Heather McEntire, Mount Moriah

I've interviewed close to 150 songwriters for this site, but no one has a songwriting approach quite like Heather McEntire of Mount Moriah. Once McEntire has a song topic, she researches it. That's right.  She researches.  Whereas many songwriters rely on the inspiration of the muse, her approach is methodical and deliberative; in fact, she says that when she sits down to write, it's almost akin to a college professor's office hours.

McEntire was a creative writing major in college, something that informs her songwriting process. Once she has an idea for a song, she reads as much as she can about the topic, because, well, she likes to learn. But if you read her lyrics and recognize the depth of her imagery and even her attention to geographical detail, none of this is surprising.  And I haven't even mentioned her voice yet, one of my favorites in music today. (Full disclosure: I reviewed the latest Mount Moriah album Miracle Temple on Merge Records in the Washington Post a few months ago.)

There are so many fascinating aspects to McEntire's songwriting process.  A few tidbits:

  • she has a typewriter collection
  • she hoards the notepads in hotel rooms, and this is where she writes all of her songwriting ideas
  • the paper from these notepads goes in a bin on an altar in her house
  • she fact checks her song lyrics
  • she sees parts of her songwriting process as a research process
  • she gets many of her melodies while running
  • she was once inspired while being stuck in an MRI chamber

After reading over this interview, I did something I've never done before: I reread her lyrics with a fresh eye, thinking about everything she's said.  And with that, they took on a new meaning for me.  

Read my interview with Heather McEntire of Mount Moriah after the video for "White Sands."

What other creative outlets do you have?

I write a lot of prose at home, actually something in between prose and poetry. A lot of that makes its way into my songs.  But since Mount Moriah has become pretty active, I've focused mostly on songwriting.  I'm looking at this stack of papers in front of me in a bin, where I put all my thoughts and ideas.  I'm researching the next thing I want to work on, topics I want to explore.  

So what kind of research is on those strips of paper?

Right now I'm going through a spiritual awakening, so I don't want to give too much away. I write down a lot of things that intrigue me.  Some are personal, some are broader in a much more spiritual or mystical sense. Lately I've been inspired by numerology, astrology, astronomy, things like that. For the last six months, I've had some health tests where I've had electrodes on my head, EEGs, things like that.  It's been bizarre.  So I've been looking into that as well, and I've really been inspired, believe it or not, just being in the MRI chamber. I've been taking things that are scary, things I don't understand, and trying to make sense of out them. (thumbs through papers) Let's see…I've been reading about tarot cards and mysticism as well.

When do these ideas come to you, besides in the MRI chamber?

When we're on tour and staying in hotels, I take those little hotel writing pads from the desk.  I hoard them. This whole stack of papers in front of me is all from hotels.

That speaks to the idea of a writing routine.  A lot of writers, not necessarily songwriters, get their best writing done when they fall into a routine.  That's where they are the most comfortable.  And it sounds like it's that way with you. Are you a creature of routine with your writing process?

Yeah, I would say you're right.  I write a lot on the road and save all those papers, then go through them when I'm home.  That's where I do the research and read about those new ideas. What I'm doing now is reading a lot about metaphysics.  Not to divulge too much about my health, but the research is a way to overcome fear by understanding as much as I can about a topic. And then I get inspired by it.  I have an altar in my room, and I put my bin of papers on that altar. 

That routine can become a superstition. I mean, it would be much easier for you just to buy one notebook and fill it with song ideas.  But you are the most comfortable with notepads from hotels and with a bin. It hardly seems efficient, but it's obviously the best way for you to work.

That's true.  And it's funny, because I get most of my melodies when I go running, whether I'm on the trails, on a treadmill, or in a new neighborhood when we're on tour.  It's difficult on the road, because my routine gets shifted around, especially since I've toured more in the last three years than I ever have. My process has had to adapt to that life on the road. If I want to be prolific, I have no choice. 

Have you ever wondered if those melodies mimic the cadence of your run?

Oh yeah, I've thought about that a lot.  Maybe that's why I write so many mid-tempo songs. Laughs.

Many people think we're at our most creative when we bored.  Those a-ha moments come when we have nothing to do and just daydream, not trying to think about creating.

I can see that.  Running is a form of meditation for me, and I definitely feel like I'm clearing out my head when I run.

It sounds like the inspiration for song ideas comes from experience. Then you research the topic, like you were back in school.

There's a big element of research to my songwriting.  I was a creative writing major in college, and when you're writing either autobiographically or non-fiction in general, you have to check facts.  That's especially important when I write about places so descriptively. 

I've interviewed about 150 songwriters, and you're the first one to mention research as a part of your songwriting process.  That contrasts with what a lot of songwriters say about inspiration: that it comes from the muse.

It's how I become engaged. I take something personal, and the research helps me find a deeper meaning. 

There's two sides to the inspiration argument: do you sit back and wait for it to come, or do you actively seek it?

Definitely the latter. People are so busy these days, and there's so much thrown at us. I have to carve out time to sit down and treat it not like a job but like a research project, where I have office hours. I take what I do seriously. I ignite my creative spark by reading and learning about topics that intrigue me. And when I dig deep into something I'm reading, I notice things like imagery, and I think about how I can turn what I'm reading about into some kind of narrative. There's a fine line between exhausting your creative self and your mental self, so walking that line of being persistent and proactive, while letting it breathe, is key.

Do you think starting out as a creative writer made you a more disciplined songwriter when it comes to sitting down and writing?

Absolutely. First off, I wouldn't even be a songwriter if I hadn't studied creative writing and fallen in love with the process of writing.  One thing I learned in college was how to edit my own writing and what it felt like to be critiqued by others. And I learned what it means to refine my own writing, to really labor over a piece of writing.  It's in my nature to do that.  So a lot of my discipline does come from my academic approach. 

Do you take time to write every day?

Things have been pretty interesting in my life lately. I've been learning to adapt to a lot of changes in my life. I would've answered that question differently about a year ago, but I've been so busy touring that when I do have moments--like when I'm writing in the van--I find myself hungry to create and write lyrics.  I was in a long term relationship up until about six months ago, so I'm in a new space now.  And I used to live on a farm, now I'm in the city. 

When I write, I need sunlight.  And I get inspired after I go on a walk with my dog or when I go on a hike.  I need to feel close to nature. Every day, if I don't write a song or a bit of a song, I at least write down something that I know I want to research.   It can be an image, or it can be a theory that I don't understand. It doesn't have to be something concrete. 

Is there a time of day when you get your best writing done?

I'm a morning person. I usually get up around 8am and have my coffee before I dive into my writing.  Whenever I feel moved to pick up my guitar, that seems more random, so I drop whatever I'm doing to follow that impulse.  Between 8am and noon, then early evening, I get the most done.  

You mentioned running and how it motivates you to create music. Does the act of movement in general seem to inspire you? 

That's something I've realized lately: how much I'm inspired by traveling. And yes, just looking out the window at landscapes gives me time to reflect.  Landscapes are enormously inspiring. Nature moves me.

I want to follow up with something you said about your editing process. I'm assuming that you started out your writing career with long form pieces, so was it a challenge to move to lyric-based writing with three or four minute stories?

Actually, a lot of my work in college and after was fairly epigrammatic. It was condensed. So I think it's actually helped me as a songwriter.  I tend to get to the point quickly. A lot of my writing lately has been abstract.  Sometimes I use a typewriter, which helps me figure out which words are necessary and how I can say something in a simpler way. Unless it's a collection of poems that go together, I rarely write something that's more than a page. I see things like snapshots.  At times, it's been a different challenge to actually make the song longer.  

I was just writing a song before you called, and I was thinking about how much of a challenge it is to have all these basic emotions in a song.  Something I've been thinking about a lot with my relationship that just ended was the letting go of things.  I'm an emotional person and a curious person, and I've always wondered: how could I continue to write about the idea of letting go with a fresh perspective? How do people write about love without sounding stale? I want to explore how you reinvent basic emotions into something unique. That's the challenge of what it means to be a songwriter.

Ernest Hemingway used to say that you must have distance from the idea or place you're writing about.  You can't be too close. Do you agree when it comes to songwriting?

It's a two step process for me.  I jot down my immediate thoughts on those slips of paper, whether it's an image or an impression.  And I try to limit myself to ten words to describe the moment. Then I'm most successful when I can step back and recall the moment with some physical distance, because that distance creates an element of nostalgia or mystique for me.  It allows me to look at the moment with a more poetic eye.  It's shoulder's length from me.

I like that.  Not arm's length, but shoulder's length.

Yeah, because it becomes something that you're studying and less something you're experiencing.  That's really important.  Over the past few years I've really enjoyed being in cities. I've always lived in North Carolina, and the city has been so inspiring to me.  But my entire creative process can't take place in that space; I have to move it somewhere calmer. 

Why? Is it the activity level?

I don't think it has anything to do with what I am seeing.  Perhaps it's more about some sort of freedom there.  I live in a small town, and it's hard to find anonymity in a small place.  I'm a socially graceful person, but I can also be a real hermit. And that's something I embrace as far as my creative process: I need that space to be alone so I can write.

When I'm in a city, it's more about what it does to me psychologically: it pushes me out of my comfort zone.  It's about the feeling a place like New York City gives me. I love riding the subway there.

 You mentioned a typewriter.  What's your preferred method of lyric writing?

That's shifted over the years.  I once had a collection of about twelve typewriters, but it's now down to about five. Those are hard to take on tour, though. Laughs. I write a lot now on my laptop, but I still do a lot on paper.  I also have a journal, and then there are papers of scribble taped all over my walls. 

Is there an ideal emotion when you tend to get your best writing done?

Laughs.  I don't know anymore.  I work through all of it.  But I'm much more productive when I have big chunks of time. I don't do well when I'm rushed.  A wide open day can really ignite me.  I lose track of time.  I'll be so inspired that I forget what time it is. 

What's the first part of the songwriting process for you, music or lyrics?

Lately it's been lyrics. And that's probably just because it's easier to do that while on tour.  My guitar is never far from me, though. 

Who are some of your favorite authors?  I certainly notice some parallels between you and Flannery O'Connor with your treatment of the grotesque.

Well, O'Connor for sure. And I'm a big Joan Didion and Cormac McCarthy fan.  

Who inspired you to take up writing when you were younger?

I was into the Beat poets.  That helped me think about writing in a more experimental way.  I came from a very conservative place, but what the Beat poets wrote about was something I could relate to.  I've always been drawn to the west coast, places like San Francisco and the Beat movement there.