The Unapologetic Devotion of Hiss Golden Messenger's MC Taylor
The North Carolina songwriter speaks on his career spanning box set 'Devotion,' the questions he’s still asking himself, and being a father.
Photo by Graham Tolbert
In 2009, Hiss Golden Messenger’s MC Taylor started writing the first chapter in the book of his life. His newborn son, Elijah, slept as he recorded Bad Debt in the kitchen of the family’s home near a creek in Pittsboro, North Carolina. It was with Bad Debt that Taylor found the voice he’s refined over the ensuing near-decade: one timeless and dusty (in a good way), in which he sings just like a songbird about, among many other things: losing his mind, sallying forth, bombed-out witches, super blue crescent moons, rivers, glorious rivers, the unbearable burden of living with one’s sin – whatever that might be – and more than anything, love. Since he found his voice and established that language, Taylor has written many more chapters to the story, but the first three Hiss records, rounded out by Poor Moon and Haw, remain its foundational introduction. “So if people haven't heard these records,” Taylor says over the phone from his home in overcast Durham, North Carolina. “They haven't actually heard how the book started, you know?”
This past Friday, Merge re-released all of them in remastered versions (plus Virgo Fool, a rarities collection) for a box set named Devotion: Songs About Rivers and Spirits and Children. There could be no more apt title. The rivers and spirits and children bit nods to a number of motifs that Taylor frequently returns to in the Hiss universe – a place both mystically arcane and very grounded in stark reality – communicated through whispered folk tunes, rollicking country-funk, and deep, heavy grooves that run simmering hot. And it was Taylor’s work as a folklorist in the eastern parts of North Carolina, observing low-rider car clubs and musicians working in remote reaches of the state, that granted him a glimpse into different incarnations of devotion and solidified it as a central element to his story. “It opens your world up to understand that love drives the universe,” Taylor says about that time in his life. “The most powerful thing I witnessed was love – this spiritual devotion to a practice, whatever it might be, for no other reward than personal satisfaction.”
In a time where you can be lucky to get half an hour on the phone with an artist, it was also refreshing that the 43-year-old’s devotion to this conversation was very generous, spending well over an hour chatting about his love of grooves and guitar players like Greg Liesz and Bill Frisell, having a “really beautiful and meaningful” hang out talking about poetry with Lucinda Williams in Nashville, and books about rivers. He also mentioned that he just finished work on an upcoming Hiss Golden Messenger album that should be coming out this spring. In the new chapter, he says, he’s still asking the same questions he always has as he continues writing this long book. He’s just looking at them in a different way.
Noisey: Can you think of a specific question you're asking yourself more than others lately?
MC Taylor: "Why am I here? How much time do I have, and what bearing does that have on how I conduct myself? How do I be present? What are my responsibilities as an adult? How do I be the best model for my kids and the people in my community? How do I maintain – and even offer up to people – my vulnerability?" Vulnerability is the most compelling quality of any art, to me. But it's also the hardest to give. And that's a struggle, I think, with anybody who's creating stuff. It certainly is with me.
You've been asking yourself these questions for a long time. Do you feel now like you've got more answers?
I don't think so. I probably have less. I've drawn a clear bead on my own emotions about things. But asking the questions, even at the outset, even with Bad Debt, the questions were not about finding the answers. They were about putting the questions out there and, first of all, realising it was okay for the questions to live in the air without answers. And also, over time, it's been – and this is not something I could've anticipated when I made Bad Debt – but having people come back to me and say, "I have these questions, too, and I also don't have the answers." There's something empowering about that for everybody. Not just for me, but for everybody. It reminds you that we're all struggling with a lot of these big, existential questions. And it's okay for them to not be answered. Sometimes we gotta just let 'em hang out there in the atmosphere.
It's particularly valuable to have art that reminds us that it's an ongoing thing, instead of something you have to find or achieve.
Totally. The biggest piece of that for me was finding a voice and vernacular that felt genuine to me. People hear all kinds of different stuff in my music, all kinds of influences, but when you put it all together, it feels unique to me. It took me a long time to find that. There was a lot of searching. I'd been making music for many, many years before I made Bad Debt. Part of it has become, like, I like being the model of an artist that is a lifer, first of all. My records kind of unfurl like chapters of a really long book. My reinventions from record to record, they're still re-combinations of the things that I know communicate my emotions the best. I guess what I'm saying is, it's unlikely that I'm gonna make a dance record. Not because I don't like that music, but because I need to be using a language that feels absolutely genuine to me. It's the only way I'm going to be able to communicate the vulnerability that is at the heart of everything that's meaningful to me.
There's a line you return to often in your songs – “Take away my mind .” Is there a sense of expulsion for you when you're writing, like you need to get rid of something?
Sometimes. I feel like we create distress for ourselves when we have things inside of us that we are afraid to bring into the light. Like, we're afraid to even bring it out into the air because we're afraid of what it might do to us or how it might change us or how people might perceive us. I have that kind of stuff inside of me. Everybody has it. So part of it is bringing this stuff out into the light, however uncomfortable it might be. I'm trying to do it poetically, so there has to be a rhythm to it, there has to be a weave to it. There are a lot of things working at the same time. So it's not just that I'm throwing this stuff up onto the paper and there it is. I need to craft it in such a way that it feels beautiful. Even if it isn't beautiful. Even if the concept isn't beautiful, it needs to feel like I'm dealing with it with sensitivity and empathy. 'Take away my mind,' that feels like, maybe from "Super Blue (Two Days Clean)"?
I think it's on that tune but I feel like it comes up in multiple Hiss songs.
That sounds right. I'm also looking for that place where I'm not thinking, I'm just feeling. That's actually the ultimate place to be. It's hard to get there, though. There are shortcuts, for sure. There are all kinds of different ways to get there in the short term. But to truly get to that “no mind” place, it takes a lifetime of work. That's what the most enlightened people arrive at after years and years and years of self-work. I've tried to do a little of that self-work, and I've also taken all the shortcuts you can imagine, too.
What have you learned from the process of re-visiting these albums?
I reminded myself of how much I love these records and how foundational they are to the whole Hiss universe. I always knew that, because we still play many of the songs every night when we're on the road, but it'd been a really long time since I actually listened to the records. There's such a snapshot in time. There's such a depiction of relationships on those records between all the people that play on them that I'm so thankful for. It's almost like having a photo album, in a way. I can hear the tiniest little parts, like little creaks and crackles and stuff, and know exactly where we were and what that sound was and even the decision to leave it. All that stuff is so beautiful. It's heavy, to me.
My favourite photos I've made are certainly never technically flashy or doing anything new, but capturing the essence or spirit of the person who's important to me and I'm with in that moment. Being able to look back on that and really see it is so important to me. I imagine hearing it – especially in service to something you wrote – is pretty overwhelming.
It is. That goes back to what we were just talking about. Technical perfection is not the goal. It's actually being able to live with the vulnerability of putting something into the universe that you know is technically imperfect, but conveys something powerful about a soul. Your soul, or someone's soul. I'm thankful I had the foresight, for whatever reason – I think because I'd made so many records before Bad Debt, Poor Moon, and Haw – I think we decided... I wanted those records to contain emotional fullness. If that meant leaving something in that felt like a technical mistake, then we were gonna do that. That's been something I've actually held really close in my creative process since that time. Technical perfection shouldn't even enter the conversation – there's no such thing. There's no such thing as perfection. And there's no end point either, after which you say, “that's as good as it's gonna get, that's the best and there you go.” That's not the way I want to live my life. Certainly not how I want to create things. I want—not “I want,” because my ego wants everything to sound in tune and in time and everything. But the deeper part of myself understands that in order to convey emotional fullness, I have to not think about “getting things just right.” Because that's the diversion your upper brain wants. It doesn't actually want to deal with the fact you can never get things perfect. Your brain will put all kinds of diversions in your way to sidetrack you and make it so you never finish. And I had an epiphany I think, with Bad Debt and Poor Moon, that we're all in this room together making these records because we have these specific relationships with one another that are built on love and humour and all kinds of deep emotions, and that's what we're trying to capture in this room right now, those qualities. You need to feel that on those records.
What does the concept of devotion mean to you?
It's sort of synonymous with love, which is kind of the engine of my existence. Sometimes I don't show that to the people I'm closest to in the best way. But my thinking is that love is the be all end all. It's the reason we're here, it's the reason things feel good and feel bad in constructive ways. Love is the way I think about a higher power. And it's something I'm trying to display the various facets of in my songs. I'm not an expert on it. But I do know it's the most important thing in my life.
So many of your songs have this really powerful message of defiance in the face of hardship or making the best of bad situations. Do you draw any power yourself, singing or thinking about those messages, when you're going through something difficult?
Yeah, I do. I mean, it's not like I'm experiencing some rough patch and singing one of my songs to myself.
What I mean is it feels like you’re creating a world, and often those creative worlds can be insulators in a good way, or protective.
I have tried to create a world in my songs, definitely. There is a universe I'm trying to build with my music that is uniquely built on my voice. It's not a universe where I'm the king, though. In fact, I'd prefer not to be. But it is an open space I offer up to anybody for whom these songs resonate. That's not to say I'm trying to shut out the world. I have a million and one connections to the greater world. But this universe I feel I'm trying to put together note by note is built on things I feel are productive for me, and could be productive for other people if they want them. I have no interest in being a teacher. I'm not an expert, I'm not a teacher, I don't have the answers. That's one thing over time that has been a little bit of a tightrope walk, maybe. I never, never, never was compelled to get up on stage and tell people what's right and what's wrong, or give people answers to big questions. That's not interesting to me. I think that's a dangerous position to be in. But I am compelled to get up on a stage and sing out these big questions out into a big room, and let all of us in the room sit in the questions.
Do you think part of people making assumptions that you have answers might be because of the use of Christian imagery in the songs and people's tendency to equate that with preaching or prophesying?
No. I think it has more to do with... most of my time writing is spent trying to articulate some of the big and small questions we've been talking about in the most poetically concise ways that I can. And I think maybe sometimes when you hear a person ask a question that is articulated really beautifully, you kind of assume they also know the answer to that question. At least I do. You just think they do. So maybe that's part of it. Maybe the Christian imagery is part of it, too, I don't know. My crowds are pretty secular, though, so I've always thought that maybe some of that imagery would maybe raise the hair on the back of people's necks if nothing else. But I don't know.
It's interesting to me that people assume you need to believe to engage with language or stories like that. It doesn't particularly make sense. It's not like you can't enjoy a story from some other religion or place as just a story.
American Christianity has become so perverted, though. I think it's hard for people in the US especially, or English-speaking, western, white countries to untangle western Christianity that often seems, to me – to me – to have such devious motives. The Bible is a problematic book. There are a lot of archetypal stories in that book that can serve as shorthand, culturally, for us. Whoever put together The Bible were also experts at articulating some truly beautiful questions. That's why I've gone there in some of my work, because the way the questions are posed there resonates with me. It's not because I go to church. I'm not a Christian.
Those stories have lasted so long. Obviously, they resonate with generations upon generations of people, whether or not those people really took to heart whatever message they were sending.
That's right. And I should go back and say, I know a lot of church-going people in my town and all over the place that are beautiful, progressive, forward-thinking, inclusive. Every good quality we would want in a neighbour, they have those things. It's just the version of American Christianity that we see on the news, it just does not square with what I think of when I think of the best parts of The Bible.
What drew you to studying folklore in the first place?
It's hard to remember, it was a long time ago. I had some notion that folklore would give me a point of entry into wrapping my head around vernacular culture. Meaning, looking at and seeing the value in everyday, workaday culture. So, starting to understand what the reasons are that people gather around certain experiences and create cultures out of them, whether that be gospel quartet singing or lowrider cars. That was of interest to me. And I wanted to be in the South. I grew up in California and had been making music in California for many years, and was making music that had roots in Southern music. I got to a point where I thought that if I want to understand this type of music on a cellular music, in any way, I feel like I have to live there, and actually experience the fullness of the place. Not just the sensational parts of it. Not just the famous parts of it, but all of it. What it feels like to wake up here every day, and live here when I'm no longer a newcomer here. Actually what it's like to live a life here – to raise children here, to own a house here, to develop and build a community here. What does that feel like? I wouldn't have said it that way on the day I was moving here, because I didn't totally understand all that, but looking back, I can see I was questing after something far beyond going back to school. Going back to school was an easy excuse for us to make a pretty drastic life change. At this point, going back to school is far in the rear view mirror for me.
I have a life here. Both of my kids were born here. I make a living creating music now, and that is directly connected to my moving to this place. I don't think that would've happened had I not moved to the South.
What about the geography and people there capture your imagination?
Pretty quickly, I would say, it just became the place that I lived. There's a lot of musical history in North Carolina. And as someone who's not from here, I sometimes wonder if it's more evident to me than to people who grew up here. I'm not sure about that, but maybe. But on the other hand, over time, it's just become the place I live. So I don't sensationalise the place as much as I used to. There's probably a subtlety to my relationship with this place that didn't exist when I first moved here. I don't hear Southern accents, for example, the same way I did when I first moved here. I hear them in a different way now. They're the way that people who are from here speak.
When you were making Bad Debt , your youngest was a newborn. How has watching your children grow up affected your songwriting?
It's amazing. It's complicated. It makes you vulnerable. If you wanna have a living, breathing, emotional relationship with your child, then you have to be vulnerable. You have no choice. That can make you feel helpless in a way. There's such a cosmic irony to being a parent, because the parent is supposed to know everything, in the eyes of the kid. I can't think of a more emotionally helpless situation than being a parent.
It's scary, yeah. It's totally scary. But at the same time, the benefits far outweigh the... whatever. It was a cosmic paradigm shift for me. That's the other thing – I would not be the musician I have become were it not for my kids. Everybody's different in this universe, but I can say with some certainty, that without my children, we wouldn't be talking right now. And there are all kinds of indirect reasons why that is, but having kids requires you to realign your priorities in a pretty profound way. For me, it made me reconsider everything. Everything I felt like I was searching for or everything I thought I wanted feels like it changed after my kids came. And I don't think kids are the only thing that can do that to you – I think people have spiritual epiphanies or near-death experiences that cause them to re-evaluate in profound ways that actually stick. Not like a New Year's resolution, but a profound realignment. I feel like I had that when my kids came. And I continue to have that. And I continue to live with the terror of having kids and needing to model, for them, what being a good human is like.
That makes me think of when people say their kids have made them better people.
I mean, I don't know. There are plenty of cases of people having children and being complete shitheads still. And I wouldn't say I was a shithead before I had kids. I would just say I was probably directionless, and I would say I probably lacked some confidence and some creative vision. When my kids arrived, that caused me to focus in a pretty deep way.
I think the last time I got to see you play was in Toronto at the Horseshoe the day after Trump was elected.
Oh god, I remember that.
It didn't feel like it went on forever, but I remember checking at the end of the night and it had been a while. It felt kinda like you were working to play away some mass collective loneliness. What makes those experiences important in times of political unrest like this?
You know we talked a little while ago about creating a universe that is open to people who are craving something that feels productive – existentially productive, spiritually productive. That's part of what I feel like the best Hiss concerts should be or feel like. I don't know. Maybe showing people that you can take these emotions that have you so conflicted and frustrated and sad and lonely, and turn them into something useful. And frankly, being in a room full of people who are there to be... uplifted, maybe? I don't want to say that for the whatever, two and a half hours – we do play long shows – I want people to completely forget about the outside world. Maybe that's part of it, though. But also to understand that we can take this rage and fear and we can turn it into something useful. Useful for us in that moment, at the very least.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This article originally appeared on Noisey US.