Photo by Chris Frisina
In a week, the latest album from the North Carolina band based around singer- songwriter M.C. Taylor, Hiss Golden Messenger, will be released. And it probably couldn’t be more appropriate or appropriately timed.
Quietly Blowing It flowered in Taylor’s small home studio during the darkest times of Covid’s havoc through the USA, before the rest of Hiss Golden Messenger came in to complete the picture. And it retains that sense of intimacy. But there’s a lot more to it than that as you’ll discover.
Today, in the first part of my interview with him, Taylor discusses how the country-soul-spiritual music of this new record may be more than a tonic, more than a balm, and more than something tied to him.
Tenderness is the word I keep coming back to with this beautiful album from Hiss Golden Messenger. And that’s not often said. People can make soft music, vulnerable music, sad and wistful music, but music which is tender, caring even, is rare. Quietly Blowing It is quietly tender.
“If that exists in my work, it feels like something that does take more than a few records to get to. It’s certainly a quality to aspire to, I think,” says M.C. Taylor from a small room in his Durham, North Carolina home which is both home studio and bolthole. “Rare is the record or piece of artwork that feels some emotion as nuanced and complex as tender first time out. This is my 10th record maybe, so I’m glad to hear you say that. Thanks.”
Part of any response to art of course is what you bring to it, not just what is given to you by the artist. Often enough it’s what you are needing that you find, and maybe that’s what I and others have been responding to with this even more than with other Hiss Golden Messenger records where gentleness and joy have coexisted with sharp darkness and anger.
It’s only a few years ago that people were debating whether the rise of reactionary, bombastic, even dangerous right wing governments around the world would foster a resurgence in art created in opposition to, or moulded within the crucible of, repression of various sorts. Rage and resistance would be the fuel!
This year however, has been packed with new records - some but not all of them written and recorded during the darkest times of 2020, though they may feel like they must have been - which have reflected a need in many of us for connection and understanding, comfort and solace. Not so much in opposition to but definitely moulded within a wholly new environment.
While Taylor in recent recordings, public events and rallies, and in moments on this new album, addresses the moral corruption of the Trump administration and what it symbolises - the ruptured spirit he described in 2019’s Grammy-nominated album Terms Of Surrender as the “broken American moment” - there’s something more going on. Tenderness was needed, and here tenderness is offered.
“I’m glad that that comes through. It was certainly a very internal record. The nature of it, the inception of it, was quite solitary,” says Taylor, who looks and sounds a little worn down. “I think part of that was obviously the world that we found ourselves living in this past year, in which we had no choice but to become solitary animals. Or more solitary than we had been or were used to. But it’s also a record that I feel like I needed to make.
“The compositional process felt very close to the bone, very emotional, and I was very close to it. Close to every part of it. Which you would think would be the case with every record that I make, but I don’t know that it is actually.”
So this was a different experience? Or sprang from somewhere new?
“I think that the personality of a record like Terms of Surrender, which is the one that came before this, is very outward facing. There are some sounds on the record that a very kind of brash sometimes, there is some stuff on that record that I don’t love the sound of, to be quite honest with you. Maybe this record was in part a reaction to that,” Taylor says. “I think I was just thinking if I’m feeling compelled to make a really personal record, then now is the time to do it.
"The tensions and anxiety that are part of our collective lives were living so close to the surface. Certainly close to my surface, and for everyone I know. We could feel both the tension and the need for release, this reconceptualisation of joy and hope, right?”
There wasn’t a lot of that around last year, and even now, as vaccination rates rise quickly – well, not in Australia, but hey, it’s not a race remember. Certainly not one we’re going to win – it is hard to consistently frame our lives with joy and hope.
For each step forward we get reminders like still separated children and parents on the American/Mexican border, inadequate supplies of vaccines in the developing world, or the bastardry in the government treatment of a Tamil family in Australia, that shit’s not going away.
“I think that that [reconceptualisation of joy and hope] is a process that’s really just begun, and that will be ongoing, I hope for a long time. I know that I’m really considering hope and joy and justice in a different way than I was a year ago,” Taylor says. “We are talking today on the one year anniversary of George Floyd’s death, or I should say George Floyd’s murder, and if Covid wasn’t enough to push our institutions to the absolute limit, witnessing a man be murdered on live television certainly did that in the United States.”
What that also asked us - Americans in particular but it had resonance in many countries including Australia - was to offer tenderness to others. To think outside ourselves, to empathise … to feel.
There were so many things in this past year there were working for and against that: the forced isolation, the self-centred focus of our lives, the trauma of Covid, governments everywhere failing us in key ways, realising we needed to depend on others and others dependent on us. It’s not clear that we were ready for it, or that we did it well.
“I don’t consider myself a model of empathy. And furthermore I think that the immediacy, the instantaneous nature of social media, actually moves us away,” Taylor says wearily. “You think that would give us openings towards empathy but a find often it does the opposite and can be very divisive. I am as guilty as anybody of shouting about things on social media that really need a much longer form consideration.
“I would like to think that Quietly Blowing It is part of that longer form consideration in which I am struggling with the system that I am part of, that I perpetuate in so many ways as a white man that has been given a leg up in this world, without question.”
One thing that is prompted by this act of public self-criticism is the thought that we people who feed off art and artists - as consumers, as critics, as fellow citizens - ask so much of artists, we want them to comfort us, protect us, save us but we don’t know how much the doing of that takes from them. Should we worry?
“I can’t speak for other people but that’s not something that usually enters my thought process when I’m doing musical work. It’s not a thing that I’ve had to train myself to avoid,” says Taylor. “I can really psych myself out in a lot of ways but that particular part of the equation doesn’t really enter my mind I think because I spent so long making records for nobody. That really, if nothing else, affirms my relationship to my music.
"When I’m making music I’m making it for my own personal satisfaction. I’m not looking out into the world and hoping that this thing I’m writing is going to ring out and resonate with lots of people; I’m just trying to write something that I think is cool, personally.”
And that’s enough? Or enough for M.C. Taylor at least?
“That is the one guarantee that we have in our lives as artists, we do have the absolute guaranteed ability to create something that delights us in the moment. To give up that one guarantee that we have as artists is kind of a grave misstep I think,” he says.
“I think there are people that are very good at creating music for millions of people and they know that it’s going to work in that arena from the moment they write the first word. I don’t really work like that.”
Some things and some people will - maybe must – work on a smaller canvas. Closer to home. Closer to the bone.
Next week: In part two of this interview, M.C. Taylor explores the roots of his American spirit – musical, political and emotional – as it formed Quietly Blowing It.
Hiss Golden Messenger’s Quietly Blowing It is released on June 25.