February 9, 2017
After moving to North Carolina to study folklore in 2008, M.C. Taylor found his way forward with a new vehicle for songwriting, a band called Hiss Golden Messenger. Together with Scott Hirsch, Taylor has recorded six albums that defy categorization. He takes what interests him from any genre and creates music that rings authentic. In 2014 he signed with Merge Records and released Lateness of Dancers. He and Hirsch have been a NC band to watch for years and are receiving more national attention and praise with each new album. Before recording last year’s Heart Like a Levee, M.C. left his job as a folklorist. Quitting his job and devoting himself to music a full time music career can be like “walking off a cliff without knowing how high the cliff is.”
Hiss Golden Messenger is currently touring the country and have a stop this week in Charlotte at the Neighborhood Theatre. We recently caught up with M.C., after a show in Columbus, to discuss the new record, NC folklore and creating “forever art.”
CLTure: You did a few dates late last year in the UK and now you’re just getting started back up here in the states. Are you happy with how the new songs are coming out live?
M.C. Taylor: They’re great. The Hiss band, right now, is incredible. We’ve been out on the road for about three months, with a couple of weeks off. We toured all through October and November. So we’ve done a lot of shows now so this is like the next stretch and we’ll go from here through the summer, basically. I mean we’re not gonna be on the road every single day but, we’ll be in and out of the house quite a lot.
CLTure: Have you stuck to a firm setlist on this tour or have you been mixing it up from night to night?
MCT: We’ve been keeping the same setlist, more or less. We’ll sub things in and out. Everybody plays so many different instruments and there’s a lot of switching out of instruments on stage. So once we figured out the flow it’s hard to want to break that.
CLTure: The new songs written for Heart Like a Levee, you said they were written during a time of transition and doubt. Did that stem from balancing a full time music career and family life?
MCT: Yeah, it was a little of that. The seeds of those ideas came from all the touring that we did for Lateness of Dancers, which was the album previous to this. We did a fair bit of travel for that, you know, and that was a time of transition. I’m not a stranger to traveling for music, but we kind of ramped it up. I quit my job with the blessing of my family. I mean, honestly, I’m still in that time of transition and doubt because as a musician, you never know. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart.
CLTure: I’m sure now having the two children puts an extra amount of worry on you, quitting your job and choosing music as a career.
MCT: Yeah, I mean it changes the emotional factor of what I’m doing for sure. The type of musician that I am now is much different than the type of musician and person I was when I was in my 20s and a lot of that comes down to having kids. It’s this funny transaction because I would not be creating what I am now without a family and all this emotional richness in my life. It’s ironic that I end up so often having to be away from home to do it. (laughs) But that’s ok, you know, I’m lucky. I get to do this thing that I am in love with. I’m obsessed with it. I have been since I was a little kid. And so to be doing the thing that I love and I get to do it with all these people that I am so close to, that’s not something that everybody gets. In fact I would say that’s something that almost nobody gets to have. So I’m totally aware of how fortunate I am. It’s just so often it feels like I’m walking off a cliff without knowing how high the cliff is. You know what I mean? But, I think all of us are walking off a cliff all the time, it’s just whether you think of it in those terms, and the kind of risks you’re willing to take in your life.
CLTure: Your father was a musician in California. Did he play a lot around the house? Did you get to soak a lot of that in?
MCT: I did. He played a lot of guitar. He was an incredible singer. You know, it’s funny that you bring this up because the last interview I did, he asked the same question. He played in bands when he was young. He grew up in southern California. By the time he was probably 21 he was pretty much done with music and I know that is a regret in his life. But I did hear him playing around the house a lot, for sure. That’s something that has stuck with me, that feeling of being little. Every time I see his guitar, he has the same guitar he had when we were growing up, there’s just a lot of sensory information there, just seeing that guitar and hearing it.
CLTure: Your oldest son, is he starting to realize that daddy is a musician and what you do for a living?
MCT: He does, he knows. It’s the only thing he’s ever really known. So, he knows that I’m a musician and has for a long time. Whether he thinks of it as unique or special, I don’t think that he thinks that. (laughs) I think he’s just like the kid who goes away more often than other kids’ dads.
CLTure: Right, you’re just the dad.
MCT: Right, and he…it’s so hard to tell whether my kids will play music even in an “around the house” sort of way. And I don’t really push them one way or the other. I don’t really care. What I do care about and what they do know already is that music is really important in our house. It’s always playing. There are always records out and it’s something that they know is important. I don’t know, there’s a lot of information in music that I think a lot of people don’t think about. But, my understand that music is a way to communicate that is special and unique from other ways.
CLTure: Are there still artists or bands that you discovered as a child that you still go back to quite often?
MCT: I mean, I think my whole world view was basically developed when I was a kid. Basically between the ages of five and 15… I found artists that I connected with back then. You know what I mean? And I think everybody has that and it’s not just the music of my parent’s generation. I mean, stuff like Bob Dylan, he’s always going to be deeply important to me. But, when I was a kid, that’s when I was finding punk rock. That’s when I was discovering Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. And I am always trying to recapture the feeling that I had when I heard those records for the first time. And it wasn’t always immediate love. Sometimes I was totally confounded by what I was hearing but there was something that compelled me to keep listening to it. The Public Enemy record is a good example because that’s a record that is full of information. Especially for an 11- or 12-year-old white kid from Southern California. But it was educational. It was deeply educational…But time sort of vets music, you know what I mean? If you are listening to a record after 20, 25 years there’s a reason. I’m more interested in forever art. I’m not so interested if stuff that is the flavor of the week and then it disappears.
CLTure: I read recently that the first two albums you bought were by T.S.O.L and Eric B. and Rakim, and you played early on in a punk band. So I already knew going into this that you had an appreciation for a wide variety of music. Was it a conscious decision to transition into more of a folk- or roots-based music, first with the band, Court and Spark, and then Hiss, or did you just kind of gravitate to it more organically?
MCT: I think it was a little bit of both. When I started playing, sort of….I don’t know what you would call it. When I started getting interested in playing roots music, for lack of a better word, I was probably 21. I had been playing punk rock, hard core music…I think part of it was kind of like this feeling that the most profound and shocking thing I could do would be to pivot, musically, to something that seemed so off limits in the punk rock community. But, the deeper thing is I had an affinity for that kind of music. I didn’t know a lot about it but, I understood that a lot of very powerful music came out of the American folk tradition…Like the best of that music had been around forever and ever. I wanted to be a part of that river and when I started in those kind of genres and I started exploring and learning and taking things I love from those genres, I have never changed course.
CLTure: After the break up of Court and Spark you moved to North Carolina to study folklore at UNC. Did you really think you may be finished playing music professionally at that point?
MCT: Well, I didn’t know. I just didn’t know what my way forward would be. Moving to North Carolina at the very beginning before knowing anyone, my wife and I moved without knowing anybody…the first couple of years in North Carolina were really good for me, in terms of reentering myself, musically, and reminding myself that my connection with music is about the song, or it should be. The other stuff that surrounds the music, it very easily becomes a distraction. But, if I buckle down and look at the song itself, like, really concentrate on the way a melody sits on a set of chord changes that it’s gonna be ok, I think. Even if it all blows up and I have to do something else, my relationship with music has always been purely emotional. It’s always been about creating something that communicates something to me about myself, you know what I mean?
CLTure: Yeah, I think you’ve got to write for yourself. You can’t write strictly for an audience and I think that’s what helps your music so much is that you’re writing to discover things about yourself.
MCT: Yeah, thanks. My music, especially now, is an invitation to other people too. Because I think there’s a lot of hope in music that I write. But, it’s primarily written for myself and my family and friends and it’s just a happy, lucky accident that people are beginning to connect to it.
CLTure: How do you feel your work as a folklorist has influenced your music?
MCT: That work put me in a lot of situations where I was watching people interact with music in very personal ways, in their living room or at their local VFW hall. Not on a stage on Friday night in front of a bunch of people drinking beer. You know, you were talking about your family play music in Missouri when you were a little kid. And as a folklorist, those were the kinds of situations that I was in all of the time. So as much as my work was to catalog say, certain fiddle tunes of Eastern North Carolina, I could never, for the life of you, actually describe all the variants of those fiddle tunes. But, what I could tell you is that I saw a lot of people with a relationship to music that, at that point in time, this was probably 2008 or 2009, I felt like I had gotten too far away from and I wanted to get back to. So doing that work was a great reminder that music brings people pleasure in very personal, small ways.
CLTure: Yeah, that’s what I thought of. They’re playing for the love of the music. They’re not playing for an audience. It’s because it’s a part of their life and it helps them tell their own story.
MCT: Yeah, and each song they play, whether or not they wrote the song….you know almost nobody that I recorded as a folklorist was playing a song they wrote themselves, but they hadn’t so often bent these traditional tunes to their own lives. They had kept these tunes that were in the American vernacular close to them because they actually spoke about something in themselves that they recognized.
Catch Hiss Golden Messenger Sunday, February 12 at Neighborhood Theatre
Listen to “Biloxi” from the album Heart Like a Levee