In the song “Notifications,” West Asheville-based musician Eleanor Underhill sings over plucked banjo, “I’ve got a new distraction, it’s giving me satisfaction. I’m getting used to this ticker-tape charade.” Underhill says she got the idea for the song when she was at the gym and noticed cable news chyrons flashing on a television screen. She felt overwhelmed by the stream of headlines.
“Thinking there’s so much going on, and it’s hard to know how to react or what to do,” she says. “You feel … separated from it, but it’s in your face all the time.”
Music fans who feel similarly inundated might identify with the existential struggle depicted on Underhill’s debut solo album, aptly titled Navigate the Madness. Accompanied by many of the musicians who contributed to the record, she’ll play an album release show at Ambrose West on Saturday, Oct. 6.
Underhill has spent the past 10 years singing and playing banjo with Underhill Rose. She and bandmate Molly Rose established themselves on the roots music scene, releasing four albums and performing around the U.S. and in Europe. That nomadic existence left Underhill feeling unsettled, so turning inward, she produced an album from her living room. “I went into it trying to suspend any expectations of pleasing others,” she says. “I knew that would censor things and limit me, and that’s exactly what I didn’t need. I needed to fully indulge my creative instincts.”
Mission accomplished. Underhill plays a number of instruments, including trombone and piano, and the addition of electronic sounds speaks to a chaotic, modern-day struggle. Plus, the album calls upon multiple genres — folk, blues, jazz and psychedelic.
“I don’t just love bluegrass music,” she says. “I like some EDM, I like some pop. … I wanted to figure out how to marry that together and make something that’s authentically me, as well as an authentic experience for the listener.”
Underhill also incorporated quirky homemade recordings: On one, her father, Roy Underhill (of the PBS show, “The Woodwright’s Shop”), plays the accordion; on another, her mother, Jane Underhill, practices operatic exercises.
She even gives a subtle nod to rapper Dr. Dre, hammering on piano keys on the track “Into the Unknown.”
But beyond sonic experimentation, Navigate the Madness — as its name suggests — seeks to process some of the most disturbing of the current socio-political themes. On “Captured in Arms,” Underhill sings, “Bigotry is trying to fly, but I say let live and let racism die. … Please don’t kill my friends anymore.” The song is a reflection on hatred, drawn in part from the resurgence of white nationalism.
“You start to get normalized to this shit,” Underhill says. “OK, so now there are white supremacists again? When did that happen?” This year in particular, she says, it seems the unthinkable has become reality. Part of the idea behind the solo album was to speak to listeners who wished to connect on a deeper level.
Underhill’s own past is rooted in history as much as modernity. She grew up in Virginia, where both of her parents worked at Colonial Williamsburg, a reconstructed 18th-century town that serves as a living history museum and a tourist attraction. “My dad worked in the lumberyard, and my mom was a balladeer in the tavern, so she would go around, table to table, singing old English ballads,” Underhill says.
That family lineage of art and craft is apparent throughout Navigate the Madness, and the song “Hard to Find” encapsulates Underhill’s lived juxtaposition of past and present. The track’s opening lyrics, “A white dress, red wine. I don’t mind a little stain,” came to Underhill as she was imbibing with a friend at 5 Walnut. But then the song moves on to much weightier subject matter: “In the shadow of the greatest generation the country knew … it’s hard to find someone who knows their rights anymore. Hard to find a good song on the radio. It’s hard to find regard for death or war.”
“I’ve got 99 problems,” she seems to be telling listeners, “And a stain is the least of them.”
WHAT: Eleanor Underhill & Friends’ album release party for Navigate the Madness
WHERE: Ambrose West, 312 Haywood Road, ambrosewest.com
WHEN: Saturday, Oct. 6, 8 p.m. $7 advance/$10 day of show/$15 VIP