Interview: Hiss Golden Messenger
Hailed widely as one of the best albums of 2016, Heart Like A Levee saw Hiss Golden Messenger receive the critical acclaim that bandleader MC Taylor’s years of musical toil richly deserved. He tells G&B about the journey, his love of Martin guitars and why the musical heritage of the South is so vital to his music.
It’s been a long journey for MC Taylor and his band, aka Hiss Golden Messenger. A journey that shows sometimes you have to slow down in order to reach your destination. And for Taylor that destination, at the end of a winding road pocked with the pitfalls of fickle fortune, came in the shape of many pundits’ record of 2016, the outstanding Heart Like A Levee.
After spending more than a decade playing in West Coast hardcore band Ex-Ignota and alt-country act Court & Spark with musical life-partner Scott Hirsch, before briefly working as a PE teacher, it appeared that the fleeting beam of musical success would forever refuse to shine upon Taylor. So the Orange County, Los Angeles native packed up and moved east to North Carolina in 2009.
It was there, settled in with his wife and children for a more pastoral existence among the old tobacco mills of the Tar Heel state, and studying post-graduate folklore at the University of North Carolina, that Hiss Golden Messenger blossomed. Having accepted that his musical career had stalled before take-off, success sought out MC Taylor.
After returning home from lengthy live commitments for 2014’s Lateness Of Dancers, Heart Like A Levee finds Taylor, an accomplished and versatile guitarist who began playing in his early teens, wrestling with the dichotomy of being a 40-something, sometimes-absent father and a touring musician. Its writing began in a Washington DC hotel room in January 2015, snow flakes dancing against the window as a powerful storm raged at America’s East Coast.
It documents a time when Taylor had quit his day job to have one last stab at making his defining album and showing his children their dad is deserving of a place alongside the musical greats who look down from the covers of the classic albums on the shelves in their house. Ironically, his career was about to hit its high-water mark, just as Taylor was most settled into family life.
“I think things happened when they were supposed to happen,” he reflects. “It took me a while to find myself, I guess. I’m just grateful for it all. I try my hardest every day to keep my head down and let art lead the way and have fun. I make a living doing the thing that I love most in the world and I have to pay attention to my relationship to that thing, to really treat it with care. And my kids get to see their dad do something that he is obsessed with every day. Not every kid gets to see that. I didn’t, really. So that’s important to me.”
Rewind to 2010 and, with his newly born son Elijah slumbering upstairs, Taylor went into his kitchen, placed a cassette recorder on the table, picked up one of his favoured Martins and recorded the album that first alerted the world to his considerable talents and encyclopedic knowledge of American guitar music. Bad Debt was born in the thick of a Southern winter, its tender reflections on the intricacies and contradictions of faith woven gently in the quiet of a Piedmont night; and it sparked a creatively fertile period in which he would release six albums in as many years.
However, ill fortune was to make one further intervention on Taylor’s journey. Originally released on the UK label Blackmaps, most of the copies of Bad Debt were destroyed in a warehouse fire caused by the riots in London in 2010, meaning it never reached the audience it deserved. The album was eventually re-released in 2014.
The evolution of the Hiss Golden Messenger sound continued through 2011’s Poor Moon, by now with a fleshed-out full-band sound. 2013’s Haw (named after the river that rises in Piedmont country in the north of the state) showcased more ambitious arrangements still.
The sweeping strings on Sufferer (Love My Conqueror), wanton Neil Young-like lead playing on Red Rose Nantahala, the warming tribute Sweet As John Hurt and the gospel feel of Busted Note are again shot through with ruminations on the complexities of spirituality.
The 2014 breakthrough Lateness Of Dancers was a more breezy affair, with guitarist William Tyler, Phil and Brad Cook from North Carolina psych-folk band Megafaun and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig of Appalachian folk act Mountain Man joining a Highway 61 Revisited-era Dylan-style cast of local musicians surrounding Taylor and Hirsch.
It’s hard not to perceive Taylor’s move to North Carolina as a lightning-bolt moment. It’s a state with an incredibly rich musical heritage – Nina Simone, John Coltrane, Blind Boy Fuller, Emmylou Harris, Ben E King, Doc Watson, George Clinton, Earl Scruggs, Thelonious Monk, Ryan Adams and Tori Amos are just a few of the musicians born there, and Taylor holds his adopted home close to his Californian heart.
“I moved to North Carolina to be closer to the source of the things that I love the most in the United States, so it was an important move,” he says. “The South is a beautiful and complicated place with many shades of emotion, and I am so happy to live there. It continues to teach me a lot. Vernacular music of the South – gospel, blues, country, bluegrass, old-time, jazz… is very important to me. It’s the kind of music that speaks to me and engages me with more consistency than almost any other kind. And I’ve spent a lifetime learning to take what I love about those kinds of music and re-contextualise it in my own music in a way that feels genuine and hopeful and real.
“I have no interest in approaching music academically. I do the things that are most likely to give me goosebumps, that’s about the best compass I have. It just so happens that the language I have at my disposal is often the musical language that comes from around the area that I live. I’m lucky in that way to live so close to what I consider the fountain of knowledge. And, importantly, so much of the music from the South that I love holds both the light and the dark in its hands at the same time.”
That concept of light and dark is a central theme on Heart Like A Levee. Its opening track pays more than a passing nod to Dylan’s Tangled Up In Blue, before the album unfolds into a true connoisseur’s scrapbook of American musical history, its dusty pages unfurling to reveal folk, soul, rhythm and blues, funk and gospel compositions of rare quality. Indeed, the most relevant comparison to Dylan lies in the similarly stunning and incisive writing on display.
On the rousing title track, Taylor sings of a “Cincinnati moon, like a wheel in the sky”, before musing, “Standing in the wake with the sky still changing. What’s it going to take to keep you missing the rambling rake with a heart of obsidian? Standing in the wake with the sky still changing.” There’s uncertainty and soul-searching throughout, as Taylor throws question after question at the listener – and a loved one: “Will you grieve me, honey? Did I give you a reason to try?”.
We ask if being a father, shielding his offspring from the dangers of an increasingly uncertain world, following a year of spiralling existential fear, inspired the album? “Those are my feelings of the world in general, regardless of the year,” he replies. “Wendell Berry said something like, ‘To know the dark, you have to know the light’. There’s no night without day, you know? And it feels important to keep reminding myself of that, that the act of being in this world is simultaneously happy and sad, good and bad. You can’t have one without the other. I find myself less interested in art that is one-note. I find that I tire of it quickly.”
The tone of Martin acoustic guitars runs richly through Heart Like A Levee, and the Pennsylvania brand acted as the catalyst that started Taylor’s musical journey.
“The first guitar that I connected to in my life – not even as a player, but just as an object that was loaded with emotion – was my dad’s 1964 Martin D-28,” he remembers. “It still stands as the most beautiful-sounding guitar that I know, though I realise that is in large part for personal reasons. During my whole childhood, he would play that guitar and sing, and it was so soothing to me. It still is, he has a beautiful voice – very different from mine, very pure and clear.
“I bought my first guitar when I was about 13. It was a Takamine Jasmine, and it collected dust for about four years, until I decided that I wanted to actually learn to play. I learned a few chords from my dad and then just kind of picked stuff up along the way.
“I generally play Martin 000 acoustic guitars because I’ve always liked the way those smaller bodies project sound, and I find that sometimes a bigger body, like a dreadnought, just seems to eat up the note articulation and the detail gets lost. At least the way I play. So smaller guitars seem to work better for me.”
That crisp acoustic tone is in full effect on the achingly beautiful Cracked Windshield – one of the standout tracks on Heart Like A Levee. It has melodic shades of Van Morrison’s Slim Slow Slider, with Taylor wistfully noting “I can feel October coming on the back-scratch wind”. Like A Mirror Loves A Hammer, in contrast, breaks free of the album’s sense of bucolic serenity, as a filthy fuzzed-up tremolo delivered via Taylor’s Silvertone 1448 and a Strymon Flint duels with a rasping saxophone over a devilish funk groove.
It serves as a reminder of Taylor’s deep love and understanding of American musical genres through the ages. His home plays host to a vast vinyl collection, and throughout Heart Like A Levee his love of North American icons such as Dylan, Crosby Stills & Nash, Neil Young, Fleetwood Mac and Wilco resonates. We wonder which guitarists had the most profound effect on Taylor as he was growing up in California.
“There were a lot, I guess,” he replies. “Not because of technique, necessarily, but more because of how the instrument was used on the recording. I love the way the acoustic guitars sound on the first CSN record, for instance – very compressed and tactile and funky. There were some guitarists that I really liked when I was young and playing punk-rock – obscure players, mostly, and I was responding to the attitude with which they played, mostly. Tonie Joy was a guy that played in a lot of bands that I liked at that time.
“I love the way the guitar is used on a record like Music From Big Pink, as sort of a colour instead of a lead instrument. Very ego-less. I’m not much interested in guitar solos, generally. I like players that foreground rhythm, like Curtis Mayfield. Everything he played feels right-on and in the pocket. Phil Upchurch is another one from that school. Jimmy Johnson of The Swampers. Dan Penn. There are a lot…” Those influences are evident throughout Heart Like A Levee, with Taylor’s gently singing Martins and lilting slide riffs placed intelligently on the sonic canvas amid tastefully used strings, saxophone and banjo parts. The production is immaculate, and it’s further evidence of Taylor’s hard-earned musical maturity that he and Bradley Cook handled it themselves.
“We had a few Martins for the acoustic stuff, some Telecasters, a guitar that Creston Lea in Vermont built for me, a Gallagher Dreadnought from the early 70s, a cheap old Silvertone,” says Taylor, recalling the recording sessions in Durham, NC, with a band drawn from Taylor’s vast web of contacts in the state’s music scene.
“There were a lot of our instruments around, but none of them are stock. Phil Cook – who plays keys and guitar – and I are both always tinkering with our guitars, so everything has unusual pickups, etc.
“Our amps are the same. We have a guy that works on our amps in Durham, named Tim Ristau, and Phil and I have both gone really deep with him to create amps that sound the way we want to play.
“In terms of pedals, Phil and I both have Strymon Flint pedals sort of at the core of our rigs, and we both have assorted pedals from Greer Amps in Athens. And then a variety of delays. I always keep a really nice phase on my board because I love what Waylon Jennings did with that effect, and I almost always have my trem pedal on. I’m a huge fan of Pops Staples. Come to think of it, he may be my favourite guitarist.”
At the conclusion of this latest part of MC Taylor’s musical journey, praise has been fulsome for Heart Like A Levee – from both critics and musical contemporaries. One of those contemporaries to publicly declare himself a fan is Taylor’s friend Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, whose drummer Matt McCaughan plays on the record.
Taylor is about to begin a world tour that will see him criss-cross Europe before returning for an exhaustive victory lap of the US, so we ask whether there’s a sense of vindication as such acclaim is lavished on his work – years after lesser artists would have submitted to the obstacles thrown in their path and given up. His response is typically level and considered – light and dark.
“I value the opinion of people that I consider good and kind and deep,” he says, “and Justin is all of those things, so I am grateful to him for that.
“I’ve been making records and touring for the entirety of my adult life, and relatively few people cared until quite recently, so if I need validation I know where to look for it, and it’s usually in myself, or from the small circle of people that I hold close.”