Chosen One: Hiss Golden Messenger
Interview with M.C. Taylor, Hiss Golden Messenger.
“I think I am generally trying to experience a particular feeling when I listen to music, something that makes me feel openhearted and happy, even if the music is in a minor key. Like, happy to be alive and lucky to be experiencing this genuine feeling of emotional fullness that seems so fleeting and elusive. Humans live very emotionally mediated existences and it’s wonderful to experience things that make you want to get up and fly.”
Words & Illustrations: Craig Carry
“The way to do it is to put as much life into the song as I can. You can either get it to breathe or you can’t.”
The Band’s Levon Helm’s feelings on music can wholeheartedly be appreciated – and experienced – in the songbook of Hiss Golden Messenger. Much like The Band’s defining records – such as their debut “Music From Big Pink” and subsequent self-titled classic from 1969 – the music of North Carolina-based Hiss Golden Messenger will similarly continue to live and breathe long after the dust has settled for many generations to come.
Hiss Golden Messenger comprises the Durham, North Carolina songwriter M.C. Taylor and multi-instrumentalist and recordist Scott Hirsch, who resides in Brooklyn, New York. Additionally, Terry Lonergan plays drums and percussion and – together with Hirsch and Taylor – combine to form one of the finest rhythm sections around. The dynamic between the trio recalls, for me, those beautiful Giant Sand records featuring the immense talents of Howe Gelb, Joey Burns and John Convertino. Anything and everything, it seems, is possible. The history of Hiss Golden Messenger can be traced back to the late nineties to another much-acclaimed American band – San Francisco’s The Court & Spark – who featured both M.C. Taylor and Scott Hirsch as well as Alex Stimmel and James Kim. From 1998 onwards, The Court & Spark produced a string of country, folk and rock influenced albums including their classic 2001 LP “Bless You” culminating in their 2006 “Hearts” album on the Absolutely Kosher label. The band stopped the following year – after six albums – with Taylor moving to North Carolina and Hirsch to New York.
Hiss Golden Messenger’s four albums to date – culminating in the most recent “Haw” on the North Carolina-based Paradise Of Bachelors label – can rightly place the band to the forefront of the Americana music tradition. Like Uncle Tupelo before them, and fellow alt country acts such as Portland Oregon’s Richmond Fontaine and Tucson Arizona’s Calexico today, Hiss Golden Messenger’s songbook is not simply one to appreciate but to rather cherish and savor. Much like The Band during the sixties and early seventies, Taylor’s Hiss Golden Messenger fuses the sounds of a myriad of traditions – ranging from country, soul, rock, jazz and R&B – melding them into a cohesive whole while seeking to return rock ‘n’ roll to its rural and folk roots in the process. Much like Dylan’s The Rolling Thunder Revue, Gelb’s Giant Sand, Tucson’s Calexico or Nashville’s Lambchop – while comprising a clear creative nucleus – the band naturally evolves in numerous directions picking up an array of talented musicians along the way. Hiss Golden Messenger has featured a plethora of wonderful musicians who have contributed to recording sessions, from Nashville’s William Tyler (Lambchop, Silver Jews) to members of such bands as Brightblack Morning Light, Megafun, Pelt and The Black Twig Pickers. The sheer talent and craft of musicianship, together with the magic of spontaneity and composition brings to mind The E Street Band at its finest or Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks”, such is the breadth and scope of musicianship on display.
This April marked the much-anticipated release of “Haw”, Hiss Golden Messenger’s fourth album and follow-up to their much-loved and widely acclaimed “Poor Moon”. “Haw” is a milestone record, not only for Hiss Golden Messenger and M.C. Taylor, but for music at large. Named after the River Haw (a tributary of the Cape Fear which flows through 110 miles of Piedmont North Carolina), the album is an ambitious, timeless, gothic gem. Interestingly, the title “Haw” can be representative, not only of the Haw River which flows through Taylor’s hometown, but it is also the name for the Siouan tribe that once lived in the river’s valley (who may have also been alternately known as the Saxapahaw or Sissipahaw). History’s last mention of the tribe is the Yamasee War of 1715-17 when they joined the Yamasee against the English colonists. Subsequently, the Haw disappear from the colonial historical record. Over some three hundred years later, the River Haw flows on.
“Haw” draws much inspiration from history, the passage of time, Biblical narratives, and, perhaps most of all, from the land itself. Like the great American poet Charles Wright or photographer Robert Adams, the land is represented in a spiritual manner. The landscape is to be appreciated, cherished, devoted. As Robert Adams has written: “We rely, I think, on landscape photography to make intelligible to us what we already know. It is the fitness of a landscape to one’s experience of life’s condition and possibilities that finally makes a scene important or not.” (from Adams’s essay “Truth And Landscape”). The album also features songs about love, faith, fatherhood, reverie, pain, struggle, hope and redemption. All life’s emotions are distilled into Taylor’s impeccably crafted songs. Indeed, such writers as Steinbeck, McCarthy and Wright can be seen in Taylor’s dark tales – often drawing its narrative from Biblical scenes and characters – creating modern-day parables in the process.
“O Let me be the one I want / O Let me love the one I want” sings M.C. Taylor on album opener “Red Rose Nantahala” over the lush backdrop of soulful southern blues and gothic country. The song provides a perfect introduction to “Haw” as such contrasts of darkness and light and hope and despair are established at Haw’s source, where Taylor’s pleas of “O Lord make me happy” are repeated over Hirsch’s intense, guitar-heavy, visceral playing. Gorgeous strings, brass and gospel backing vocals are added to the many layers of Hiss Golden Messenger’s unique sound on “Sufferer (Love My Conqueror)”, where Taylor sings: “You suffered enough my lonely one” before a heavenly string arrangement fills the air, adding a beautiful sense of hope to its majestic close.
M.C. Taylor’s son Elijah is the subject of the upbeat “I’ve Got a Name for the Newborn Child”, a song written while his wife was expecting their first child. The song is both beautifully direct and played like a lullaby offering faith, reassurance and much love. The song also draws parallels, for me, to Rainer Ptacek’s beautiful song “Rudy With A Flashlight” a song about his own son (a song that would be covered later by Evan Dando’s The Lemonheads). The intricate instrumental treasure “Hat Of Rain” ventures forth next, a stunningly sparse guitar and drum arrangement recalling the immersive instrumentals of Burns and Convertino’s Calexico where a heightened sense of atmosphere is conveyed while aesthetically offering a wonderful linking device to one of the album’s centerpieces, “Devotion.” With a slowed-down tempo, Taylor’s vocals are more fragile here, almost fading in the mix somewhat, echoing the dark lyrics about the workaday life: “The taxman comes, he takes all my wages” sings Taylor, which is reminiscent to me of Springsteen’s “Nebraska”, and “Factory” in particular: “It’s the working, the working, just the working life.” “Come protect my soul” are the opening lyrics to the song, again reinforcing the notion of a Protector or some kind of a guiding light – a theme expressed throughout “Haw”, while also a song full of much contrast, principally between the hope and joy provided by childhood and the worry and fear brought along with the pressures of parenthood.
“I’ll turn my face to the waterside” are the opening lyrics to “The Serpent Is Kind (Compared To Man)”, again referencing the river Haw which is used wonderfully as a linking or framing device across the album, much like Minnesota photographer Alec Soth’s “Sleeping By The Mississippi” where the histories and much-storied river offers the framework for Soth to build his own personal journey. The song is a country gem and lyrically, the song deals with “working the land” like the central character’s father: “He said: “Don’t be afraid when the snake is in your hand / the serpent is kind (compared to man).” Again, sequencing of the album is effortless, as the upbeat, irresistible guitar led “Sweet As John Hurt” follows, a song which directly references the river Haw (“I come from the bottom of the River Haw”) while pedal steel guitars combine to the Hiss Golden Messenger sound to wonderful effect, its stunning arrangement echoes Richmond Fontaine’s classic 2003 “Post To Wire” LP where pristine country-tinged songs wonderfully augment Willy Vlautin’s character-based songs.
My own personal highlight is “Cheerwine Easter”, the kind of song that can (quietly) move mountains. The song’s biblical references extend to include the story of Daniel and the lion’s den. The highlight of the song, for me, is when Taylor quietly sings: “This is the day of reckoning” before Bobby Crow’s meandering two-minute saxophone solo evokes the spirit of Clarence Clemons, the saxophone and piano arrangement is as awe-inspiring as the sounds of Ethiopiques legend Mulatu Astatke. Musicianship of such brilliance is equally apparent on instrumental interlude “Hark Maker (Glory Rag)” where the fiddle playing by Joseph Decosimo is immaculate. The piece is recorded over a field recording featuring the sounds of barking dogs, chirping birds and an enveloping dusk. Darkness is falling and the sun (both the earlier “yellow dawn” and “golden sun” have now faded and receded beneath the horizon). “Busted Note” highlights the scope and range of Terry Lonergan’s drumming prowess, while Taylor is once more backed by the wonderful singing voice of Sonia Turner bringing gospel traditions to the country and soul sonic palette of Hiss Golden Messenger’s sound, recalling Lambchop’s timeless “Nixon” album.
Album closer is the timeless prayer-like ballad “What Shall Be (Shall Be Enough)”, recalling such country and folk singers as Woody Guthrie and Rainer Ptacek, the addition of such a wonderfully sparse song to proceedings reminds me of the additions of “Afraid” (on Nico’s “Desertshore”) or “And You Need Me” by Dave Cousins (on “All Our Own Work” by The Strawbs) where a hidden treasure quietly speaks to the heart of the listener. A new dawn is here as a new sun rises to herald a new day and a new beginning.
“Haw” is an album made to keep the dark away, to remember the important things in life and to value them above all else. It is an album about seeing light through the darkness, songs of perseverance and hope. And that is the true gift M.C. Taylor has given to each and every one of us lucky enough to cross paths with the beautiful “Haw”. May it continue on its beautiful meandering journey forevermore.
“Haw” is out now on Paradise Of Bachelors.
Interview with M.C. Taylor, Hiss Golden Messenger.
Firstly, congratulations on the absolutely magnificent “Haw”, an album of such beauty and hope and as timeless as albums come. My first time seeing you perform live was during your tour in Europe last May on your “Practically Friends” tour alongside your longtime friend and collaborator William Tyler.
It must have been such a joy to travel, tour and perform live together around Europe?
Thank you for the kind words and enthusiasm. William is a good and inspirational friend. He is a hard-working musician with an expansive vision of what music can be. I love him.
It’s also such a fitting “pairing” as both yourself and William have been responsible for the creation of two utterly majestic records this year – “Haw” and “Impossible Truth” – you had mentioned how you hoped to someday get to record a set of songs with William as a duo. Are there plans to do so at some future stage? (I sincerely hope so).
Well, a duo record would be fun to make. We haven’t talked at any length about doing that. But we did recently record about 75% worth of a record in a group with Phil and Brad Cook (of Megafaun) and Terry Lonergan (of HGM). The material on that one is all covers, stuff like Link Wray, Mickey Newbury, David Wiffen and Don Williams, material we all love. I’m not sure what will come of it, but it was a nice day to spend recording music with good friends.
You are based in Durham, North Carolina. Of course, the landscape and environment play such a significant part in your songwriting and outlook as a songwriter.
And “Haw” in particular seems to draw a lot from your own homeplace, particular in songs like the beautiful country-tinged gem “Sweet As John Hurt”.
I’d love to gain an insight into what it was like growing up in North Carolina?
Apart from music, what else inspired you growing up, what places/people had the biggest influence on you as songwriter and musician?
Well, I didn’t grow up in North Carolina. I grew up in California, lived for many years in San Francisco, and moved to the North Carolina Piedmont region in 2007. I started exploring American traditional and vernacular music when I was maybe 18 or so. The roots of a lot of that music are Southern, and I felt it was incumbent on me to actually live in the American South to gain a better understanding of a very complex place. All I ever wanted was to play rhythm guitar in a country band.
My father is a guitarist and a singer and has been a big influence on me in terms of the way that music can exist around a house and in a family. I remember the good feeling of being in the house on a Sunday morning when I was a small child and hearing him playing and singing. I recall it more as a feeling than anything else. That was church, for our family, that sort of loose gathering to listen and sing and just be together. I want that for my own family too.
Since I was very young, I’ve been obsessive about music, it’s among the most important things in my life. I feel fortunate to be able to play it and be around it.
Themes of family, heritage, identity and history are so wonderfully evoked in your songs, creating timeless modern-day parables of near biblical proportions in the process.
I would love if you could talk about your own family tree and roots? Is there an Irish connection there somewhere in fact?
There has been a lot of music in my family. My paternal grandfather was a singer, as is my dad, who also plays guitar. My mom’s father was also a singer; during World War II he was in the service as an entertainer, mainly singing and playing trumpet. My brother is a classical trumpet player and he freelances with a variety of orchestras; he is married to a classical French horn player. My sister is a great singer (both she and my dad sang on Poor Moon). Music has always been interwoven throughout my life. As far as collecting records, though, I think I’m probably in the deepest.
My mother’s side of the family is from Wales, a town called Pontypool on the edge of the South Wales coalfields. We visited there once, it seemed like a hard town. My father’s family is German. No Irish connection as far as I’m aware, though I feel a kinship with Ireland. I love playing there and traveling through there. I’m always a little sad when I leave, and not just because of Ryanair baggage overage fees.
The title “Haw” must be one of my all-time favourite titles for a record. As you have said before, it can mean a number of things: Named after the river Haw; after a native American tribe that disappeared; and, indeed “haw” as in to laugh. I’m very curious to find out at what stage of the recording of the album did you decided upon the title? (What’s most incredible to me is how such a complex, ambitious and multi-themed album can get distilled into a one-syllable-word and three letters.)
I think the title came after most of the tracks were recorded but I was finishing up some overdubs in the town of Graham, about 30 minutes west of Durham. There is an exit for the Haw River off the highway, and I had already sung about the Haw in “Sweet as John Hurt.” I wanted something simple but evocative (for me, anyways), and it was right there waiting for me. I recall really hoping that nobody else had used it as a record title, which they hadn’t.
Hiss Golden Messenger’s rhythm section – the truly special triangle of yourself, Scott Hirsch on bass and Terry Lonergan on drums – creates such a magical connection where the spirit of discovery and spark of creativity is always in evidence (for me, it brings to mind the triangle of Gelb, Convertino and Burns on early Giant Sand records where “anything” seems possible).
I would love if you could talk about both Scott Hirsch and Terry Lonergan, how you met and what they bring to the Hiss Golden Messenger sound?
Scott and I have been playing together in bands since we were 18, so just shy of twenty years. We both grew up in Southern California. I met Terry on a whim in 2007 and it’s proven to be a very important relationship; at this point there aren’t many other drummers that I’d want to play with. Terry grew up in New Orleans and Jackson, Mississippi, and his drumming is steeped in rhythms of the South, which is important for me to have as the backbone of full-band HGM recordings. As a team, Terry and Scott are really locked in. I’ve always loved rhythm sections that are a team—Carlton and Family Man Barrett, Roger Hawkins and David Hood, Dave Pegg and Dave Mattacks. Scott and Terry are in that lineage for sure.
The album is beautifully framed lyrically by the lines “O Lord let me be happy” (Red Rose Nantahala) and “what shall be shall be enough” (on album closer). The album deals with much darkness and pain while ultimately revealing a beautiful sense of hope and “life” – very much like such albums as “On The Beach”, “Nebraska” or “Blood On The Tracks”. Lyrically, how would you describe “Haw”?
Haw was a darker record for me. There is more confusion on Haw than on the previous HGM record, Poor Moon. That’s what I think, anyways—others think differently. Blood on the Tracks is a good reference point, the tone of that record was a topic of conversation a lot while we were working on Haw, particularly the early version before he re-recorded it.
Such a breathtaking diversity of sounds and song traditions are delved into so effortlessly on Hiss Golden Messenger albums, particularly on “Haw.” From the sublime gospel-tinged “Sufferer (Love My Conqueror)” to the awe-inspiring “Cheerwine Easter” (the 2-minute saxophone solo is reminiscent of the great Mulatu Astatke). Elsewhere, folk, blues, country and soul influences can be heard.
I would love to discover what records had the biggest impact on you growing up?
Was there a particular record that made you want to become a musician?
And, indeed, which albums continue to influence you the most today?
It’s hard to say what albums influenced me the most. I always count Traffic’s Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys as a big record in my life. I recorded it off the radio when I was young and it remains a really important one to me still. Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was huge for me, that’s still an intensely dense and lyrical album. All records by the Byrds and CSN were on pretty heavy rotation in my house growing up. The Band’s Music From Big Pink was huge too, as was Fairport’s Liege & Lief and Full House. Karen Dalton’s In My Own Time is always near the record player, and so is Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard. And then all of my friends or peers that are making music, that’s another big inspiration—William, of course, and Megafaun, the Black Twig Pickers and Pelt, Nathan Salsburg, Mount Moriah and a lot more.
I think I am generally trying to experience a particular feeling when I listen to music, something that makes me feel openhearted and happy, even if the music is in a minor key. Like, happy to be alive and lucky to be experiencing this genuine feeling of emotional fullness that seems so fleeting and elusive. Humans live very emotionally mediated existences and it’s wonderful to experience things that make you want to get up and fly.
In terms of songwriting, your songs are so beautifully written whereby the song’s characters become so real and life-like much in the same way as the great novels do. Writers like Steinbeck, James Welch (particularly “The Death Of Jim Loney”) and Richmond Fontaine’s Willy Vlautin (“Lean On Pete”‘s Charley Thompson character, for example) come to mind for me. A stunning use of imagery is also evident in your writing.
I would love to know what process is involved for you in the writing of a song – are they drafted numerous times beforehand, are they sometimes researched, are they written with the resulting “song” in mind?
Can you remember the first song you ever wrote?
Thank you. I love John Steinbeck, although I don’t know Welch or Vlautin and now I’m going to have to check them out. I generally have a couple notebooks full of sketches and notes going at any given time. When it comes time to starting writing songs, I usually go back through my notes and try to discern what thematically is going on in those pages. Some weird emotional highlight reel of my life.
Which novels and writers do you admire the most?
I don’t know if I can rank them, but some recent reads include Jim Dodge’s Stone Junction (for the second time), Larry McMurtry’s All My Friends Are Gonna Be Strangers, Charles Wright’s Country Music, the Bible. I have a stack of John Macdonald mysteries that are staring me in the face right now.
What is next for you, Mike?
Writing and recording, always. Working on coming up with the next HGM record. Also waiting on the birth of our daughter (our second child), which could literally happen at any time.
“Haw” is out now on Paradise Of Bachelors.