H.C. McEntire

Heather Evans Smith

For those already familiar with H.C. McEntire — either through her work with her former band, Mount Moriah, or via her stunning debut, LIONHEART — her latest release, Eno Axis, will be a welcome addition to a still-growing solo catalogue. Country balladry, folksong emotionalism and intentional lyrics set McEntire apart from a field of would-be Americana torchbearers. Instead, her music is warping and changing the stoic traditionalism of the genre as each record unfolds, with Eno Axis emerging as a cohesive, reeling song cycle that both parallels and inverts LIONHEART’s sporadic brilliance.

Leading off with the unlikely single “Time, On Fire,” a song made all the more poignant by our unexpected months-long interlude of quarantine, McEntire and her collaborators immediately set the tone, establishing that this new album is going to be sharper and more psychedelic than her last — not that those possibilities weren’t embedded in her solo music all along. Guided by mentors like Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill and bolstered by continual support from storied local label, Merge Records, McEntire’s path to solo artist has been a slow burn.

After touring in Angel Olsen’s backing band for nearly two years, McEntire released that initial solo album in 2018, and had to basically start from scratch when it came to name recognition for her post-Mount Moriah music. And even if the onset of the pandemic came in the middle of her plans to announce this new sophomore album, the break has been good for the artist, who has been producing music and hustling nonstop for years now. As an openly queer, female artist working primarily in a genre that has frequently been hostile to both, McEntire knew the risks of striking off on her own — and she embraced them readily.

“Touring behind my first album was a hustle,” she remembered when we spoke over the phone recently for a lengthy, familiar conversation. “I toured with a four-piece band and it was really fun to play those songs. No one really knew who I was — they’d heard of Mount Moriah — but LIONHEART was a bit of an introduction. It was a great experience, but I felt like physically, I was running on fumes. So it’s been nice to take a little bit of a break.”

Settling in back home, living in a century-old farmhouse in Durham, North Carolina, McEntire found herself quite literally situated at the axis of the Eno River, contemplating her next move, and through a series of seemingly routine days, piecing together the trajectory of this next record. From dusky Durham nights and hot afternoons full of mundane chores, the skeleton of Eno Axis began to emerge, brought into being by the four players eventually gathered in one room at a local recording studio: McEntire herself, Luke Norton, and Casey Toll and Daniel Faust (the latter two players both members of Mount Moriah).

“To me, Lionheart felt pieced together, and that’s because it was,” McEntire explained. “But I wanted to switch gears with the new one and really think about space and minimalism. I felt really prepared, and we got to work on things a lot as a band — but not too much, to where it’s robotic. When I listen to Eno Axis, I feel like I hear trust between the players. I’ve never had a recording experience like this before.”

And even when she did head into the studio — opting to record in a professional setting this time, instead of at home — it was simple scratch vocal takes meant only for guidance that eventually became the heart of the record. Her off-the-cuff lead vocals imbue a freedom and a nonchalance into the spirit of the album, even when it tackles heavier things. But technically, there was another collaborator who had a huge impact on the finished product.

Engineered by Missy Thangs, who McEntire can only describe as “incredible,” the album has more of a polished feel even when it gets more raw. “She’s a friend of mine and I wanted to work with a woman,” H.C. said. “I wanted a dynamic shift. I’ve never met an engineer who is so personable and spirited and knowledgeable about different sonics and styles, and can really get the references and research them. I just knew I wanted this spirit in the room that she could foster, and she nurtured these songs. I want to champion her so much.”

Whether it’s on the album’s final track, a fuzzed out, left field Led Zeppelin cover initially  unveiled in early 2019, or the gloomy reverb of the de facto title track, “River’s Jaw,” sonic flourishes executed by Missy Thangs lurk everywhere. On other, murkier tracks like the second single, “Final Bow,” the slow and steady pulse of southern music is unmistakable, even as it shows up in service of McEntire’s sardonic commentary on a female performer, whose tired mirrored gaze might be recognizable to the careful listener. Then again, who can ever trust what image the mirror reflects, especially from a backstage view?

As effervescent and heady as some of these songs may get, they all come back down to earth, grounded by the physical reality of the Eno river itself, and McEntire’s relationship to this landmark. The album isn’t carelessly named for the river at all, but rooted in the peaceful, steadiness that its waters have inspired in H.C. over the last half decade or so, as she’s moved into the next phase of her life as a songwriter and artist.

“I’ve lived beside this river for six years,” she explained. “And it’s just been so pivotal. It has held me, nurtured me, it’s been a complete dream. I live down a gravel road, I’m the last house. There’s nothing back here but me, the park, and the river. And it has given me such a sense of security and safety, and inspired me. I’ve been challenged by it and held by it. It’s shown me God, in nature. It’s been the first time I felt at home, in a place.”

In naming her next record for this unique (yet somehow, familiar) lived experience, McEntire has managed to capture much of the same stability and grace in her music, offering a sense of solace in a time of chaos and uncertainty. And even those who have never seen or felt the Eno river can sense its majesty reflected in these songs, a welcome collection of psalms from an artist who is still uncovering her own depth.

Eno Axis is out this Friday via Merge Records. Get it here.

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