(Joy vs happiness? MC Taylor picks a winner)
THE PAST ISN’T ANOTHER COUNTRY for Hiss Golden Messenger’s MC Taylor; it is the heartbeat of a new album that drives deep into the motivations and aspirations of youth and measures what that means when those “dreams” wash up on the shores of much later adulthood. As he sings in My Old Friends: “With my old friends, every time we look over our shoulders/And the numbers grow fewer/But the stories feel truer/Because we’re the ones that wrote ’em.”
But if that sounds like a tale of woe – after all, how do you measure the past, and the promises you made yourself, against the present and the promises unfulfilled, and not be awash with regret? Or is that just me? – the album, Jump For Joy, is actually an antidote in a suite of buoyant, emotionally complex country soul songs. (Read about the musical background to the album in part one of this interview.)
Or better still, it’s a counter-argument that that doing is what really counts, not whatever the winning might be. Or as he, back in My Old Friends, explains: “I kneel in believing/Beneath the howl of broken amps/For those down and out but still devoted/I’m one of them.”
Ok then Mr Taylor, what is joy? Is it what we tell ourselves or where we find ourselves?
“I will start maybe by making a feeble attempt to define joy as I think of it. It would be a fullness of emotion,” Taylor says, lounging on a sticky chair this hot afternoon at his home in Durham, North Carolina. “Not necessarily with bad feelings absent; but the fullness of experience. So I think embedded within that definition of joy is probably the dream, as we were talking about, and a healthy dose of reality.”
This, he says, is what we are striving for – “or I should say, is what I’m striving for” – and we do so not being at all sure that we are going to reach it, either in the condition we want or with the joy in the condition we expect. That’s joy? That’s what we’re jumping for?
“It’s an interesting thing to name a record, it’s not as unabashedly positive as something like Get Happy, for instance. It’s a little more complicated than that,” he says. “But I wanted to experiment with something optimistic. I didn’t want this record to exist in a figurative minor key.”
The question of whether joy is what we think we will get or what we end up getting, may be down to understanding this “fullness of experience” means joy is not the same as happiness. Two years ago when Taylor and I last spoke, it was mid Covid-recovery, still grim times and uncertainty, and the Hiss Golden Messenger album, Quietly Blowing It was built around tenderness and understanding.
It seems to me that this new album grows from that tenderness and understanding, that message that joy is more than am I happy right now, am I successful, am I measuring up to external standards. At first, Taylor is not convinced.
“Well, I should say that I didn’t know what this record was going to be called. The title of the record came as almost, I don’t want to say an afterthought, but it wasn’t something that I put a lot of thought into. But it does make sense to me to frame it as a sort of pursuit or a search for a fullness of experience because that is what these songs are about,” he says. “They are through a very particular lens, which is mine and my life as a creative person, as a musician since I was a kid, when I wasn’t even thinking. There was no thought for decades about music being a career, although I came to hope that someday I would be able to make a couple of bucks from music.
“When I started touring around in punk rock bands, I would gladly have paid to do that. I did pay to do that, what am I talking about. But the things, the experiences that I had are so nuanced and deep inside me, and it really was this pursuit of joy, this pursuit of emotional fullness, experiential richness, that I was drawn to.”
Taylor recognises that may sound esoteric to those who prefer a practical guide, but that’s ok. After all, the inspirations and the fruits of what inspire him are everywhere around him in his home and his life.
“I don’t know why it is that I’m wired in this particular way to want to understand life as a poetic journey,” he says wryly. “It’s not every moment but I love a good poem that can deliver everything to me: happiness and sadness all at the same time. I think that’s what the songs are about, distillation and disappointment in this feeling of chasing something and being buffeted by reality, and always at the centre of it holding this deep fascination with and love for music.”
He stands up and says “let me show you this”, turning the phone around to show me shelves of records, shelves of books, shelves of more music, and as we walk through the house to his studio/music room he points out the shelves of poetry, then more records and guitars.
“I’m always just searching for the thing. I’m searching not only for the poetry but I’m searching for the feeling that poetry gives me. I still feel that sense of wonderment. I don’t know if everybody does but I feel lucky that I’m still turned on by this kind of thing.”
It occurs to me that it can’t be a coincidence that two of the finer writers in music this year will put out albums about and around the complexities of joy. Taylor and Jenny Lewis – whose wonderful album Joy’all was partly written and recorded closer to Taylor’s NC than her LA home, in Nashville – aren’t just deep-in-the-bone lovers of music and art generally, they both dig deeper into the nuances around joy and the substantial differences it has to happiness.
“Part of it is Jenny and I are about the same age. Part of it is the emotional tenor of the world,” Taylor says. “When I was putting out Quietly Blowing It, I think of that as a very internal record. My world, everybody’s world including mine, had grown very, very small at that moment in time. I can’t speak for where Jenny was that in her songwriting voyage but I feel like I’ve talked to a lot of people, a lot of artists that have been making records and art that’s coming out into the world now and the vibe has been, ‘fuck it let’s party’.
“If we are in end times, as we started the conversation off with, then let’s bring a ruckus.”
But it’s not some borderline nihilist talking; this isn’t a there’s no point so let’s burn everything on the way out attitude. Instead of tomorrow we might die, it’s today we must live.
“Yes, that’s correct actually. I’m not proposing that we burn it all down, I’m just saying that if we are actually going to be out in public, on stages, we have a few different ways that we can be,” says Taylor, who is bringing HGM to Australia in September. “I found myself wanting to challenge a certain type of pessimism with optimism. That hasn’t always been my default but where I’m at as a songwriter, as a father, and as a partner – I’ve been with my wife for 20 years plus – when I started writing these songs.
“It’s interesting that you would see Quietly Blowing It and Jump For Joy as partners in some way because I almost feel like I was making Jump For Joy as an antidote to Quietly Blowing It. Which also makes them partners, but a different type of partners.”
Partners or reflections or antagonists, these two albums tell a lot about Taylor and, importantly, us. But having ploughed the heavy field, let’s return to where this conversation really started, with the possibility that, step aside now Dire Straits, Hiss Golden Messenger are the new sultans of swing.
Could it be that, foregoing the existential blather of the rest of our conversation, joy is a neat little groove that moves us and pleases us? There’s a definite feel, even if the instrumentation doesn’t necessarily change that much from previous albums, of a more rhythm-based Hiss Golden Messenger.
“There has been a little bit of dissonance actually, in between what appears on Hiss records, for instance, Quietly Blowing It, and what appears on Hiss stages,” argues Taylor. “And people have always asked me, is the next record going to sound like what you guys sounded like tonight? And I’m like, what do you mean? We sound exactly like what we sound like on record.
“But in reality, those people are right to ask that question because the two sometimes do feel as though they exist in separate spheres.”
Is that something to fix or accept?
“Part of my remedy for that was we put out many live records in the past year, just because we are recording every show anyway and I wanted to show off what it is we do. It is very fun and full of joy and the vibe is up, even when the songs are searching,” he says. “So you’re right, I just wanted to go in and make a record with this group of people they can play these grooves really well.
“We didn’t really overthink it. Everybody knew the music and we just kind of went in and played each song a couple of times and on one or two songs we would listen back and say no, we got a better version in us, but generally speaking this was an easy record to make.”
There was seriousness in it all, Taylor explains, in the pre-production, in the hard work of preparation, in the attention to detail, and there was fun in the combination, in the hard work, in the playing.
“We [thought] we have the grooves, we know what the songs are, we know what the attitude of this particular batch of music is, let’s just have fun and play it so that when someone hears that in the future, they’ll go, damn, that’s a good rhythm section. Part of the fun of making the record was let’s just go hard: this record grooves.”
That it does. And you know what all that sounds like Mr Taylor? Joy y’all.
Learning To Jump: read part one of this interview here
Jump For Joy is out today.
Hiss Golden Messenger play:
Corner Hotel, Melbourne – September 27
The Great Club – Marrickville – September 28
Dashville Skyline, Hunter Valley, - September 29-30