The artist known as Hiss Golden Messenger talks being a musician in today’s world — and the unexpected theme of his latest record.
by David Menconi
The past few months, Mike “M.C.” Taylor has had a new favorite pastime: taking in how people respond when he tells them about his next move as Hiss Golden Messenger. Titled O Come All Ye Faithful, it is, believe it or not, a bona fide holiday-season album, and it’s coming out this month.
“It’s like this year’s big gift for me is hearing people’s reactions,” Taylor says with a laugh. “I have to admit it’s not something I’d been thinking about for a long time or anything.” The idea for the album came during a shopping trip at Target last year, he says: “They were playing this big, brash, uptempo Christmas music that almost screamed, Shop harder! But it was at a time when everyone was really emotionally fatigued. I wanted to respond to that.”
For a model, he turned to jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi’s classic 1965 soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas — “a perfect mix of joyful and sorrowful colors mixed together in an exquisite way,” in Taylor’s estimation — with originals and covers of seasonal chestnuts including “Joy to the World,” “Silent Night,” and the title track. It is, he notes, the most on-record mentions of the name “Jesus” he’s ever had on a Hiss Golden Messenger album.
On the one hand, this seems like a pretty big curveball in the wake of one’s first-ever Grammy nomination; last year Hiss Golden Messenger was nominated for Best Americana Album with 2019’s Terms of Surrender (though Sarah Jarosz ultimately took the prize with World on the Ground). On the other hand, however, it’s entirely in character for an artist who has had a wholly unconventional career path.
A California native, Taylor was a skateboard kid who grew up on hip-hop and hardcore before turning in more of an Americana direction as an adult. In 2007, graduate studies at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s folklore department drew Taylor to the Triangle, where he set up shop as Hiss Golden Messenger. Taylor has thrived in North Carolina, leading a soulful country-rock band that’s been known to pull in the guest talents of a wide range of artists, from electronic duo Sylvan Esso to folk singing matriarch Alice Gerrard.
Taylor’s first critically acclaimed Hiss Golden Messenger album was 2013’s Haw, named after the North Carolina river, with steady rolling undercurrents of life’s day-to-day agonies and ecstasies. Taylor sings as the everyman, his songs typically written in first-person, touching on themes that are on his mind, from work-life balance to politics. He takes his music seriously, but often presents it tongue-in-cheek; even the album titles are self-mocking, like Hallelujah Anyhow (2017) and Quietly Blowing It, released earlier this year.
“Calling a record Quietly Blowing It fit where I was at in my life, and also humans as a species,” Taylor says. “There are a lot of ways everybody’s blowing it much more loudly. But the ways we’re blowing it quietly might be more insidious. For me, it’s the ways I’ve failed to communicate clearly enough, or hide inside myself when I should be more engaged with what’s happening around me. I find myself dealing with imposter syndrome a lot. Like, Is what I’m doing making a difference? Is it worth the time away from family? Am I making things in my community worse by chasing after this thing I do, making music?”
While it’s not exactly a quarantine record, Quietly Blowing It did emerge out of last year’s coronavirus pandemic. Finding himself at home with unexpected time on his hands in the spring of 2020, Taylor was initially glad to be home with family. But that yielded to unease at the pandemic’s rising worldwide death toll and the issues brought to the fore with protests over the murder of George Floyd. In short order, he was writing another batch of songs. The music on Quietly Blowing It has touches of soothing old-school R&B, with horns adding a hint of big-band brassiness. But Taylor’s angst at the center of it is very real. On the album’s final song, “Sanctuary,” Taylor concludes with an epigram for his work:
Feeling bad, feeling blue
Can’t get out of my own mind
But I know how to sing about it.
“My opinion about the state of the world depends on the day,” he says. “Mostly I don’t feel great about it, but I have two kids who will inherit this world someday. It feels incumbent on us older people to do what we can to pass on a place that does not feel as trashed as it does now. There’s so much grief, but also moments of hope, joy, and collective action. And I can sing about all of it.”
This story originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of WALTER magazine.