Artist Spotlight: H.C. McEntire

    H.C. McEntire was born in rural North Carolina and grew up in a small farming community in the heart of the Bible Belt. After going away to college to study creative writing, she discovered punk rock and co-founded the band Bellafea, which released one EP and a full-length in the 2000s before McEntire decided to step closer to the country and gospel sounds that defined her upbringing, forming the indie country group Mount Moria in 2010. Following their third album, 2016’s How to Dance, McEntire started performing under her own name, with Kathleen Hanna (who invited her to open for her band the Julie Ruin) becoming a mentor as she made her solo debut, 2018’s Lionheart, a stirring record that saw her more openly embracing – and challenging – her country roots. After touring in support of the album and around the world as part of Angel Olsen’s backing band, McEntire returned home, a hundred-year-old farmhouse right on the Eno River, to focus on her sophomore effort, 2020’s wonderfully soothing Eno Axis.

    McEntire no longer calls that farmhouse home, and though she hadn’t yet left while she was working on her new album, Every Acre – out tomorrow – the implications of doing so can be felt in the songs’ heightened, and haunting, vulnerability. McEntire still pours the same amount of care and warmth into these arrangements, but the gentle comfortability of Eno Axis has been unsettled by feelings of displacement, grief, and turbulence, whether startlingly close or looming in the horizon. And though the music’s healing power still rests in McEntire’s poignant vocals and sharply poetic lyricism, she gives more space for her collaborators to interpret and shake off some of the weight that time keeps piling on. “How long can a big love grow/ If you stretch it, slow down the weathering?/ If you bend it, bow, then let it go?” she asks on ‘Big Love’. “What shape does a big love take/ When it first awakes to the pulse of it?” Short of a big answer, Every Acre just finds new ways of reaching for the heart.

    We caught up with H.C. McEntire for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about how physical and emotional landscapes informed Every Acre, grief, spirituality, and more.

    You posted a statement alongside the release of ‘Rows of Clover’ where you talk about pursuing meaning through vulnerability, and you say that “if that pursuit is honest and unfiltered, on some level it will also be uncomfortable.” I’m curious when it started to feel a bit uncomfortable for you – not just in the making of Every Acre, but in your artistic trajectory as a whole.

    That’s a great question. I don’t know if there’s like a certain time I can pinpoint, but I think for me it was moving into a solo career and being responsible and accountable for everything. Eno Axis, the record before this, I started digging deeper – Lionheart, the first record, it’s personal, but it’s like, I’m singing about being gay, I’m singing about religion, I’m asking all my friends to put country twang on the record because it’s fun. And there’s a place for that sort of bravery. But I’m 41, and the last four years have been – I think I just really had to hold a mirror up. Of course, the pandemic helped that because I was spending a lot of time alone. But I feel ultimately, if I’m not honest with what I’m presenting, I’m not honest with the people who are receiving it or taking it in however they are, I’m also cheating myself. If I’m not challenging myself in some way, whether it’s psychically or writing about a certain subject or not writing about a certain subject. Writing for this record, it became clear to me that, my role as a songwriter, one part of that role is I’m writing things to try and understand and make sense of my life. I think it’s just impossible for me to explore that in an inauthentic way, because it’s a process of seeking.

    I feel like there’s kind of a balance in your solo work, because you’re easing into that role as a songwriter with a new level of confidence, but you still have to reach those uncomfortable places.

    Absolutely. And I feel like the balance is presenting itself in this record for me.

    Every Acre strikes me as an album about reclamation: of self, but also of land. Can you talk about how physical and emotional landscapes were intertwined in your mind during the making of this album?

    I grew up in the country, I grew up on a farm, fairly isolated. I’ve always felt at peace around nature. With the pandemic, I was at home a lot, and Eno Axis is kind of me observing that landscape, writing about what I’m seeing and really committing to that. I think Every Acre is more how I fit into it, or my relationship with the land and what it has taught me in a spiritual and metaphysical way. I don’t know how this sounds, but I feel like the land, it has an energy, just like houses have energies. And I took the time to communicate with that and open myself up to maybe what the land was trying to tell me. It taught me a lot about myself and my own healing processes.

    The greatest gift that it gave me with this record is really digging into the land; taking off the topsoil, metaphorically. I started wondering, whose land is this, really? I was experiencing some frustration with my living situation, as I’d been leasing this property this land for almost ten years. It’s right by the State Park, and it’s tucked away, a little scrappy farmhouse. I knew that I was going to have to leave, and it was going up for sale. So that brought about a lot of me just trying to really understand: What does it mean to own something? What is ownership? What does it mean to have a deed, and to have a last name that means something, that is passed down?

    I just did so much research in the area. I went to the courthouse and looked through all the deeds and just started tracing things back in a family tree – not mine, but sort of the area’s. And I discovered a lot of uncomfortable things; things that weren’t necessarily shocking to me, like racism and genocide. I was relating in this way with that power dynamic – of course, I’m coming at it from, in many ways I’m very privileged, but I’m connecting with this inability to control the situation and control where I’m living. I terms of class, in terms of: How do I connect with those generations? I’m speaking of native communities and communities of color who have lived along the Eno for centuries, and whose stories aren’t told. I wanted to be mindful of the privilege that I have and not tell someone else’s story, and the more research I did, the more lectures I went to, the more local historians I met, I realized that the way to do that was to have some sort of land acknowledgment in the liner notes. I’ve never done that before.

    But here I am in 2022, and I’m connecting to this abuse of power – not owning something comes with a cost, I guess. And navigating that in a lot of ways became this slow goodbye. The record became that and held that thread of, I knew I was leaving in a matter of months, and this was going to be my last time there, on this beautiful historical property that I had spiritually shared a connection with. I was just after the truth of it, wanting to do that in a graceful way, in a way that could demonstrate that power dynamic and that pain of having to leave a home under circumstances that weren’t my own wishes.

    This might be a strange question, but how familiar was that grief of leaving a place? Would you say it felt more complicated than other kinds of loss?

    Wow, yeah. Sorry, it just brings up a lot. [pauses] 2022 was the hardest year of my life, hands down. Once I turned the record in, a different kind of loss and grief started happening. I turned in the final mixes, and my dog, who’d been in the studio with me and has been like my little shadow, she was 14 and she was diagnosed with cancer the next day. I took her in because something was off. I had a couple of months with her, and that was beautiful, but it was a type of slow grieving and caretaking, watching this animal that you’re so close to, watching it on its journey to death, to another sphere. That same time period, I’m packing my house, I’m leaving, and a relationship that I really wanted to be in – a woman I loved very much who I wrote a lot of love songs for on this record – we ended our relationship. You talk about grief; there was this compounded grief that happened right after the record was done. And I’ve been enduring that and sitting with that, so in a lot of ways, as I reflect and do interviews like this and talk about the grieving that I’m writing about in Every Acre, which precedes this current morning that I’m in, I’ve found it very healing to respond to my own experience of grieving. It’s different – I’ve never had so much loss happen all at once.

    In a lot of ways, I don’t feel like Every Acre is a sad record. I feel like it’s honest and personal. In many of the songs, I’m falling in love and telling that story, just trying to be willing and open and vulnerable. I think what this comes back to is a sense of home, and I’m trying to establish that right now. It’s been six months since I’ve left that land, and I’ve done a lot of touring in between, so I’m still getting my footing in a new house and without my little sidekick [laughs], who has supported me through much of the grief in my life prior.  I feel like it’s teaching me right now to trust myself, and that a lot of the healing has to be done alongside the grief.

    I wonder if it’s harder to connect with the songs in the wake of that compounded grief. I’m thinking about ‘Rows of Clover’ [which the album’s bio describes as touching on the loss of “a steadfast hound”] – I don’t know if that came after or if it was the last song you wrote.

    Actually, it was the first song that I wrote for the record. I’ve struggled with depression all my life, and I’m not alone in that. But there is something in me that needed to be as transparent with myself as possible. The last four years have just been really hard on my heart, and I wanted to be real about that. We really don’t know what each other are going through, and it makes sense – that’s your private life. I wanted to just demystify depression for myself, because it felt important. In the chronology of my life, there’s a serious grappling with pain, and doing that during the pandemic was really hard; not being able to perform or see friends and have relationships fall apart during that is tough. I come from a family who maybe don’t believe too much in medication and seeking – like, you don’t need anything you just need to pray. I’ve seen that really hurt members of my family, in their believing of that. It’s pretty taboo in general, and I wanted to also give myself permission to, like, double up on therapy and go up on dosages of medications that I’ve been prescribed – whatever I needed, I was trying to allow myself to reach for.

    At the same time, did you find yourself coming to terms with your own spirituality, redefining that and having it be a part of your healing?

    I grew up in a southern Baptist Christian home, very conservative. Once I was an adult and moved away, went to college, and had the freedom to discover and define my own spirituality – I think I was fearful of religion because it had caused me so much pain, so I kind of shut off this spiritual side for a really long time And it wasn’t until nine years or so ago – kind of coincided with me moving into that house, and seeing, you know, nature is God. Finding this holiness in, like, a sunset or a storm. And for the last nine or so years, I continue to just let the land lead me and redefine my spiritual side. I became passionate about metaphysics and curious about all different religions. Just having an open mind and thinking about energy and the feeling of energy and being able to say, “I don’t know the answer to that.” But when I go through a serious depression, it becomes hard to connect with my spiritual side. And it’s a real bummer, because it’s what I need. But there’s something that shuts off a little bit, and it can numb out and make me feel not hopeful. So there’s this dulling inside of me of not letting the depression completely darken – I’m an optimistic person, but it was more about being present with the land than it was thinking in terms of spirituality.

    On ‘Shadows’, you ask yourself how to make room – what sort of things you need to move or sweep away entirely. Without necessarily explaining what you’re referring to in the song, what are trying to make room for nowadays?

    Maybe a good place to start is thinking about what that song is saying. And for me, it’s actually having to physically move, and having partners and then they move out. I think I’m still looking for the same thing, which is room in the heart as well. My brother has seen me through a lot of relationships, and one thing he says to me, especially with this last one, he was like, “You had to let go of some stuff, you had to let go of that person, you have to leave that to make room for the next thing so that you can welcome or manifest or attract that next thing that is hopefully going to bring you joy.” And I think that’s something that’s been missing in my life, is a consistent – I want to build a life with someone, just to get down to it, you know. And it’s easier said than done. [laughs] Maybe now I’m just trying to make room for the next experience.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    H.C. McEntire’s Every Acre is out January 27 via Merge.

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