Hiss Golden Messenger: Re-Energized Artistry

For months following its January release, Hiss Golden Messenger‘s song “Sanctuary” floated atop Americana radio charts. M.C. Taylor, the songwriter and lead of the roots-rock project, finds this both strange and ironic. 

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“I’ve always felt like an outsider of that universe,” Taylor says, sitting beneath a canopy of lush green in his backyard in Durham, North Carolina. “I know people on that list, many are friends.”  

From behind his amber-tinted sunglasses, he continues, half-joking, “It seems like there is some ‘Americana party’ happening in Nashville, and I haven’t been invited. So being at No. 1 or whatever feels funny to me.” 

The term Americana, he says, “doesn’t make me particularly bristle.” From a business perspective, he understands the purpose it serves as a label.   

“I’ve always tried to make music that was hard to categorize, music that presents a challenge,” says Taylor. “That’s why it’s been a slow burn. But I also think it’s why people who connect with it connect so deeply. There are a lot of threads in the fabric.” 

Since 2009, marked by debut album Country Hai East Cottonthe Los Angeles native has made records with a dynamic rotation of musicians under the denomination Hiss Golden Messenger. Quietly Blowing Itreleased June 25 on Merge Records, is his eleventh.  

Taylor softens as he recalls touring his Grammy-nominated album Terms of Surrender in late 2019.  

“I was fried,” he admits. Backstage at a show in the UK, paralyzed by the thought of his impending solo tour dates, he canceled his next leg in Australia. Taylor swears it’s the best $10,000 he’s ever spent.  

“When all this shit happened, I was almost relieved,” he states frankly. “Anything to put the brakes on.’” 

Through the sliding glass doors of the basement, an impressive vinyl collection lines the narrow hallway into his home studio—an eight-by-ten alcove where this album came to life amidst the pandemic. His collaborators—Taylor Goldsmith, Zach Williams, Buddy Miller, and producer Josh Kaufman—contributed from their respective homes via Dropbox and Zoom.   

Within those cinder block walls, plastered with crayon creations from his children, Taylor found peace. The 11-track collection is part of his unrelenting pursuit of answers to the hard questions. Beneath the political undertones, the songs are “disarmingly inward looking.” 

“As the specters of the coronavirus epidemic, mass civil rights protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by cops in Minneapolis, fires raging out of control on the West Coast, and the fractured presidential election roiled America, I wrote about things that felt important to bear witness to for myself,” he says in an essay, “Mourning in America.”  

He continues, “I wrote to make sense and to begin the process of grieving and rebuilding my own life.” 

“I made decisions with consequences,” says Taylor. “I devoted my life to music in a way that meant that I had to leave home for a lot of my kids’ lives. They’ve never seen me as much as they have this past year. It’s wonderful, but it fills me with regret because I think I missed some things.” 

Quietly Blowing It is a charting of experiences that are “intensely personal but in some ways universal. Who doesn’t occasionally consider if they could’ve spent the last five years doing something else?”  

The artist addresses this head-on in “It Will If We Let It,” an apology to his wife of over 20 years. “There’s always a piece of me that’s off in the musical world,” he shares.  

In his lead single, “Sanctuary,” he sings: Feeling bad, feeling blue, can’t get out of my own mind; but I know how to sing about it. 

And so he does. The introspective vignettes grow more resonant within the context of normalized turbulence. “If It Comes in the Morning” deals with debilitating uncertainty. “Way Back in the Way Back” and “Mighty Dollar” reckon with class and status. “Hardlytown,” is one of many lessons for his children—what it means to be a good neighbor.  

As a songwriter, he believes “Painting Houses” is his best work. “I’m afraid it’ll be forgotten,” he admits about the only true co-write with Gregory Alan Isakov on the record. “It’s a metaphor for having a job or a life that you’re not particularly in love with, but you’ve settled.” 

Taylor emphasizes the subjective reasoning of what belongs to a collection. Free from outside opinion or oppressive considerations of tempo and key, the artist considers his missteps in an album that indeed feels genuine.  

“This pause on the way we function has made me reconsider what the purpose of art is,” he says. “Am I supposed to be an artist? If so, whose opinions should I be considering?” 

There was enough silence this year for him to consider those things. The result re-energized his artistry. 

“Who is it that’s quietly blowing it?” he concludes. “Me of course. And making this music became a document and a reckoning, an act of contrition and a cry for change.” 

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