Shaped by her upbringing in a small rural town outside of Tryon, Heather McEntire’s idea of home involves ample space and a slow pace. She lives in a century-old farmhouse nestled into a bank of the Eno River on the Orange County line, a wellspring of inspiration that has harbored her and her partner during this perilous year.
After spending two decades frequently on tour, McEntire let herself take a break from the road last fall. She needed to be still for a while. She didn’t know, of course, that those few months would turn into a year.
“This quarantine has psychically been taxing,” she says by phone. “I’m isolating in this place, on this land that I’m honoring with my record and feel blessed to draw inspiration from. I can’t play shows, I can’t go on the road, I can’t really leave. But it’s still nurturing me.”
It also nurtured Eno Axis, her second solo record as H.C. McEntire, which comes out August 21 on Merge Records. After that fruitful, stationary autumn, she finished the record in February, though she feels its themes overlay the strange months to come. The video for lead single “Time, on Fire,” with its images of domesticity and metaphors for time, takes on new meaning in a previously unimaginable world.
McEntire’s discography reads like a roadmap through a personal journey, and those pieces of her past reassemble in a new form on Eno Axis, which is largely about falling in love and the natural beauty of her abode. It’s easy to notice the local landmark, but the “axis” is the key, as the album marks a turning point in McEntire’s relationship to past and place. It’s a new concept of home, seen through bright lenses of forgiveness and progress.
Raised by conservative Christian parents in the quiet foothills of Green Creek, McEntire jumped at the opportunity to attend UNC Wilmington, where she studied creative writing. In this newfound corner of her home state, she discovered punk rock and founded Bellafea as lead guitarist and vocalist, with drummer Nathan Buchanan and bassist Eddie Sanchez. They released their debut EP, Family Tree, in 2005 on Raleigh’s Pidgeon English Records. After touring for a growing audience across the country, the trio headed inland, relocating in Chapel Hill. There, Bellafea got to work on a full-length debut, Cavalcade, which arrived in 2008 on Southern Records.
After 10 years tearing through the scene, McEntire found herself alleviating the sharp edges of punk with folk-rock in a new band, Mount Moriah. The transition came from her natural desire to slow down.
“I didn’t sing, I yelled,” she says of her time in Bellafea. “Doing that for ten years is exhausting. It’s fun. It’s cathartic. It’s exactly the release that I needed. But I was learning more about my nuances and my voice. I learned that underneath the yell, I could actually carry a tune. It was a pretty interesting discovery.”
McEntire started drawing on her creative-writing background to pen more-narrative songs, which, she says, is “a lot easier to do when the songs aren’t two minutes and really, really fast. We were stripping down a lot, but we were also bringing in a lot of space and opportunities to weave in stories—which is my first love.”
Following Mount Moriah’s third record, How to Dance, in 2016, some of McEntire’s bandmates began settling down, taking other jobs, and starting families. McEntire, who wanted to keep pushing, decided to perform under her name. A solo career would allow her to say “yes” quickly and often, maintaining control of her music.
Still, that “solo” career wasn’t too far from Mount Moriah, as drummer Daniel Faust and bassist Casey Toll both came along. Luke Norton, whom McEntire met while touring in Angel Olsen’s band, also joined. In addition to co-producing Eno Axis, he shaped the sound as a co-writer, weighing in on arrangements, playing various instruments, and co-mixing the tracks.
McEntire, now 38, started experimenting across the Americana spectrum when she was 27.
“I think it was like returning a bit to what I grew up on, what I cut my teeth on, with country for sure,” she says. “And that felt empowering because I suppressed that part of myself in my early twenties. There was a disconnect, in that there’s a lot of pain in that background.”
In part, she’s referring to her journey as a queer woman coming into her own whose identity created turmoil in her family relationships.
“At the time, punk music was great for me because I could just thrash around,” she says, laughing. “I was pretty bitter talking about religion, and country music went along with it. So I kind of rediscovered it.”
This process involved years of examining the South. McEntire contemplated her relationship with home and her family, which is established in the state with multi-generational depth.
In 2018, she took the first steps with her solo debut, Lionheart. Like Eno Axis, the record is autobiographical and was written in the early days of winter. But unlike her latest work, it was written mostly on the road. McEntire says the stories come from a time when her life felt “not chaotic, but a bit ungrounded.”
“I’m very proud of it,” she says of Lionheart. “I was trying to make a layered, full country record. But there’s a part of it that feels like I had to make that to move on. I don’t know how to explain it other than that. It’s very personal.”
To McEntire, these two albums feel quite different from each other, though there are connecting threads. But the new record has a heightened attention to depth, dynamics, and space.
“Eno Axis feels like a confident and mature step forward from Lionheart in tone, arrangement, production, and spirit,” she says. “I was experiencing a tremendous amount of joy and clarity and peace.”
“Hands for the Harvest” is a model of serenity in simplicity. Chosen as the album opener, the song evokes thematic patterns of sowing, growing, and nurturing. It came to life on a self-imposed retreat with her girlfriend last fall, deep in the woods surrounding Boone.
“I was thinking about the ease of accepting certainty, surrendering to love, proclaiming it as straightforward as a daily task, like lighting the wood stove or turning rows in the garden,” McEntire says.
“High Rise” illustrates becoming enamored; McEntire employs natural elements as similes to draw out those early days of blooming romance.
The stripped-down instrumentation of Eno Axis harks back to both McEntire’s punk days and her Appalachian roots, bringing her music full-circle. She wrote each song in open tunings, embracing the sacrality of the farmhouse where the record was born.
“I’ve collected different styles and sonics from different phases in my life,” she says. “It feels like I’ve finally brought them together in this album. It doesn’t feel like a country record to me but feels very authentic to where I’m at.”
Spending much of her adulthood on the road, McEntire has seen many incredible parts of the world. Over the years, she’s watched colleagues and friends leave for Los Angeles and New York and Nashville. But a steadfast part of her soul longs for home.
“I just love the South, and I’m pretty hellbent on staying here,” she says. “It comes from wanting to create the South that I desire, that I’m comfortable with. An inclusive South that can be vibrant with music and art. Maybe it’s the Virgo in me, but my thoughts are, ‘Well, if you move away, then that’s one less person affecting this change.’”
Her deep roots in the region are woven into themes of paradoxical identity throughout her album. McEntire challenges her native region, to which she feels deeply connected, by posing critical questions as well as loving odes. She focuses on racial injustice with “One Eye Open.” It was the last song she wrote for the album, but it predates the Black Lives Matter protests that began in the spring. Soulful vocals scrutinize the relationship between white supremacy and Christian fundamentalism. Her perspective on prejudice is sharpened by her struggles in coming into her queer identity in the face of traditional Southern resistance.
“River’s Jaw,” the third single from the record, is the album’s most abstract narrative, but perhaps its most fundamental, too. It outlines McEntire returning home and finding footing in the stillness.
“At its core, the song is about gratitude,” she says. “But first, to get there, I had to let the universe drag me down to a depth I didn’t know was possible, a slow procession of drastic alterations and disintegrations. Still, with knees so raw, I kept walking along the river, one foot in front of the other. I kept clinging to the order of chores, to the clockwork of the sun’s rotation. I followed the river and found the clearing.”
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