(Golden light of the past and future for MC Taylor)
NOT ALL COMPARISONS are born equal, we know this. And for a few decades the one I’m about to make has been something of an insult in the less-central reaches of music, the place where Americana and independent country soul, not to mention alternative and underground scenes, exist. Where MC Taylor’s Hiss Golden Messenger have earned a beloved status well before their new album, Jump For Joy.
So it may seem like bringing it up now is taking advantage of Taylor’s weakened state, as he sits in singlet and shorts on a sweltering North Carolina day. A day which left merely heatwave level several degrees back. Another day in what we might call ecological End Times.
“Yeah, you’re not missing anything here,” he says sweatily, in-between watching Marvel films with his kids in the summer holidays. “When it’s as hot as it is here in North Carolina, with the humidity, it does feel like end times. But I’m getting used to it.”
OK then, in this mood of equanimity maybe he’ll get that this is anything but an insult as I tell him that Shinbone, a little mover of a limpid blues song on the new album, is the best early Dire Straits song in more than 40 years.
Taylor laughs – “I’ll take that as a compliment” – and laughs some more.
“I love Dire Straits. I don’t know that I was thinking about Dire Straits when I wrote and recorded that but that music is definitely in my DNA, so if it pops out in musical places, it doesn’t surprise me.
Dire Straits, as the name might suggest to newcomers, was a band formed out of circumstances something like the “Starvation Army” Taylor writes about in another new song, Jesus Is Bored. It’s one of many references across Jump For Joy to the precarious existence, and blissfully uncaring attitude, of many young musicians, like the semi-autobiographical Michael Crow who crops up in several songs.
In many ways these new songs are about the real and the graspable: the work, the people, the living, the reality of getting by, just. But at its heart, is it fair to say the album is about dreams and the intangible of an artistic life? A “ghost no horse can carry”, a belief in something that won’t be crushed?
“Yeah, I think so,” Taylor says. “I think it is about dreams that feel like they just might be attainable when we are just starting to conceive of them. For me that was in my teens, and as I got older those dreams, some of them came through in some shape or form, and mostly I think the dreams have continued to evolve into something that continues to be almost but not quite attainable. If that makes sense.
“The dream is the thing that drives the engine to me, a little bit. That sense that there is something fantastic and illuminating just over the horizon that makes everything kind of fun. At least to me it’s been fun. Not without a measure of heartbreak and cold water being thrown in my face, but overall I’m still in love with music and I can remember what the dream was.”
There’s nothing wrong with a dream even if it is unobtainable. After all what is going to drive a bunch of kids to scramble to find coins to pay for petrol so they can get to a gig – a real-life moment described in one song – but some crazy dream? A dream may seem flighty and pointless in middle later life because we’ve come to accept that most of ours have ended in disappointment, but it’s an absolutely essential thing at the start.
“I think I have a mixed set of feelings about the way that adulthood can harden us to our dreams,” Taylor says. “I see a lot of people around me that adults that are not artists but would have liked to have been. I see a lot of them calcifying into something that feels a little dreamless. Flighty? I guess I can understand flighty. I’m not disagreeing with you in terms of how many responsible, bill-paying adults think of dreamers, but continuing to chase your dreams is possible. It takes a fair amount of, a ton, of perseverance. And some guts [he laughs] and some stubbornness.”
Worth it though?
“I was just thinking recently that it’s funny that I am continuing to do this, and in some regards, a lot of regards, it’s worked out okay, but I ask myself why am I … why am I still doing this?,” he asks. “I bet you there might be an easier path. In some ways an easier path. Maybe not existentially. I think my answer is I’m just a stubborn son of a bitch that doesn’t like to be told no.
So if someone that I don’t think has the stuff tells me no, then I’m going to spend 10 years doing it [he chuckles] so that I can have the final word.”
The mood as much as the tempo of Jump For Joy suggests the final word is “yes”. Or “yes goddammit, why not?”
“I’m holding multiple things in my hands: a father, and a bill-paying adult that more than likely pays far more taxes than most people; I’m also a total dreamer that’s still in love with the things that I read about in Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg books when I was 15,” Taylor says. “That depiction of being footloose in America blew a hole through me that I feel like I’m still reckoning with. There’s something so beautiful about that stuff and I feel like I’m still living that life as well. I’m very fortunate to have been able to do so, and to have done it with a lot of people.
“It’s one thing to be dreamer, it’s another to find a gang of dreamers that are all dreaming the same dream and go on that trip with them.”
Almost by definition that dream is an existential endeavour, one emotional and cerebral rather than merely physical. One also that moves away from the kind of decadent, almost narcissistic strain of rock that says live hard and fast and without thought. He may have any number of that kind of album on his shelves, but that’s not the kind of songs he’s writing.
“I’ve always been a little less inclined towards that,” admits Taylor. “I’ve always been more geared towards music that seems to be trying to speak a language that has the potential, with not too much work, to be universal: to hear someone singing something that feels like that’s my life too, I have that question too, I struggle with that too, I love that feeling too.
“If that type of vibe appears in my music, is not so much that I set out to make music like that, so much as that’s the kind of art I’m probably most drawn to. So it would make sense that I would make stuff like that because it feels good for me to hear stuff like that.”
Which makes one aspect of this album even more interesting, that Taylor has created a character in Crow who is and isn’t him at the centre of several of these songs. A move that enables him to be personal but also to stand to one side and observe or comment. Was that its genesis or did he find he needed a way to pare back his skin even further but with an element of safety?
“I’m not quite sure. I haven’t thought about what I was doing with too much intention yet. But I would say, as I’m ruminating about now, there’s always been some tension in my work, and I suspect in all songwriters, not an unpleasant tension, between what is autobiographical and what is not,” says Taylor. “Sometimes I might say yes, my work is autobiographical, and sometimes I might say my songs really are not me, necessarily. And both positions would be true.”
As I try to step back from the too obvious precipice of assumptions of autobiography in songs, Taylor steps in.
“It’s a question that makes sense and it’s a question that’s interesting to consider for me so part of it I think is having this character of Michael Crow is one way to push the complexity of that question even further out on the edge,” he says. “I can in my head understand this character both as me – there are images in those songs that are absolutely from my own experience: the tangerine moon over Texas, the rambling around in the middle of the night feeling of a lot of the songs. I wouldn’t come up with that had I not experienced it when I was 18 years old – but there were other things that ended up in the songs that I liked from a writerly perspective that weren’t autobiographical, and my brain wants to solve that.
“In other words, my brain has the same questions you do.”
TOMORROW: In part two of this interview, MC Taylor moves from the Jump, the how of the new songs, to the why: Joy, and its many manifestations. “I don’t know why it is that I’m wired in this particular way to want to understand life as a poetic journey.” CLICK HERE TO READ.
Jump For Joy is out now.
Hiss Golden Messenger play:
Corner Hotel, Melbourne – September 27
The Great Club – Marrickville – September 28
Dashville Skyline, Hunter Valley, - September 29-30