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Bringing down the ghosts: A conversation with Eleanor Underhill

Eleanor Underhill. Eleanor Underhill.

One of the most versatile and intriguing musicians in Asheville and greater Western North Carolina, singer-songwriter Eleanor Underhill chases the artistic muse with a reckless abandon of curiosity, joy and self-reflection. 

Well-known for her banjo presence in the highly popular “heartfelt country soul” act Underhill Rose, her latest solo release, “Land of the Living,” is a serendipitous ode to a modern world gone haywire. Though the lyrics and melodies were created before the Coronavirus Pandemic, the album finds itself at the crossroads of a society making sense of what it sees in the mirror. 

Gathering an array of talented local musicians, Underhill stands firmly at the core of the record, this nurturing, yet assertive voice of hope and optimism. The songs take on a shape and life all their own, each pushing forth into an unknown future — a place and time Underhill herself walks toward with head held high.

Smoky Mountain News: When listening to the album, I began to think that you, whether subconsciously or consciously, do not want to be pigeonholed into any specific genre.

Eleanor Underhill: Definitely. It’s the lack of concern of genre. It’s not defined by genre, [where] I follow the muse. You know, we’ve all heard so many different styles of music our whole lives and so many different styles move me. 

And so, if something bubbles up [when] I’m playing around, this moment of inspiration hits and I’m going to follow that thread if it brings me joy. There was a moment where I had to decide: is this going to be an Americana album? Is this going to be an electronic album? It was definitely a struggle on an artistic and spiritual level. 

SMN: Well, you’re serving the song and not sticking it in a formula. 

EU: Exactly. And that’s why you’ll hear less banjo on this album. You know, I felt less loyal, for better or for worse, to the banjo and felt like: does it serve the song because banjo has been my safe instrument? [The banjo] has been my primary tool for many, many years.

SMN: And perhaps also a safety net, too?

EU: It could be a safety net. It could be that what I’ve come to realize is that I think the banjo can be super versatile. But, I’m not sure everyone else can go there [as a listener]. I think I did start to associate the banjo with my image and maybe that’s my thing. 

[The banjo] is a really fun and interesting instrument. And I don’t think the versatility has been showcased very much. It is a thing I can do, and this is something unique about me. But, I also feel really liberated to be at a keyboard. It’s fun to put the banjo down [and try something else]. 

SMN: Do you think this album has liberated you as an artist?

EU: Yeah, I do. Similar to my last solo album, “Navigate the Madness,” I didn’t know what I could pull out of myself, given the permission to just sit and play around — get the equipment, get the little home studio going, and then just go for it. So, I feel like I learned a lot in that first album. 

And then, [with “Land of the Living”], I feel I’m bringing more skill, more experience, more confidence [to this project]. We also recorded the drums at Echo Mountain [Studios in Asheville], which I think brings up the fidelity of the album. And we brought in more people. So, it’s all been a continuation of growing confidence and skill, I hope. 

SMN: You recorded “Land of the Living” before the pandemic and shutdown. What do you think about the album title when placed in the context of July 2020? I ask, because that title is interesting, seeing as right now the world has been in this great pause, and yet some people have never felt more alive.

EU: It is quite a different world than when the songs were written. Even choosing the two singles — “Strange Chemistry” and “Didn’t We Have Fun?” — you can see everything through the current lens and make sense of it, feel out how it has meaning. 

I might’ve chosen two different singles if I would have known [what the future held]. But, I think that’s the test: does the [music] stand up with this much of a sea change? I think most of the songs do. I think some of them have even risen to be oddly relevant.

Music is therapeutic for me. This album was very personal, so I’m kind of working through some of my own demons, but I had a personal revelation where I was like, “Oh man, I’m holding on to stuff that I think is generational.” It’s not my weight. 

So, I’m going to go ahead and let go of it, and be more fully alive and more fully awake in my body. I’m not held back. And I think that does apply to our society right now, that we are maybe more grateful for being alive.

SMN: To walk a little lighter. 

EU: Walk a little lighter, and just recognizing that we do have the choice while we are alive to make our lives and make other people’s lives better — it’s recognizing that we have this precious time. 

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