Heather McEntire pauses to collect her thoughts at a café table in Durham. It's a January morning and snow is coming down at a rate that's alarming to the two Southerners sitting across from each other. The bright, clear light of the snowfall highlights McEntire's face with stark tranquility as she speaks.
"I feel like I've been gone a year and a half and I'm coming back, and I'm a little psyched out. All of my friends, their lives have kept going, and I'm trying to play catch-up. I've been going through this weird head space," she says.
In the summer of 2016, McEntire joined Angel Olsen's band as a backing vocalist. She spent eighteen months traversing North America, Europe, and Australia in support of Olsen's astounding 2016 LP, My Woman, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But back home, McEntire is still getting her bearings and gearing up for a new chapter marked by a new record: Lionheart, her first solo LP, which she released via Merge Records at the end of January.
For more than a decade, McEntire has been an essential figure in Triangle music. With Bellafea, she crafted cutting punk tunes. She built tidy pop-rock songs alongside guitarist Jenks Miller in Un Deux Trois. The Miller-McEntire axis ripened in Mount Moriah, the twangy rock outfit that's the closest analog to McEntire's solo material. The songs on Lionheart hew close to Mount Moriah's heartfelt, country-inclined songs, rife with some of the same themes of spirituality, sex, and Southern identity. But the songs are more tightly composed, centering McEntire's voice with fewer instrumental asides.
"As a songwriter, it's been really beneficial to try to write all those different styles, and with different groups of people. It certainly makes doing it on your own pretty terrifying," McEntire says.
McEntire wrote and refined most of Lionheart's songs in snatches of free time while working with Olsen. When she had three weeks off in January of 2017—a long spell, considering her hefty touring schedule—she and her recording engineer housemate, Nick Petersen, laid down Lionheart's basic backing tracks. She recruited a familiar team of locals to back her up, including Phil Cook, Ryan Gustafson, Jeff Crawford, Allyn Love, and James Wallace. Some faraway friends added other touches: harp by Mary Lattimore, violin by Daniel Hart, and additional guitars by William Tyler, plus backing vocals by Olsen and the Indigo Girls' Amy Ray.
McEntire had someone else in her corner who would prove to be an essential force in Lionheart's creation: riot grrrl titan Kathleen Hanna. The two first connected through Girls Rock NC's ten-year anniversary throwdown, which McEntire helped organize in 2014. Hanna's band, The Julie Ruin, headlined, with Mount Moriah on the undercard. Hanna was so impressed with McEntire's singing voice that she wanted to do anything she could to help her career thrive.
"It's nothing that's ever been before and nothing that will ever be after. It's the kind of thing that you stop, and you're like, What? I had no choice," Hanna says. She envisioned McEntire putting out a record that put her powerful voice and insightful lyrics in the spotlight.
"When you have somebody who's that good and has worked that hard on her craft, I don't want to just hear loud guitar leads over her voice," Hanna says.
But it would take a while for the two to fully set their relationship in motion. Two years after the Girls Rock gig, McEntire opened for The Julie Ruin solo. Hanna relayed her enthusiasm for McEntire's work and invited her to discuss it further next time McEntire was in New York.
And so, a few months later, on a day off in New York between gigs with Olsen, McEntire made plans to meet up with Hanna. She was floored to find that Hanna had not only pored over McEntire's music, but she'd also taken copious notes about McEntire's strengths and weaknesses.
"At that point, she could've just sent me on my way and kept in touch a little bit. But that's when the work really started," McEntire says. Hanna asked McEntire to send her every unreleased demo she had, and she picked out her favorites. To McEntire's surprise, Hanna picked the more country-leaning ones over the punk ones.
Hanna grew up listening to the likes of Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, and Hoyt Axton, but country music wasn't something she could pull off herself, she says. McEntire could, though, and Hanna also felt that McEntire could outshine the current pop country climate with her intimate songwriting.
"If you listen to [pop country], ninety-nine percent of the time, it's lists of things. It's lists of stereotypes of rural America: cowboy boots, pickup truck, my girl's got her jean shorts on," Hanna says. "It's not songwriting. It's not George Strait, it's not Dolly Parton. It's just bullshit that sucks."
As McEntire and her crew fleshed out her songs, Hanna continued to offer input via email. She essentially produced the record, but declined an official producer credit in Lionheart's liner notes. When McEntire sent Hanna some of the final mixes, Hanna wasn't entirely happy with the results. There was a lot of beautiful instrumentation, Hanna says, but she didn't feel like McEntire's voice had enough room to shine. So she carefully wrote back to McEntire with the truth: the songs, at that point, just didn't work.
"We don't have that much time on the planet to mess around and not be completely honest with each other as artists," Hanna says. "I felt like there was a lot of good stuff there, and there was a lot of improvement to be made."
Hanna encouraged McEntire to re-cut some vocal takes so that they were less technically perfect but more emotionally affecting. A moment like Beyoncé's voice breaking in "Sandcastles," Hanna points out, can be so much more powerful than singing it the "right" way. McEntire's emotive voice shines brightest—and her words hit hardest—when she leverages that power to her advantage.
After re-recording some vocals and some miscellaneous restructuring, McEntire sent Hanna a new version of Lionheart. It was a winner.
But Hanna's thorough guidance meant more to McEntire than just the work that went into Lionheart. Touring as long and hard as she did with Olsen had taken a toll, and McEntire found herself battling depression at times. Though her bandmates had all given their blessings for her to join Olsen's band, she felt like she was letting them down by not being available to tour hard in support of Mount Moriah's 2016 album, How to Dance. Hanna's unflinching support helped illuminate McEntire's value to herself.
"It just felt so powerful, and I kept thinking, why me? At the time, I was struggling with some self-worth—and she didn't know any of this," McEntire says. "It was pretty miraculous, is what I can say."
Hanna maintains her steadfast belief in McEntire's capabilities.
"She's someone who's very ethical and smart, and she wants to change the world," Hanna says. "She really believes in her art and in doing it, but she doesn't want to step over any bodies to get her way."
McEntire isn't too keen on all of the trappings of hitting the big time—as she saw with Olsen, such success requires some steep personal sacrifices. Hanna and others want her to be a star, but McEntire's not so sure.
"I don't know what I want. And that's where I'm at," McEntire says with a refreshing, peaceful satisfaction.
We begin to gather our things and say goodbye as the unrelenting snow cascades from the sky. Even in the day's sharp, unforgiving light, McEntire finds clarity. Even in a storm, she finds grace.