Universal chords: Hiss Golden Messenger digs into the deeper stuff

Hiss Golden Messenger plays the Jefferson on December 21. Publicity photo. Hiss Golden Messenger plays the Jefferson on December 21. Publicity photo.

As Hiss Golden Messenger, M.C. Taylor has spent the past decade crafting songs that stand on musical traditions while summoning a world all of their own. That’s not surprising when you consider Taylor’s output in the new limited-edition Hiss Golden Messenger box set, Devotion: Songs About Rivers and Spirits and Children—it’s just one dichotomy in a thriving career full of them.

“The first thing that I really consider a real Hiss Golden Messenger record, this record called Bad Debt, it was very small, and that record was for me,” Taylor says. “And I started to realize that the more personal my music was, the more universal chords it seemed to strike. It’s a weird paradox. I find that to be the premise of the greatest art in my life.”

Before making Bad Debt in 2009, Taylor moved from California to North Carolina to attend a graduate program in folklore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As part of his fieldwork, he’d travel around the state collecting stories and songs from indigenous musicians.

“I’m never going to be the kind of person that can remember a whole catalog of fiddle tunes—that’s not how my brain works,” he explains. “I think that the actual contours of a fiddle tune are the by-product of something much bigger…the melody of a fiddle tune, to me anyway, is not the most important part of old-time music. For example, I think there’s way deeper stuff at work that is causing that music to come out…that’s always been the part that’s interesting to me.”

That work, in turn, caused Taylor to look inward. “My relationship with music at the time that I was doing this, it was ambiguous at the very best,” he recalls. “I had been recording records and touring for most of my life already at that point, but I think that creative part of me had gotten confused about what sorts of feelings I was supposed to be conjuring within myself.”

He was meeting with artists of all ages —from children to veteran musicians in their 80s—and he found the direction he needed in the way they lived their lives.

“I was recording a lot of music and it was with people that didn’t have musical careers. They just had a deep connection to music within their communities. Maybe some of them would have liked [a musical career] but it didn’t seem to be at the top of their priority list,” Taylor says. “It was a really good reminder for me at that time in my life that there was a way to exist with creativity in a very valuable way emotionally and spiritually that had nothing to do with, you know, the commerce of the entertainment business.”

It was during this time that Taylor wrote Bad Debt at his home in Pittsboro, North Carolina. With tracks like “Balthazar’s Song,” “No Lord Is Free,” and “The Serpent Is Kind (Compared To Man),” the album introduced a major touchstone of Taylor’s songwriting: the use of biblical language as poetic shorthand to convey larger ideas. A remastered version of Bad Debt is included in Devotion, along with reissues of two other early Hiss records, Poor Moon and Haw, and a compilation of rarities titled Virgo Fool. The packaging features iconographic artwork by Sam Smith that ties in directly with thematic elements of each album.

“I love [these records] because they allowed me something; I don’t love them because I think they’re incredible records. I was very involved in the presentation of them, the actual art of the whole box,” says Taylor. “I didn’t spend a lot of time pouring over the records themselves…it can be almost uncomfortable to spend that much time going back to stuff that I’ve made. I’m not that interested in doing that. I took it as an opportunity to reframe the four of those records under the umbrella of some overarching design, like actually frame them as records that all can live together in that way.”

Taylor is putting the finishing touches on a new Hiss Golden Messenger album at Aaron Dessner’s (The National) studio in New York. And he continues to be guided by that same approach he took away from his time as a folklorist: “Whatever happens with music for me in the public sphere, there is a way to be creative that has a huge amount of value, [that] is just being able to articulate things into the world, you know, with sort of poetry and rhythm that otherwise might not be able to come out.”

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