Horseback, Bellafea, In the Year of the Pig, The Hem of His Garment, Un Deux Trois: The musicians Heather McEntire and Jenks Miller have a deep pedigree in North Carolina.
Since 2008, they've been working together as Mount Moriah, generating a healthy buzz based on some strategically selected shows and one dashed-off EP, The Letting Go. The band's moniker has local resonance as the name of a road near the border between Durham and Chapel Hill, where McEntire and Miller, respectively, live. But its biblical associations are more salient, as we discover on the band's self-titled debut LP, which features a crack team of N.C. musicians and includes a DVD of music videos by Durham's Hueism Pictures.
Mount Moriah is a dark country record in the classic confessional sense: Red eyes leave stations in the depths of night, and bellies sour with gin. Pedal steel peals mournfully over musky arpeggios, and McEntire's voice shapes a raw but delicate filigree. The record is about falling violently out of love and carefully back in. But in a poignant twist on the hetero-normative country formula, it also brushes against gender identity in the religious South. "Reckoning" is a devastating rejuvenation of the old "mama don't cry" song, with a balance of graciousness and firmness that comes only at the end of a long and difficult process of reconciliation.
If this record is McEntire's story, though, it's Miller's too, as we discovered in our interview with this tight-knit pair. Miller and McEntire explained those voyages and stories during an extended conversation about the evolution of Mount Moriah and its songs.
ON HORSEBACK, BELLAFEA & UN DEUX TROIS
HEATHER MCENTIRE: I remember hearing the first Horseback record. I didn't know you very well, Jenks; you were living with Aaron Smithers, who was in Mount Moriah. You and I became friends while working at Schoolkids and started Un Deux Trois in your living room. I was so fascinated with Horseback, although you didn't call it that yet. All these drone landscape things—I'd never heard anything like it. I was just really impressed that you'd recorded the whole thing yourself. It made me think a lot about texture. I had an attraction to it, but I didn't know how to be patient with it, like you. I tend to think about songs very linearly, but you've definitely influenced me in that way.
JENKS MILLER: You're so good at melody and lyrics.
HM: That's my first instinct. [In Horseback] there was this anti-melody thing that made me go, "What?" The first thing I thought of was soundtrack stuff. I was like "Oh, this is kind of cool," and I played two shows with [Miller's drone ensemble] The Hem of His Garment. Some of the new Mount Moriah songs I'm writing have a little more droney quality.
JM: I struggle with lyrics. I can write them, but it takes me a long time. I usually like extended metaphor, poetic structure. But you, Heather, will speak to a particular image to get at a relationship, something from memory that contains the whole. So we complement each other in that way. And you have a background in creative writing.
HM: That's how I got into writing music. But I hit a point where I was writing such straightforward, minimal, almost formulaic pop music, I hit a creative wall and couldn't get out of it. That was Un Deux Trois.
JM: Un Deux Trois was a challenge because both of us had been doing these more off-kilter sounds. We had the idea to see if we could do something simple and catchy.
HM: I was really inspired at the time by The Aislers Set and West Coast pop. Writing more complex lyrics to something straightforward; that's what we set out to do. But we can't quite sit still. That's why we have so many things. We'd done Un Deux Trois for a couple years, and I just really hit some dark spots in my life. I could not write pop music. I didn't want to play it. And you, Jenks, had turned more inward with Horseback, and I supported that. I got back into darker Bellafea stuff and went on quite a big tour. We put Un Deux Trois to the side a little bit. It was active from 2006 to 2008, mainly. One thing I learned with Bellafea, where I was trying to put all my tendencies into one project—it was kind of a mess. Bellafea was easier to write for after we formed Un Deux Trois.
JM: Mount Moriah is pretty straightforward, but it has a darkness. I feel like we were able to channel the inclination to write more formulaic music into it, with more traditional song structures, and still be true to whatever darkness resonates with us in songs. Mount Moriah kind of supplanted that need we were fulfilling in Un Deux Trois. It's really hard to write dark, catchy pop songs.
HM: And then make them country, too.
JM: And be genuine about it.
ON MOUNT MORIAH
HM: I used to go to Mount Moriah shows. This current version of Mount Moriah started in August 2008. That was our first show with me in the band, and without everyone else, except you, Jenks—you started Mount Moriah.
JM: Back then, it was still kind of Americana, but a more Silver Jews type, because I can't really sing. It was rougher, more rockin' in some ways. Some heavier stuff we were doing toward the end of that lineup got incorporated into Horseback. Heather, you had a collection of songs you had started to write. You asked if they were Un Deux Trois songs.
HM: Did I?
JM: Yeah, and I said, "No, I don't think they fit." We talked about starting yet another project. It wound up being similar enough to what the old Mount Moriah had done that we decided to keep the name.
HM: I hoped you would want to; I really liked that name. It has a neat power to it locally—living in Durham, living in Chapel Hill.
JM: But the name came from the Bible; it was the mountain where Abraham was told to sacrifice his son, Isaac.
HM: And lyrically, that was intriguing to me too. I grew up strictly Southern Baptist, so it's inspiring to me to try and deconstruct that. I think that I'm honestly only really starting to do that with this next record, not the one that's coming out now. This record, a lot of the songs are several years old to me.
JM: You can't separate that stuff from your identity, even if it has negative associations for you. You have to find a way to recast them for yourself.
ON THE NEW RECORD (AND GETTING THERE)
HM: It's been done for about a year.
JM: Since then, our project has been to raise awareness about this band.
HM: To establish and maintain momentum: It feels slow. I've gotten impatient at times. But it never felt like the right time to put it out. We were unsure what we wanted to do with it. We sent it out a little bit, but we're not the most comfortable self-promoters. We spent six months casually passing it to friends of ours in ideal spots, like Justin Vernon [of Bon Iver] and John Darnielle [of the Mountain Goats]. With Bellafea, I sent demos everywhere, and no one listens to them but interns.
JM: It's a pretty disheartening experience.
HM: We were looking for a genuine connection, and finally it just made sense to put it out ourselves.
JM: We've invested a lot in our label, Holidays for Quince Records, because we want this area to be culturally rich.
HM: We've developed a sense of pride. Now we wonder why we ever tried to send it out.
JM: In the past year, Holidays for Quince has taken a step up in terms of visibility. The Moaners was probably the biggest record we've released, the first time we've worked with a band that well established.
HM: So that and putting out Filthybird held up our record, but we're grateful for that in a way. Personally, my life kind of fell apart last summer, and I went a little into survival mode. The idea of promoting a record just seemed crazy. Half of Mount Moriah quit unexpectedly, and we'd just been offered an opening slot on an Indigo Girls tour. There was a different seriousness at that point.
JM: It felt like it was about to break.
HM: We've been very strategic about what shows we take, how we build intrigue. We had to do a lot of work to make that tour happen, after James Wallace and Jeff Crawford quit. They stayed on long enough to record The Letting Go EP, which we made quickly to have something to sell on the tour. It took a little wind out of our sails. We could have crawled back and been bummed out.
JM: James and Jeff wanted to start a studio and saw that we were going to have to kick it up a notch with touring, and it seemed like the right time for them to bow out. The very day they quit, we saw Lee Waters at Orange County Social Club, and he agreed to play drums on the tour. So we hit the ground running.
HM: We asked Brad and Phil Cook to come on board for that tour, too. We had a different lineup for the Amy Ray tour we opened, with Melissa York and Casey Toll and Will Hackney.
JM: The EP was three very different examples of what we want to do with the band. The full-length fleshes out each possibility.
HM: There's a confidence to it I hear now that I didn't while we were recording it.
JM: When your nose is on the grindstone, it's hard to see the big picture.
ON THE SONG "RECKONING"
HM: I was so bitter for so long.
JM: The song "Reckoning" is almost an address to your mother, who represents a lot of that Southern-ness to you.
HM: It was something I had to write—a therapy assignment, a little homework. Writing that song helped me get over this wall, and I'm still tearing it down, but it helped me to see over it. My relationship with my mom: There's a power to her hearing it, to me writing her that letter—a plea of sorts, to understand and accept me. But it's also a song for me, standing up for myself.
JM: I've known you for so long and so intimately at this point—I've been so involved with the subjects you tackle in these songs that they feel personal to me, too. I know you well, and I know your family. So using that song as an example, I know what it all means. I think part of what I like about folk and country and pop in general is that something so personal does have a resonance. Whatever the lyrics are about to you, Heather, I think anyone can relate. Even though there's a gender flip from the traditional country song, it's no less relatable.
Growing up in the South, I feel a lot of the same feelings, even though they haven't been cast exactly the same way in terms of having to fight for a gender identity. I have a similar relationship to tradition, wanting to find value and a sense of who I am in it, but also seeing the problems with it and how it wants to restrict our personalities if we don't fight for them. You have to be willing to respect and fight tradition at the same time, and that's what I see in a lot of your songs. I know you love your mother, but at the same time, you're willing to fight the things you don't relate to, and exert yourself. I think that's really important.
HM: I don't think I could do it if I didn't have this outlet with you, who I trust so much. It's helped me to learn to fight in that way.
JM: How personal can we get here?
JM: Our collaboration across multiple projects has been accompanied by us getting to know and standing up for each other. Heather has had a rocky and painful relationship with her family, and during a particularly difficult time a few years ago, I would go home with her to visit them—to the mountains near Chimney Rock. I feel personally attached to these songs because they're about things I've experienced firsthand. You were going through this process of individuation with your family that was so traumatic, and I witnessed all of this firsthand.
HM: Mount Moriah happened during a time when I decided I had to take space from my family. You, Jenks, helped me to reconnect with them. You would stand up for me.