Until recently, when his Hiss Golden Messenger project became successful enough to require his full-time focus, M.C. Taylor held a job in ethnographic fieldwork. Hired by his home state of North Carolina, Taylor traveled the eastern part of the state producing field recordings of the region’s traditional music. The experience, he says, refreshed his perspective on his own music.
“I spent a lot of time around traditional musicians, however you want to define ‘traditional,’” he says. “Everybody defines ‘traditional’ in a different way. That was my main lesson during that work. For a really long time, I had the opportunity to see how people interact with music that are not preparing to present it on a big stage with a publicist and a booking agent and record labels and things like this. Having been in the music business for so long, all of those things are just part of my life. They’re not bad. Everybody that I work with, I’m very close with, and everybody is artistic in their own way. But it was a good reminder, at that time, that there are many ways that people interact with music.”
The best ways, he found, “are the ways that are really personal. It was really just the way for people to be around friends and family and to communicate things through song that might be harder to say flat-out.”
Taylor’s most recent work as Hiss Golden Messenger isn’t explicitly inspired by that old-time music (a more obvious comparison might be the smooth, blues-tinged Americana of bands like The War on Drugs), but there is a quiet intimacy to his lyrics. “He Wrote the Book” and “Brother, Do You Know the Road?” — two songs which form the majority of last year’s Southern Grammar EP — contain the only examples of recycled lyrics in Taylor’s catalogue: And though the storm’s passed over
And the sun is in its place
It’s been a long time
And the rain, how I know it.
In the press release for the EP, Taylor described those lines as being “as close to a summation of the HGM philosophy as I can get at.” That philosophy, Taylor says, is built around bruised perspective.
“I think that whole section of lyrics, that really is my way of conveying that, despite the fact that the sun is out, I remember the rain very well,” he says. “It can be hard to forget the rainy days even on the sunniest of days for some people. Certainly for me. I’m happy to be doing what I’m doing; I feel very lucky and fortunate, and I’ve worked for a long time toward it. But I’ve slept on a lot of floors and I’ve been in a lot of odd situations in my life for the music.”
Hiss Golden Messenger also shares with North Carolina’s “traditional” music a sense of innate Southernness. Taylor’s most recent full-length album, 2014’s The Lateness of Dancers, takes its title from a line from canonical Southern author Eudora Welty’s novel Delta Wedding. “I just thought it had a really beautiful ring to it,” he says. “It conveys something about emotion and rhythm that I felt compelled by. It felt connected to the music to me.”
And then, of course, there’s the fact that The Lateness of Dancers was recorded in a barn in Hillsborough, North Carolina. Taylor says he found the space while scouting for studios to record an album for bluegrass singer Alice Gerrard, a friend of his. “We were looking for a non-traditional space that we could turn into a studio to record her album. So we did that, and it just felt so good in there that we decided to make The Lateness of Dancers in there, too,” he says. “We were wanting a more casual feel, I think, and one where it was really just us in there. No other staff was around. It was nice. It’s really beautiful out there, and I feel like that did color the way that the album turned out.”
The casual approach to the record, Taylor says, extended to the length of the recording process itself. “That was an interesting record, actually, because it was done pretty quickly,” he says. “I like that sort of impulsiveness in art, when you can hear that something has been put down quickly, without too much thinking about how it’s going to be received later. Sometimes I wish that I had taken a little more time with that record. I don’t know how that would have changed it, but I even remember at the time wishing that I had even had a few more days. Not that that would have made it better. Who knows?”
Now, Taylor is finishing work on the latest Hiss Golden Messenger album, slated for release in October. If there were any regrets about The Lateness of Dancers, Taylor certainly doesn’t seem to have any about his newest effort. “It’s a really, really cool record,” he says. “I will say, from my heart, that it’s definitely the best Hiss Golden Messenger record that’s been made.”
Hiss Golden Messenger will perform a sold-out show at Desert Island Supply Company on Sunday, March 13. Timber will open. Doors are at 6 p.m.; the show begins at 7 p.m. sharp. For more information, visit kickstarter.com/projects/disco/hiss-golden-messenger-plays-the-desert-island-supp.