A barn engulfed by the merciless, sprawling swell of an infernal blaze is a bold image to behold, and it couldn’t be a more fitting one for the label debut of Mount Moriah. When the North Carolina rock outfit was working with Merge to put an image to the face of Miracle Temple, their sophomore release and their first with the storied Chapel Hill label, the burning barn—which in its simplicity introduces themes of destruction, metamorphosis and new beginnings—worked hand in hand with the complex identity questions they set before themselves over the course of Miracle Temple’s 45-minute run.
See, Mount Moriah’s a Southern band, one that recognizes their collective heritage by embracing it with warm, familiar instrumentation, a penchant for storytelling and a straightforward appreciation for old traditions in a new setting. But they’re hardly at peace with the more controversial aspects of their regional roots, and the Pandora’s Box that cracks open when they attempt to confront the less illustrious aspects of speaking truth to what exactly the “New South” sounds like is one the band met with steadfast determination. It’s a difficult thing, putting your personal trials, tribulations, errors and triumphs out there for an anonymous listener to consume, process and judge accordingly—and though they’re still working out their feelings about how they identify as musicians of the “New South,” Mount Moriah is completely okay with the fact that they’re doing so with a curious audience before them.
“We have friends that are also engaged with this question,” replies guitarist Jenks Miller, when he’s asked to elaborate on this idea of these thematic explorations of Miracle Temple. “And they’d probably give a very different answer. I think the New South is sort of undefined, but for me, I guess it’s a factor of growing up in a place that has certain political leanings that I don’t really relate to but also has this wonderful, rich culture that represents a convergence of influences from around the world. There’s so much music and art that has come from this area, and living here, you’re forced to confront these things that you may not relate to directly at first, or things that seem foreign in some way. There are different reactions to that feeling, and one of them is to respond in fear, to build fences around yourself and what you know. We’re interested in exploring other responses to that, which I guess is more of a willingness to fuse these different influences and these things that we may not understand at first, to work with them to find ways to make them meaningful to us, and to contribute to the culture of this area without advancing that extreme conservatism of the past.”
For Heather McEntire, Mount Moriah’s frontwoman and the band’s chief lyricist, it was an examination of her own life on similar terms that lead to a personal encounter with the South as she knew it. “I Built A Town” is the best example of this, in that McEntire’s ruminations on the idea of home—beautifully set to soft melodies and steady strings—were born from her experiences growing up in a Southern Baptist household, coming out with her sexuality and coping with the agoraphobic tendencies of her family.
“Essentially, the narrative is me talking to myself and creating this sense of calm for myself,” she says. “A lot of people who struggle with agoraphobia don’t leave their home. I was very moved by my family’s experiences with that, and wrote the song as though I’m building this home for myself. At some point in the song, I’m letting myself let go of this idea of home I had built. Metaphorically, that kind of touches on sexuality and coming out, and also just reconnecting with the land I grew up on and letting it go but also leaving it.”
These considerations of home as a figurative device and a destination are coupled with tales of travel that reinforce its importance to the storytelling arc of Miracle Temple. For Miller, “White Sands,” which was inspired in part by a pit stop they took at the national monument in New Mexico, speaks to his earlier points of the vital combination of new experiences and old ideals.
“There’s a sense of traveling to other places and coming back home and feeling a need to expand the concept of home to accommodate these new experiences,” says Miller. “And ‘White Sands’ was inspired by this really wonderful experience we had as a band at this national monument in New Mexico. We thought about the trip back, and what it means to carry an experience with you and incorporate it into your life back home. In a broad sense, I feel like all the songs are about this place, but they’re about this place as seen through the lens of new experiences and the perspective of growth.”
“I don’t think we set out to be political,” adds McEntire. “I think it just kind of happened. Lyrically, I’m trying to make sense of my life while doing a lot of introspection. For me, there’s a lot of confrontation on the record—there’s a lot of fear and forgiveness, but it’s also my own fear and forgiveness, you know? It’s me asking certain people to lower their blinders and for me to lower my own, and to try to find how the history of the South intersects with my personal experience living and growing up here. It’s me trying to relate and make sense of it. It’s very open-ended; it’s not that we’ve figured out the ‘New South,’ and Miracle Temple is the formula for what it is. There are a lot of questions here, but I feel confident in asking those questions.”