their matching blue-ish eyes piercing through questions with similar intensity. Shortly after meeting, they formed a label (the N.C.-focused Holidays for Quince) and a pop duo (the pristine and precise Un Deux Trois), the experience forging the creative relationship that has become Mount Moriah’s soul.
But these days, Toll has become an active contributor to their creative process, helping — along with frequent drummer James Wallace — to shape Miracle Temple’s refined folk-rock fire.
“It can be really hard sometimes,” Miller says of learning to trust in the band’s creative chemistry. “It just takes believing in each other and knowing that there is a sense of love that is going to perpetuate through those hard times. Not everybody’s going to agree all the time. You start to develop a common language as you’re working together and sort of try to learn that vocabulary and learn ways to augment it as you go.”
Trusting her bandmates was key to McEntire, whose songwriting excavates personal demons with an almost archaeological sense of poetry. This is nothing new. Mount Moriah’s self-titled 2011 debut included songs like “Reckoning,” a breathtaking number that uses breezy country as the backdrop for McEntire’s confession to her strict Christian mother that the love of her life is a woman: “Momma, rest your mind,” she sings, knowingly tweaking a style most often used to express heterosexual love. “I found a lover/ She’s gentle and kind.”
On Miracle Temple, many of the songs are drawn, quite literally, from McEntire’s own therapy sessions, keying on vivid memories and meaningful locations. “Bright Light” details one of the treatments that she found most powerful, an experimental technique called “eye movement desensitization and reprocessing,” or EMDR. During each session, she was confronted with a bright light in an effort to distract McEntire from her own distractions, allowing her to dig deeper into herself. The experience was so powerful that she pulled into a Subway parking lot on her way home from the first session and wrote the song’s lyrics: “If darkness has you only bringing bruises into the light,” she sings in the chorus, “Let darkness take its toll and make it right.”
McEntire takes her own advice throughout Miracle Temple, extracting her own anxieties and bringing them to bear in the light of day. Take “Miracle Temple Holiness,” a darker diatribe directed at her mother, this time inspired by the vote on North Carolina’s Amendment One, a constitutional measure banning gay marriage that was passed last May. In the song, McEntire contrasts the nobility of her mother’s beliefs with the prejudices they breed, opting for a more symbolic narrative, a stark divergence from the literal nature of “Reckoning.”: “I’ve seen the darkness take you down with it, Mama,” she seethes. “Let it rise.”
“For me, there’s an interesting juxtaposition of her being this really spiritual woman but carrying this darkness in her heart and me asking her to rise above it,” McEntire says. “There is definitely a search for spirituality within this record.”
Musically, Mount Moriah is similarly progressive, striving to advance country-rock beyond its sometimes stagnant range of symbols and sounds. On “Miracle Temple Holiness,” Miller lays down bluesy licks with leaden tones and a metallic ominence, serving as a menacing foil to the song’s Nashville-inspired string charts, and contrasting McEntire’s Christian images with a mood more common in bands that are combative toward those beliefs. Even in the band’s more straightforward offerings, there are always non-traditional elements. The beautiful ballad “Connecticut to Carolina” ambles along with pedal steel and unobtrusive fills during the verses, but the chorus finds Miller allowing his guitar lines to expand into tension-rich slabs that heighten the separation anxiety apparent in McEntire’s quivering but confident delivery.
In such instances, Mount Moriah displays an innate desire to twist familiar forms, using such recombinations to represent the conflicted nature of life in the modern South. But McEntire is wary of words like “tradition.” As much as she doesn’t want to be defined as working within it, she’s equally adamant that Mount Moriah not be labeled as intentionally breaking it.
“Traditional, that’s another one of those words I don’t totally understand,” McEntire says. “The country music I grew up listening to, it was so programmed. All of the stories were just recycled. You could not know the song but know the song and start singing. I like what we’re doing with playing with those more traditional formats and introducing more darkness and things that are harder to digest.”
[Photo Credit: Andrew Synowiez]