Mount Moriah songwriter breaks out on her own

Heather McEntire lives next to a state park out past the city limits of Durham, North Carolina. All throughout her property, chunks of quartz peek out from the dirt, and for a time, McEntire would spend days digging the quartz out of the ground with a shovel and a wheelbarrow.

“It was like a fever. I was just like, ‘I've gotta get these guys out of the ground,'” McEntire said recently by phone. “It was my weird way of fighting my depression and that darkness with discovering and excavating. I didn't know why. It was this obsession of mine. … It was like I was saving them and they were saving me. It's this thing that I've felt very moved to do in desperation.”

The darkness crept in while McEntire was on the road. After her band, Mount Moriah, completed a tour behind its 2016 record How to Dance, McEntire took a job singing in Angel Olsen's band, which kept her gigging constantly.

“I love Angel. She's like a sister to me,” McEntire said. “But it's also intense when you are supporting someone for so long. I kind of lost touch with who I was as an artist. … I wasn't able to create, and that wounded me in a lot of ways.”

Back home, McEntire tentatively began reworking and refining some material that didn't make it onto How to Dance, but even though one of her Mount Moriah bandmates was slowing down to start a family, she still didn't have the confidence to break out on her own. Then Kathleen Hanna came along.

Hanna, an instigator of the riot grrrl movement and frontwoman of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, asked McEntire to send her some demos. “I sent everything from the last three to four years. It ran the gamut of punk to country to pop to everything that I'd stretched my legs with. I really thought she would pick the more aggressive stuff, but she didn't. She picked all the country songs,” McEntire said. “I think I had this romantic idea of, ‘Kathleen and I are gonna make this punk record. It's gonna be awesome.' But it went a totally different direction, which was the right direction. … We sat down in New York, and just seeing her conviction helped me believe that I could do it.”

The first song McEntire began working was “Quartz in the Valley,” which eventually found its way onto Lionheart, the superb country album she released earlier this year as H.C. McEntire on Merge Records. (McEntire and her band will make a stop at Rumba Cafe on Friday, July 6.)

McEntire had previously incorporated some of her deep Southern roots into Mount Moriah, but not fully. “It was a slow walk back to country. With Mount Moriah, I was getting my feet wet again,” she said. “I think I tempered that Southern-ness because I hadn't found a way to reconnect with it or make it mine. I was having this internal conflict with how to exist and how to create this music, but also wanting to challenge it.”

Growing up, most of McEntire's family lived on the same road, which was named after her grandfather, in the small town of Green Creek, North Carolina, in between Asheville and the South Carolina border. Her uncle had a mechanic shop at the edge of the family's century-old farm, and the radio always played country music. Her grandfather had been a porch-touring bluegrass musician. Southern music saturated her existence.

McEntire didn't think about making music herself, though. “I was really, really shy. Even in church, I would barely hum along,” she said. But after her first year of college, she went home for the summer and got a job at a steakhouse where a local musician would set up his keyboard and play covers for tips on weekends.

“I just thought, ‘Wow, that's so cool. You get paid to do that,'” she said. “After a shift once, I was singing outside, and he heard me and said, ‘Let's record some stuff.'”

Singing covers helped her realize she had a voice, and after that summer McEntire started working at the college radio station, which opened up a huge world of independent music. She went on to form indie-rock act Bellafae and then Mount Moriah.

Lionheart allowed McEntire to write songs boldly birthed from the red clay dirt of her home state — music that also happens to be a perfect match for her full, gorgeous, unabashedly twangy voice.

The album is also McEntire's most vulnerable collection of songs to date. Writing from the perspective of a queer woman, her music upends the conventions that typically come packaged with the country music genre.

On a few of Lionheart's tracks, McEntire asks questions that serve as calls for understanding. “Do you see it in my face?” she sings on “Baby's Got the Blues,” and follows it with more pointed queries: “Do you see it in my hips? … Do you see it in my eyes?”

“[In that song] I'm talking to my family about depression and mental illness, and asking if they can see themselves in me or me in them: ‘Can we relate?' I'm demanding some sort of dialogue,” she said. “Using those questions, that was powerful for me. I wanted it to be confrontational in that way.”

Throughout the writing process of Lionheart, McEntire also began to reconnect with her Southern Baptist upbringing. “It's a wild world that'll make you believe in a kingdom full of mercy and faith/It's a fine line, and I will walk it with grace,” she sings on the chorus of leadoff track “A Lamb, A Dove,” which serves as a summary statement for the rest of the record.

“The ‘fine line' is the place that I choose to exist in, that I want to live in. It definitely is a reckoning with and surrendering to this reconnection with spirituality, and relating to my parents in that way, even though those things are very different and our practice is different,” she said. “I used to just feel really bitter about religion. It felt oppressive to me and I closed myself off to it. … But something I'm really proud of myself for is taking a step back and opening up to that again, but on my own terms.”

These days, when McEntire sees quartz in the ground, she still has to fight the urge to dig it up. But it's not like it was. The feverish desperation is gone, buried beneath a pile of rocks.