Posts Tagged ‘M.C Taylor’

Hiss Golden Messenger

M.C. Taylor has been singing about his kids since before they were even born. Before his eldest child, Elijah, arrived in 2009, Taylor — who for the past 10 years or so has made records with a revolving cast of musicians under the moniker Hiss Golden Messenger — wrote a sweet back-porch hymn called “I’ve Got a Name for the Newborn Child.”

But on his new album, Terms of Surrender, the tenor of Taylor’s relationship to his children feels different: more high-stakes, almost desperate at times. In several songs, he carries on imagined conversations with his son and daughter. Sometimes, they give him a pep talk (“Daddy, take down your sorrow”); more often, he’s apologizing to them for his shortcomings. “When you think of me,” he pleads to his daughter, Ione, in “Happy Birthday Baby,” a crushing song he wrote for her fifth birthday, “think of me better than I think of myself.”

When asked about this stark lyrical shift, Taylor pauses, then confronts the question head-on.

“I had this feeling that I could not shake that maybe I’m not going to be around for much longer, that maybe something’s going to happen to me,” Taylor says. “These tunes are, in part, imagined conversations that I am having with the people that are close to me, as something to leave behind, almost a last-testament type thing. I’m still here. I’m feeling good. Things are great. I love my family. They love me. But, you know, if I die somewhere out there on the road, what do I want my last sung words to be? That was definitely something that was on my mind.”

Since 2008, when Taylor self-released a collection of off-kilter folk tunes called Country Hai East Cottonthe Durham, North Carolina–based Hiss Golden Messenger has evolved into one of the most vital roots-music projects of the past decade — part solitary singer-songwriter outlet, part communal roots-rock collective. Taylor’s music turns the most banal of musician woes — the tribulations of life on the road, spending extended periods of time away from family— into gorgeous meditations on love and lack. Perhaps not coincidentally, Hiss Golden Messenger have became a favorite among fellow musicians, adored by everyone from Mumford and Sons and the Hold Steady to Jenny Lewis and the National’s Aaron Dessner, the latter two of whom appear on Taylor’s new record.

Taylor has grown his following, in part, by churning out an unusually large quantity of music, releasing nearly an album per year during the past decade. As Phil Cook, who’s become Taylor’s right-hand multi-instrumentalist (Cook’s words: “a sous chef in the kitchen of Mike Taylor”), puts it: “Mike has got a prolific bone to pick with the universe.”

But after several years of incessant gigging, recording, and writing, Taylor’s life ground to a halt in 2018. His father had a heart attack. He went through a “pretty huge interpersonal drama” with a close friend (chronicled, in part, on his new song “Katy (You Don’t Have to Be Good Yet”)). The meds Taylor had been taking for his depression, which had gotten worse in recent years, were simply not working. And he continued to struggle with what he calls the “spiritually complicated” parts of being a touring musician, the parts that involve spending a healthy chunk of the year away from his wife and children.

Terms of Surrender, Hiss Golden Messenger’s latest collection, documents — in sometimes frighteningly honest specifics — the crushing lows and precious saving graces of this turbulent time. Typically, after Taylor writes an album, he goes back and tweaks his lyrics “ever so slightly, to make it something that I’m going to be able to sing every night.” Terms of Surrender did not go through such a process.

“Mama, I’m standing on the ledge-i-o,” he mumbles, as if to obscure what he’s saying, on “Down at the Uptown.” “Run, jump or fly? I think I caught a bad one.”

Taylor has made several personal strides since the period chronicled on Terms of Surrender. During the making of Terms of Surrender, he started seeing a therapist for the first sustained period of time in his life, and it’s helped him “understand that it’s OK to have these feelings of anxiety, and that there are ways to let them pass through you and not destroy you.”

“I’m not putting this record out under any sort of duress,” he continues. “Making this record was an absolute ball; I was trying to get my meds right, and nobody really knew that, so I’d be going into the bathroom and having all these weird side effects and would be trying to shake it off and splash water on my face, and then go back out into the tracking room. It was amazing and terrifying, but great. The biggest danger that we have in our lives is forgetting how hard or complicated something was. For me, to have this reminder offers a path towards not going through that in quite the same way again.”

Taylor has a nervous, reflexive laugh that tends to surface right after he says something particularly intense, as when, discussing his father’s recent heart attack, he says, “Emotional heart trouble is big in my life, but shit, so is physical heart trouble.”

Emotional heart trouble is a helpful way of thinking about Hiss Golden Messenger as a whole. The central tension in Taylor’s music is the gulf between two distinct emotional zones: one, a brooding world of midlife angst and parental anguish; the other, a peaceful refuge of familial bliss and vivid Southern landscapes. In his best songs — 2012’s “Balthazar’s Song,” 2016’s “Heart Like a Levee,” 2019’s “I Need a Teacher” — these two spheres collide, each one informing the other.

“Sometimes I’m writing about things as they are in my life, and sometimes the songs are aspirational, where I’m trying to imagine a world in which things exist the way I posit them in the songs,” Taylor says.

The central challenge of Hiss Golden Messenger, then, has been how to hold room for both breezy major-key folk and dark, rhythmically stormy country-blues. Figuring out how to do that, Taylor says, was the foundational discovery that helped define the group and differentiate it from the previous musical lives he’s lived — with the hardcore band Ex-Ignota and alt-country outfit the Court and Spark — in his teens and twenties.

“I had found all these ways to create harmonic suspensions in the chords through different tunings to conjure that bittersweetness, the happy-and-sad-at-the-same-time thing,” he says. “I really had to search to figure out how to make those feelings appear in the chords, how to not commit to a major or minor chord so that it’s very hard for people to understand what they’re supposed to feel.”

The upshot is that, though Taylor works within well-established musical traditions, Hiss Golden Messenger — Taylor has said that the odd moniker holds no special significance — don’t sound quite like any of the scores of similarly minded Americana-based bands that have proliferated during the past half-decade. A few years ago, Taylor was playing with Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench, who, upon trying to learn the Hiss Golden Messenger song “Drum,” remarked, “Man, this song is crooked.” This delighted Taylor.

“There are a lot of parts of my music that are rhythmically a little bit crooked,” he says. “There’s a lot of crooked old-time songs, and maybe I sort of picked that up by osmosis.”

Taylor, who has a graduate degree in American folklore, goes on to say that he envisions his music as “country-soul, but I’m thinking of country-soul as an existential quest, a quest to understand and position the vast musical traditions of the South as a living and contemporary language that gave birth to everything good in American music.”

Perhaps because of how eloquently he’s able to articulate his musical project, Taylor is sometimes paralyzed by the idea that people regard him as someone who has capital-A “answers.”

“I get the sense sometimes that people might think I know something more than I do, which I really don’t,” he says. “I’m not a churchgoer. I wasn’t raised a believer. I just feel like love is a powerful, animating force in the world, and I’m trying to say that in the most non-hippie way that I can. I feel like, when people are talking about God, they’re talking about the animating force of love. That’s the way I understand it, that sort of holiness. For me, that makes belief and hope easier, because it’s something we’re not necessarily asked to take on faith. I can create love in my own house, and I can show my kids how to create it as well.”

Taylor laughs, perhaps realizing that, in answering a question about his fear of people feeling like he knows some greater truth, he has, inadvertently, spelled one out. “I’m sorry,” he says.

Phil Cook thinks of it this way: “The world is full of love songs, pretty cheap love songs, and I think Mike’s songs are about something that is much more difficult to pin down,” he says. “Not things people can sit down and say, ‘Here’s what it’s all about.’ I think Mike just searching, he’s got a lot of questions, and he’s not shy about saying: ‘I don’t know the fucking answer to any of this shit.’”

In February 2018, Taylor headed to a cabin in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia to begin writing songs for what would eventually become Terms of Surrender. Before he started to write, he took a small dose of mushrooms, “just enough to feel them,” and went outside.

“It was dusk and it was really cold and still,” Taylor says. “I could just hear the wind and the evening birds, and there was not another soul around. But then, out of the corner of my ear, I heard the faint sound of voices, kids laughing and playing. I thought I was tripping. I mean, I was tripping, but I thought that maybe I was tripping even harder. But then I realized that the property I was on was abutting this other piece of property that I couldn’t see. There must have been a family out doing their thing. For that minute or two, when I was just standing on this hillside in Virginia, completely alone and hearing these voices, and laughter, it was really beautiful, actually.”

The scene Taylor describes feels uncannily like something straight out of a Hiss Golden Messenger song. And then, almost as if prompted, he goes on:

“It was like being in this liminal space, not really knowing where I was or what I was experiencing, and it was really nice. It wasn’t terrifying, actually; it was comforting, in a way. It was a very particular feeling, and it really stuck with me. It was almost hopeful, we’ll say.”


Hiss Golden Messenger

Critically acclaimed indie band Hiss Golden Messenger just announced their anticipated new album Terms of Surrender, with a newly released single “I Need A Teacher.” The project led by gifted songwriter and storyteller M.C. Taylor, seamlessly fuses indie, gospel, and Americana sounds, and his catalogue has grown into a deep well of thoughtful, good-time folk to pull from.

“I Need A Teacher” continues this trend, with sharp lyricism, infectious melodies and harmonies, and a driving guitar line that steers the song along. According to a press release, ‘the video was shot during the statewide North Carolina Association of Educators’ Day of Action demonstration and features a glance into the eyes and faces of real teachers, children, and families that illustrate the humanity and what is at stake for our future.’

The new album features guest appearances by Jenny Lewis, Josh Kaufman and Aaron Dessner of The National, and was recorded at Dessner’s famed Long Pond studio in upstate New York.

Terms of Surrender will be released on Merge Records, September 20th,

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“Standing in the Doorway” was written and recorded during the making of Heart Like a Levee. I think I was trying to understand if and whether luck was related to my life at the time. I always liked this tune, but it didn’t seem to fit the emotional arc of that album for some reason. It also seemed like it could survive on its own, away from other songs that might give it context. Since Heart Like a Levee came out, a lot has changed in the world, of course. I’m currently writing this from the studio where we’re working on our next record and trying to live in this world with some kind of light.  —M.C. Taylor


This song was recorded with the Spacebomb family—a collection of musicians with deep kinship and connection to Hiss Golden Messenger—in Richmond, Virginia, on February 7th, 2018. They love their families and friends in the same ways that I do mine. I was proud and honored to work with them on this song.

All proceeds from “Passing Clouds” and “Passing Clouds Dub” will benefit Everytown, a movement of Americans working together to end gun violence and build safer communities. I urge you to perform your own small actions of peace whenever and wherever you can. We can make the world we want to live in. 


No spiritual surrender. —M.C. Taylor, Durham, NC

Released March 21, 2018

Hiss Golden Messenger announces new album, Hallelujah Anyhow, out this September

Hallelujah Anyhow is the latest studio album from Hiss Golden Messenger, due out September 22nd worldwide on Merge Records. Its ten new songs, penned by HGM principal M.C. Taylor, were recorded with Brad Cook, Phil Cook, Chris Boerner, Josh Kaufman, Darren Jessee, Michael Lewis, and Scott Hirsch. Alexandra Sauser-Monnig, Tift Merritt, Skylar Gudasz, Tamisha Waden, Mac McCaughan, and John Paul White provided vocal harmonies.  All pre-orders in the Merge Records store will receive a signed poster, while supplies last.Hiss Golden Messenger have announced a fall headlining tour following summer festivals and three shows supporting Mumford & Sons.

He has commented,  I’m from nowhere. That’s the way I feel about it now, right at this moment. Music took me and made me and gave me a purpose and I built my world with it, and now my geography is a musical one, forever. And when I break, when I think about running as far as I can, I remember that there is nothing that does me like music, and I might as well be a poor man in a world of my own devising. Hallelujah Anyhow.Rhythm? I learned it over twenty years in the back of rented vans, in attics and back rooms—hard places to get to, harder places to get out of. And now rhythm is my clock and I live by it. We all do. But it’ll kill you if you’re not careful. It might kill you even if you are. Hallelujah anyhow.

I see the dark clouds. I was designed to see them. They’re the same clouds of fear and destruction that have darkened the world since Revelations, just different actors. But this music is for hope. That’s the only thing I want to say about it. Love is the only way out. I’ve never been afraid of the darkness; it’s just a different kind of light. And if some days that belief comes harder than others, hallelujah anyhow.

M.C. Taylor, July 2017

This was show Number 5 in as many days, at the start of a six-week tour that took us in a circle around the US, with a few stints into Canada as well. The trip ended up being about 13,000 miles total. Day 5 and we had already traveled from Durham to Asheville to Nashville to Atlanta to New Orleans to Austin. “Honkin’ down the gosh darn highway,” visiting these cities quickly, almost rushed, stopping long enough to preach the gospel of Heart Like A Levee to those who were hip, those who were ready. Heart Like A Levee hadn’t yet been out in the world for two weeks, so the eagerness to preach was strong. We were anxious for people to hear it.

We were tired, understandably, but excited. Morale was high.  We were on an adventure.
I was just happy to be included on the team, a newbie on my first tour, away from my fiance (now wife) for the longest stretch of our entire relationship, forging a new, personal relationship with one of my longtime favorite bands – dudes who, aside from a few shows we’d worked together in previous years and a small handful of email exchanges, existed mostly through speakers & on vinyl records. Lucky me to be in the presence of such talent, such inspiration, such GOODness. I loved every damn second of that tour.

Hiss Golden Messenger turned a corner at The Parish and it was obvious. To me, at least, but I like to think the crowd knew something special was happening too. They were attentive and appreciative. The energy on stage during HGM’s set was gelling very nicely and it was noticeable early in the show, within the first few songs. It felt different than the four previous nights. Looser, but tighter, if that makes any sense. Mike even makes a comment about that during the set. “Finding the rhythm.” Listen to the show and you’ll get it, you’ll hear it.

Scott was celebrating another trip around the sun, so there was a pep in the step because of that. HB brother Scott!
We were brought Torchy’s Tacos for dinner by a friend of the band. We were fueled up!
We had a couple earned days off following this show before the next gig in Phoenix, with fun stops planned in the cosmic West Texas town of Marfa, and the beautiful White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. We were looking forward to visiting these places and to have some down time.
But we were looking forward to the gig that night at The Parish even more and it showed. Goddammit it showed.
Like I said, morale was high, and it stayed that way.


Hiss Golden Messenger Live October 18th, 2016 At The Parish Austin, TX
01: As The Crow Flies
02: Biloxi
03: Saturday’s Song
04: Mahogany Dread
05: Day O Day (Love So Free)
06: Tell Her I’m Just Dancing
07: Heart Like A Levee
08: Happy Day (Sister My Sister)
09: Like A Mirror Loves A Hammer
10: Drum /// I’ve Got A Name For The Newborn Child
11: Red Rose Nantahala
12: O Little Light
13: Say It Like You Mean It
14: Cracked Windshield
15: Lucia
16: MC Speaks
17: Southern Grammar
18: John The Gun
19: Brother, Do You Know The Road?

MC Taylor – vocals, guitar
Phil Cook – keys, guitar, vocals
Ryan Gustafson – guitar, banjo, mandolin, vocals
Scott Hirsch – bass
Darren Jessee – drums

Recorded by Luc Suer & Warren Parker
Mixed by BJ Pendleton & Warren Parker
Artwork – Jonas Britt