“It was not as good as being a musician,” Durham’s MC Taylor, frontman of Hiss Golden Messenger, quips of his last full-time job as operations coordinator at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies. “I knew if I wanted to grow this thing, I couldn’t have a day job. It was just too much to do.”
Taylor recorded and released four albums while still working full time—and with two kids at home. There never seemed to be enough hours in the day to dedicate to becoming a better songwriter … and then to perform.
“I had taken every available sick and vacation day I could, and it was kind of like say ‘no’ to doing gigs or quit the job,” he explains.
So Taylor quit the job. The decision was a tortured one. He endured much stress from it, in fact.
“But on my good days, I feel like I made the right choice,” he notes. “I feel like my work is stronger and more powerful and more potent now because I devote my whole life to writing songs.”
It was around this time in 2015 Taylor began writing what would become his latest record “Heart Like a Levee,” released in October 2016. Hiss Golden Messenger is now touring, and opening shows for Americana-rock singer-songwriter Jason Isbell and the Drive-by Truckers.
“Heart Like a Levee” features artists from Taylor’s circle of musician friends, like Tift Merritt, Michael Lewis, Matt Douglas, and others. The Cook brothers, Brad (bass, guitar) and Phil (keyboards), of Megafaun play roles as well. All based in the Bull City, they’ve collaborated on other HGM albums, like “Lateness of Dancers” (2014), and Taylor spent a lot of time on the road with them, too. Coming back together on “Heart Like a Levee” was natural.
“They’re dear friends and also phenomenal musicians, and really beautiful people who have helped me through a lot of stuff,” Taylor says. “They’re an important part of the sound of my records now for sure. I think anybody that collaborates with the same people consistently starts to write for their voices. I certainly write for Brad and Phil’s voices in terms of what instruments they play.”
While Brad played bass on the album, he also helped produce it. Taylor often wrote in directions he knew the brothers would be able to add color and bring to life in their own ways.
“Phil brings a particularly … I don’t want to say ‘vintage,’ but he understands the way harmonic voicing works on a lot of records we like from the ‘60s and ‘70s,” Taylor explains, “A lot of soul and gospel and blues—he’s really a student of that.”
However, Taylor’s songwriting process is more personal and solitary. With more time to dedicate, he often spends months alone in his home studio, writing. He does a demo before recording the actual album. On the one for “Heart Like a Levee” he plays every instrument.
“It’s not as vibrant as the one everybody knows, but it is more primitive and personal,” Taylor details. “The longer I do this, the better I get to faking it on a bunch of different instruments [laughs]—and the better I get at sort of sussing out the soul of a song in my house alone, which is a very important part of the process. If I can figure out what makes a song tick by myself, then I can explain to everybody else why it works or why it should work.”
It’s sort of an existential dilemma Taylor always goes through, too, as he tries to figure out the final cut. It’s more than finalizing chords, melody and words. Digging through the emotional landscape of it all can take a lot longer once in the studio—deciding what aspects of those early versions of songs stay and what goes or changes.
“There’s often a layer of other things happening,” he says. “For example, when you hear ‘Heart Like a Levee’ and there’s an instrumental line that was part of the song from the very beginning. That was something that made me know out of all the ideas and song sketches I have, this is probably the one I’m going to keep.”
While “Heart Like a Levee” is pretty close to its original draft, “Happy Day” is another tune he kept true to the original. Its earliest version and final cut both feature vocals from fellow Americana-folk artist Tift Merritt. Still, Taylor finds himself unsure about when to walk away from a song.
“Often times what exists on early versions is very hard to capture if you’re not really cognizant of it is this impulsiveness and rawness that comes with a song being new,” Taylor continues. “The more you work at it and finesse it, the more in danger you are of losing its young spirit. . . . Generally, my rule is, if I’m not feeling something then I’m not going to put it out into the world. I don’t have any obligation to put something out that I’m not totally into.”
A prolific writer, Taylor is most often inspired and driven by what’s happening with his life. At this stage, he supposes he has at least a couple of albums worth of songs. He is preparing to record a new album in a couple of months, with his own “first draft” completed.
“I throw a lot of stuff away, though,” Taylor clarifies. “I take a little something from an idea and use it for something else. . . . I have the songs [for the next album] and I know the way I feel about them, but I still have to get in a room with the other guys and start to work on them.”
Though it’s now a huge part of his life and career, Taylor won’t be writing records about the life of a touring musician anytime soon. He sees this side of his work and related topics as being superficial, which wouldn’t produce songs audiences can connect to.
“There’s not going to be a lot of common ground between me and someone that isn’t doing exactly what I do,” Taylor notes. “I’m generally looking to sing about things that resonate with people who are otherwise totally unlike me on the surface. Then we all start to realize how similar we are. Even if [a listener] has no kids, works 9-to-5 at a bank, and might otherwise think there’s vast chasm between us, I would reckon we have more in common than we think. There’s a whole universe of things we’re both scared of and thrilled by that are the same.”
HGM will open for Jason Isbell on March 30 at CFCC’s Wilson Center and return with the Drive-by Truckers on April 19 at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater.