Friday, March 1, 2013

Interview with Mount Moriah

(Here's my most recent article for CMT Edge.)
To hear the rustic Americana tones that gently amble throughout Mount Moriah’s sophomore album, Miracle Temple, you’d never guess its members came from such aggressively diverse musical backgrounds.
Vocalist and principal lyricist Heather McEntire formerly fronted punk band Bellafea, and guitarist Jenks Miller has released experimental metal albums under the moniker Horseback. However, both musicians had a desire to return to the roots-inspired musical framework of their childhood, resulting in their formation of Mount Moriah back in 2008.
While their self-titled debut album could be considered introspective and unassuming, Mount Moriah have returned with an emboldened follow-up inMiracle Temple on Merge Records. Showcasing a newfound fearlessness in their vocals and instrumentation, the album contains elements of celebration, confession and critique, all working together to forge a path of forward momentum.
CMT Edge: You formed Mount Moriah to be able to create within a different musical vein from your punk and metal bands. Did the roots-inspired elements come from certain places in your backgrounds, or were they just completely new opportunities you wanted to try?
Miller: The roots element was always there as a deep-seated and well-worn quality of this place — however you want to define it — our state, North Carolina, the South at large and the ever-changing American landscape. Heather and I both grew up within the Southern musical tradition: classic country, bluegrass, old-time, acoustic folk. The kind of music you used to find tucked away at the bottom of the FM dial or traded on stages at roots music festivals. I grew up in Raleigh where many of those festivals were presented by the Piedmont Council of Traditional Music.
We both experienced the crucial break with those traditions that all restless spirits do. Now, as we build our own homes in the same state, we have the opportunity to revisit those traditions in ways that make sense to us. Like every investigation of roots and traditions, this means recasting early memories into new shapes in an effort to find what’s real about them, why they matter and how they might continue to matter to us and to others.
I noticed a lot of city names and geographical references in your lyrics. Do you attribute that to wanderlust, or is it just a commentary on the life of a traveling musician?
McEntire: I’m sure it’s a bit of both. I seem to associate emotions and memories with real tangible and grounded sources of place. Maybe it helps me catalog my past more efficiently. I’m not sure. I didn’t travel much growing up, so maybe that’s why I find it so powerful and inspiring as an adult, fascinated with journey and changing landscapes. I like the movement. In a way, taking myself away from home and outside my daily rhythms seem to help me see more deeply into them. Writing about it helps me make better sense of it all.
Miracle Temple exudes an impressive shift in confidence from your debut album. What are some of the factors that contributed to this growth?
Miller: Yes, I think you hit the nail on the head with “confidence.” We madeMiracle Temple after multiple national tours supporting our self-titled record, after trials experienced both as individuals and as a band and after learning valuable lessons about what it takes to keep making music these days. Those things helped renew our sense of purpose and allowed us to recommit to a vision that has been tugging at our spirits for years.
Merge’s involvement helped out tremendously, as well. They gave us access to resources we didn’t otherwise have access to and helped steer this ship out of the harbor and into broader waters, as it were.
Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls contributes some heavenly background vocals to three of the songs on the album. What does it mean to you personally to have such a respected, experienced presence on the album, and what specifically did she bring to those songs?
McEntire: Having Amy Ray sing words and melodies that I wrote is a total dream and tremendously exciting. I asked her to sing on those songs specifically because, living in the South and confronting similar scenarios, I knew she could empathize with the narratives. At this point, we’re close friends. She gets what those words mean to me. I love how soulful and passionate her vocals are on this record. She has mentored me in a lot of ways, and I’m always honored and grateful to collaborate with her.
I love the Springteen-like storytelling quality on Miracle Temple, especially in songs like “Union Street Bridge” and “Younger Days.” How much of your songwriting is pulled from your personal life and how much is just fun creative fiction?
McEntire: Almost everything is pulled from my personal life in one way or another, some of it more abstractly and indirectly and some of it quite literally. The exception on Miracle Temple is “Union Street Bridge,” a song that I co-wrote with poet Sarah Messer. She sent me two poems that she had written, and I interpreted them in my own way and wrote a narrative that sort of exists within her narrative. I have become close to the characters in that song, and when I sing it, I can’t help but apply some of the lyrics to my own life.
Can you tell us about the origin of the striking photo on the album cover and why you chose that image to represent the album?
Miller: Merge’s awesomely capable design guru, Maggie Fost, came across that cover after we all talked about the imagery we had in mind for the cover. We all thought the burning barn suggested change, rebirth and reinvention — themes that were important both to the music on this record and the process of bringing it to life.
The last line on the album states “Like flies in a jar, we are mostly harmless, except for this vanishing hour of darkness.” What’s hidden within the haunting poetry of that closing thought?
McEntire: That line is about recognizing your own humanity, your own margin of error. I was thinking about atonement, imperfection, brevity, purity, intention and curiosity. We can be good people with compassionate hearts and still be capable of stumbling into darkness. I wrote this song to remind myself of the pain of deceit, to punish myself — but also to ask for forgiveness and transcend it.

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