5 Questions with Reese McHenry

Raleigh musician Reese McHenry talks overcoming health issues and putting out her recent album, No Dados.
By Shelbi Polk

Photograph by Gus Samarco

You wouldn’t know it from the sound of her latest record, but Reese McHenry almost had to quit music.  Several years ago, four strokes—the result of an undiagnosed heart condition—left McHenry briefly unable to speak, and she spent years getting healthy enough to continue pursuing her art. 

McHenry didn’t let a little thing like a life-threatening illness stop her from letting out the fire she has inside. McHenry was in several bands, including garage rock band Dirty Little Heaters, before her strokes, but she’s released two solo albums in the years since. The latest, No Dados, came out last year to great reviews in outlets like Pitchfork. 

McHenry’s voice is as strong and relentless as her drive to write music, and we sat down with her to learn a little more about where those songs come from. 

Photograph by Gus Samarco

Will you tell me a little bit about how you got started as a musician?

I was always interested in music, from the time I’ve had memories. I used to love singing when I was really little. My mom says that I sang before I talked—I don’t know if that’s true, you know how mothers are. KISS was the first band that I was like, “this band is so heavy and they’re so awesome.” My mom hated them. She thought that they were devil worshippers.

I always knew I wanted to be a musician, and then I was in a band in my late teens, early twenties. I didn’t play guitar, but I could write songs—but then I got tired of waiting for other people to come around, you know? I’ve learned how to become a better guitar player almost in spite of myself. I couldn’t rip a solo even if you put a gun to my head, but it’s like necessity is the mother of invention. But I don’t want to be a guitar player, I want to be a songwriter. Like, you have this need to express yourself, and you find whatever you need to do that. BB King strung wire between two nails to make a guitar. That’s insane, you know? But he needed to express himself, so you do that any way you can.

You faced some pretty intense medical setbacks there for a while. How did that affect your approach to music?

Honestly, it debilitated me. It was a long span of being sick. Sometimes I was in the hospital for months overcoming procedures. Being that sick is a kind of self-imposed isolation—because who wants to be around sick people like that? I got a pacemaker and had gastric bypass in a span of six years. I still wrote songs when I had the strength, it’s how I overcame really horrible things in my life.

So most of the songs on your latest album, No Dados, did they come from that time?

Some certainly did. Detroit was written before I ever got sick. And Fever was written while I was sick. I don’t think it had anything to do with having a fever, but it kind of does right? 

What does 2020 hold for you? Aside from heading back to the recording studio?

We’re planning on doing a professional tour, hopefully in early March, and then we’re recording at Fidelitorium (legendary producer Mitch Easter’s studio in Kernersville) again in May. Last time, those guys had to learn those songs lightning fast. So the fact that record came out as well as it did in six days is a testament to how good those players are and how well we got along. And now we have this time to arrange songs into pre-production and John Agnello is signed on to produce, and he’s one of my favorite producers of all time. He saw us in Jersey City, and he and I fell in love with each other. So we’re going to do the tracking in Fidelitorium, and then we’re going to go over to his studio in Jersey City.

We’re also talking about our plans after the record comes out, because I think touring on new songs is one way to make them killer before you go in the studio. There have been times that we’ve been like, “We need to change this part, let’s revisit this.” I have 25 songs, and we’ll whittle those down to probably 12 for the next record. Working on songs with these guys is so much fun and so exciting. It’s really something. I think the goal is to try to hook up with bigger acts like The Mountain Goats, who we opened up for recently. 

What advice do you have for musicians just getting started?

I really do feel like it’s something that has to burn. Even if you are able to make money, it’s usually not a huge amount of money. Even bands that are mid-level, that are on the cycle of making a record and touring, it’s like the bigger you get, the more expenses you have. And if you’re lucky enough to tour and make money, you’re pulled from your family and friends and normal life.

So anytime somebody is like, “Yeah I could be in a band or not,” I’m like, “Why would you!” It’s a lot of work, and people feel like they have a right to say things about what you wear and the songs that you write. It’s for public consumption, and that can be tricky because you have to have thick skin. 

But I feel like everything is worth it. To be able to create and have people interested in the things that you created… Where there was nothing, now there’s something, and people like it? That is a crazy feeling. It’s a great feeling. There’s nothing like it if you can handle the dark side of it.