By Margaret Corona
I had the privilege of speaking with M.C. Taylor — the lead singer of Hiss Golden Messenger — over the phone Monday before he and the band head to Richmond, Va. for their first Jump for Joy show of October!
Margaret: There are three days until Hiss Golden Messenger kicks off the October leg of the tour in Richmond. How are you spending your time until then?
M.C.: [Laughs] There’s a lot to pack. It’s, like, more than you’ve ever packed for a trip in your life. Think of it that way. So I’m basically looking at merch, looking at all the gear that I need to do my part of the show. Yeah, I don’t know — but I’m doing it with excitement.
Margaret: Tell me about an ideal day at home in Durham versus an ideal day for you on tour.
M.C.: Oh, gosh. An ideal day at home in Durham — an ideal day at home in Durham might be something a little bit similar to what I’m experiencing right now, just in terms of temperature. I love fall in the Southeast and we’re kind of sinking into fall now — so it’s kind of brisk outside, a little bit breezy, sunny. The light is really beautiful. If I had absolutely nothing to do, which is an incredible rarity, I probably would cook something — I love to cook. I’d probably be listening to records or reading a book. Yeah, that would be my ideal day — nothing too flashy. Ideal day on tour? It’s probably a day where I get to go experience some part of the city that I’m in before playing that night. So I might go to a museum, I might go to a bookstore or a record store or I might go get a cup of coffee that someone has recommended. I love good coffee. Or, I might go get a really delicious meal somewhere that I’ve heard about, then come back, do sound check, play guitar for a long time, sing [laughs]. You know, I mean, just kind of like warm up for whatever we’re going to do that night. Yeah, those sound like pretty ideal days to me.
Margaret: Yeah, I would agree. So in a past interview you alluded to Durham being the place where you can spend time with your family, go for a run, enjoy a cup of coffee and work in your writing room. Do you follow any practices on the road to also promote this social, emotional and physical wellness?
M.C.: Yeah, I mean, I’m a pretty avid exerciser, especially at home. So I go to the gym, lately in the past couple of years, probably six days a week. I try to do that on the road as well, although it gets a little tougher just because I don’t have a daily routine, but I’m still active every day. And I mean, the performance is active in its own way [laughs]. So that’s kind of part of my exercise routine when I’m on the road. Gosh, I mean, it’s a little bit hard for me to maintain a steady songwriting practice when I’m on the road, but that’s something that I’ve kind of made peace with over the years. So that’s fine. I’m always writing, I’m always keeping notes of some kind or another and making little voice memo recordings, if I come up with something that I like, but I feel like I’ll probably forget. Yeah, I don’t know. I do a lot of writing. I do a lot of wandering. I do a lot of thinking [laughs].
Margaret: The genre transition from your college punk band Ex-Ignota to the folk rock band the Court & Spark was quite a drastic one. What would you say inspired the shift for you in genre?
M.C.: I think that I was just discovering lots of music that was really inspiring to me. And consequently, it made the punk rock world that I was working in then feel a little constraining, if that makes sense. Like, I got into punk rock and hardcore music because it felt very liberating, you know? It felt sort of unshackled from lots of rules about making music that seemed to exist when I was a teenager, and I don’t know — maybe it sort of flipped a little bit as I started to learn more about music. And it felt a little constraining and felt like maybe there were some rules in the punk rock world that I also didn’t want to follow [laughs]. So I don’t know, I just kind of like set off on some new path to see what I could find. And I felt really connected to, you know, the big broad world of whatever it is that Court & Spark was doing. And also, what I’ve continued to do was sort of like, I don’t know. American. American music [laughs].
Margaret: Absolutely. So I realized you already spoke with the BU radio over six years ago, which was just after the release of your album Heart Like a Levee. How would you say you have evolved as a father, husband, friend and musician, among other things, since then?
M.C.: Oh, geez.
Margaret: [Laughs] Sorry, I know these are pretty loaded questions.
M.C.: It is pretty broad [laughs]. I mean, I think that I’ve been doing it for six years longer than I had been back then. So I have six more years of experience being, you know, being a band leader, sort of like understanding how to deal with the pressures that come with trying to run a band in the 21st century. It’s hard. It’s hard to make a living at it. And I don’t know, I guess I feel like I’ve kind of figured out a way — so I think maybe I’m carrying a little less anxiety now than I was six years ago. Heart Like a Levee, yeah, that was like, not too long after I had quit my full-time job. And so I still, at that moment in time, was unsure whether I would be able to make it work. And I feel a little bit surer in that I can make it work. I mean, there’s definitely no guarantees in this line of business, but I’ve been able to hang on for a while. So, yeah, I mean, in terms of how I am as a father [laughs], that’s probably like, I don’t know, you’d have to ask my kids.
Margaret: Fair enough [laughs]. That’s awesome. So in a past interview, you mentioned your love for the ambiguity and the metaphor of poetry. Are there any particular poets you find yourself most inspired by these days?
M.C.: Yeah. One really important American poet just passed away a couple of days ago, actually. Her name is Louise Glück, and she was, like, one of the greats. And she’d been working for many decades and had created a really profound body of work. She’s a big one for me. I love Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Joy Harjo. Gosh, I love older poets like [Paul] Verlaine and [Arthur] Rimbaud and William Blake, especially. Yeah, all of those poets are really different, but I think if maybe you looked at the places that they work thematically, there would maybe be some similarities among all of them. Yeah, I like artwork that is dealing in existential realms. But doing it in ways that, you know, are not totally heavy all the time. I like artwork that deals with really heavy stuff, in kind of a light way. Not light, but you know what I mean? Like, easygoing. Plain language. Maybe that’s what it is.
Margaret: Yeah, I like that. I think that’s a good way of putting it. Your hope for Jump for Joy was to create a record that feels like “dancing at the end of time” and “laughing in the face of catastrophe.” How did the writing and recording process align with this goal, including your two weeks at the Sonic Ranch recording studio?
M.C.: I would say that I sort of gave myself a writing brief when I was starting to compose the songs that became Jump for Joy. So, you know, long before we ever thought about what studio we would be working in, I was attempting to create a collection of songs that felt a little more up, a little more, like, outward-facing. And I think I was just really insistent with myself that I create a record that just felt like it wore its hope and/or joy on its sleeve a little more obviously. I feel like hopefulness has always been part of the records that I make. But I wanted it to be like one of the key ingredients on this record, just for a whole bunch of reasons, you know? Not the least of which is the sort of state and feeling of the universe right now, but also just other stuff that I had been going through personally.
Margaret: Absolutely. So your children are the album cover for Jump for Joy. Did they influence any other parts of the record for you?
M.C.: I mean, they influence every single note of it. I don’t think I would probably be doing this, certainly not in the way that I do it, without their presence in my life. I mean, I can go on and on about that. But yeah. I mean, you know, they have their own lives, they do their own things, they have their own interests, they have their own friends. But their presence in my life is profoundly influential because we’re around each other all the time when I’m not on the road.
Margaret: Absolutely. That’s very beautifully put. I would love it if you told me a little bit about track five of Jump for Joy, “Little Pink Church.” What does this song and the distorted voices we hear in it signify?
M.C.: Well — I’m not going to tell you where that comes from or what it is, because we need mystery.
Margaret: This is true [laughs].
M.C.: I will say that as I was conceptualizing the record, once the music was done and I
was trying to understand how to sequence the songs, I realized there were certain songs that I wanted to have come after other songs, but it felt like the sequence needed to breathe a little bit. So, like, I think of those short ambient pieces as just like a breath — a breath between songs. And yeah, I mean, ambient music also is something that I really love and I’ve spent a lot of time listening to in my life. So, you know, it’s also for people who are, like, wired for that type of music — that’s also something they might hear and be like, “Oh yeah, I hear what you’re doing!” [laughs].
Margaret: I love your live-performance recordings in the way they capture the audience engagement, improvisation and anecdotes between songs — especially your two Durham Public School fundraiser performances. How would you differentiate Hiss Golden Messenger’s music in the studio versus on stage? And do you prefer one over the other?
M.C.: I feel like historically there’s been a little bit of distance between our live performances and our records. I think that distance is actually decreasing a little bit. Like what you hear on Jump for Joy — the record is essentially what the band sounds like live at this point. That hasn’t always been the case, but it just so happens that, you know, that’s the way it feels like it’s going. I like making records because it allows me to go into a super creative, very deliberate space and really think about arrangements and harmony and stuff that really piques the interest of a brain like mine. It’s musical and it’s solving problems and I really love that. What I love about a live performance is how impulsive it can feel — how much the situation, the room, the crowd, my mood that night, the weather outside, how much all of those factors can influence the way that the performance sounds. It’s almost like a great example of what being human is, just like reacting to your surroundings and situation. So, yeah, I mean, I kind of think of them differently, but like I said, I feel like they’re kind of starting to merge into each other at this point.
Margaret: I was deep down the rabbit hole and stumbled on “A Place Where No One Can Find Me.” I’d love it if you’d tell me a little bit about this radio show/Instagram account you have.
M.C.: Oh [laughs] my secret Instagram account?
Margaret: I love it! I took so much inspiration from the records you posted.
M.C.: Oh, that’s cool! “A Place Where No One Can Find Me,” I started that during the pandemic, and it started as this little personal project that I was making for myself and my friends, where I was just kind of making these, like, radio shows, almost, that combine music I love from my record collection and stories just from my life. And I made a handful of those. And then I just started this little Instagram account that is only records [laughs]. It’s just records that I’m listening to at that moment. There’s no Hiss content at all. There are no pictures of me. I’m not trying to sell anything there or urge anyone to come to a show. It’s just records that I’m into.
Margaret: Yeah, it’s cool. I love how interactive all the comments are.
M.C.: I mean, it’s fun, you know? Like, I really love music. Besides being someone who makes music, I am just a totally devoted music listener, to this day. It’s just part of me. So, yeah.
Margaret: Yeah, that’s great. So in one of your more recent posts on that account, you mentioned how the music most calling to you these days is spirit music. And I really like the quote that you wrote, “I like the idea of art in the service of something higher capable of lifting us out of this quagmire we’ve created for ourselves here on planet Earth.” I just thought that was a really cool message. And I was thinking, are there any particular records or songs these days that most allow you to do that?
M.C.: Obviously, like, gospel music exists for precisely that reason that I wrote. But I think that is also what allows me to really sink deep into like gospel music from the sixties, fifties, like even the thirties and forties, up through now. Even though I don’t identify as a Christian, the best of that music feels like it’s working in the service of some conception of the world that is kind of beyond just our egos. Or that’s how I like to think of it, anyway. I think that gospel musicians can be as egotistical as any [laughs]. I know this for a fact, actually. Gosh, I mean, it’s the same reason that I’m really drawn to reggae music and dub music, especially at the roots variety, which is sort of devotional — it’s basically gospel music, but done with the Jamaican signifiers, the rhythms and stuff like that. So I love that stuff. I mean, I can sit here and look at the records that are out right now, but I won’t do that. A lot of jazz music for me is like that, too. Like John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, Don Cherry. Yeah. There’s a lot of music that’s working on something bigger than the ego.
Margaret: Yeah, absolutely. So, Mr. Taylor, that was my last question. I wanted to turn it over to you and ask if there’s anything else you’d like to discuss before we wrap things up.
M.C.: No, I don’t think so! I think we’re in good shape.
Margaret: Well, thank you so much again for giving me the time to talk to you. That was truly such a treat. Best of luck in a few days and cannot wait to see you all in Boston. Hoping to come to both nights, which would be a huge blast.
M.C.: Yeah, it’s going to be great. We’ll see you there!
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.