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A Member Of Two Successful Groups, Eleanor Underhill Devotes Solo Music To 'Darker' Self

Kristen Marie Greene of KMG*Photography

Eleanor Underhill’s new record is called “Land of the Living,” and listening straight through can be a little dizzying.

Her songs skip from ‘90s alt-rock (“Strange Chemistry”) and synth pop (“Run with the Wolves”) to banjo-inflected techno (“Middle of Life”), straight-up R&B (“Easier Than This”) and the rootsy Americana at the foundation of Underhill’s musical history. And then there’s the intimate storytelling, some of it from a third-person distance, some from first-person vulnerability.

“I recently started therapy, so it’s a really personal album, really going into the more unconscious layers of myself, the more dreamy and deeper and, in many cases, unclear and conflicting layers,” she said. “It’s really coming more from a gut, poetic, deeper consciousness.”

Underhill is rare in any musical scene, having made a name for herself first 20 years ago as a member of the women’s quartet Barrel House Mamas, then sustaining and building on her following through Underhill Rose, the spinoff duo she formed with another Barrelhouse Mama, Molly Rose. 

Both groups recorded and toured, but couldn’t satisfy Underhill’s broader creative urges. She produced and engineered her first solo album, “Navigate the Madness,” almost two years ago.

“The madness is internal, for sure. It’s also external. We can remember in 2018, a lot of stuff was going down, as it is now. It never ends,” she said. “Music has always been therapeutic and by not letting stuff out freely, it was starting to take a toll on my well-being, really.”

Underhill grew up in Williamsburg, Va. She describes her parents as hippy theater people who lived on a commune before both working in costume for Colonial Williamsburg. Music was always in the house, and Underhill dove deep into the Grateful Dead and Phish, but she didn’t get serious about making music until meeting and collaborating with the other women of the Barrel House Mamas—all students at Warren Wilson College.

Since the breakup of the Barrel House Mamas, Underhill Rose has produced three studio albums and a live record over the past decade. Underhill has seen her solo music more as a necessary side project than another rung on the stepladder.

“I think my solo stuff tends to be a little weirder, darker, more experimental, and Underhill Rose tends to be more of the traditional singer-songwriter structures and harmony-based music,” she said. “We always try to have a bit of sunshine and hope in our message, whereas in my solo stuff, I just let it all out.”

The songs on “Land of the Living” date as far back as 10 years to within the past year. Unable to tour to promote the album, Underhill has produced minimalist videos for every song on the album, which she plans releasing one at a time, every week, into the fall. Underhill performs a socially distanced show Oct. 19 through Concerts on the Creek in Sylva.

“It’s only through this process that I’m recognizing how far back my interest in video goes,” she said. “My dad had one of those little camcorders and my friends would come over and we would make videos, we would make fake commercials, I would choreograph dance routines. We would make outfits. It’s just funny to me I’m still doing that.”


Matt Peiken, BPR’s first full-time arts journalist, has spent his entire career covering arts and culture.
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