For the most secular of us, music is the closest thing to spirituality. Few bands are able to fold their spiritual beliefs into their music, without giving their listeners the sensation of being bludgeoned over the head. As a result, few of these bands are able to cross over to the masses. If you need some church in your life, spend a little time with Mount Moriah. This – alt-country, bluegrass, “secular gospel” – we’re not exactly sure what to call them – band evokes the best parts of Americana and Folk to create a truly religious experience. Their second album, Miracle Temple continues their tradition of creating music that is melodically beautiful and lyrically fascinating. 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. Writer Amy spoke with Mount Moriah lead singer Heather McEntire about the South, spirituality, classic influences, and the intersections of culture, politics and song.
Amy: I really decided I had to do this interview once I saw that you’d tagged the record on Bandcamp as secular gospel. Is this a thing I have missed out on? Can you explain what this means? I think it’s wonderful as a concept and really something I’d like to hear more of.
Heather: I was raised in the Southern Baptist church and gospel music is, of course, a large part of that. I actually dropped the secular tag from the description because I thought it was a little pretentious, and maybe because I don’t think that it needs to be there. “Gospel” doesn’t have to apply to religious stuff – it can be about us and our own spiritual journeys.
Amy: I think it’s interesting, though, that Mount Moriah obviously has such a heavy Biblical reference (yeah, I went to Sunday school), but you call yourselves secular. What does it all mean?!
Heather: I think it’s the connection with my Southern Baptist upbringing, and I still think we’re trying to figure out “what it all means.” So while we’re not directly referencing religion, we’re talking about spiritual themes. I’m on a little bit of a spiritual quest myself, so maybe I’ll have a better answer later.
Amy: I think the new record, Miracle Temple, sounds a little more “grown up” than the debut, Mount Moriah, did. What do you attribute that to?
Heather: I attribute it to growing up. I’m 30 now, and we feel more comfortable as a band after touring for the last 2 or 3 years to support the last release. I also think it has a lot to do with making the music that we want to make.
Amy: I really, really love the “Eureka Springs” track on Miracle Temple. I’m assuming it was written after visiting the little hippie haven in Arkansas that was formerly a Civil War healing resort. What was the writing process for this track?
Heather: I’ve actually been writing this song for several years. I traveled with a friend who was attending his mom’s wedding to her college sweetheart, we’d both gone through some bad breakups and were in need of the road trip and the geography for a little healing. I’d actually shelved it for a few years because the chords I was writing to go along with it just weren’t making sense, then Jenks wrote this really cool little riff for it, and it all came together. The song is deeper than the surface presents.
Amy: What was the writing process for this entire record? It feels like it’s much more alt-country than the last. Am I dreaming that, or was there an attempt to return to some North Carolina Roots?
Heather: I can see how you might think that there could be a “circle” from the first record. We wanted to make a record that was as true to ourselves as musicians and as people as possible, and this sound is what came.
Amy: I hear the Allison Krauss, Gillian Welch bluegrass purity in Heather’s voice and I think it lends a particular femininity to the music – is that intentional or coincidental? Particularly the way that your voice blends with the rootsy southern-rock riffs written by Jenks.
Heather: I think the contrast is definitely intentional. I’ve learned in the last few years how to work the emotion and tone in my voice to complement the music that Jenks writes, and I think we’ve put together a good mix.
Amy: How do you think Mount Moriah fits into the greater world of alt-country and country at large, particularly with this record? It sounds very Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris, Allison Krauss…very lasting to me.
Heather: I don’t want to say that we’re not deeply influenced by classic country and southern rock, but I’d also say that I have a hard time describing our music and I want people to have trouble putting us into genres. I think we’re out here making our own way and making music differently than other bands, carving our own space.
Amy: The messaging of Mount Moriah is a little different than most Southern musicians, I’d say. How do you think the reception to your lyrics has been from the people who love your sound, but may not necessarily agree with what you’re singing about?
Heather: We’re not really trying to get political, but we do talk about our lives and our journeys. If you’re talking specifically, I talk a lot about my sexuality and queerness and we, as a band, talk about being Southern progressives. But I don’t think we make it a point to, and we don’t necessarily talk about it overtly. You know, I would hear those Southern Gospel songs and Mainstream Country music that I grew up on and think “these stories are not for me. They don’t represent me,” but this music does represent my experiences and I hope that there are people who listen to it and it resonates.
Amy: Do you think that’s one of the ways that music is so effective as a communicator? It doesn’t matter if you’re singing about ideas that they don’t necessarily agree with if it resonates with them?
Heather: Yes, definitely.
Amy: How do you think the juxtaposition of the acoustic instruments and the electric instruments work to create the mellow and very explicitly southern sound on this record? If there’s one thing I’m hearing on Miracle Temple, it is SOUTHERN.
Heather: *laughs* Well, I’m glad someone picked up on that.