The Father, The Sun And The Holy Ghost…
Nowadays, MC Taylor – Mike to his friends – lives 25 miles away in Durham, an old tobacco town which is also home to an eminent private university, Duke. Some of the tobacco mills have passed through a requisite period of dereliction, and now stand gentrified. Heading out to Pittsboro, Taylor swings past one where, he has discovered, bluesmen like Blind Boy Fuller and the Reverend Gary Davis would play outside the packing house on payday. It has been repurposed as condominiums.
Taylor’s new house is still surrounded by trees, though the neighbourhood is conventionally suburban rather than borderline feral. The porch looks out on a forest full of cardinals, the state bird of North Carolina. Inside, there are framed posters from Ronnie Lane and Richard & Linda Thompson shows, and great racks of vinyl that provide further clues to an obsession. One pile, on the floor in the basement, could act as a glossary to Hiss Golden Messenger’s music: Slow Train Coming, Fisherman’s Blues, American Beauty; a few British folk treasures by The Watersons, Barry Dransfield and Dando Shaft; Little Feat, Lee Perry, John Fahey and Bill Fay; Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music; more recent underground classics from Brightblack Morning Light and Chris Forsyth; a tranche of mint vinyl from Taylor’s new record label, Merge.
“Mike’s grasp of the American music catalogue is baffling,” says Phil Cook, a multi-instrumentalist who has played with Hiss Golden Messenger as well as Justin Vernon, Matthew E White and his own band, Megafaun. “He’s turned me on to every record that I’ve obsessed over in the last three years. He’s connected a lot of dots and opened whole worlds for me.”
Just as significantly, though, Taylor’s home is full of Lego and the toys of his children Elijah, five, and Ione, one. From Bad Debt onwards, Hiss Golden Messenger’s albums have seen Taylor grapple with big ideas about responsibility and doubt, faith and mortality, spiralling out from the everyday pressures of parenthood. “The way I’ve incorporated music into my life is woven into the fabric of all the other obligations I have,” he says, “whether it’s kids or dealing with the garden. I don’t have a choice, so it’s either music and the other stuff fighting with each other, or doing it in such a way that music is enriched by all of that.
“It’s not intentional, but part of what Hiss Golden Messenger does is destabilise the idea of rock’n’roll as a vocation, as being this sort of hedonistic…” He trails off for a moment to choose the right words. “It’s fun to confront people and talk about what it means to be a grown-up American male with a couple of kids and a marginally successful career and a job. I’m not special.
“I’m just lucky, I guess. I’ve had a lot of practise at writing songs, and for some reason I’ve stuck with it. I felt like it was something that was important in my life, and it took me a really long time to figure out how to make a song that felt genuine to me, and seemed to affect other people. And y’know, part of that is maybe a gift, but a lot of it is just sweat and grinding it out. I can write some good songs that people enjoy. But it took 20 years.”