Writer’s Room: MC Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger

Photo by Graham Tolbert

When most songwriters contemplate life on the road, they do so in well-worn tropes about bus rides and hotel rooms. By contrast, MC Taylor has dissected the existential funk that made him question if his music was even worth performing anymore. Luckily for his fans, he rallied and related the experience on his wonderful new album Terms Of Surrender, working with longtime Hiss Golden Messenger collaborators and guests like Jenny Lewis and The National’s Aaron Dessner. Taylor spoke with American Songwriter recently about his art, his influences and the latest edition to HGM’s burgeoning catalog.

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You are one of the more prolific artists, averaging about an album a year since you began. How do you keep that pace?

It’s important to me that I put out music at a pace that doesn’t feel like each record is trying to be a masterpiece. I wouldn’t put the music out if I didn’t think that it said something and added to my own narrative or if it didn’t feel like an evolution. Frankly, I never felt like a put out a lot of records because it never felt like hard work. Certainly, it didn’t feel like harder work than a day job.

Some of the slower songs on this record are both funky and mysterious. Did the subject matter demand that?

During the writing process there were certain songs that I knew that I was going to take that approach. There’s a way that someone like Curtis Mayfield does his music. It’s really swinging, it’s really grooving but also kind of ghostly. On some of those tunes, that was my template.

A lot of songs written for kids come off as treacly but you sidestep that with “Happy Birthday, Baby”. Is there a specific message you hope your daughter gets from it?

I think it’s a song of apology to her. I spend a lot of time away and then a lot of time trying to re-integrate myself into the family when I come home. I think that song is at least as much for me as it is for her.

The opening track “I Need A Teacher” talks about finding “Beauty in the broken American moment.” As you travel playing these songs, is finding that beauty getting harder to do?

I think the past couple of years have been a wake-up to a lot of us that have been fortunate enough to live lives in which we’re not harassed by politicians or police. I’m a white guy. I’ve had it relatively easy my whole life. When so many of us are looking around at what’s happening in our country now and thinking, “Wow, what happened to this place?”, people of color, gay and trans folks are saying, “We’ve been feeling this our entire lives. It’s just obvious to you now.”

Was it cathartic to play songs based on what you’ve admitted was a tough time in your life or did it bring you too close to those raw emotions?

I think a little bit of both. There are some of these songs that feel pretty raw. But I’m also very glad that I have this record. It’s a document of a time in my life that is unvarnished. When I hear this record, I’m hearing things that nobody will ever understand or hear. And that’s fine.

There’s a joyous feel to this music at times as well. Was it important for you to strike that balance?

That’s been a big lesson for me — trying to maintain hope. So when you say joyous, maybe the way I would describe it is hopeful. The other thing is that Hiss Golden Messenger is a very rhythmic band. There has to be a heavily rhythmic component to my records because that’s the type of music that I like to make.

In the title track, you sing, “It’s one thing to bend it, my love/But another to break it.” How close were you to breaking it?

There are a lot of ways to break it. That’s an every-morning sort of question, like is today the day that I break it or do I just see how far I can bend? There are some days when I wonder if all of the emotional tangles that come with being a traveling musician are worth it. And then there are other days where it’s totally obvious that this is what I’m supposed to be doing.

Being an artist is funny because I just feel like my work depends on me going really deep. You can’t really phone it in because people are going to hear that. So I have to touch a nerve every time. And sometimes that’s exhausting. But then the flip side is it’s also amazing that I am in the position of being allowed to go deep like that.

So you’re constantly dealing with the contradiction of a need to make music that takes you away from the people you love.

There’s a bit of a Greek myth about it all. There’s definitely a “Be careful what you wish for” component to all of this.

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