On “Bright Light,” the second song on Mount Moriah’s new album Miracle Temple, singer/guitarist Heather McEntire sings, “If darkness has you only bringing bruises into light,” and when she hits the word bruises, her voice quivers, as if she’s making a grand leap from her soul into admitting something she’s long repressed. It’s a gut-punch of a delivery that originated from an experimental therapy session she’d been through called EMDR, where a therapist flashes a bright light in your eyes. “Somehow it’s suppose to be this distracting force that allows you to unpack,” she tells Hive from Chapel Hill, N.C. “I wrote the song after my first session. I pulled over in the Subway parking lot and wrote lyrics to the song. I feel like, for myself, there is confrontation and a curiosity, forgiveness.” She delivers the song in a soft voice and lined with Southern charm, where you’d be immediately comfortable asking her to borrow a cup of sugar. So it’s jolting to hear that experimental therapy was the impetus for this gorgeous song. But this is Mount Moriah’s gig: Masking the past in beauty, with a desire to move on.
The present-day Mount Moriah story starts in 2008, when McEntire worked at Schoolkids Records and guitarist Jenks Miller walked in. They struck up a conversation and a friendship — Heather actually got him a job at the store, and Jenks started lending her his guitar talents. They released a self-titled record in 2011 which hinted at their potential, with roots in traditional “Americana” or “Alt-Country” sounds. In other words: it sounded like a smart blend of folk and rock traditions. This direction was new for McEntire — up until that point, she’d been the frontwoman for Bellafea, a punk band. “I just needed a different outlet and kind of press pause on that,” she recalls. “A lot of people never really know what you’re singing about. So there was this desire for me as a writer to have the space to write in a more narrative way and in a more, I would attract it to the more storytelling aspect of folk music.”
McEntire grew up in Western North Carolina, in the small town of Green Creek. Music was rarely on in the household; ask her what her first memories are and she’ll tell you that her mother kept the house silent most of the time, but on her own, she’d wear out cassettes of Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA and a Beach Boys live performance she taped off the radio. “Other than that, the only musical outlets were the mainstream country dial that my uncle listened to,” she says. “I grew up on this farm and my family all lives on one road in the mountains here. My uncle ran a mechanic shop and he’d always have country music playing. I grew up listening to that and the hymns in the church.”
When Jenks and Heather started playing, he was immediately captivated by her vocal power, a holdover from her punk past. “As we started to collaborate on more traditional music, she had a chance to develop a melodic singing voice and it was a process of discovery for her,” he says. “A lot of the songs start with a narrative that Heather has. She writes all the lyrics and she’ll usually come to the band with some melody or chord sketches and we’ll stretch it out a little and give it some life. On each record, [we try to] create space for Heather’s voice to sit as a focal point, so that narrative quality can come through.”
That narrative quality, coupled with Heather’s warm, rich and inviting voice — something of a young Emmylou Harris meets Jenny Lewis — makes for a unique juxtaposition of familiar, roots-based music, steeped in more progressive themes. She’s not going to dwell on break-up after break-up or the stereotypical values from another era. You can hear this throughout like the opener “Younger Days,” “Eureka Springs,” and the midtempo soul of “White Sands.” A lot of times, the songs’ subject matter is short in story and vague, leaving most of the interpreting to the listener. “The narratives in a lot of her songs are about finding that inner strength,” Jenks says. “A lot in the music that is drawing on traditional forces and that was kind of the common ground Heather and I found many years ago — this traditional, largely Southern music. [Mount Moriah songs are] a very conscious effort to move those things forward in a way and recap them in a way that they’re relevant to us and who we are today. As people, we are very progressive in our political orientation and our experience of the world and the attempt here is to fashion into something we can see ourselves in.”
This progressive notion is probably something a lot of musicians who love the sounds and traditions of Americana music struggle with conveying. But Mount Moriah are comfortable with those ever-changing notions of the past and their own identities. While a quick burst of light at a therapy session can kick-start a song, it’s much more than that. “For a long time I was very invigorated with religion and my experience growing up in a not-so diverse place, so I think it’s just the timing of where I was at in my life,” she says. “A lot of these songs are me trying to find that intersection of how do I relate to this one world that I know so well — my family, my heritage, my childhood — and how does that intersect with the world I’m in now and the woman I am growing to become. I definitely don’t have the answer, but I think there’s a lot on this record of searching for that.”
Mount Moriah’s Miracle Temple is out now on Merge.