Hiss Golden Messenger: Making Art that Lasts

Music Features Hiss Golden Messenger
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Members: M.C. Taylor, Scott Hirsch
Hometown: Durham, N.C.?
Current Release: Lateness of Dancers
For Fans Of: Magnolia Electric Co., Megafaun, Phosphorescent, Strand of Oaks

M.C. Taylor seems at ease. The 38-year-old songwriter behind Hiss Golden Messenger appears fully immersed in his daily routine throughout the two-minute video trailer for the Durham folk duo’s forthcoming record, Lateness of Dancers. He’s watering his plants with his five-year-old boy in the yard, tends to livestock, and lays down a track in the studio. He describes a seemingly normal moment, the wind blowing a hat off his head, in a way that conveys something bigger. Purplish storm clouds are approaching while the sun towers high above and a rainbow hangs overhead.

“There’s, sort of hidden away, it feel like a loneliness to the person and the place that they are,” he says in the video. “It seems almost rapturous — the sun, the clouds, the person almost alone under the sky. But it’s also sort of workaday, this person is almost in this very normal act of picking up their hat in the midst of these changes. You get the sense that something really big is happening in the world at that moment. I don’t know, I feel like I know that person.”

It’s an instant that captures the convergence of life’s smallest and most wondrous moments. Taylor, whose weathered voice reflects his two decades worth of songwriting, says those two concepts remain at the core of new record. “It’s kind of like this small, personal moment in the midst of a coming storm,” Taylor says. For Durham songwriter and Scott Hirsch, his longtime collaborator with Hiss Golden Messenger and other previous projects, they’ve both traveled a long way leading up to the release of their forthcoming Merge Records debut on Sept. 9.

Taylor grew up in a music-filled southern California household. His father was a vocalist and guitarist, his younger brother is a classical musician, and their home boasted a large record collection. He began exploring his parent’s record collection, from the Byrds to Harry Smith, and became intrigued by the simplicity of the recordings and power of their melodies.

“I’ve always been a person that’s been interested in things that last,” he says. “…There’s a certain lack of information about those old recordings that at the time. There was nothing to the recordings. There was a microphone in the room and the song. I was drawn to that.”

But he was latecomer to playing himself. The songwriter didn’t start learning how to play guitar until around the age of 16. He initially played in hardcore, punk and noise groups. Hirsch happened to be in one of those bands, and their musical partnership grew beyond those genres.

“Music has always been the most compelling force in both of our lives,” Taylor says. “Him and I over the years have definitely developed a language, a musical palette together. I feel like that is relatively unique. It has everything to do with us being around each other for that long.”

For nearly a decade starting in 1998, Taylor and Hirsch became core members of The Court & Spark, a San Francisco-based alt-country outfit. After four records, Taylor says the band began to run its course as its members pursued other projects. He felt an urge to leave California. Southern culture — including musicians such as Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Elizabeth Cotten and Etta Baker — fascinated him. In 2007, he moved across the country to enroll in the University of North Carolina’s folklore graduate program.

“I felt like if I wanted to be involved in the culture of the South, I was going to be playing music that grew so deeply from music rooted in the South, I felt like I need to live here,” Taylor says. “It was incumbent on me to do more than just pay Southern culture lip service.”

Taylor’s studies eventually led him into professional fieldwork for state’s arts and humanities departments. That work included recording hundreds of hours of traditional music recordings with artists across the state. Not long after moving, he started Hiss Golden Messenger with Hirsch, who also relocated out east, as their primary songwriting project. The two musicians released four records, including the breakout LP Haw in 2013 and the recently reissued Bad Debt last January, and have their fifth album hitting shelves in a matter of weeks.

On Lateness of Dancers, Taylor and Hirsch are joined by contributors from Phil and Brad Cook of Megafaun, guitarist William Tyler and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig of Mountain Man in what amounts to their most expansive effort to date. But it’s Taylor’s songwriting commands the attention of listeners. He says he focused on taking a “deeply emotional, personal” look at his life around the time that his second child, his now-one-year-old daughter, was born. One notable example is on the record’s third song, “Mahogany Dread,” which he says wrestles with the full burden of responsibility that comes with being parent and the measure taken to live up to that challenge.

“There’s a line, ‘The misery of love is a funny thing. The more it hurts, the more you think you can stand a little pain,’” he says. “The idea of psyching ourselves up to upping the threshold of what we think we can take in order to achieve this thing that we think we want.”

At the moment, Taylor says he’s nearing a crossroad between becoming a full-time musician and continuing to record songs outside of his professional life. With a house and two young kids, he’s had less time after his day job to work on music. If he sells enough records and can tour more often, he’s worries about losing the ability to pick and choose the right kinds of creative opportunities with his art. He feels uncertain about that forthcoming decision.

“There’s going to come a time of reckoning where I need to answer that question for myself,” he says. “It’s something I think about all the time, but it’s something I’ve been avoiding. … Whatever decision I make, there’s a lot of other things that sort of follow. I don’t know, I’m a little nervous about it.”