MOUNT MORIAH singer Heather McEntire has a voice like an ember, shielded from the cold, harsh breeze by the cupped hands of her band.
Bassist Casey Toll's loose-limbed but broad-shouldered grooves ignite McEntire like a gentle breath. Jenks Miller's guitar licks, true and honest, offer just enough whiskey swerve for a twangy spark. Mount Moriah is touring in support of its latest release, How to Dance, out now on Merge Records. "What I think of Mount Moriah is probably pretty different than what other people think," McEntire says in a soft southern drawl. "And that's fine with me."
McEntire and Miller met working at a record store in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, bonding over a shared love of punk and DIY music. "We realized we had similar musical tastes," McEntire recalls. Soon Toll joined on bass, and the trio became a quartet with a "round robin" of drummers. "I think we all really respect and trust each other," McEntire says. "The guys trust me to write the lyrics; it's a nice balance, it's harmonious. We're all best friends too."
McEntire calls herself a musical late-bloomer. "I didn't really sing or find any musical bone in my body until I was about 18 and discovered punk music," she explains. "I played punk music for about 10 years. I guess you can call it singing—a lot of screaming and yelling—after that the dust settled for me to be myself as a singer."
What the dust has revealed is one of 2016's most enchanting new voices in alt-country—a label McEntire says is "sincere and right," but is quick to add, "With this record we hope to be seen as more than an alt-country band... When we set out to make this record I think we had an understanding: Mount Moriah can be anything we want it to be. It doesn't have to be alt-country. It can be whatever genuine place we're at. My parents say we're country," she says.
Central to Mount Moriah's music, from the band name to song titles like "Chiron (God in the Brier)" and "Cardinal Cross," is an interest in religious and biblical imagery. "[Mount Moriah] is a pretty fascinating, important piece of land in the bible," McEntire says, explaining that when Miller named the band he was drawn to that power. "A piece of land, what it can mean, what power it has. Individually we've been very interested in religion and spirituality. We come at it from different angles. We're curious about different religions and how that influences different cultures and subcultures, particularly in the South. It's all around us."
On the gospel-tinged track "Baby Blue," McEntire sings, "Meet your master on a hill/Goldenrod from the hand of God/And the asp is back again."
"One of the reasons that I love being in this band," says McEntire, "is being able to write the lyrics. I come from a creative writing background. This is a cool way for me to explore my writing—creating narratives.
"I appreciate that we can be country and we can be punk and everything in between," she continues. "For me personally, being in this band saved my life. It's got its finger on me for sure."