ELEANOR UNDERHILL: Following the muse

A record is aptly named — in the sense of a collection of musical works — because it’s a document of where the musician was at a given time. It’s an historical record. But the creative process and its result are less concerned with the taking of minutes and more interested in aha moments and unexpected outcomes. Such is the case with Eleanor Underhill’s latest solo release, Land of the Living

Photo by Kristen Marie Greene/KMG Photography

Slated to drop on August 7, the songs — written months before COVID-19 and quarantine marked a major change in life as we know it — offer striking insights to the unprecedented era we’re living through. “It’s like a different world now,” Eleanor says. “I have been grappling with that: Do these songs speak to this moment? Some of them eerily do.” 

She and her publicist chose “Didn’t We Have Fun” and “Strange Chemistry” as the album’s singles. In fact, both of those songs speak to the current moment. Yes, they relate to relationship quandaries, but also to loss of grounding, of mooring, of self. For so many of us, separated from routine and employment and social interaction, quarantine has felt like a painful breakup. Eleanor’s tracks are layered, synth-rich, nuanced and dark. They are pop savvy but also experimental. They unearth and reopen wounds even as they seek healing.

“But once the pandemic [happened] and we were in lockdown and then the protests, I was like, ‘Oh, shit. “March On” would be cool now, and “Easier than This,”’” Eleanor says. The latter, an R&B-infused slow jam, builds on slinky percussion (Michael Libramento), soulful melodies and the idea that you can’t always get what you want — even if you do everything right.

“March On” launches with the big sound that typifies the album. Cool vocalizations give loft to Eleanor’s trademark dusky singing style. There is a march beat (JC Mears), but it’s offset by static-y guitars (Silas Durocher) and washes of spacey synth. “Who will it be when the curtain falls?” asks the refrain.  And another lyric — penned before Eric Garner’s death in police custody — states, “I feel the foot on my throat.”

“I don’t know where I pulled that from. … Sometimes you write songs for someone else. It’s not always about me.” Eleanor admits. “But it’s interesting to look at the songs through the lens of now.”

She continues, “I’ve struggled with the timing of all of it and just hoping that it does stand up through all of what people are experiencing on the personal level as well as the societal level.”

For her, it is a personal album. It follows her 2018 release, Navigate the Madness, which was more political in nature. In this era of heightened social tensions, the musician turns her focus on individual emotions and universal struggles. “It’s a hard pill to swallow, with matters of the heart,” she sings on “Things Fall Apart.” That track could easily be an anthem for 2020. It’s also one of the few tracks to showcase the banjo, Eleanor’s main instrument in her tenure with the folk trio Underhill Rose.

“As versatile as I think the banjo is, other people don’t,” she says. “If it’s not serving the song, why am I so loyal to it?” That’s not a departure from her previous instrument of choice, but an opening to experimentation within her solo work (which also departs from her folk-rock outfit Eleanor Underhill & Friends). The digital synthesizer, she says, is “so vast and so fun to be able to surf through and find a tone that moves me.”

The album’s title track is also its final song, “because I wanted it to be a journey and I wanted to listener to come out at the end and feel a sense of freshness and power,” she says. “We can cast off the old stuff. We can choose what we carry forward with us and engage in this world as living beings.” That was a personal journey the musician says she went on.

The song shares a spirit with Carley Simon’s uplifting “Let the River Run” — that kind of unabashed hope, without veering into cliche (and, thankfully, no belting or ’80s guitar solos). It pulses and ebbs forward, patiently forging out of darkness and into light. “I jump, I run, I dance,” she sings as the instrumentation swells.

But when asked about her process of finding musical soundscapes to pair with her thoughtful lyrics, Eleanor is quick to credit her collaborators (including vocalist Jane Underhill; drummer Christopher Chappell Pyle; bassists Zack Page, E’lon JD, and Jesse Genry; guitarist Matt Lane; and saxophonist Jacob Rodriguez). “The emotional playing and instrumentation on the album [is] a testament to the talent of the musicians who brought their own sensitivity and feel,” she says.

Eleanor adds that the sensibility also has roots in her love of artists such as Enya, and her connection to the divine feminine, in which “there’s a lot of darkness, and a lot of mystery,” she says. “I was following the muse. I think I’m still coming to an awareness of what I’ve created.”

The intricacies of Land of the Living do add to the obstacles (COVID being the major roadblock) for a release show or live performance. For this musician, that’s not necessarily a drawback. “I feel like the album is fairly far removed from an Eleanor Underhill & Friends show, or anything we can create live,” she admits. “I allowed myself to make an album that I didn’t need to recreate live.”

Album release events are listed here. Learn more at eleanorunderhillmusic.com/shows.

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