On a foul weather day in January 2015, M.C. Taylor was in a Washington, DC hotel room wrestling with his own good fortune. A veteran of West Coast hardcore and indie scenes, Taylor’s last half dozen years had involved relocating to North Carolina for grad school, working as a folklorist, raising a family, and … oh right, that new musical endeavor, a project called Hiss Golden Messenger.
In the kind of tidy synopsis that only appears in the rearview, a handful of critically lauded albums led to the 2014 Merge release Lateness of Dancers, which led to a tour, which led right up to that DC hotel room.
Providing some context for his latest album (Heart Like a Levee, also on Merge) Taylor writes that “the writing of the songs that became Heart Like a Levee started in a hotel room in Washington, DC, in January of 2015 during a powerful storm that darkened the East Coast. At that time I was feeling — more acutely than I had ever felt before — wrenched apart by my responsibilities to my family and to my music. Forgetting, momentarily, that for me, each exists only with the other. How could I forget? Though maybe my lapse was reasonable: I had just quit my job, the most recent and last, in a series of dead-end gigs stretching back 20 years, with the vow that my children would understand their father as a man in love with his world and the inventor of his own days.”
On the phone with M.C. Taylor, PopMatters asks him to elaborate on what was happening in that moment. “I had just, a few months previous, quit my job and I think I was having a bit of an existential crisis because all of a sudden I had gotten what I had been hoping for, which is to be able to devote my days and waking hours, creative hours, to making music, to making art,” he reflects. “But with that came a host of other anxieties about providing for my family and being present for my family. And also not letting the need to make a living off my music change it. In that hotel room, I think I did what I have always done, particularly in moments of crisis, once I actually can find the calmness of mind for a moment, which is- sit down and write and see what comes out.”
What comes out on Heart Like a Levee is a honest look at life’s alternating joys and sorrows. “I definitely wrote the record to be a record that is both light and shadows. I want something that is emotionally dynamic,” says M.C. These are rock songs that wear their county, soul, and folk influences proudly, even reverently, on their sleeves. The arrangements support what is perhaps the band’s most distinctive quality: Taylor’s gutsy voice, half sugar-half salt, delivered front and center. You can hear that “light and shadows” quality on opening track “Biloxi”, as the song’s simple, sad refrain (“It’s hard, Lord / Lord, it’s hard”) meets a straightforward, major chord strum. The juxtaposition creates a depth, a dimensionality, that’s more than the sum of its parts.
“It feels like an honest gauge of the past year or so of my life. I’m fortunate to have this as a snapshot of myself, my family, and my friends” says Taylor, of the new Hiss Golden Messenger material. And indeed, the record brims with people and with places. As M.C. puts it: “I’ve always used songwriting, I don’t know … somewhere between like a journal and an art exhibit. It’s very private and so I have my own set of private, sometimes secret, connections to the songs. But, also, the music is meant to be open, it’s given with an open heart. It’s meant to draw people to it.”
This repository of relationships set to music leaves me wondering about Taylor’s current relationship to music itself. “Music is the most important thing in my life. It has taken me on an incredible journey that has put me in contact with everybody that I love, and everybody in my life I consider close and important. I am with them because of something that music did. So first of all there’s that,” he says with a laugh.
“Since Bad Debt,” he continues, “my relationship [with music is] actually being a working, performing musician that people will pay to hear. I got the thing that I dreamed about. It took a really long time. It didn’t happen to me in my twenties, or even hardly my thirties.”
So did finally getting that long dreamed for thing come as a surprise? “I was pleasantly surprised to be experience this thing, this life, that I thought might have passed me by. Not that I was lamenting that, but I just thought that it might not happen. But then the flipside of that is that I really stand behind my songs,” he says. “It’s no surprise that what little success I’ve experienced came at the time that I learned how to write sharper songs that felt real and openhearted and unselfconscious.”
Openhearted is a fine description for Heart Like a Levee. Spend some time with the songs and their complexities multiply instead of resolve. Sometimes pragmatic, sometimes romantic, both personal and universal, it’s a road album with an eye forever looking home. Lyrics weave an elemental sort of Piedmont magic realism (pieces of fire, a river running backwards) with the day to day stuff of life (getting the kids to school, leaving for a tour), sometimes even within the same song. It’s an admission that the big picture forms out of the little details, but is never fully in focus.
Of all its themes, family and communication appear most central. “There are a lot of questions about communication, I think,” Taylor reflects. “The record certainly is about me being away from my family, trying to square that with needing and wanting to be engaged and active here at home. How do I remain present and not travel away in my mind when I am here with the people I love? How do I not take them for granted but actually recognize their presence in a real way?”