Music in Your Gardens: Q&A, H.C. McEntire

This article was originally published on the Duke Performances blog

This summer, we’re proud to present Music in Your Gardens, a free eight-week online concert series showcasing nationally renowned artists who call Durham and the surrounding area home. The series shifts Duke Performances’ longtime summer series, Music in the Gardens, normally held outdoors at Sarah P. Duke Gardens on Duke’s campus, to an online format.

This Wednesday, July 22, we continue the series with H.C. McEntire. The pre-recorded performance will be viewable at 7 PM ET online, free of charge, on our website and on our YouTube page.

Each week, in advance of these performances, Duke Performances’ Michaela Dwyer “sits down” over email to chat with each artist.

We encourage you to check Duke Performances’ blog to read previous Q&As with artists participating in our spring 2020 livestream series. We also invite you to explore or contribute to Duke Arts’ “Arts & Artists Are Essential” collection of voices, opportunities, and offerings, or you can subscribe to receive weekly updates.

I first interviewed you seven years ago, on the eve of the release of Mount Moriah’s Miracle Temple. That feels, to me, like a lifetime ago — but then again, so do the past few months. Your compositions and songwriting keep time both close and intimate by tying it to material memory — “hair up high in a messy stack,” a street corner, the taste of tidewater — and zoomed-out, ethereal, cosmic. In your new single, time is “on fire.” How are you making, marking, and honoring time right now?

Never before have I felt so consistently disoriented than inside the mercurial confines of this pandemic. Time has felt both ablaze and glacial. Days run into each other and months seem to go missing. As someone who typically thrives on rhythm and routine, the amorphous nature of my life in quarantine has certainly presented challenges; it’s demanded I erect structure and patterns, if only to just keep my head above the fog of it all. In my creative work, I’ve tried to lean into the extra space and time, take advantage of its luxuriance. It’s been years since I’ve had so many unclaimed hours available at home/not on tour, so in that way time has felt unavoidably precious. But letting go of expectations around productivity has been powerful, too: giving myself permission to savor the stillness and slowness.

Your soon-to-be-released second solo album, Eno Axis, contains the song “True Meridian” — a version of which appeared last September in performance at the Nasher Museum of Art (in Composition 21). Axes, meridians: lines around which a mass or a body rotates; frameworks that help us plot points of distance, time, relations; connecting arcs. What compels you, especially now, to ground your work in these concepts? 

During the writing of Eno Axis, the Eno River served as a spiritual compass, a creative center from which to expand and return. Throughout years of steadfast touring, the Eno anchored me back to the physical world, to a home. You can lose track of so much while in constant motion — same is true for a constant static, like the captivity of quarantine — so having a North Star is crucial. To be tethered to a familiar setting that both nurtures and challenges, that both orients and pushes you forward, is a true gift. In the context of quarantine, perhaps the lesson is that the map is not always drawn to scale and so we must learn to adapt — pivot from inevitable unknowns, reposition, reestablish equilibrium. Perhaps that’s how we can really understand perspective, resilience. 

There’s a spiritual resonance to all of your music — and, to my ear, particularly in Eno Axis (and not just because you cover Led Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy”!): the interiority of solitary prayer combined with an expansiveness that sprinkles and spotlights holiness everywhere: river as church, dirt as church, people passing from six feet away as church. Compositionally, how did you design and build these new songs to hold their content, their thematic orientation? 

I believe in the power of paying attention to the natural world, in regarding the insects and animals and weather patterns as not only equals, but wise mentors. In Eno Axis, I tried to be an eager student, acknowledging my smallness in an unlimited cosmos. I tried to honor that scale by sitting with its humility. If we take the time to look up from our own hands, church and holiness can be found everywhere. Being patient and slow, living simply and looking hard, all are demonstrations in demystifying spirituality; noticing the metaphysical qualities that exist in harmony with the earth.

Those who’ve been watching Music In Your Gardens may pick up similarities in the landscape from week to week. I hope I’m not upending a secret here, but — it’s truly music in your gardens, as we’ve filmed each of the concerts beneath the trees around your home. What has it been like opening your space to other artists as we move through this (surreal) summer? And for you, as a performer? 

Indeed, all Music In Your Gardens performances have been recorded and filmed at various locations on the land around my home. In general, I would describe myself as someone who is protective of her private home life, but actively dismissing those boundaries this summer has been powerful. Yes, the Eno is sacred and special to me, but it is all of ours. Sharing this land I have built a safe and inspiring home upon — and based a whole album around — has felt vulnerable at times, but teaches me about the importance of being a consensual steward. Also, I’ve had the rare opportunity to witness music in real-time during such a period of live performance drought.

Across your records, both solo and with Mount Moriah, I see a composite of cover images that invoke what could be called a material culture of the South: a burning farmhouse, a sorta-psychedelic pond, a rifle above a quilted bed, and now, with Eno Axis, a reaper amid a grain field. How did you arrive at this imagery as you pivot toward this new release? What sorts of images — scenic, artistic, poetic, otherwise — are guiding your working and your living lately? 

I think we as humans try to make sense of life by looking at what’s around us. Growing up in the South, and continuing to live here, those images are familiar to me. Just as they are charged with personal emotion and history, they are also enigmatic and complex. I find that the poetry within symbolism and metaphor is an intriguing place to start digging. Most of the time, it brings my own experience and narrative up into a brighter light.

An intentionally open-ended question I’m asking of all the artists participating in this series: What’s next?

It’s hard to set goals or make plans during such an unpredictable time. I do know that this album will be released into the world August 21, so I aim to be present with it and proud of it, but also start writing new material and forming new collaborations. 

Duke Performances presents Music in Your Gardens in collaboration with Duke Arts, WXDU, Sarah P. Duke Gardens, Duke Continuing Studies, and Duke Summer Session. Hospitality partners include The Palace International and Locopops.