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Mount Moriah: Learning How To Dance

Wednesday, 24 February 2016 Written by Huw Baines

Photos: Lissa Gotwals

“This album is dedicated to anyone who has ever felt the cold shadows of oppression or discrimination; to the misfits, the outcasts, the loners, the misunderstood, the underdogs; to the activists who devote their lives fighting for social justice; to the artists who exist to create and create to exist, even when the fruits of their labor are threatened; to the animals of the world who teach us unconditional love; to the healers and counselors who follow our pain and show us how to heal; to the community leaders who seek not to divide us, but to unite us in compassion and humanity; to those who pursue the expansion of mind and emotion; to the cosmos and to the magic; to the seekers.”

The art director called it what it is: a manifesto. It’s right there, bright and bold, on the sleeve of North Carolina natives Mount Moriah’s new record, ‘How To Dance’. But Heather McEntire’s words were initially intended only to add further context. They were destined for the liner notes and thankyous. Only when the band had a mock up of Maggie Fost's striking artwork in front of them did it make complete sense. “I don’t think I realised until that moment, really, what this record could do,” McEntire said. “I guess I realised its purpose at that time.”

‘How To Dance’ is both Mount Moriah’s most precise album to date and their most adventurous. It’s a balanced, melodically lush collection of songs garlanded with an inquisitive nature. They spin on McEntire’s search for knowledge, twisting the band’s alt-country into warm new shapes. As the piece plays out, she turns an abstract eye on political upheaval, prejudice and spirituality, all the while working to uncover more about her own place in the grand scheme of things.

It’s a record about the pursuit of greater understanding and shared purpose released at a time when the GOP’s prospective leaders are just itching to carve the US apart in the spirit of intolerance, and when refugees are being turned away from European borders as they flee bloodshed back home. It’s also a record about acknowledging the past and creating something new from old bones, whether that’s reconfiguring the soul of previous work in a new context or looking at the sights, sounds and contradictions of the American south with fresh eyes.

“I would certainly put myself in the position of a student,” McEntire said. “I tried to engage and absorb everything. I knew the record, after I’d written the first couple narratives, was going to be about seeking, throwing your hands up and saying: ‘Well, I don’t know. Actually I have no idea.’ I’m here to learn and have an open mind. I’m just kinda calling out to the universe.

“There’s a lot to stand up for right now. There’s a lot happening here in the US and globally. It feels like I have to speak to it. I’ve never really considered us a political band, but there’s just so much happening right in front of us here in the south. Change is happening so quickly and yet we take steps backward. There’s such a wealth and depth of stories here.”

As much as ‘How To Dance’ looks outward, it’s also a very personal piece. When McEntire sat down and put together Baby Blue, the first set of lyrics penned for the album, she was seeking to write her way through a period of depression and anxiety following the touring cycle for ‘Miracle Temple’, the band’s second album. “I felt like I wrung myself out like a rag,” she recently told the Wall Street Journal.  Her writing here joins dots between her past and present by picking up the protest spirit of her old punk band, Bellafea, who traded almost exclusively in sharp edges, and channelling it through a march out of the darkness and into the light.

While Mount Moriah are a thousand miles removed from Bellafea's squalls of noise, or guitarist Jenks Miller’s psych-metal wanderings as Horseback, the fire that once led John Darnielle to observe “I think you don't see a stage presence like Heather McEntire's more than a few times in your life” has been unearthed and buffed to a fresh sheen. It’s not an exercise in nostalgia, rather an admission that deciphering the past is a step in sketching out a more resonant future.

“Sonically and stylistically, after 10 years of playing punk, I needed something different,” McEntire said. “I needed to peel everything back and figure out what my voice sounded like when it wasn’t screaming. That’s been two records of being vulnerable and minimal and letting myself speak and grow. ‘How To Dance’, when we were writing it, had this energy. I was desperate to write it and I think you can feel that on the record.

“I felt this fever to translate the energy of what was happening in my life, and how quickly it was happening. The only way I know how to do that is to tell stories. There’s a confidence on the record. As I was writing it I was growing. I was turning myself inside out. There is this gentle, unharnessed fury that I felt. But it felt good. It felt like the punk music that I used to play, but wiser. Mature, but more vulnerable.”

McEntire is a writer who knows that the most esoteric subjects can become inclusive if tethered to real-life situations and locales. Her style is a good few steps removed from someone like Craig Finn, favouring concepts over garrulous character pieces, but as with the Hold Steady frontman’s most cherished work her songs are roadmaps. ‘How To Dance’ spends much of its time trying to latch on to the meaning at the heart of  things, whether that’s a broad understanding of our place in the universe, specific religious tenets or studies of individual moments in time, but it does so within a framework of road signs and asphalt.

The opening line on the record takes us from Calvander, north-northwest of Carrboro and Chapel Hill, to the Carteret County line almost 200 miles away. McEntire then pops up beneath streetlights in Precita and before the tide at Bogue Banks. She rides around Okefenokee, meets the sea at Oceanana Pier. All the while, things occur just out of frame or around the next sweeping bend in the road: Newport River “whispers fate”, McEntire finds God in the brier, meets her maker in the desert and listens for astral sounds.

“It grounds me,” McEntire said. “It gives me some pivot points. It makes it tangible for me. It gives me a place to start to expand from. I write a lot on the road, especially. I don’t know what it is but I’ve always been drawn to places and locations; the vastness and smallness of everything.  It’s looking to [something] different, whether it’s God in nature or a pastor that you happened to connect with. Or the frozen pond in front of your house. It all felt so powerful. Something greater. To write this record I had to open myself up to bring myself out and let it all happen to me.”

McEntire’s search for the divine isn’t an empty gesture. It’s a conscious decision and one that, again, finds her reappraising elements of her past. She grew up in the southern Baptist church but during her years in punk bands sought to punch through the angst that gradually became attached to organised worship. The openness with which she is now able to approach a divisive subject is a byproduct of that time.

“For many years I felt really bitter about religion and I shut myself off to it,” she said. “I needed to release a lot of that steam. I started writing this when I turned 32. There’s something really powerful about that time. I was in a real dark place before writing this record, and as I was writing it, and it pulled me out of it. Through that I began to open myself back up to spirituality. I wanted to see the diversity of it and feel how it all relates, to witness how other people are moved by it and just try a bunch of things out. I tried all sorts of things. That was a very big part of the record for me, reconnecting with my spiritual self.”

As an album, ‘How To Dance’ reflects the dauntless character of its songs. McEntire and Miller’s clever guitar lines intertwine with Casey Toll’s undulating bass to form a reliable engine, but this time around they branch out further, incorporating brass, strings and guest vocalists, with McEntire trading harmonies with, among others, Angel Olsen. Remarkably, though, these fresh elements amble in and out without causing a moment’s disruption. There is an almost serene, loping pace to the album that works wonders for some rich melodies. Stood together, no single element seeks to overpower the others.

“The arrangement is less minimal than our other records, but maybe the way we mixed it feels like solid ground,” McEntire said, having produced with Miller and Toll. “We needed certain sonic elements to support each other. We also wanted to be a little playful and there’s joy in the record, and happiness. The horns were a great way we did that. That’s a really cool idea about balance. That’s a big thing that I’m looking for in my life.”

‘How To Dance’ will mean different things to different people. It’s a record that you can become immersed in, one that takes you out past the city limits and into the unknown. It’s also about finding comfort in what you know and accepting that there are things out there that you don’t yet have a firm grip on. It’s about you as an individual and as a part of the fabric, just as it’s about Heather McEntire: “It’s learning how to dance. To me what that means is learning who I am as an adult woman who’s complex and battles depression and anxiety and has an artistic temperament. It’s learning how I dance.”

'How To Dance' is out on March 4 through Merge.

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