M.C. Taylor is lying on his bed with his feet up behind him like he’s “talking on one of those old chat lines.” Taylor jokingly refers to his current body position while on the phone to discuss his masterful new record as Hiss Golden Messenger, Hallelujah Anyhow. The artist has just gotten his kids off to school and has nothing but time before his never ending tour schedule kicks back into gear in a couple of weeks.
Anyhow is a powerful, warm, and lived-in experience. As a whole, the project is steeped in positivity and hope with the air of a record you’ve been listening to your whole life. One that’s there to celebrate good times and also there to lift you up when life’s really busting your chops.
Him and his band recorded it in two days.
The album comes less than a year after his last, Heart Like A Levee, which was also accompanied with eight unreleased songs under the title Vestapol. That’s a lot of Hiss in less than twelve months. Taylor however brushes off the short period between releases as he says creating music is his job. It’s his own chosen profession and it’s not some totally out there idea to come back so fast with a group of such cohesive, impactful tracks.
From his Durham, North Carolina home I spoke with Taylor about how it all came together, how he’s been finding hope in social media, his deep love and respect for everyone he works with, and the simple idea of trying to be a good person each day. Read on below.
The new record is wonderful, but, what took you so long? Were you just THAT inspired to get these songs into the world?
I was inspired, but let’s back up for a sec, because this is a question I’m having to address a lot. It’s not that it’s a bad question.
I just want to give some perspective because I don’t want anyone thinking I’m some genius. Without good reason. Let’s say between Heart Like A Levee, the record that came with it, and this new one, that’s maybe thirty songs or so. To write thirty songs in 18 months is not crazy. It’s totally easier than waking up and going to a day job every day. I love to do it. At no point were there beads of sweat running down my forehead.
The songs were there so they might as well come out.
I think part of the genesis for this was also that in February or March I was talking to my manager and agent, both who are dear friends and we were thinking about what the future would hold after the tour for Heart Like A Levee was complete. We were thinking about something that all of us could get excited about. Then one of them was just like, know what would be incredible? Just put out a new record.
Seems simple enough.
Well, for a moment I was just like ‘whoa.’ Then I quickly came around to it. At that point I had maybe four songs that were solid enough for a record. I started to feel like this was a pretty powerful thing. Me and the band, it’s what we do. We’re a unique group in that it’s a band of people that believe in the performance of making noise at the same time.
Then we just did it.
I think that’s missing from what we’ve come to think about the two-five year album cycle is the overall excitement about it. Everybody is trying to make a masterpiece every time out and that’s not something you have control over as the artist. You just have to do what you do at the very highest level you can and hope people like it. It it doesn’t work, you do it it again. It doesn’t seem… it doesn’t need to be so engineered.
That doesn’t creep into your head when you’re putting a new batch of songs together, like, ‘this has to be the greatest thing I’ve ever done?’
Perfection is not possible. It’s totally subjective. Every record that I’ve heard that is “perfect” has never stuck with me. I need imperfection. That’s what I’m after. Those are fingerprints that tell you that person that made this thing is human.
With the new album, to me even before hearing the music the cover art was very grabbing. It’s different from you covers in the past as it’s so bright and open. The red flowers are very striking. Sonically, the music is a little more upbeat, utilizing some horns and the full band throughout. Was that conscious to have this full of life album art also connect to the tunes within?
I think that was a little conversation we had. It’s not totally super intentional. It was more like, ‘what if we made a record cover that felt right?’ I’m lucky that the people who created the album cover are some of the best at what they do. I know them well enough and trust them that their vision was true and they understand the music. That’s the story of this whole record.
With everyone involved, the band, label, etc…?
I didn’t tell anyone to do anything specific on this whole record. I might show them a harmonic part but more or less I knew that these people would know the tone and trusted that the band was as sympathetic as I knew they were. And they were.
Throughout the record and even in a number of your social media posts the themes of “lightness” and “darkness” keep reappearing. Did those things set off the whole record for you, how powerful those forces are in the world?
Those themes and words aren’t necessarily new to my music. I’m always trying to explore their relationship to one another. The one thing that always sticks with me is that, I know I’m going to get this wrong, but a poet named Wendell Berry said that there isn’t darkness without the light. You have to have one to perceive the other. I have that line on “Jenny Of the Roses” — the first track off this record — “I’ve never been afraid of the darkness, it’s just a different kind of light.”
On my good, optimistic days I believe that. I believe that we turn things that feel dark into something light. We can use darkness to give us an understanding and an appreciation for light. It’s just not something that happens overnight. That’s a thing that’s so frustrating for people right now is that we need and want to sort of feel healed. Right now. I understand that, I want that too. But we have to understand that this process of light dawning through the darkness is going to take a long time.
So having that bit of optimism gives you a piece of mind?
Everybody I know is good. That gives me a piece of mind. I don’t know anybody that is bad. That means something to me. There are a lot of us out there. If you saw all this stuff that happened on my Instagram the other day [Editor’s note: Taylor put out a call for fans to cover new songs and reposted the covers], there were hundreds of posts. That gave me a window into the idea that I have that positivity, hopefulness, this idea of goodness and kindness and community. These things that are often quiet sensations. There a lot of it out there!
The people covering the song in all of the posts, the music seemed to mean so much to them. They were getting so much from performing your song. How did that effect you personally?
It meant a huge amount to me on a variety of levels. One, it was confirming what I was just talking about. It was confirming that there is a lot of hope and love in the world and it exists in quiet places. To ask people to bring that out just for a moment into the light, it was amazing. That was not a thing that was engineered by a publicist, that was just me drinking a cup of coffee in my house after getting the kids to school and thinking, I wonder if this would work.
On any sort of ego level [laughs], it was a reminder that people are listening to this music and sometimes being the kind of musician and person that I am in the contemporary music business, I often wonder if anyone cares. I still have all kinds of anxiety about what I’m doing with my life.
View this post on Instagram
When the roll is called (if there is, indeed, a roll) way up yonder and I'm asked to account for myself and my time on Earth, I'd at least like to show St. Peter this clip. Thank you, @danielryanharvey and family. Where will we see you, brother? Thank you, friend. ❤️❤️❤️🍉
When that level of anxiety creep in, you can’t just ask people to do this every other day. How do you combat it the next time or the time after?
I have to try and do what I do at the very highest, personal level. I have no control over what’s going to happen. I don’t expect any guarantees from anybody. Nobody is making me do this. The only thing I can do is try and do the thing I know resonates with people at the most pure level.
If I let that distraction and anxiety creep in, people can see that. But, I don’t know. I take some deep breaths. I Just know that I’m surrounded by a deep crew of people who all love me and I love them. That’s as much as anyone can hope for.
I just need to be good. I need to be a good person and put positive emotion out into the world.
Hallelujah Anyhow is out this Friday, 9/22 via Merge Records. Get it here.