In part one of this interview with MC Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger we saw how a year of lockdown (after three years of manic destructive government, among other things) turned him inwards, for understanding, and then outwards, for solace.
He wanted more. He certainly wanted better. Being better – people, communities, country – matters. But how does that work in practical terms?
Today, in part two, the nuts and bolts of comfort, joy, anger and hope.
(Photo by Andy Tennille)
The line between accepting that we are imperfect and desperately wanting to be better is something many of us face, especially as parents who might measure themselves against their own parents, for good and bad.
It’s something MC Taylor, father of two, writer of some beautiful songs that live in the world of American roots music, and the heart of North Carolina’s Hiss Golden Messenger knows all too well.
The title track of the new Hiss Golden Messenger album, Quietly Blowing It, feels like a recognition of that moment in our thinking, and that balance that can be extremely tricky to find and hold: quietly blowing it all the time, but getting closer the next time.
You might even discern a variation of advice a therapist once put to me, to consider being a friend to yourself the way you are a friend to others.
“We, as thinking people, are dealing with this idea that emotional evolution is incremental. I know that my kids are going to look back on me at this time and be like, why did he do that? Why didn’t they tell us about that? In the same way that I do with my parents,” Taylor says. “It doesn’t mean that this house still isn’t as full of love as we could make it. We’re trying to do the right thing here.”
But is that a wide enough circle of acceptance? Early on when listening to another track, If It Comes In The Morning, I felt there was an ambiguity in the idea of “if it comes in the morning, will I be thankful?”, something that wasn’t hope for better.
I wonder whether tenderness can and maybe should also extend to understanding even if we can’t yet accept, giving up, that for some people these are the real “terms of surrender” (which was the name of the last Hiss Golden Messenger). Maybe what will come in the morning is giving up. Stopping. Maybe we need to be more forgiving of people not trying.
“Maybe that song is a little bit trying to put my arms around my best and most noble and my worst and most wicked emotional inclinations,” Taylor offers. “If my guy who I really want to win the election wins, am I going to kick dirt in the face of the people that voted for the other guy? Or am I gonna extend an olive branch? I mean, I want to do both, if I’m being totally honest. I can’t help it.
“If my guy loses, what am I gonna do? Am I going to find a way through it with my soul intact? Or am I gonna blow my brains out??
To me that extends to saying it’s okay to be angry about things. Anyone watching the USA in the previous four years, or for many of us in countries where something similar though not as extreme was happening, we’ve been told often to stop being so angry about it, find a way to get past it.
But what of those of us who feel that there is a place for anger? It shouldn’t rule, and it shouldn’t be the only thing, sure, but there should be a place for it, just as it should be a place now to say to people who have been kicking you for four years claiming this is the way the world is and you should just except it, ‘no it’s not, you are wrong’. Maybe even flipping that anger and saying, ‘I can have faith in other people’.
“Yeah. It is this question between hope and something more nihilistic I think. For me, I have two kids, I can’t go to that place because there’s a whole lot more in front of them that I have quite a profound bearing on,” Taylor says.
“I was doing an interview recently about the idea of hope. Hope seems to be something that people want to talk about a lot right now, and I get it. They were talking about how they felt Quietly Blowing It felt really hopeful. I told her that I don’t really think of myself as someone who is waving the flag of hope and able to energise a room with hopefulness, but what is the alternative? If not hope, then the alternative is too bleak for me. There is too much in my life that needs me to carry some spark of hope.”
Hope doesn’t have to come from someone waving a flag saying yes we will achieve, we are great. Sometimes hope can be you’re not alone, I understand, I’ll put my arm around you.
“I feel like a lot of us are learning that hope is an incredibly nuanced thing to carry, that isn’t a brash flag but is rather a thread that you kind of weave through the tapestry of your life, that’s full of all kinds of other stuff.”
The intersection of soul and country, of church and backporch, of two sides of the American South feels so natural to Taylor. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising. At their core they are styles of music which are about hope and tenderness and failure and recovering and trying again, of redemption, of at least been better. Musically as much as emotionally these feel like his place.
“All that stuff is connected. There are some artists that I listen to that carry hope in that incredibly nuanced way. People like The Staple Singers did it so well, Curtis Mayfield was the consummate expert at it - writing about the potential of hope to be a transformative property in life,” Taylor says. “And if you think about those songs - and it’s no coincidence that these are songs written by black Americans in the 1950s and ‘60s - so often these songs were written from a place in which their backs were against the wall.
“There wasn’t a lot to be hopeful for in institutional America. A lot of those people out on the streets were not going to see the changes that they were marching for, in their lifetimes. But a song like Move On Up or Keep On Pushing - and the list is endless - is about the potential of hope, the value of hope. The value of hope in times that feel hopeless.”
Which is when you most need it obviously. If you can see it.
“There is this idea about training yourself to recognise hope. I read this thing that David Lynch wrote, the film director who is a devout practitioner of Transcendental Meditation, he said something to the effect of meditation is like … think of it like taking a white cloth and dipping it into a solution of dye, and you take it out and it’s not totally covered, it’s kind of covered, but if you meditate every day, if you take the cloth and dip it in into the vat of dye everything day, eventually it’s going to be that solid colour. And I think that hope can work in that same way.”
As Taylor is describing this I can’t help thinking of the mythological Achilles and how the humanity in that story is that there is always a vulnerability, an unprotected spot. There will always be that little bit of cloth, of meditation, or of hope, not quite covered and open to being pierced.
But hey, that’s human, that’s art, Hiss Golden Messenger style.
Quietly Blowing It is out today. Come back next week to read a review of the album.