“Are we talking about music today?” M.C. Taylor asks, a hint of puckishness in his voice. That’s the plan, I tell him, unless he has something else he wants to get off his chest. “Not really,” he shoots back, chuckling. “Nothing that I would want to trouble you with.”
On his records as Hiss Golden Messenger, Taylor projects a voice that’s lived-in and richly textured, like an old pair of cracked leather boots that have seen decades of sunshine and storm. He uses it in a slow and patient drawl, as if relishing each word for all of its worth. But in conversation, Taylor’s sentence come at a snappy clip. He’s quick with a self-deprecating quip. In other word, he’s a good talker.
On a Monday morning in late August, I find at home in Durham, North Carolina, an area he relocated to in 2007 to get a graduate degree in folklore from UNC. And while Hiss Golden Messenger has released five albums since 2009, he’s all the while continued his vocation as a folklorist in the state. “I have a day job still. I work full time,” the father of two says, describing his daily routine. “I get up. I get the kids up. I get everyone fed. I get everyone off to school. I get myself to work.”
“It’s not that different from most people’s existence, except that I have this music thing happening that is kind of all-consuming now.” Taylor continues, pausing only to let a nearby train pass. “It’s a little bit of a struggle to keep up.”
Things got busier this month with the release of Lateness of Dancers, Hiss Golden Messenger’s debut for Merge Records. The label may be in singer-songwriter’s backyard, but its reach and high profile make the album the biggest opportunity in Taylor’s twenty-year career – a fact with which he’s still grappling. Thankfully, Taylor is making transition behind his best album yet, a warm and crackling full-band effort that couldn’t provide a better soundtrack for the change of seasons to come.
Given everything that you have going on, it’s remarkable the rate with which you’ve released music.
It is remarkable. I would agree with you. Who knows how long I’ll keep up the pace. It’s kind of like being in race against time or myself or something. My wife and I had our first child in 2009, and that was basically when I put out the first Hiss Golden Messenger record. I put out the first three our four releases by myself. The entire Hiss Golden Messenger catalogue – which is a fair amount of records – has come out since 2009. I’m always saying right when I finish a record or a new release is pending that I don’t know how long I can keep the pace up. But I’m going to try to do it as long as I can.
Is songwriting something that comes naturally or is it something that you have to force yourself to buckle down to do?
It’s about 80% of the former and 20 of the latter. With any creative practice, there’s a certain amount of pure elbow grease that goes into it. There’s a willingness to have objectivity about what you’re creating. There’s an ability to throw away the stuff that’s not fit for public consumption. There’s tons of music that’s ended up on the cutting room floor, and I’m OK with that.
The thing about my career is that it’s definitely a long game. Whatever rewards are coming my way – be they critical or financial – have always arrived incrementally. What I do is such a slow burn. It’s allowed me to focus myself musically in a very intense way. These records that I make as Hiss Golden Messenger are for myself. They’re a way to articulate my feelings and the way that I exist in the world. They’re these existential documents.
Now, if people like them… I’m not going to be so disingenuous as to say that I don’t ever think about the certain outside listenership. But it’s important for me to give myself steady reminders that the reasons I make music are purely personal. It’s just a great gift that people outside my living room like it.
In the grand scheme of that long game, do you view Lateness of Dancers as just another record or does it feel like something bigger? Stylistically, it’s more expansive and more ambitious than anything Hiss Golden Messenger has done before, and it’s coming out on a label that has a much wider reach.
I’m torn about that, honestly. I want to retain my emotional engagement and steadiness with my craft, because I feel like the place that I’ve been emotionally with music and songwriting for the past few years has been a good place. Regardless of how much success I’ve had or haven’t had, I feel like I have been connected to this emotional interior universe that’s been really good for me. I want to stay in that place for as long as I can. I want to be able to continue writing primarily for myself and my family. I want to continue to have this genuine feeling when I’m playing music.
You’re right in saying that there’s a lot more noise outside the door, and it’s not bad or good. I just have a crew around me – not necessarily a music crew, but just Merge and my booking agent and manger – and while nobody has ever pushed me to do anything that I don’t want to do, the introduction of more voices into the discussion means that there’s that many more opportunities to second guess myself. Maybe I have experienced that a little bit lately. But that’s something that I put on myself. I’m the kind of person that doesn’t want to disappoint people with whom I’m working. It’s gotten more complex as I’ve moved away from making a record literally by myself at the kitchen table with no expectation that anybody would really hear it to working with Merge, which is a record label with a huge reach.
I’m trying my best to only engage with positive parts of knowing that more people are going to hear this music. I’m a glass half-empty person. I always have been. There have always been dark clouds within my vicinity. As far as how those manifest on a musical level, that’s part of the compelling thing about Hiss Golden Messenger. I would not characterize Hiss Golden Messenger music as minor key music, but there’s a definite bittersweet quality that comes from those dark clouds being around. But I have to be very careful that I don’t tip into something darker.
Lateness of Dancers certainly feels like a glass half-full record. Was there a conscious decision to make something lighter spirited in the wake of Haw?
I would agree that record sounds more open. I would push back a little on the feeling that Lateness is a totally different vibe than Haw. But there’s definitely more sunlight in Lateness of Dancers, for sure. That wasn’t necessarily a conscious choice. Those are the songs that got recorded. Had I included a lot of the other songs that we cut during those sessions, it would have been a very different record. It was important for me to present the emotional arc that appears on Lateness of Dancers.
To be honest, because of my disposition and just the kind of person I am, it’s always made me nervous to have someone describe my music as happy. [Laughs] I get scared. I get scared that I have somehow misunderstood what I’m capable of making or what the predominant tenor of my music is, but I think that comes form being so close to the music that I think that I have this universal understanding of what it’s about that I might not have. I have a very subjective view of what my music is and I have to remember that it affects people outside of my brain in a very different way than it does me.
I say that I’m a glass half-empty sort of person, but I’m also a person that can be convinced pretty easily that the glass is half full. I have two kids. I’m married. I’ve been with the same person forever. I’ve had many of my closest friends for years and years. I have to let some sunlight in, because there’s a very broad emotional palette in the world that I would like to engage with. The emotional palette on Lateness of Dancers is in a lot of ways more rounded than on a record like Haw, which felt like it was coming from quite a dark place.
But the darker edges of this record feels buoyed by the music itself. There’s an uplifting quality to it. Going in, did you have clear mind as to what you wanted it sound like?
I wanted the record to sound like it was coming from a genuine place – a place that belongs to me. I’ve been recording and putting out records – not as Hiss Golden Messenger, but in a variety of other bands – since I was quite young. I started doing it when I was maybe 18 or 19, so that was 20 years ago. I went through a long period – and I think a lot of musicians go through this – where I would hear something that I loved, whether it was a Bob Dylan record or a Neu! record or a King Tubby record, and I would think, ”Oh, I love this. I want to make a record like this. I’m going to inject some stuff onto this record that is a direct homage to King Tubby.” As I’ve gotten older, I don’t do that so much anymore, because I don’t want to spend time on my records basically talking about other people’s music. Regardless of how much I love them, I understand now that I can love and respect records that have been influential to me and not feel like I have to ape them.
When we go into make a record now – and this was the same with Haw and Poor Moon – we might be referencing some certain sounds that exist that other records, like the way that drums sound or the way that a rhythm section is working together, but beyond that, I’m not really referencing a lot of records. When we went into make Lateness of Dancers, we just set up the microphones and the amplifiers and started recording. The sessions were really fast. We made the whole record in maybe a week. I suspect that part of what people are hearing and find appealing about the way Hiss Golden Messenger records sound is that there’s a lot of impulsiveness, and that’s because we make them really fast.
We don’t really spend a ton of time trying to insert something into the music that might not be there. We’re not recording to a click track. I’m not fixing anything in post-production to make it “perfect.” We’ll do a few takes of a tune, and if it feels right, I’ll ask the band to step outside for ten minutes and I’ll sing the vocal. That’s what you’re hearing. All of the songs on Lateness of Dancers were recorded that way. We cut the basic track enough times to get it feeling pretty good, and I cut the vocal, and maybe we do a few overdubs, and that’s generally it.
We might record some songs in a few different scenarios, because sometimes I have a tune that we might arrange a certain way, and when we’re done recording it, it doesn’t feel quite the way that I want it to. For instance, we recorded the title track “Lateness of Dancers” a few times with a full band, and it ended up that what it wanted was just a very spare arrangement, which is how it ended up on the record.
In terms of the bringing those arrangements into the live setting, I’ve seen you discuss the decision to tour and perform with a full band, and the practical considerations you have to make. Why was it important to take such a large group with you for this tour?
There’s a few consideration that go into it. One is obviously money. I need to make enough money to pay the band, and I’m getting to place where I can pay everybody. I mean, I’m not going to walk with any money – I can tell you that. But I can make the people who are with me feel good and justified in being out on the road with me. That’s always been important to me. Having watched over the past twenty years people cycle through the music business and make no money whatsoever, there’s a certain pride that take in being able to pay everybody – and pay everybody like it’s a job that they’re doing, which it is. That’s not to say that all of the people that I play with aren’t very close friends. I suspect if I asked them to, they would probably find a way to do it for free, but I would never do that. I’ve gotten to a place where I can take a band out for a little while and pay them.
The other thing is that I’ve been traveling alone for several years and it has started to get a little lonely. It can be a strange and surreal and very solitary thing to be traveling alone through, like, Luxemburg or even Pennsylvania. I’ve just gotten to the point where I appreciate the company.
Has your day job as a folklorist – experiencing North Carolina’s folk culture in the field –bled into your own work? What have you discovered?
It’s a tricky question for me to answer. Having worked as a folklorist for several years, there is a certain curatorial or gatekeeping aspect to folklore as paid work. It’s so often that somebody from on high – like, at the state level – is attempting to decide what is of value and what is worth researching.
Let me give you an example. For the longest time, I was a field worker doing what they call cultural surveys, which means that I would go into a country – usually a very rural country in eastern Carolina – and I was tasked with recording as much traditional music as I could find. I would start with the phone number of one person in the community who was known as a great fiddler or a great flat guitar player, and I would spend several months recording as much traditional music as I could. But very often, the people that were paying me had a very different conception of what traditional music was than did the people in the communities in which I was working. I had a hard time wrapping my head around having to tell someone in the community that was playing me a song that his song was not traditional enough. That’s a really awkward thing. I’m generally going to side with the people in community. I don’t care how someone else defines traditional. I’m going to let them tell me what traditional is. I’m not going to tell them what traditional means. That’s something that a lot of folklorists are struggling with: Not entering into these top down relationships. It’s tricky.
In terms of what I’ve taken away from it, it’s been a huge gift to be able to witness people’s various relationships to music: the way that they interact with it, the way that they play it, the way that they talk about it, the way that they listen to it. Not everybody has the same relationship as I do to music, but they’re all equally valid and valuable. The funny thing is that I am in a field where many people could hum you every fiddle tune from Surry county, and my brain doesn’t really work that way at all. In a lot of ways, maybe I’m not the ideal folklorist, but I’ve gotten really good at listening. That’s something that I’ve taken away from folklore work that’s invaluable: becoming a good and sensitive listener.