H.C. McEntire :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

On her second solo album Eno Axis, North Carolina’s H.C. McEntire sounds at peace. With her band luxuriating in gospel, soul, and country grooves behind her, her voice hovers above the down-home mix, buoyed by contentment. Inspired by time spent sinking into domestic routines and the blooming of a new relationship, the record feels like a cool breeze in this fiery summer.

As she did with her rock band Mount Moriah, McEntire fills her songs with vivid Southern scenes—snuck cigarettes in the alley, time spent by a slow moving river, villains hanging around the church house—but there’s a sense of palpable lightness on the lp, 10 songs (including a tremendous Led Zeppelin cover) which suggest hope is what you find when you dig deeply in the nearest soil, willing to get your hands dirty. | j woodbury

Aquarium Drunkard: You’ve been making records for a long time, but 2018’s Lionheart was your solo debut. How did making your second solo album feel different from the first?

H.C McEntire: Putting out Lionheart under my own name was pretty terrifying at first but I think after touring and supporting that record, I built up confidence. I started to feel like a solo artist. I felt empowered. Going into Eno Axis, there wasn’t any kind of psychic weight. It was like, “Okay, this is the name I’m going to put on this, and these are the guys I’m going to play with.” It wasn’t heavy in the same way.

I felt really centered in my body. I wasn’t moving or touring. I was anchored down, I was in a great spiritual place. My life felt really harmonious. I was falling in love. Everything about this record felt—I don’t want to say easy—but it had an ease to it.

AD: You spent a lot of time on the road for that album and then touring with Angel Olson. After so much time on the road, you were able to settle into a domestic routine in this 100-year-old farmhouse where you live. How much do you think that got into the record? 

H.C. McEntire: I didn’t set out to record or write about chores necessarily. [Laughs] I struggle with depression, so a lot of times it’s hard to get through a day. Sometimes, when it’s really bad, putting one foot in front of the other is the only thing you can really control. These seemingly trivial little tasks—gardening, walking the dog, metal detecting on the land with my dad, digging up weird rusted stuff, seeing the dusk or the dawn—being comforted by those small things was really important to me and helped me get through many times in the last few years.

AD: You employ the language of the Bible a lot in your songs. Can you tell me a little about what kind of church you grew up in?

H.C. McEntire: It was a southern Baptist church a couple miles down the road. A distant relative of mine founded the church in the 1700s and it’s been a center within my family for sure. My parents still go there. A lot of my family is buried there. It’s a small, friendly church. Everyone knows everyone. I know I could walk in there right now, and I would be greeted by people I knew and know that have seen me grow up. That’s special. Even if I have some conflicting beliefs around certain modern Christian principles, it’s still a place that can harbor that warmth for me. 

AD: On “One Eye Open” you talk about some of the uncomfortable relationships that white supremacy has with Christianity, not just in our country or the South specifically, but all over. In your songs, I hear an appreciation for many of the ideas that you can glean from Christianity: redemption, forgiveness, inherent value in life, maybe even a grasp of the idea that our lives have some meaning, but there’s no escaping the harm and violence that many practicing that faith have perpetrated. Do you feel like you’ve begun to disentangle those things? Have you been able to untangle some of the trauma from the beauty?

H.C. McEntire: I think it’s taken me a while. Maybe five or six years ago—right around the time that I moved in here, actually—I started turning myself inside out. I confronted a lot of my own fear around organized religion. I started checking out some small nondenominational churches and some metaphysical [communities] here. 

That’s what I’m into at the moment. I remember walking into this metaphysical chapel, which has become a really big part of my life. The community there is very, very small. I remember going there for the first time and walking through the doors. It’s an unassuming church—it’s a little white chapel. That in itself was triggering for me, but I confronted that fear and found an incredible community who not only accepted me but had similar stories or stories that were inspiring. I felt love, this unconditional love that I heard so much about growing up. I think I had to let go of some bitterness surrounding religion and worship. It took effort from me, and it took the universe putting me in the path of this chapel. And I’ve had some great therapists. I think that’s why I have a kind of open mind about spirituality and religion. I still struggle with butting heads with my own immediate family, but I feel very at peace with the self-discovery I’ve made in terms of my own spirituality. 

AD: Do your parents dig your records?

H.C. McEntire: I think they like some more than others. They have been supportive in their way throughout my whole career. They’ve questioned it a lot, and I have too. I remember when I played punk music, they came to those shows. They enjoy hearing me sing and tap back into the country influences. They’re supportive. Sometimes I wonder if they read the lyrics. I would say that they accept what I do. 

AD: You must have grown up hearing country music all the time. Were you big into ‘90s country or more “traditional” country?

H.C. McEntire: The cool, classic country stuff, I came to much later on.

AD: Everyone likes to pretend they grew up on like old Hank Williams records, but no, most folks crew up listening to the radio.

H.C. McEntire: I’m talking ‘80s and ‘90s country with terrible production. [Laughs] Randy Travis, Alan Jackson. Anything that was on commercial radio in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, that’s what I listened to. Everything else was pretty inaccessible until later in my life. I guess I’m nostalgic about that time period. I think there’s also a lot of great songs and artists working during that time.

AD: Where there any artists that served as a sort of bridge from that to the punk music you loved later? 

H.C. McEntire: I’d would probably say the most honest bridge would be Lilith Fair. I remember at the time the Indigo Girls had a song on top 40 radio. I’d be listening to the radio and I’d hear it and that kind of got my attention and inspired me to look into a little more obscure music, like, what else is out there?

AD: And from there you just started digging around?

H.C. McEntire: When I first went to college in Willmington, North Carolina, on the coast, I signed up to be a college DJ at the radio station. That ended up being a big part of my identity for four years. I was the programming director, I was the librarian. I was so hungry for anything sonically new or narratively challenging. Sleater-Kinney and Team Dresch were the things I cut my teeth on and would just go and listen to the whole discography.

Punk music had a fearlessness. There was the same fierce energy that arguably exists within a congregation in church. I think it was empowering watching women harness and also completely let go and watching women have a voice. It blew my mind. Everything about punk music was like there are no rules. I think there was a restlessness I felt growing up and I always had to have a grip on expression. Punk music was like, “Okay, you can sing about whatever you want.” It was really powerful for me.

AD: Your solo records have embraced your country roots, and especially on this one, I hear a lot of southern R&B. in terms of narrative, it’s such a fun and interesting thing that Kathleen Hanna helped lead you back to it.  You were drawn to this fierce and brave new world of punk rock and feminist rock, and here you are coming back to the forms you grew up hearing. Has that contributed to the ease that you’ve talked about this record having? Do you feel there’s some connection there between the ease you feel and employing song forms that are kind of baked into your DNA?

H.C. McEntire: Totally. One thing I wanted to do with this record was I didn’t want us to overthink. I wanted it to be very instinctual. There was never really a discussion about genre. It was all feeling. A lot of it too was that I wanted to honor the guys I’d been playing with. Luke Norton, the guitarist, you hear a lot of that soul and R&B because of him. He grew up in the church too in Birmingham and played in the church band. I think it’s innate in both of us. We didn’t really wrestle a whole lot with making these songs anything than what was purely coming out.

AD: This record concludes with a really cool cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy.” I love that you’re singing about going to the movies—that’s one of the things I really miss during quarantine.

H.C. McEntire: The biggest reason I gravitated towards that song was the lyrics. As a young, not-out queer woman, I often thought about how amazing it would be to ask a girl out on a date. That’s kind of where that came from. For so long it was just a fantasy. There are a lot of different things I’m poking around with on that.

AD: Zeppelin is one of those bands that gets defined as a “dude” band.

H.C. McEntire: Chauvinistic, really.

AD: And yet you take that song and you flip it on its head—you give it this whole other read. It’s got an undeniable power, and then you bring this other thing to it. 

H.C. McEntire: I know what you mean. I feel its power whenever I play it live. There’s a sweetness that I wanted to bring to the song. The chord progressions are completely different. There’s a kind of playful quality to it, but it also just sounds different when I’m singing it. You inflect certain tone and slow it down. It’s kind of like asking for permission when I’m sure Led Zeppelin never got there. I liked playing with that.

AD: Asking permission is so much cooler than it’s often given credit for being.

H.C. McEntire: Yeah, I think it’s hot! [Laughs] 

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