by Adam McGrath
I could tell MC Taylor was a deep, thoughtful man the first time I saw him play live, opening for Daughn Gibson last year at Johnny Brenda’s. Under the name Hiss Golden Messenger, Taylor has created some of the most complex, stirring folk music of this decade. With his fifth album, Lateness of Dancers, released on Merge Records earlier this week, the professional folklorist tackles big, ambiguous ideas in big, ambitious ways. It will be a much different experience seeing him at JB’s again on Tuesday, September 16th, this time with a full band in tow.
Talking to Taylor on the phone a couple weeks ago, I noted the deliberate way he spoke and answered questions. Perhaps more contemplative now than he was while making waves in punk and alt-country bands in his 20s, Taylor doesn’t seem in a rush to make a point. The 39-year-old father of two is understandably taking things at a different pace these days.
As Hiss Golden Messenger, which always includes longtime recording partner Scott Hirsch, Taylor has quietly built up an impressive body of work, starting with the bare bones Bad Debt through 2013’s Haw. On Lateness of Dancers, the title of which comes from a Eudora Welty story, the tone is undoubtedly a bit more hopeful, even if the subject matter still swims in the murky water of modern spirituality. Taylor told me a bit about his mindset during the creation of Lateness, and how he views it in relation to previous work.
“During the writing of the record,” he says, “my wife and I had our second child. I have a tendency to compare whatever new record I make to the one previous to it, and to me, Lateness of Dancers feels a little more open that Haw. I’m not sure if optimistic would be the proper term, because I still feel like there are some dark clouds hovering on the fringes, but there’s a certain openness to the record that I think stands in contrast to Haw.”
The motivation to make music has always come from within for Taylor, and he’s spent his career crafting songs that are, first and foremost, meaningful to him.
“I’m definitely wanting to make something that feels genuine to me,” he admits. “My musical career, as it were, has been a slow burn. I’ve been making records for 20 years, and I take my rewards, whatever rewards might be there, in very small increments. The silver lining to that, is that I’ve been allowed to really develop my own voice over the course of many, many albums, and just to figure out what it means to be a musician, and to do it in a way that’s pleasing to me and important to me.”
Similarly important is the search for a real, personal truth, which absolutely comes across in this collection of songs. “Generally,” he continues, “I wouldn’t write the stuff if I didn’t have a personal connection to it. That’s not to say that it’s all strictly autobiographical, but I have to feel that kernel of truth at the center of the song in order to get on stage and play this stuff in front of strangers every night.”
What exactly that truth is, however, is something the songwriter leaves up to his audience. “I’m not really in the habit of telling people exactly what the songs are about,” chuckles Taylor. “I have my own understanding and interpretation of what the songs mean to me, and those are not going to be the same as someone in the audience who doesn’t know me. I’m always very hesitant to give any sort of insight into what the songs are about. It’s a lot more fun to let people come to their own conclusions.”
Kicking off things at Cat’s Cradle in North Carolina this weekend, Hiss Golden Messenger will bring a full band up the East Coast this month, followed by a West Coast jaunt in November. Several of the musicians who played on the new album will be joining Taylor, including Matt McCaughan (Bon Iver) on drums, Phil Cook (Megafaun) playing guitar and keys, Matt Douglas on horns, keys, and guitar, and Scott Hirsch playing bass. Alexandra Sauser-Monning (Mountan Man), who sings on the album, will serve as the opening act.
The final thing I asked MC Taylor about was the way modern music is produced and consumed. He had no trouble articulating the difference between his approach and more commercial acts.
“Hiss Golden Messenger demands something from the listener,” he stated emphatically. “If someone is willing to put in a little time with a Hiss Golden Messenger album, they’re going to get a lot more out of it. That, generally speaking, doesn’t seem like the way that people interact with music these days. My general thrust has been to go deep with people, even if that means a smaller number of people are listening to my records. I’m playing a very long game. It’s important for me to remind myself of that, that I’m looking to create a body of work that is deep and that I have a personal connection to.”
Taylor’s dedication and commitment to his craft is almost as impressive as his wisdom and humility, and there’s no doubt that new fans will have plenty to sink their teeth into when digesting his oeuvre. So take a bite, chew it over, and come out Tuesday to see how it tastes in a live setting.