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Spotlight: Hiss Golden Messenger

by Ryan Reed on January 19, 2017

“I feel like making Heart Like a Levee and composing these songs was putting me to the test, putting my feet to the flame in a way I hadn’t experienced before,” says M.C. Taylor, mastermind of Hiss Golden Messenger.

For the past decade, the California-bred, North Carolina-based singer-songwriter has maintained a delicate balancing act between his growing family, day job as a folklorist (doing state-sponsored ethnographic field recordings) and commitments as a professional musician. The early days were simpler, as Taylor maintained a low profile with his homespun, lofi country-folk. But he slowly developed momentum with a series of acclaimed LPs— including 2013’s Haw—that branched into jazz, R&B and psychedelic rock.

Two months into the touring cycle behind 2014’s Lateness of Dancers, his fifth album, Taylor took the plunge into life as a full-time musician. “That can’t help but change a person’s relationship to their art, when they’re depending on it to make a living,” he says. “That change had reverberations throughout my life because it meant that touring, which was previously sort of optional, became something of a necessity. That put a lot of things in my life in pretty stark relief. At the time I put out Lateness of Dancers, my daughter was probably six months old.”

These themes—family responsibility, the joys and sorrows and crushing loneliness of life away from home—run throughout Taylor’s catalog. But the soulful, eclectic Heart Like a Levee emphasizes them with more clarity and vulnerability than ever before. “Someone asked me if I agreed with the notion that this was my darkest album, and that question took me by surprise,” he says. “This is a really bittersweet collection of songs. 

“The flip side is that there’s been a lot of joy in the process,” he continues. “Having the time to really concentrate on my craft, I came up with songs that are as powerful as any I’ve written. They show me something about myself that I don’t feel like I’ve seen before. These songs are definitely a way to deal with the pleasure I get out of playing music but also the guilt that I feel doing something that I love— sometimes to the exclusion of everything else in my life.”

Hiss Golden Messenger pushed themselves sonically on Heart Like a Levee, veering from the twangy classic-rock stomp of “Tell Her I’m Just Dancing” to the slow-burning, Curtis Mayfield-inspired funk of “Like a Mirror Loves a Hammer” to the eerie psych rock orchestrations of “Ace of Cups Hung Low Band.”

“It’s maybe the alias for Hiss Golden Messenger, the morning after a show,” Taylor says of the latter track. “It’s my Sgt. Pepper’s, but it’s a busted, wrecked collection of people together. And it’s celebrating that: the fellowship of being together and traveling together and making music together and doing our suffering together, fixing our amplifiers together. The very end of that tune, I got to tap into the more ‘out’ stuff that I love—like John and Alice Coltrane and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.”

Working with his reliable studio crew—including Megafaun mainstays Brad and Phil Cook, Bon Iver drummer Matt McCaughan and vocalist Tift Merritt—Taylor stressed rhythmic impact, implementing saxophones and chasing the lost art of “swing.”

“I have always been trying to make this record,” he says. “Part of it is that I’ve grown up and learned how to incorporate things that speak to me and all the music that I love—how to put those things into my own music in a way that doesn’t sound like I’m playing dress-up.

“Rhythm has always been a huge thing for me, and that doesn’t always come through,” he continues. “But on this record, we spent a lot of time working with the rhythm section to really get everything in the pocket and swinging, even tunes that are on the slower side. The not-so-hidden secret to making powerful and competitive records is they have to swing. If there’s anything that’s gotten lost over the past 25 or 30 years, it’s that people have forgotten how to, or lost the ability to, swing a tune.”

Taylor sounds excited as he gears up for rehearsals, but his deep sighs convey the stress and worry that one might expect from a man still adjusting to his all-in lifestyle as a professional musician.

“I definitely find myself sometimes playing down the absolute joy I get from playing music around people who are not full-time musicians,” he says, tracing his career path in that now-signature bittersweet way of his. “It’s a complicated life, but, man, playing music for a living…I could complain until my face turns blue, but I won’t do that. I’m very lucky. I live my life on the fringes, for sure. But it’s important to me for my kids to see their dad doing something that he’s totally obsessed with. I can’t say that I had that in my life growing up. I’m so thankful my kids can see me grapple with this thing that’s so big and so all-consuming in my life. It really brings me a lot of pleasure.”

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