Eleanor Underhill’s New and Strange Chemistry (Part 1 of 2)

Asheville based singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer Eleanor Underhill is best known as one half of the Americana duo Underhill Rose. But in her solo career – begun with a 2018 debut album – she charts a very different path. I interviewed her recently for Asheville altweekly Mountain Xpress; that feature is in this week’s issue of the paper. But because our conversation covered so much additional ground – and because her new album Land of the Living is such a remarkable album (easily a contender for my Best of 2020 list this coming December) – that I’d like to share an edited transcript of the rest of our chat. Here’s Part One. – bk

You’ve pretty much left Americana behind – or at least set it aside – for your second solo album. What was the catalyst for moving in this new musical direction?

Having the freedom to experiment in my home studio, which is modest, but gets the job done. Just being able to follow the muse with autonomy, I suppose.

So, what is the status of your relationship with Americana?

Great question. Americana is a melting pot of genres. I do see it that way. But I do see that the line has to be drawn. In terms of Americana, I still have Underhill Rose; that project still continues. For better or for worse, that band is a democracy where Molly [Rose] might temper back some ideas … and that may be a good thing. But, you know, I get to kind of do whatever I want, and that’s really the fun part. I bring in great musicians, many of them in my project, Eleanor and Friends. So I still love Americana, but the solo thing is definitely trying to cut new ground and challenge myself.

If my count is right, it was six tracks in on Land of the Living before I heard any banjo – the instrument most people associate with you – at all. And then it was in a context where I had to stop and ask myself, “Wait a minute. Is that banjo?” It sounded like one, but it’s not the context in which I would expect to hear banjo. And I thought that was inspired. You’ve mentioned that you wrote some songs on banjo, others on synthesizer. Do you find that the instrument that you use to compose colors the character of the music?

Some of the songs are composed on synths, and that’s a new frontier for me as a songwriter. So yeah, building it up in the studio – not sitting on the back porch with a banjo, but actually sitting down with the digital interface and creating “in the box” – that was really fun. I do think it opened up some new approaches.

A lot of the instrumental touches throughout the album really stand out as remarkable. To what degree do you instruct the players as to what to play, and as to what sort of texture their instrument should represent?

I know a lot of these musicians pretty well; we’ve been playing together for a while so I know what they do. I feel like it’s making people feel comfortable and reassuring them to feel free and just go for it. That is a lot of what I do. You know, provide them with the chart, or sometimes I won’t. Sometimes I’ll say, “I have no idea what key this is in,” but they hear it and then they do their thing.

And that’s exactly what I wanted. I wanted this to be a conversation where people brought their own [ideas]. Even though I do manipulate in post [production], I wanted people to bring their own instincts, and I wanted that to come through. I wanted it to be not overly directed on the front end.

With due respect to the sort of practice of self-releasing, with your reputation and the quality of this album, I would think that if you had wanted to, you could have landed a record deal. Did you try, were you approached, and why or why not?

Oh, man, I have not tried. I have not been approached, because no one’s heard it. Though if you have any tips, I’m all ears! I don’t know … I guess I’ve kind of given up wholeheartedly on the record company route. I have thought that I wanted to pitch this, but I guess I’m a little exhausted by rejections. And even though it may seem like I’ve had a fair amount of success, being an artist for a fairly long time, there [have been] a whole lot of rejections along the way. So, I think at some point, you just get tired and expect that nothing’s going to come through. So, I have not tried, but I would love for people to hear this and to be interested in working with me. I think that that would be awesome.

There’s an atmospheric break in the middle of “Strange Chemistry” that immediately – and I’m not sure why – immediately made me think of Esperanza Spalding. And then the entirety of “On the Way to Engelhard” – save maybe for the banjo solo! – reminded me of her as well.

When you wrote these songs, how much of an idea did you have in your head of how they were going to sound?

Well, both “Strange Chemistry” and “On the Way to Engelhard” are some of these orphan songs that I wrote ten years ago, and I’ve just always felt that they deserve their due. They deserve to be put out. I thought they were solid enough. They were written a very long time ago on the banjo.

The cool thing is, I would not have given them the production style I did if I had recorded them sooner, so I’m almost glad I did hold off, because I’m really happy with how they came out. So, when I wrote them, no, I probably didn’t have any idea how they would sound on this album. I don’t even know how Silas [Durocher, The Get Right Band] came up with that. I think he said he sort of ripped off the funky guitar riff on “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough,” the Michael Jackson song. So that song tickles me, because it’s like the strangest, funkiest, weirdest song about driving across North Carolina. It’s so bizarre, but it does make me want to dance and shimmy around, so I feel like that’s a good sign.

And I’m very proud of the production on “Strange Chemistry.” [When I was writing it] I definitely heard some Mellotron on there, and lots of interlocking layers of moving countermelodies. And then the big part that sounds like church bells: that’s actually just my slightly out-of-tune upright piano through a processor. It’s just so much fun to have the time to be able to really be creative on recordings. But no, a lot of it I discover as I go.

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