By Brian Tucker
With Reese McHenry, calling her a powerhouse singer is an understatement, and not just because of the fire and fury unleashed on loud material. On lighter fare it’s an equal arsenal, different weaponry.
Her band The Dirty Little Heaters perform Saturday at Reggie’s 42nd Street Tavern.
They don’t play often, but McHenry stays busy. The Heaters began as a duo in 2005 (and grew) and McHenry has been in different projects since – The Second Wife (2015’s Tourist) recording 2017’s dynamic Bad Girl album with N.C.’s Spider Bags, and a new 45 this year.
“Working with Spider Bags was pretty top-of-the-list. Steve Olivia, Rock Forbes and Dan McGee are truly one of the biggest reasons I am making music now. Dan took it upon himself to make sure we did this record when I was deathly ill and unable to sing.”
She has plans for a rock opera based on the Michael Peterson trial called The Killer Owls of Durham and recently recorded with Triangle Area musician/engineer Missy Thangs (The Love Language). Next is working with Chapel Hill’s The Dynamite Brothers.
Throughout, her output has been a mix of gripping rock and roll (see the Heaters’ “Mexico Way”) and soulful balladry (see “Winter Song” from Tourist). At the heart is that incredible voice – achingly beautiful on country-tinged material (“Bad Girl”), hypnotic on the song “Rose of Monmouth County,” and pissed and vengeful on the Heaters’ releases.
First up was a 2008 Heaters 7-inch whose songs grabbed (and scared) you with haunted, raw garage rock and vocals soaring beyond dark clouds. 2010’s Champions of Imperfection mixed psychedelic and grunge flavors into a garage/hard rock hybrid amassing thick, groove heavy sounds and McHenry’s witchy, dazzling voice that shares rare air with PJ Harvey and MLny Parsonz (Royal Thunder). When McHenry sings “I believe in karma too” on “Untitled” it feels dangerous, and righteous. Surprisingly, her first time performing in front of an audience was in her early 20s.
“My earliest memory is singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” in a crib,” McHenry said. “I honestly do not know how to play or sing less passionately. Because I couldn’t tell someone how to do it, I get protective of how and why I do it. I was in my first band at 21 and reliant upon (them) to write songs. I would have melodies and lyrics but no way to make actual music.”
Their guitar player, Josh Lind, taught her basic chords. She always thinks she hasn’t progressed but for listeners this is irrelevant. Her scorching, sometimes buzz-sawing guitar is effective, both as a tight ride and reliable for its emotional punch.
“I use the guitar as a vehicle for murdering people with my feelings – not to shred, or even pick,” McHenry says. “Advancement is a funny thing – when I play early Heaters songs, I have to think back to when I was a fast, down stroke player – to make the song right and now it just wears me out.”
Across her albums you feel sincerity waged, and the power it delivers, something reassured after learning she “listened to Ratt yesterday and Snail Mail right after.” But adding, “Often my songs are just stories” it’s hard to settle with that word ‘just’ in her saying that.
“But I really feel things and that shows. I think of songwriting as a hug – if you make the decision to do it, just do it. Don’t half ass it.”
Additional Q & A
What type of record you’re working on now? A new project, or a follow-up record?
I just recorded twelve songs at Fidelitorium with the incomparable Missy Thangs (Missy Mueller) and will be releasing those as singles as I can afford to get them mixed and mastered. The band from now until an undetermined time will just be called Reese McHenry. I also still have over 100 songs finished to record.
Has your voice always had that thunderous passion?
I honestly do not know how to play or sing less passionately, and because I couldn’t tell someone how to do it, I get protective of how and why I do it. Its one thing I try never to think about. I don’t think of writing anything specific, and often my songs are just stories, but I really feel things and that shows.
I think of songwriting as a hug – if you make the decision to do it, just do it then. Don’t half ass it. I find that people like the power in my voice. I like to talk to people about music, so if they’re interested in my voice, they’re interested in music, and we have something in common.
“Tourist” is a barn burner. Your vocals echoes 80s rock.
People say it sounds like the theme song to The Office. I hear it now, but I hadn’t heard that song when I wrote “Tourist.” I wrote that song when I strongly felt like everyone else had their shit together and I could not get my life working right. Now I see that everyone feels that way, at times, like an imposter. It’s really a song about trying to squash needless worry.