North Carolina's Triangle region, marked at its points by Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, has long been among the nation's most fertile music communities. It's home to bands including Archers of Loaf, Ben Folds Five, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Megafaun and Superchunk, whose members founded the highly successful independent label Merge Records. Mount Moriah's Heather McEntire and Jenks Miller have been playing music there for years, and their current project is among the most beloved bands in the area. Last year proved something of a breakout for Mount Moriah, marked most prominently by a summer tour with the Indigo Girls and the release of its self-titled full-length. On it, McEntire's clear voice delivers her powerful imagery. Her words are at once direct and more subtle than those of Craig Finn, who is headlining the bill they'll share at Off Broadway this week. We talked to McEntire during her drive through Arkansas about solitude, record stores and her punk past in St. Louis.
Kiernan Maletsky: What about hiking appeals to you?
Heather McEntire: I love being in the woods. I grew up in the mountains. I like to have it be quiet and somewhat isolated. It offers a lot of reflection. I'm a really active person.
I know a lot of artists and creators feel that kind of stuff fuels their art.
I think it helps center me, helps me relax and focus. I come up with a lot of ideas for songs or lyrics while I'm running or hiking. It's like free therapy.
Do you think it's that you're able to follow a thought to a further conclusion?
We live in a world that's so saturated with technology, and it can feel really overwhelming. I live out in the country — I'm not really in the heart of the city or anything — but I just feel that pulse of technology. It's nice to distance myself from that, to go out in the middle of the woods and just be alone, to be able to think a little more clearly and not have these echoing technology loops.
Yeah. If you could avoid that stuff completely, would you?
I think it's impossible to. I come from a family that's lived fairly off the grid, and I took some of that with me.
It's also nice on tour to have bandmates that like to get out and explore cities. We always look for hiking trails. I love that. Just for a second, to not have to think about looking at a clock. When you're on tour, you're constantly working; you're constantly going somewhere, preparing for something, practicing, warming up, playing and then moving on. It's this constant momentum. It's nice to take a break and try to be as still as possible. For me, it's the closest form of meditation that I have. I really cherish those moments.
I read that you used to be into country music when you were younger, and then you got exposed to punk. Do you think that your childhood taste in music resonates through the rest of your life, or is it just the crawl before the walk?
I think it was so cultural in a small town, growing up in the mountains. I was just around country — I didn't know there was much else besides what was on the mainstream dial. And I pretty much listened to whatever cassette tapes I had somehow acquired. I got a Beach Boys tape and a Bruce Springsteen tape, and I listened to them over and over again. Definitely the Beach Boys helped develop a sense of melody for me. I loved Bruce Springsteen's spirit; I can look back and see how that had an influence. And definitely country music is never going to get out of my blood.
If someone were looking to start a band and could either take six months of lessons on an instrument or work at a record store for six months, which would you advise?
Oh my God, we had such a similar conversation in the van about this. OK, what would I advise?
Oh man. Well, I can tell you what I did. I worked in a record store. But...how old is this person?
Let's say eighteen or nineteen.
What kind of lesson are we talking about?
Let's say they can play their instrument, not competently necessarily, but they can muddle through. Definitely lessons would expand the tool kit.
I would say work at the record store, if they're in a position where they're really hungry to learn and be impacted. And then move on.
Why do you think that's important? Because you could also just listen to music; it's not hard to find any band in particular. Do you think there's something about working in a record store that forces a more mind-expanding experience than just being a music fan?
I think it's a different kind of access. But in a weird sort of consumer-y way. I don't know. I learned a lot when I worked in a record store. I was able to see how the industry worked behind the scenes a little bit, too, in terms of what people bought and what influenced them. There's a culture about it as well. Some of which I think is really great and some of which I think is really pretentious. It's all about how you interact.
How do you think your musical career would be different if you hadn't started in the Triangle?
Well, I've never tried to be a musician in any other community but the Triangle. I don't have any way to compare. But my personal experience has been that there's a lot of support for experimentation. There are a lot of musicians who are excited and hungry to play music.
My cost of living is really low, but my quality of living is really high, and I think that is attractive for musicians. Because let's face it: None of us is making a whole lot of money doing this. So that's part of it. I think we're definitely in an upswing right now, having a bit of a heyday, which is fun to be a part of. It's exciting. I'm very proud when I say I'm from North Carolina.
Is there anything else people should know going into this show?
I'm excited about this tour. I'm excited about St. Louis, too, because my punk band [Bellafea] used to play St. Louis all the time. At the Lemp Arts Center. Is that place still there?
It is. When are you talking about?
We would always book St. Louis relatively close to the beginning of the tour because we always had such a good time there. This was like 2003 to 2008.
Was there any particular reason? Was it just that you had this good connection with this venue?
I just felt like people came out and really supported a touring band. We always got a home-cooked meal, which is really hard to find in the U.S. It just felt really special. The door person, the person running sound, the owner...there was a lot of positivity. It was all ages. It seemed like a really successful, truly DIY place.