Hiss Golden Messenger on ‘Terms of Surrender’ and Living the Troubadour Lifestyle

Hiss Golden Messenger on Fatherhood, ‘Terms of Surrender,’ and the Troubadour Lifestyle

Durham, North Carolina’s Hiss Golden Messenger defies categorization, with a sound and lyricism that strikes a rare balance between idiosyncratic charm and universal appeal. Frontman MC Taylor is a visionary of the purest form, a chaser of dreams so committed that he bought himself a tour bus and set out to make his fortune long before he secured a record deal. Having played in indie and punk bands early in life, and kept an open ear to disparate sonic sensibilities, he pursued the troubadour life with an already rich musical heritage, and soaked up influences from every stop, drawing inspiration from the natural world, the tumultuous trajectories of life, and the elusive emotions that steer our experiences and shape our ideals. His emergent sound is deeply rooted in folk and Americana traditions, at once strikingly rustic and decidedly groove-based, with rock ‘n’ roll edge, gospel spirit, and a wealth of poetic detail. 

Over a decade into his career, Taylor has gleaned wisdom from his years in the industry, and recently gained perspective from the concurrent joys and challenges of fatherhood. Hiss Golden Messenger’s latest album, “Terms of Surrender,” explores the unspoken distortions that accompany realization of childhood fantasies, and the drama that swells from the discrepancies. With keen perception and wide-eyed wonder, he has fleshed out a set of songs both immediate and dense. Taylor worked with a host of acclaimed musicians on the new record, to craft a thoroughly realized work that offers plenty of stylistic variety, but comes across as an elegant, cohesive statement. As always, he ends on a note of optimism, and pays it forward, with a portion of proceeds from the band’s extensive, upcoming tour dedicated to improving public education. 

Taylor spoke with Entertainment Voice to demystify the musings of his latest album, and delve into the experiences and inspirations that shaped the music and upcoming tour. 

Your latest album is titled “Terms of Surrender,” which lends itself to broad interpretation. A common theme in the songs is a weary ambivalence, a sense of being caught between dualities — past and future, dark and light, comfort and turmoil. Is there a particular sense in which you set out to offer specific “terms of surrender?”

I think that once I had a chance to sort of stand back and gain a little bit of perspective on the songs, once I knew what songs were going to be on the album, and was able to look at the thematic threads, I was thinking a lot about how funny it is that the lives we think we want, the lives that we daydream about, are often much more complicated in reality than they appear in our daydreams, right? You know, it’s certainly that way for music, but then it occurred to me it’s that way for everybody. I think everybody has some idea of what they want their life to look and feel like, and if they are fortunate enough to ever get to that point, rarely does it look and feel like they thought it was going to. I think that’s one part of the record that I was sort of involved with, for sure.

When you say it rarely feels like people expected, do you think people are usually aware of that?

That’s a good question. I don’t know the answer to that. I can only speak to my own experience. When I was a kid daydreaming about being a musician, it looked a little different. It didn’t look better. It just looked different. There are some pretty extreme sacrifices that we make in this line of work, in order to do this thing that we love. I have two kids, six and ten years old, and I have to say goodbye to them quite frequently, and that’s how it’s going to be because of where I am in my career, and what I’m trying to do. The places that I’m trying to reach require me to travel a lot. That kind of sacrifice, if you’re a person that loves your family, is pretty extreme, actually.  

You recorded the new album with some other illustrious musicians — Aaron Dessner, Jenny Lewis, Josh Kaufman. What are some specific ways in which their individual contributions shaped the sound and feel of the record?

We recorded the bulk of the record in Aaron Dessner’s studio in upstate New York, and he was not producing the record, but he plays on every song. And at least to my ear, you can hear his sensibility in the music. It’s not overwhelming or distracting, but there are certain parts on the record that I think to myself, “That feels like something that he would play on a National song.” In a way, that’s great because although Hiss and a band like the National occupy different spaces, there is a lot of shared territory between those two bands, so it was interesting to see him taking his skill set, which is so sharp with the National, and applying it to something slightly different. That was really fun. 

And then Jenny Lewis — I knew that I wanted another voice on this record, and I knew that I wanted it to be a female voice. I wasn’t quite sure who that would be, although at the top of my shortlist was Jenny’s name. I didn’t really know her, but we have many mutual friends, and it just so happened that we were in the same place at the same time, and I was recording, I was singing, and I was able to convince her to come over, and she ended up staying all day and singing. I felt very fortunate with that one.  

The video for your single “I Need a Teacher” was filmed during the North Carolina Association of Educators’ protests, and you’re donating a dollar from every ticket of your upcoming fall tour to the Durham Public Schools Foundation. Why do you think American public school teachers are so underfunded and undervalued, and what might you consider the optimal solution?  

(Laughs). I mean the optimal solution would be, in my opinion, to fund public education adequately. That requires truly understanding that public education — access to education for everybody, regardless of class — is the foundation to a healthy democracy. Why do I think that public education has essentially been always the first on the chopping block when it comes to budgeting? I think probably because for a lot of our country, teachers have been discouraged from organizing in order to bargain with the state. I grew up with public educators as parents. My wife is a public school teacher. It’s not an easy job. In fact, it’s probably the hardest job that I have seen. There’s so much finesse involved in teaching, and you don’t do it for the pay, because the pay is not good. I just felt like I’m at a point in my career where I am fortunate enough to be able to use my voice for good, and this was an area that I feel pretty strongly about. I would like to see a day when my wife is not having to go buy her own school supplies at the start of every school year. That, to me, is beyond ridiculous.  

Your songs “Bright Direction (You’re a Dark Star Now)” and “Cat’s Eye Blue” both feature unsettling, cautionary lyrics about crossing lines and making choices. How do the central sentiments and stories of the two songs relate to one another, if at all?

Well, they were written at the same time, so even if they were not explicitly connected, they were in my brain at the same time. I think “Bright Direction” is kind of a rambling song, in terms of the way it feels and, you know, this idea of “make sure you take a picture,” which is kind of one of the central lines in that song. Everything is changing. Remember what you can. 

Your lyrics abound with references to the likes of birds, fire, and water. How did nature come to be such an integral part of your songwriting? Was it partly influenced by actual immersion in nature, or merely a natural reference in the tradition of romantic poets?

I think probably both. I hadn’t really thought about that, but I think probably both. All of that goes into it. It’s just the world appearing in the songs.

“Old Enough to Wonder Why” is a sonic standout, as it combines the rustic stylings that characterize your music with other atypical elements like a crisp, minimal beat, wah-wahs, siren-like sounds, and lyrics like “Come and meet me on the east side.” Was this designed as a phantom reimaging of styles far removed? 

(Laughs). You know, Hiss Golden Messenger has always been a very rhythmic band. That’s one thing that has been consistent about this from the beginning, so I never feel as far removed from groove-driven music as other people think I am, but “Old Enough to Wonder Why” was more explicit. I love the broken beat kind of stuff that someone like Dilla does. Or someone like Questlove is really good at creating these grooves that are kind of broken. It’s hard to figure out what the groove is. I don’t know. I think I was trying to write sort of like a lowrider song with that tune — sort of like a sensitive lowrider song (Laughs). 

While the new songs range from upbeat and propulsive to fractured and sluggish, there seems a somewhat consistent tranquility to their ebb and flow. Is this meant to mirror the theme of surrender?

(Laughs) I think that just happened. I do know what you mean, totally.

In an album full of somewhat opaque lyrics, “Happy Birthday, Baby” strikes as a relatively straightforwardly sincere song, if slightly melancholy. How did this song originate, and how does it fit into the rest of the record?

That song was written for my daughter on her fifth birthday, so it was in the summer of 2018, and she felt that I was traveling around the world, singing songs about her older brother, so she kind of expressed some dismay that there wasn’t a song about her that I was singing, although there were many songs about her. But I just told her, “Well, I’m going to write you a song, and it’s going to be about you, and then you’ll know that I’m singing this song about you.” So I wrote that song, and then I realized later that really, at this point in our respective lives, the song is probably more for me now, and will be something that she hopefully grows into later. It’s really something of an apology. It’s also a deep expression of love, but it’s also something of an apology to her for the ways that my work takes me away from home so often. 

Considering all its emotional range and weight, do you personally consider “Terms of Surrender” more of an optimistic or pessimistic album, and why?

I think it’s both. I think when I first started out writing the songs, the material had a very dark hue to it, and I worked for a long time to find the more golden threads in it, because I don’t want to put a record out that feels dark and pessimistic. That, to me, does not feel like a productive use of my voice. Whatever complicated time I spent during the writing of these songs was trying to find the silver linings, because I really didn’t want to put out a record that just felt heavy and under a dark cloud. So I think that the record, like so much of the music that I’ve put out, is sort of bittersweet. It exists in the present, and the present feels both sad and jubilant at the same time. 

Having released music for over a decade, how do you feel the latest album fits into Hiss Golden Messenger’s oeuvre and overall musical evolution?

You know, I always think of my records as chapters in a book that I’m writing. There are no huge, drastic departures, but I intend for the music to be deep. I want people to spend time with the music, and sort of peel back the layers, and forge their own relationships with the music over time. I feel like my music is accessible, but there are a lot of layers, so I think the more time people give it, the more it reveals itself. And that’s the kind of music that I like the most myself. I don’t like something that I immediately love on first lesson. 

With everything from banjo, mandolin, steel guitar, electric piano, and bits of field recording, the new album must be quite a feat to reproduce on stage. On the other hand, the songs derive most of their power from their primal immediacy, and could be just as powerful in stripped-down arrangements. What kind of musical performance can fans expect from the live show?

I’ve never been that interested in recreating exactly what appears on the album. We’ve spent a lot of time in rehearsals for this tour, and it feels like whatever we’re doing live, the essence of the songs is there. I think you’re right in that there’s a personality to this music that is pretty central to the way the songs exist in the world, so we’ve taken care to make sure that that is intact when we play these songs. 

Terms of Surrender” is available Sept. 20 on Apple Music. Hiss Golden Messenger’s U.S. tour runs from Sept. 24 to Nov. 30. Dates and tickets are available here.