Hiss Golden Messenger's Righteous, Wandering Road Map

M.C. Taylor discusses his latest musical anthology, Terms of Surrender

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Hiss Golden Messenger's Righteous, Wandering Road Map

Last year, M.C. Taylor, better known by his artistic alias Hiss Golden Messenger, released a box set featuring three of his first LPs, now classics in this decade’s folk canon: Bad Debt, Poor Moon and Haw. Taylor tells me that he very rarely revisits those early albums, but he stands by “all the sentiments that exist on them, and all of the emotions that appear on them.”

“They still feel like genuine documents of where I was at that time,” he continues, calling from his home in Durham, N.C., where he relocated from California more than a decade ago.

Few words summarize the Hiss Golden Messenger spirit better than “genuine.” Throughout his career, Taylor has drawn from a long lineage of American roots musicians and folklorists, creating an undeniably honest and singular strain of Americana. His music has always exhibited the endurance of humanity, even while sharing and reckoning with his own personal narratives. Now he’s back with the next chapter in that ongoing series of documents. Terms of Surrender (out now on Merge Records) is the follow-up to HGM’s 2017 release, Hallelujah Anyhow, a jubilation in spite of it all. This release, however, is heavier, resulting from a difficult year of touring and general restlessness. Taylor disclosed in an essay that, “I wasn’t sure that I would survive it, and it’s hard to put my finger on just what I thought was going to kill me.”

Even so, he carried on, as he wrote in that same essay, and created one of the most affecting records of his career:

Yet, even when I could not find hopeful things, I wrote because writing songs has always been my salvation. I wrote about the consequences of having too much freedom and the comic complexity of getting exactly what I hoped for. I wrote about my wife and kids, my parents, my brother and sister, how much I missed them, and the ways that I’ve failed to understand them, and how much I love them and hope that they love me. I wrote about spirits hanging in the air over the Pacific Ocean above the red L.A. smog, beyond the Bowery and way up in the cold blue Virginia night. I wrote about getting older, being afraid, feeling guilty and lonely and vulnerable to every light and loving touch. Songs about the wheel, the ever-rolling wheel of life. An inventory of flaws. I was writing what felt like, as I read over the lyrics now, a last will and testament.

There’s another word that comes to mind when thinking about Hiss Golden Messenger: “salvation.” These are songs, but they are also sermons, in a way. As Taylor emphasized many times throughout this interview, they’re not cure-alls for angst—neither his own nor ours. But, like a well-articulated homily, they leave you with good, thought-provoking questions. “You can learn from the roses / You can tumble on the bowery?” he sings on “Katy (You Don’t Have to Be Good Yet).” “If you turn from the world / There are colors you’ll never see / Did the same for ya / Is it busted beyond repair? / And if we don’t save it, does it vanish into thin air?”

With these questions in mind, Taylor crafted his Terms of Surrender in a number of places: at home in Durham, in Marfa, Texas, in L.A. and in a cottage in Virginia where he often retreats to write. He recorded some with The National’s Aaron Dessner in his Upstate New York digs, and Phil Cook played harmonica, Josh Kaufman played guitar and Jenny Lewis sang on almost every song. Through that process with those people, Taylor “realized that maybe these songs were good for something after all, and it wasn’t my year to die.” And they may even be beneficial to other folks’ journeys.

“I hope that if people are struggling with anxiety, with depression, some kind of existential crisis, that they understand that it’s okay to sit with the questions, to sit with the not knowing,” he says. “Maybe that’s enough. I certainly didn’t make this record as a curative. I want the record to feel healing to people if that’s what they’re looking for, but I’m not someone that knows the answers to anything.”

Paste asked Taylor a few more questions about the album. This conversation has been edited for length.

Paste: In the essay you wrote, you describe 2018 as being a difficult year. What happened and how did it change your music?

M.C. Taylor: 2018 going into 2019 was a year of dealing with some mental health issues and doing a bit of house cleaning in terms of people and elements in my life that weren’t helpful to me. I think I conceived of Terms of Surrender as a wandering record, so I wanted to make it in a bunch of different places. As a person doing what I do, I’m often in a lot of different places, and I think that can be really inspiring to me when I’m in the right headspace because I think different places, different geographies manifest in an artist’s work in different ways, if they let it. I wanted the record to feel like I was feeling, sort of displaced and wandering, but in an inspired way.

How did you settle on that title, Terms of Surrender?

That title felt like it was addressing a very specific idea that I’ve had in my mind that I feel like other people I know have dealt with, which is the idea of “Be careful what you wish for, because it might come through.” And so I was asking myself throughout the writing of this album, “What is it that we are willing to surrender in order to live the lives that we think we want to have?” We can sit around and fantasize about what we want our lives to look and feel like. And oftentimes the reality of those fantasies, if we’re lucky enough to have them come to pass, feels a lot different than what we thought it was gonna feel like. So for me, I have often hoped and dreamed about being able to be seen and understood as a musician. I don’t know if I ever fantasized about making a living as a musician, but I think that was probably part of the dream. I want to be involved with music every day and not be working another job. And so I’ve been fortunate enough to be doing that for many years now, but actually it looks and feels different than I thought it was going to. I have to leave home a lot. I have to say goodbye to my kids a lot. There’s all that stuff that you don’t think about.

And how did that manifest itself on this album?

So many of these songs came from a place of maybe anxiety and destability, and I was trying to write songs that held onto those feelings and emotions, but offered some small spark of hope for myself. I’m writing these songs for myself really, because it’s the way I process things. I did not intend for this record to be a holistic solution to my anxieties, my depression, my fear. But I wanted it to be the first step towards articulating to myself what it meant to have those feelings. So there’s a lot of questions being asked on this record without any actual answers. But I think the asking is very important. That’s a very important part of the process of understanding and healing, just the asking itself. [All the songs] come from a similar place. It’s like it’s some kind of gemstone that has a whole bunch of different sides to it, and it looks and feels different depending on the way the light is.

Why did you lead with the single “I Need A Teacher”?

That song was written again coming from the same place, me just wishing there was some kind of roadmap through times that feel so complicated. It can be numbing knowing that actually there is no roadmap and there shouldn’t be. Everybody’s map is supposed to be different. I think that comes from a pretty Wendell Berry-esque place. Wendell Berry is a poet that a lot of my work is very indebted to. So there’s a lot of Wendell Berry in that song. I was not writing specifically about public school teachers, but when we started to conceptualize what the video would be, and I started thinking about who are some of the people that have given me guidance in my life that actually did help me to create my own roadmap, I started thinking about all of the actual teachers that I’ve had in my life, so obviously my family.

But then I started thinking about how many people that have actually worked as public school teachers have surrounded me in my life. Both of my parents were public school teachers. My wife is a public school teacher. My sister is a public high school counselor. Both of my kids go to public schools in Durham. And I started thinking about how hard that profession is and how disrespected public school teachers are in this country. And it just so happened that there was a teachers’ march in Raleigh, the capital, just a few days after we started talking about what we’re going to do for the video. A massive number of teachers had walked out of the classrooms to protest for all kinds of things, better pay of course, which they are entirely deserving of, but better conditions for their students. So we sent a camera crew down there just to capture the faces of some teachers.

You mentioned poetry, but I know you used to study folklore. Do elements of that still find their way into your music?

I always think of my music as being grounded in traditional American music, no matter how far out I get. There’s a whole universe of musical ancestors that I’m looking back towards, and these are not people that were old fashioned. These were people that were pretty progressive, that were inventing music in real time and making it intense and moving and emotional. Just so happens that a lot of people that are into music think of this stuff as like the roots of American music. So I’m always building. I’m trying to take the parts that move me the most of American music, whether that’s Sister Rosetta Tharpe or Blind Willie Johnson or Washington Phillips or Lucinda Williams. All of these people have contributed to the invention of American music as we know it, and I want to be part of that lineage. But I think being part of that lineage means not aping the music itself, but understanding the emotions behind it and trying to understand how to conjure those yourself. So my music doesn’t sound like the music of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, but she’s in there.

You’ve been in North Carolina for a while now. Do you consider yourself a southerner?

I’m not sure that I am. I’ve been living here since 2007. I don’t know that I can call myself a southerner. I’m from California. I’m very proud to live in the South and to fly the flag here. I feel like the term southerner is reserved for people that were born and raised here. But I feel like the question could be “What do you love about living in America and what are you bothered by?” Because the South has been the crucible of America for so long. What happens in the South is a condensed version of what happens in the rest of the country. Living here puts me in touch with all of the cultural spirits that are necessary for me to do my work in a genuine way. Everything that I love about American culture has its roots here in the South. I felt like if I was going to continue working with elements that are from the South, I needed to live here to actually start to develop a more nuanced understanding of the place. And many years on, having moved here, bought a house, had kids, developed a whole network of relationships here, I am beginning to start to understand the South as a contemporary place, not just a place that exists on records and in books and in the food that I love, but as a place that is progressive in a lot of ways. I read something like a month ago that really resonated with me, which was someone saying something to the effect of “Stop thinking about the South as a repository of hate, and start thinking about it as an incredibly progressive place that has been held hostage by backwards policies, which in so many ways feels true to me. Everybody I know here in Durham that I look up to is radical. They’ve worked politically in the face of pushback that nobody in California has to deal with.

Terms of Surrender is out now on Merge. Watch Hiss Golden Messenger’s 2016 Paste Studio session below:

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