MC Taylor isn’t especially interested in looking back over the past releases by his group, Hiss Golden Messenger. For one thing, there are a lot of them. Between full albums, singles, collaborations, and live cuts, you’re looking at 30 or so different projects in the last 12 years. For the last five of those years, the Durham, N.C. singer/songwriter has been working with the much-adored indie label Merge, releasing five albums of richly arranged, endlessly melodic modern folk-country rock, merging a rustic, rootsy, acoustic-based aesthetic with some of the catchiest songs this side of Paul McCartney or Elvis Costello.
And when the songs seem to flow as freely from Taylor’s pen as they do, there’s no point in looking back. But that’s what he did on last year’s four-album box set, Devotion: Songs About Rivers And Spirits And Children. The set packaged remastered versions of three early Hiss Golden Messenger albums, 2010’s Bad Debt, 2011’s Poor Moon, and 2013’s Haw, with Virgo Fool, a collection of rare material, creating a one-stop treasure trove for the band’s growing cult of devoted fans.
“It was fun,” Taylor says of compiling Devotion. “The material is not actually that old; it’s not like I was looking back 25 years. That music is still in my recent past. But nevertheless it was interesting to revisit it. As I’m making a record, I spend a lot of time with the music, including composition and recording and mixing and mastering, so by the time the record comes out I generally don’t ever listen to it again, because I spent so much time with it. So being quote-unquote ‘forced’ to listen to it all again was interesting.”
One can actually hear the evolution of Taylor’s music on those three albums, as he moves from a lo-fi solo acoustic mode (Bad Debt) to a more raw version of the folk-rock he makes now (Haw), and that’s what Taylor heard, too.
“Looking back over those earlier albums, It made me happy because it felt like the honesty I felt when I was making those records was still intact,” he says. “Thematically, there was a through line from the earliest records to what I’m doing now. I always describe each Hiss record as a new chapter in an ongoing book. And listening back I felt like that was still true.”
The most recent chapters in that book are two new singles that the band (which has an ever-changing lineup but typically includes guitarist/pianist Phil Cook and guitarist Josh Kaufman as Taylor’s main collaborators) have released since the beginning of the year.
“Watching The Wires” is a shimmering, gentle rocker that merges rippling guitars and a deep rhythm bed to create a soothing pulse not unlike Fleetwood Mac’s early-’80s work, and “Everybody Needs Somebody” is a spare, organ-fueled ballad about human connection that grooves like an old soul number.
The songs are nothing alike, in other words, and that’s how Taylor wanted them to be.
“I wanted to release a couple of songs into the world that would each stand alone,” he says. “My idea was to record and release a couple of songs as singles from inception to release within a few months just to see if I could do it. It’s something that I feel like people did more of back in the ’60s and ’70s, releasing standalone tunes.”
And, with that goal achieved, Taylor has already moved on. Hiss Golden Messenger is finishing up a new album that will have an entirely different feel from those singles, and that will have some pretty exciting collaborations on it.
“We’re getting ready to officially announce it within the next couple of weeks,” Taylor says. “The sound of ‘Watching the Wires’ and ‘Everybody Needs Somebody’ is not really the sound of the new record. It’s super high-fidelity and in full color, as I like to say. We really spent a lot of time with it. A lot of it was made in upstate New York, some of it was made in LA, and some of it was done in Nashville with most of my regular collaborators, and then it has some new folks. Aaron Dessner from the National and Jenny Lewis, those are people that were in the band for this record.”
For Taylor, standing still isn’t an option, hence the new collaborators, different sounds and lineup shifts. But by the same token, he’s not interested in shaking things up for just for the sake of change. It’s a tricky position to work from.
“I’m always going to notice when something sounds or feels different, and I have to make sure that that evolution, which is a natural process, feels genuine,” he says. “Whatever evolution is happening, I have to feel like it’s moving the music melodically, thematically or rhythmically in a genuine and honest way, whatever that might mean to me. I’m not going to force something because I feel that outside forces are asking me to do that. But at the same time I have to change or it’s not going to be fun for me anymore.”
Given that Taylor writes all the songs for Hiss Golden Messenger, and there’s no such thing as a set-in-stone lineup, one wonders why Taylor doesn’t simply make these albums under his own name. He readily admits that the band is “my thing,” but he values his bandmates both because they can enhance his songs and call him on his weaknesses.
“I certainly welcome all kinds of input from people whose musical voices I trust,” he says. “I’m very happy to go back and forth with someone like Phil or Josh about Hiss Golden Messenger songs, because I know that they have years of experience of dealing with me. They know what I’m trying to accomplish, and they know where I get lazy, or when I’m trying to take a shortcut.”