Q&A: MC TAYLOR
JM: I’m going to start with something I wrote after the last London show, because it seems even more salient to “Hallelujah Anyhow”: “Taylor’s understanding of how music can be a healing ritual – one where ordinary life embraces the transcendent, and which unites both players and audience in a shared series of epiphanies – becomes stronger and more profound as his following grows. He invokes crowd singalongs, on a rousing ‘Heart Like A Levee’ and an outstandingly soulful ‘Day O Day’, as a means to confound cynicism, no matter how dark it gets.” Does that make sense to you?
MCT: Yes, that makes sense. I don’t always encourage participation at our shows such as the one you describe. The mood has to be right, I have to have some premonition that the crowd will go to that place. Sometimes I’m asking people to sing because I’ve gained some inkling from where I’m standing onstage that they need or will appreciate the reminder that it feels good to sing along to a song that you like with a room full of strangers, that engagement of that sort is a way to emotionally re-centre, even for a little while. But – and this is important – sometimes I’m asking people to sing because I need that reminder. When I’m feeling rested and peaceful it seems obvious that hope and love are the best ways forward. But I’m not eternally optimistic; sometimes I’m seeking optimism and hope from the stage.
JM: You consistently reference darkness throughout the album, but avoid specifics; in fact, the relative lack of specifics on this album after “Heart Like A Levee/Vestapol” is noticeable. Was that intentional?
MCT: The album contains a multitude of specificity to me, but then I have an image, or images and feelings, that accompany my songs. But you’re referring to the fact that “Heart Like A Levee” contained more proper nouns – place names, particularly. I suppose that’s true, but it wasn’t intentional. I only notice it now that you mention it.
JM: As a consequence it feels like a protest album, but one which alludes to multitudes rather than overt contemporary targets? Was it a policy to avoid mentioning certain names?
MCT: Deciding to release a new album so closely after my last album, and so soon after the disastrous US election, meant that there was some danger of “Hallelujah Anyhow” being heard as a protest record. It is definitely not a protest record. I don’t really like protest records; I don’t feel like they ever age well, even if their intention is completely righteous, though I know there are plenty of exceptions.
These songs felt like they were flying over my head and I reached up and caught them. It was pretty simple in that way. There was an emotional urgency with this collection of music that felt spurred on by what I was seeing and hearing around me, the existential tenor of the winter and spring in my life and the lives of my friends and family. I’m trying to take the Annie Dillard approach: Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place…
As I see it, I make traditional music. And I understand tradition to be the most radical blending of emotion and art and intention, otherworldly fullness of spirit. Not mathematical, not scientific in the way that a scientist would define it; magic, almost. I invent things out of thin air but I’m guided by spirits that came before me. Tradition is an emotional language and way of carrying myself in the world. It’s deeply progressive, futuristic, even.
JM: I’ve taken to calling it a testament of metaphysical defiance?
MCT: OK, yes, I like that.
JM: Is there anything that makes you hopeful in these times beyond an enduring faith in human decency?
MCT: Being around people with honest and creative spirits makes me hopeful. And really, there are a lot of those types around. It’s just easy to see slobs like the current so-called US president because they are so loud.
JM: What’s the thing with Gulfport?
MCT: It’s one of the American Souths that I’m drawn to. We seem to pass through the area a lot. Biloxi, Lafayette, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Mobile. The Gulf Coast is its own world. Watch some of Les Blank’s documentaries, you’ll see what I’m talking about.
JM: And also the Van Morrison references (Sisters Of Mercy, Caledonia, Domino, Star Of The County Down)?
MCT: I do like Van. At the risk of being presumptuous, I think Van and I probably have similar interests and tastes; the way a melody sits in a groove, the way a lyric rolls or pulls, deep American and Irish vernacular culture. But yes, I do like Van, what can I say? Maybe my subconscious is trying to pay homage. Though I must say, I’m far more a fan of “Tupelo Honey” than I am “Astral Weeks”. “Astral Weeks” has always sounded like caterwauling to me. I’m sure many readers will be upset by that.
The Sisters Of Mercy I was referring to were from Leeds.
JM: If some of your previous songs have expressed a tension about being away from home on the road, “Domino” feels like a much more explicit celebration of the touring life? Is that correct?
MCT: “Domino” is an acknowledgment that what I do for a living is, on its face, funny. But this life has a pull for me; travelling for a living has been existentially good. It’s hard, and hard things are good, I think. When you travel a lot, so many perceived differences between people are flattened, and you realize how small the world is, and how everybody wants the same things – love, warmth, shelter, food, happiness. Things that are simple in description but also deeply rich and, for many, hard to get at.
“Domino” is also just a riff on just how long I’ve been traveling – about 25 years -with very little to show for it until very recently. I’m tremendously fortunate in that way. “Old SGs and cigarette smoke” – that sums up the early days of my life in music. Smoking cheap cigarettes in parking lots as a teenager. Trying to save up enough money to buy a Gibson SG.
JM: The record as a whole feels very live, punchy, urgent. How did you record it?
MCT: Five days of tracking as a live band with all the instruments bleeding into one another. Two days of overdubbing. Three days of mixing. Chris Boerner and Scott Hirsch, my friend of 25 years, at the controls. We made it very simply, the way most records that I love were made. We had been playing the songs for a few months so everyone knew their shapes, but every take had different colors. This record is meant to be immediate, straight to the heart.
The ongoing conversation about how music sounds better on vinyl is a funny one. Vinyl isn’t necessarily a better sounding medium. What I think listeners are referring to is actually the sound of people playing in a room together; mistakes left in, the sound of the drums and piano bleeding into each others’ microphones.
JM: Can you tell me a bit about the personnel this time round? I figured it was Ryan Gustafson on lead, until I saw the credits. Is that Josh Kaufman in the current tour lineup?
Since I met Josh a few years ago, I knew that he would be the fifth member of Hiss in some capacity at some point, and this was the time since he had just finished the biggest part of his work with Bob Weir. Josh and I have also been working at Levon Helm’s barn on a project for Levon’s daughter Amy, so we have that good connection. Josh is an otherworldly player and a great friend. He’s a family guy, which means a lot to me.
Ryan Gustafson continues to be a touring member of Hiss, a truly phenomenal and soulful musician, and one of my favorite songwriters. He makes records under the name The Dead Tongues that are deeply moving. I’m lucky to have him in my band. He is on his own trip completely.
The core of the band on “Hallelujah Anyhow” is Darren Jessee on drums, and Brad and Phil Cook on bass and keys and guitar, respectively. Darren is a lifer with a deep sense of rhythm. He is my engine and I’ve learned a lot just watching how he walks through the world. Brad and Phil are among my closest friends. They have been so good to me and I love them and trust them and respect them. They are two of the best musicians I’ve ever met and they’ve been a deep influence on my work. They lift me up. Our kids and parents hang out together. It’s that kind of connection.
JM: Given you released two albums only a year ago, do you feel an urgent need to seize a moment?
MCT: I feel an urgency in the sense that my songs are a way to communicate, and communication is more important to me than ever now. I’m not always a good talker but with music I can say things plain. But if you mean am I trying to capitalize on recent interest in Hiss, not really, not in a business savvy way. I know that more people are listening to my music now and that makes me want to go deeper inside myself, because I know that people respond to the personal and I want to be able to offer that up. I want that connection with people. If my music can be a bridge towards, I don’t know, engagement, then I’m going to work very hard to give that.
JM: Do you ever worry that the songs might dry up?
MCT: Not really. I start pulling a thread and realize it’s connected to a whole tapestry that is going to take me my whole life to finish. It’s not something worth worrying about. What did Gillian sing? I can get a straight job, I’ve done it before. Never minded working hard, it’s who I’m working for. That’s sort of how I feel about it. We’re gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay.