HGM have released a box-set of remastered early albums (all worth checking out) and it includes a bonus “compilation of early Hiss Golden Messenger rarities” called Virgin Fool that is just absurdly good. Here band-leader MC Taylor talks about life and his career and the aptly titled Devotion: Songs About Rivers and Spirits and Children.
05 November 2018 | Matt Williams | Noisy
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?”
Recently, 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, realizing 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 favorite 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 humor 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.