M.C. Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger Owns His Blues, and Yours, Too

On November 18, 2014, North Carolina’s Hiss Golden Messenger appeared on The Late Show With David Letterman. After the band’s performance, a funky, swaying version of “Southern Grammar,” Letterman raved.

“I like everything about this,” Letterman beamed. “What are you worried about?”

Bandleader M.C. Taylor answered with a smirk and a shake of his head.

“We’re not worried about anything,” he says.

If that sweet moment was your only exposure to the songs of Hiss Golden Messenger, you might assume Taylor and company make easygoing music. You’d only be half-right.

“I could have very easily answered, ‘I’m worried about everything,’ you know what I mean?” Taylor says from his home in Durham, North Carolina. “It feels like the same answer.”  The songs on Hiss Golden Messenger’s sixth full-length record, Heart Like a Levee, which came out on October 7, bear him out. Over country soul, swampy R&B, and gospel-inflected folk, Taylor sings about both ends of the worried about nothing/everything spectrum. It’s a record about family, as all Hiss Golden Messenger records have been, about faith, duty, and fears. It encompasses bounding joy — scenes from a child’s birthday party, Sunday mornings in bed, the feeling of being on a roll — and moments of overpowering dread. “Do you hate me, honey, as much as I hate myself?” Taylor pleads on the title song.

Taylor initially launched Hiss Golden Messenger as a duo in 2007 with Scott Hirsch, with whom he played in the hardcore band Ex-Ignota and indie roots band the Court & Spark. In the years since, the project has expanded. On Heart Like a Levee, he’s joined by Phil and Bradley Cook of Megafaun, Bon Iver drummer Matt McCaughan, singers Tift Merritt and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig of Mountain Man, and a host of others players offering strings and reeds.

But even as Hiss Golden Messenger’s sound has bloomed, the project has retained an autobiographical angle.

“These songs are about me,” Taylor says. “These songs are very personal, as personal as I’ve ever written.”

Which isn’t to say that Taylor’s songs aren’t shaded by outside forces. In 2015, Duke University commissioned the group to create music to be paired with a series of photographs by the late photographer William Gedney, taken at the Blue Diamond Mining Camp in Leatherwood, Kentucky, in 1972. It was among these photos that the songs of Heart Like a Levee were born, originally performed in conjunction with Duke’s exhibition of the collection. In the photos, Taylor found himself in a full world, the kind he strives to create in his records.

Though it’s tempting — due to the rural nature of the shots — to group the photos with Depression-era photography, Taylor instead likens Gedney’s work to that of photographers like William Eggleston, Danny Lyon, and Robert Mapplethorpe.

“There’s a certain richness and complexity and eroticism in this series of photographs that I’ve never really seen before,” Taylor says. “They’re in black and white, but there are a million half-tones in them, in terms of color but also emotionally.” 
One of Gedney’s photos ended up on the cover: a boy, his face smudged. In his eyes, Taylor recognized the themes of his record.

“There’s so much in that boy’s eyes,” Taylor says. “There’s sadness, challenge, woundedness, there’s a swagger, a kind of bittersweet need or desire to be loved — everything I hope is in the songs, is in that boy’s eyes.”

You can hear all that — the strut and the sadness — in “Tell Her I’m Just Dancing,” where over driving drums, Taylor sings, “You can’t choose your blues, but you might as well own them.”

On Heart Like a Levee, Taylor owns his blues and his joys, honing them into one of the truest records of the year. Listening, you can practically hear what Letterman told Taylor that night at the Ed Sullivan Theater.

“Well you shouldn’t be worried about a damn thing — this is all you need right here.”

Hiss Golden Messenger is scheduled to perform Friday, October 21, at Valley Bar.
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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.