Music

H.C. McEntire’s Solo Debut ‘LIONHEART’ Reclaims Country For Queer Southern Women

Heather McEntire has a voice time out of mind. She’s the kind of performer that makes seasoned veterans like John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats dub her “unbelievable” as far back as 2006, when he tapped her first band, a noisy punk two-piece called Bellafea, to open for him on tour, adding “I think you don’t see a stage presence like Heather McEntire’s more than a few times in your life.” McEntire is the kind of songwriter who inspires living legends like Kathleen Hanna to drop everything after and actively pursue a mentorship until she released a solo album of her own.

Spurred on by Hanna, and tempered by a long stint on tour with Angel Olsen, McEntire’s formal debut as H.C. McEntire is finally here, LIONHEART will be out next year on January 26 via Merge Records. In many ways, LIONHEART builds out the southern country sound that McEntire has been honing since 2011 when she and longtime collaborator Jenks Miller released their first full-length as the trio Mount Moriah, along with Casey Toll. But it also finds roots in the two other projects that she worked on before then.

Since McEntire first came up in the punk world, when Mount Moriah first emerged critics couldn’t stop marveling that she’d left behind the “spartan postpunk” of Bellafea, and leaned heavy into a honeyed country bleat. To hear her tell it, though, punk arrived much later in McEntire’s life than the bedrock of country and hymns she was raised on.

“Bellafea was the first band I was ever in,” she told me by phone last week, sketching in the details of all the projects that culminated in this first, great solo album. “I had just started working at this local college radio station and I discovered punk music. It definitely fueled a lot of my early twenties, and was a great vehicle for a lot of the confusion I was having. It allowed me a way to be loud and angry and defiant. Before then, all I knew was mainstream country and hymns.”

It’s easier to hear hymns and mainstream country in Mount Moriah than the punishing riffs of Bellafea, which eventually became a three-piece, but never grew into the fleshed out project garnering mainstream attention that McEntire’s country trio did. Similarly, she and Miller played in a bedroom pop project called Un Deux Trois for several years, at first simultaneously with Mount Moriah, and then, finally, the country trio won out over that, too. But in recent years, as Miller started a family with his partner, and McEntire found herself immersed on a massive tour with Olsen, a growing number of demos that didn’t fit with Mount Moriah began to pile up.

With the help of Hanna, McEntire parsed through this pile and began to consider a solo record in earnest. On her own for the first time, she turned to her community to flesh out these deeply personal songs, many of which were written to encompass her experience growing up as a queer woman in the south, who met with disappointment when she came out to her Southern Baptist family, all while legal battles about the lawfulness of her sexuality were being fought in her home state of North Carolina.

Eventually able to reconcile her faith with her sexuality, LIONHEART is shot through with songs that grapple with that transition, unfolding in southern rock riffs, ominous, Biblical lyrics, and sweet country longing. It’s a brave record, yes, but it’s also the living testament of a queer woman who refuses to let the shining tradition of country music belong solely to the bros. With contributions from harpist Mary Lattimore, guitarist William Tyler, harmonies from Amy Ray (of the Indigo Girls), Tift Merritt, and Angel Olsen, along with harmonies and guitar from Phil Cook, LIONHEART is an unbelievably rich document of some of the greatest living players in the country and folk tradition.

Kicking off the release today, we’re premiering the first track, “A Lamb, A Dove.” Listen to it below, along with an edited and condensed transcript of a lengthy phone conversation about the role of Kathleen Hanna in this process, how she’s coped with a southern heritage that’s often downright unwelcoming to queer folks, and the interplay of her relationship with Angel Olsen as southern female creators. Read and listen below.

After being involved with some of the other projects, and having Mount Moriah become really successful, what was it that prompted you to want to release your solo record under your own name?

Well, it took a long time for me. It’s like, the most vulnerable thing I felt like I could do. Mount Moriah was in between album cycles and I was touring with Angel Olsen, and I had a lot of time on my own, like on the bus, in my head. This album came together through the environments I was working in. I had songs that were piling up that weren’t right for Mount Moriah, or the guys weren’t into them in some way. I just had a lot of demos that were piling up. Kathleen Hanna is a big part of why this record exists, and why I’m stepping out on my own. I finally felt strong enough.

One of the first things I noticed in the liner notes for the record is the note in the production credits, “with special guidance from Kathleen Hanna.” How did you two connect?

We first met when I was looking for Girls Rock material. It was our ten year anniversary as a nonprofit, so I got in touch with the Julie Ruin and asked if they would play this big celebration benefit at Cat’s Cradle. They agreed to headline the day and Mount Moriah played and I also hosted a Q&A with her during that weekend. That’s when we became friends, peripherally connected. Then, the Julie Ruin came back through North Carolina — a little over a year ago maybe — and asked me to open, either solo or with Mount Moriah.

Mount Moriah couldn’t do it, so I got up there by myself and did a solo set with my electric guitar. It felt really good. When I came off stage, Kathleen was just really enthusiastic and encouraging. She was like, ‘You need to make a solo record and I want to help you in any way I can.’ She gave me her number and told me to call her when I was in New York. Of course, that was flattering. I’m a big Bikini Kill/Le Tigre feminist. But I wasn’t sure what was gonna happen, you never know if people are gonna follow through.

Obviously, she did.

Yes. I was up there, like a month later doing some press with Angel [Olsen], and I had a day off so I reached out to her. She invited me over to her house and we hung out for hours. She had listened to, like, every album of mine and had this clipboard of notes — she just cared a whole lot. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. It came during a time that was a little dark for me. I wasn’t quite sure what was going on with Mount Moriah and I had just signed up for this huge Angel Olsen project.

I was feeling unsure of where I was at as an artist; I’d been practicing with Angel, and Mount Moriah was kind of just floundering a little bit, it was the perfect time for someone to just say, ‘Hey, I believe in you. I want to use my name to help you, I want to produce this. I want to be your manager.’ It was really moving. She didn’t have to do any of that. She could have just gave me your general pat on the back, ‘like go for it!’ Instead, she asked me to send her all my demos after that, and I did. For several months we sent demos back and forth, and she was like the editor of the album. It definitely wouldn’t have happened without her enthusiasm and persistence.

There’s such a need for female mentorship in the music industry, because, even as the news of the last few weeks has shown, women know what we’re facing every single day, these systems aren’t made for us. I think that’s amazing Kathleen saw, not only that that you needed help, but she knew she could provide it, and that she stepped up.

I feel like she’s tapping into herself as a mentor, too, and pivoting into this role of active mentorship. I know she wants to get into producing, and really dive in, be as helpful as possible for other female artists and minority artists. I think it was a symbiotic thing; it provided her some direction too, on what she wanted to spend her time doing after touring for so long, to switch gears like that. I needed someone to push me, which is a weird thing to say. This whole solo thing has been years in the making, and a lot of me kept putting it on the back burner, and getting kind of scared.

Things were just a lot easier when it was balanced with multiple hands in the band. But then to hear one of your heroes say, ‘You need to make a solo album by yourself, all on your own. You need to make this yourself.’ That was what gave me some confidence to explore that side of myself. I sent so many songs to her, and I really thought she would pick a lot of the heavier ones, songs I had that were more punk. I also had some that were pop and some experimental weird ones. She picked out most of the ones that are on this record, the ones that were more country and more accessible.

Let’s talk about the album, it’s called LIONHEART, which is such a strong name. I also feel like it’s a theme that’s a reflection of the rest of your work. What does that phrase mean to you in the context of this record?

The obvious connection is that this was hard for me to do, and it took a lot of courage for me to do it. I had heard of the term lion-hearted. I had that in my pocket for a long time thinking the right time would come when this would fit or apply to something I’m doing. Yeah. It did. I’m a big Bee Gees fan, and I first heard it one of their earlier records, on the song “Every Christian Lion-Hearted Man Will Tell You.”

So the first of the new record is the first track, “A Lamb, A Dove.” On this song, I hear you interacting with the southern heritage of the record is there’s so much biblical imagery. Even those two animals, I’m thinking about Psalms and Proverbs. There’s also some explicit language in here about loving a woman. How do those two pieces work together for you?

This particular song, “A Lamb, A Dove,” I’m talking about wanting to be loved unconditionally, sorting through what trust and love, and protection is. The lamb represents me as a kid, as a pure, innocent, spirit, trying to figure out, trying to understand love. The dove represents me trying to show compassion, and show love. And, there are two instances in there of me expressing that I’m in love with a woman. I’ve gone every which way in response to my family’s disappointment, or the way they have reacted to my sexuality, over the last couple of decades. I’ve responded to that in many different ways, and I finally just kind of came to peace with like, well, I need to show what I want.

If what I want is love and peace and understanding, then that’s what I need to show to these people. A lot of this record happened after I reconnected to my spiritual side. I’ve really been exploring that the last two years. I think it’s helped me get to this place where I’m able to write that song. It’s not necessarily like, an ‘I forgive you kind of thing.’ It’s just more of a… ‘Hey, I am the lamb, and I am the dove, too.’ Maybe that’s the way of me trying to connect to them.

How has your family reacted to your new album?

They haven’t heard it yet. I played them some of it, the more country songs. I’m interested to see if they can peel back some layers. With Mount Moriah, I’ve always wanted to tell a personal narrative, and I’ve been supported so much by my bandmates who have encouraged that and given their blessing for me to explore that. But it wasn’t until I was completely on my own that I felt like I could really go there.

And a lot of that yearning did come through in Mount Moriah, I think. I loved all the albums, but I really thought How To Dance was your finest work, just like a next level record. And with the video for the title track, it sort of explores core themes of sexuality more explicitly than your band had before.

Yeah. I agree. Certainly in writing that album, we were writing it in a time when gay marriage was on the docket of some laws that were determining the legality of domestic partnerships, with something called Amendment One. It preceded the the Federal gay marriage vote. They way they voted, I can’t remember if it was yes or no with the bill’s phrasing, but I remember that we lost. And that was really, really defeating.

I had also just come out to my whole family and used this bill to show them a part of my life, and how it would affect my life. It was personal. Then there was the whole gay marriage issue, and then the whole ban on transgender bathrooms. There was a lot of fuel there that… Mount Moriah has always been a band that we haven’t wanted to shy away from that stuff. It’s been a big part of us and we’re proud to say that. Politics are a big part of who we are.

Sort of along those lines, the conversation about queer people in America, and even the cultural understanding of that experience has been shifting enormously over your career. How do you feel about that conversation? I know you’re now out to your family, so I’m sure that’s a huge shift. In general, what are your thoughts about that conversation right now?

I think a lot of the things that I talk about in LIONHEART, I have to simplify it, but it’s clear that to me now, after looking back at the lyrics, that I’m really wanting to reconcile with myself and my identity with this, with the land that is my home. The south that is my home and my heritage. I’m doing that right now. I definitely have like, nowhere to hide. That is intentional. Part of the reason I wanted to write this record is because I listen to country music as a kid and as a young adult, and then as an adult. None of the songs I could really connect with. They weren’t my song, they weren’t for me. They were for men chasing women.

Even before I knew I was queer, I think I was aware of that, that these, you know, there was a disconnect. Yeah, I could sing along, I know all the lyrics and everything, but I wanted to make a record that told more of my own story and what it’s like to be queer and not be afraid to write or sing about a woman. I mean, it’s still a struggle for me. I really believe I was put, like in this life, I was put in a position to deal with this and to like, make art from it and, and yeah, it’s painful and weird, but I just know that that, it’s a past that I need to explore. There’s a lot of empathy out there, so it’s helpful for me to use this to talk about it.

I wanted to ask you just a little bit about your relationship with Angel, because clearly, you guys have a mutual respect for each other. How would you classify her contributions to this new record?

Well, we met three years ago, I guess. We have the same booking agent. I had heard Burn Your Fire For No Witness, and I thought it was great, I was intrigued by it. I wanted to meet the person who made it. I reached out to my agent. He’s like, ‘Well, she lives three hours away. She lives in Asheville, very close to your family there.’ At the time I was going to Asheville a lot because my grandma was sick. I was staying there a lot, so we met up, clicked early on and became good friends, and we would send each other demos. She sent me demos of all the My Woman songs for like a year before she went into the studio. I would do the same. We were really supportive of each other. She sang on the last Mount Moriah record. Of course I sang with her every single day on her record for the last year and a half.

I feel kindred with her in a lot of ways. I like how good she is. I like the art she makes, just simply. I’m very inspired by her confidence. It’s something that I would say has inspired me to really give this record life. She’s always the sounding board and just seeing her just unapologetically talk about her music. There’s a lot of pressure on her. She has a lot of responsibility and she handles it like a pro. I’ve found that inspiring, to see another woman just a few years younger than me and feel like I have a healthy contemporary; having a woman who’s living in the south who there’s no competition with. That was one of the first things I told her when I met her was like, ‘I can be in this band, but I’m out of here the minute that this band has competition.’

I wanted to defy a lot of the expectations of women pitting each other against, or the stereotype that women can’t work together. She sings on a couple of LIONHEART songs, which is cool because she’s heard a lot of the demos over the last couple years. She’s been really, really supportive. It’s been nice, physically being on tour with her and making this record, recording some of this stuff in between sound check and when we go on and stuff. She’s definitely been instrumental. If anything, spiritually and symbolically.

Where you see your solo work fitting in with Mount Moriah? Have you thought that far ahead at all?

I would like to keep working with Mount Moriah and as of right now we’re slowly working on a new record. But things just slow down a little bit. I do foresee that project continuing. I also don’t know what to expect in this solo record. I don’t really have a lot of expectations. I am excited to play the songs live. A lot of people have reassured me that I’m doing the right thing and it’s time for me to do something like this. I’m already working on a new solo record at the moment, just writing songs. And yeah, I would like to be able to balance Mount Moriah and my solo career. I hope to be able to balance all that. I do know that, or I feel sure that focusing on my solo career right now is the best way to move forward.

LIONHEART is out 1/26 via Merge Records. Pre-order it here.

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