Jenks Miller was in a band called Mount Moriah long before he even met Heather McEntire, but it wasn’t until the two came together that the sound fell into place. Taking the moniker as their own, the two began fooling around with alt.country-inspired, secular gospel harmonies and folk melodies, a sound wholly separate from other projects that had occupied their time and talents. Mount Moriah is set to release its debut self-titled LP April 12, but first we sat down with McEntire and Miller to talk Southern music, the road behind, and the music ahead.
Paste: How did you start playing together?
Heather McEntire: We met working at Schoolkids, a record store in Chapel Hill. I got Jenks a job.
Jenks Miller: That’s right. And I offered to record a demo for you. I’m not sure I ever did that. Did I ever do that? I don’t think I ever did.
McEntire: No, the first thing we ever recorded was the Un Deux Trois record.
Miller: We played in a pop band called Un Deux Trois and it was just the two of us for a long time and then we added bass for a little while. That band was much more upbeat.
Paste:: You lost interest in that?
Miller: Well, we didn’t consciously make a decision…
McEntire: It was just our lives took a more somber turn, not to be vague or anything, but we just—I was thinking about this today actually. I think that we started applying a seriousness to what we were creating—not that pop music isn’t serious.
Miller: You know, and actually there was a conscious decision there. We did have a conversation where we were like, “Well, okay, we’re reaching the point now where we need to decide if this is something that we’re gonna do.” You end up sacrificing so much in order to be even half serious about playing music that we had a conversation, “Is this worth not being able to have a real career? And being poor? And doing all these things?” So, in that sense there was a conscious decision to, like, dig our heels in and to work really hard and make it work and I think along with that sort of revelation we kind of had a more serious attitude maybe towards the music and said let’s tackle some heavier themes.
McEntire: I think we were kind of craving space, which I had not had in Bellafea [my rock band], or in Un Deux Trois and a different style of singing. I feel like Mount Moriah is different.
Paste: Yeah, this music has more of an Americana, folk vibe. What made you interested in exploring that?
McEntire: The South is such a complex place. Southern music is complex. The way the two kind of intersect is something I think we find interesting and as Southerners it’s something we’re trying to explore, but not on a super-conscious level. I think a lot of it just kind of comes naturally. Because for me, growing up in a church, hymns were how I learned to harmonize and that’s how I learned about melody, although for a long time I resented it and tried to not see it as a part of me, tried to kind of escape it. But I didn’t go to music school; I wasn’t a music theorist or anything in school, so that’s kind of the basis for my songwriting.
Miller: Well, I didn’t go to church on a weekly basis, so I can’t claim that same influence. I grew up across the street from a gospel church, so there was that. It was always bumping. But I did grow up around a lot of country and blues and bluegrass and stuff that for a long time I associated with the negative aspects of The South as a kid. But I think that there are also parts of that that are really meaningful to me and so the challenge is to recast those meaningful parts into a new form that makes sense and is sort of true to what I believe in.
Paste: So tell me about the record.
McEntire: What record? [laughs] Just kidding. Jenks and I are so ready to put that thing out there.
Miller: We put out an EP. And that was sort of an overview of different ideas or sort of moods that we want to investigate with the band.
McEntire: Yeah, and I think it was strategic in a couple other ways. We had just gotten asked to go on these two pretty big tours with the Indigo Girls and Amy Ray and we needed something to sell. It was just not the right time for our full-length to come out and so we did a little more of a DIY release on our label. We were thinking that would be a good way to prep people for what we might be capable of.
Paste: How did you get in with Amy Ray?
McEntire: Bellafea was asked to open for Amy Ray’s band back in 2009 and we just kind of kept in touch. She politely asked if I did anything that was more folky. [laughs] She was just curious.
Miller: She’s a very approachable, down to earth, awesome, highly motivated person and I think that she’s always sort of looking for ways to be involved and so I guess she continued to stay in touch with you.
McEntire: Yeah, she did. I sent her some rough mixes and she really liked them and asked us a few months later to go on these tours. So yeah, I really respect her. She’s kind of, for lack of a better phrase, taken us under her wing a bit and we’ve kind of developed a friendship. I’m going to sing on her record in a couple weeks and she’s gonna sing on our next one. It’s just nice. She said something to me last week like, “The South is really teeming with some good players right now.” I think she’s excited about the South. She lives in Georgia and has some strong ties here in Durham and she kind of, for many reasons, sees there’s something kindred between us.
Paste: So what do you want Mount Moriah to be when it grows up?
McEntire: That’s good. That’s good!