HISS GOLDEN MESSENGER
Hiss Golden Messenger, better known as MC Taylor, wears many hats. He's a lyricist, musician, bard, former member of the San Francisco band Court and Spark. Not to mention that he's a professional folklorist (he's got a Master's degree in the field). If you're wondering where his moniker comes from, we can't tell you—and neither can Taylor himself: "I just wanted to have a name that I could use in perpetuity, for anything that I was involved in as the chief songwriter or composer. There's something faintly biblical about it, but not really." What we can tell you, however, is that for the past three years, Taylor has been quietly amassing critical kudos. Google his name and you'll find no shortage of glowing reviews, especially, and somewhat oddly given the decidedly "American" influences in his music, British reviews. David Bowie described Taylor's music as "mystical country, like an eerie yellowing photograph," and we trust Ziggy Stardust's opinion. We chatted with Taylor as he awaited the release of his fourth album, Poor Moon.
EMMA BROWN: First of all, how was your tour in England?
MC TAYLOR: It was good. It was intense, because I was traveling a lot, and it was all by train, which would be better if I didn't have so much stuff!
BROWN: Did you have anyone to help you carry things?
TAYLOR: No. I was traveling with a friend named William Tyler, who's also a musician, we were doing a duo tour. He was there for moral support, but I didn't have any physical support.
BROWN: Oh my. I've been reading a lot of English reviews of your music, and you're very well received in England.
TAYLOR: Oh, yeah. I do better over there, that's for sure.
BROWN: But your style of music is so rooted in American heritage.
TAYLOR: I think that's why I do better there, because it's kind of exotic. It sort of makes sense to me, having been over there a few times in the past year; they're picking up on something that people here maybe overlook or take for granted.
BROWN: It seemed like you got a lot of attention for [2010 album] Bad Debt.
TAYLOR: Yeah, people reacted to that record, for whatever reason. I'm glad. I thought that record might be one of my last, and in retrospect it seems like some sort of beginning of some new chapter of my musical life. Have you heard that record?
BROWN: Yes, I'm a big fan.
TAYLOR: Oh. Well, it was recorded on a tape recorder, just at the kitchen table, while my son, who was really young at the time, was just taking a nap. It wasn't really an aesthetic choice to do it that way, it was more, "I'm to the point where I don't have any money anymore, and I don't have a way to get together with the folks that I normally play with." In many ways, it was a good period in my life; I was a new father, I was experiencing all kinds of new things, but artistically I was sort of at loose ends and it was sort of bleak. I wasn't sure how I was going to engage this part of my life that's so important to me. It wasn't meant to be a record, it just became one.
BROWN: You don't work with a producer as Hiss Golden Messenger, do you?
TAYLOR: No. It's something that Scott [Hirsch] and I do. Scott and I have kind of a shorthand way of talking. We've recorded so much music together that it would be unfair, in a lot of ways, to ask somebody to come in and take on that role [of producer]. Scott and I have our repertoire with each other, and we have a lot of ways of communicating that wouldn't make sense to anyone else, they would just get frustrated. Maybe that would be good for us, but right now we're pretty happy with how we're doing it.
BROWN: How did you meet Scott?
TAYLOR: We met our first year of college; we both sort of noticed each other. I could tell that he was a music guy, he had a band, and I saw them play, and I thought it was so cool. I think that he saw me walking around with a book of poetry in my pocket.
BROWN: What book of poetry? Which poet?
TAYLOR: I'm sure it was like an Allen Ginsberg, or Gregory Corso, or Jack Kerouac. I know it was a Beat poet, without a doubt.
BROWN: And you started your first band together in college?
TAYLOR: Yes, freshman year, I guess.
BROWN: Can you tell me a little bit about your state of mind when you were writing the songs for Poor Moon? What was going on in your head?
TAYLOR: I see Bad Debt and Poor Moon as two sides of the same coin; a lot of the lyrical conceits and motifs and the allegorical stuff is similar between Bad Debt and Poor Moon—there are just a lot of questions posed in those songs and maybe fewer answers, but it's a confusing time. It still is, in a way. [laughs] I'm not sure; those songs just kind of came out.
BROWN: Are you excited that people are excited about Poor Moon?
TAYLOR: I am, but I sort of take it with a grain of salt. People are so fickle, is the thing.
BROWN: Would you want to play more shows or are you happy the way it is?
TAYLOR: I'm kind of happy the way it is. I was talking about this the other night; I bought my first tour van when I was 17. This was with Scott. We've been touring and playing shows and playing music for almost 20 years, so the allure of touring, or even of playing a concert in a nice club—I say this now, maybe in half a year it will be different—is not totally there for me anymore. Part of that allure has to do with playing in front of people, there's some sort of weird public recognition thing, I think most musicians would say that that's part of what they like. When that becomes less of an incentive... I don't feel that I need to play a lot of shows. If I really, really like the other acts that I'm going to play with, or they're friends of mine, or I'm getting some sort of aesthetic pay-off, I'll do for free, I'll pay to get there to do it! The days are gone where someone's going to tell me, "Come play this gig, they're going to be tons of people there! It doesn't matter that you don't know the band, or that aesthetically you're not interested, you should just do it. It will be a really good profile gig for you." That kind of thing is uninteresting to me; I would rather play with artists that I really like for no money and to an empty room. I'm really picky about what shows I play, at this point. When we first started, we played everywhere, all the time. It didn't matter, if there's a gig to be played we'll be there, we'll make our 50 bucks.
BROWN: I hear that you study folklore?
TAYLOR: Yes, that's what I do. I work as a folklorist.
BROWN: American folklore?
TAYLOR: I do fieldwork in the eastern part of North Carolina. I get hired by agencies to go to mostly rural areas; I'm generally hired to do field recordings of music. Most of the music is American, or by the time it's coming out of people's mouths when I'm recording it, it's definitely been Americanized.
BROWN: Have you always been interested in folklore?
TAYLOR: I guess I was, if you want to consider just being a really obsessive music fan and listener and collector and reader a folklorist, which it sort of is. But when I went to graduate school, my definition of folklore both narrowed and deepened. We didn't talk about things like myths, not a single time, that's not what it's about. It's more about expressive and/or vernacular culture and how it's deployed in the public realm. To get a little academic about it! [laughs] I'm not looking for people that are old and possibly the only ones playing a certain type of music, I'm not looking for the last remnants of an old ancient story. If people are interested in a certain kind of cultural expression, whether it be low-riding, or hip-hop, or bluegrass music, that's what I'm interested in documenting. Obviously it's important to that group of people, so the question is how to they interact with that art form, what do they do with it, that sort of thing.
HISS GOLDEN MESSENGER'S FOURTH ALBUM, POOR MOON, IS OUT TODAY. FOR MORE INFORMATION ON HISS GOLDEN MESSENGER, CHECK OUT HIS FACEBOOK PAGE.