The first Sunday of November is gorgeous and temperate in Old West Durham. A fleet of young families accordingly pushes strollers up the street; they praise the peaks of early fall foliage as they make their way to a food-truck corral blocks ahead. The houses in this neighborhood are many decades older than most of their inhabitants. Thickly coated with new paint, they're charming if obvious attempts to give something old a re-created youth.
M.C. Taylor, or Mike, is the mastermind of the lush, logocentric folk-rock outfit Hiss Golden Messenger. He lives here in a small, unassuming, off-white, one-story house. A three-wheel stroller lies on its side beside the front walk. A Big Wheel sits abandoned in a similar pose on the front porch. Inside, the living room is strewn with Tinker Toys. Taylor's not-quite-3-year-old son, Elijah, has come down with a bad cough, so Taylor has given him extra playtime before a nap, his wife, Abby, explains. With all the special treatment he's received from his doting father, she says Elijah might decide to never get better.
Taylor leaves his work in the office to sit on one of the wicker chairs that adorn the porch. Before his move to North Carolina from San Francisco in 2007, music and the pursuit of it dominated the first 20 years of his life. These days, the 36-year-old takes it easy. He's relaxed in his role as a family man; the most important thing in his life is sleeping quietly inside the house.
"My move here sort of contributed and coincided with a lot of changes in my life and changes in the way that I think about how art functions in my life and the role that I want it to play," he says. For years, Taylor struggled for any degree of success in the band The Court and Spark, which relocated to the Triangle in the summer of 2007. "By the time that we moved here, I had been touring for a long time. We were in debt still until, like, last year from that band. I was thinking that there's a different way to engage with music than the way that I'm doing it now."
In The Court and Spark, Taylor followed the old system toward popularity and, in many cases, failure: write a record, make a record, tour the record and repeat, all in hopes it becomes a sustainable life decision. With Hiss Golden Messenger, Taylor is content to steadily and slowly carve his songs and record them when he can. The haiku masters of Japan inspire Taylor to strive patiently for a similar economy of language.
On Poor Moon, the LP he released this month on the previously reissue-only Durham imprint Paradise of Bachelors, he sings these words over arrangements that weave myriad strands of American music into a new tapestry that feels at once familiar and foreign. "Blue Country Mystic," for instance, moves with sensual funk energy, but its organ-and-acoustic arrangement points to the cosmic side of country. "Super Blue (Two Days)" runs lean and loose on spacious, druggy folk-rock but moves with a militant groove that harkens to the searing intensity of the blues. If you were looking for a confusing crash course on the interbreeding of America's musical forms, you could do worse than Poor Moon.
Says Paradise of Bachelors co-founder Brendan Greaves, "I think it's that push-pull aspect of Hiss Golden Messenger—in terms of embracing the past but moving forward as well."
Greaves and his partner Jason Perlmutter think of their operation as a label and an archive dedicated to releasing under-recognized music that works within the Southern vernacular. Their other proper release, Said I Had a Vision, compiled songs from David Lee, a Cleveland County-based songwriter and record producer who blurred the lines between soul, R&B and gospel starting some six decades ago. Their other large project to this point has been resuscitating Tobacco-a-Go-Go, a stunning collection of garage oddities recorded in North Carolina in the '60s. Until they found the remaining copies, the stock of Tobacco had been sitting around mostly unappreciated since its release in 1984. A melting pot of styles and a permutation of gospel, Poor Moon was the perfect follow-up.
"I do find that fascinating that Mike is coming directly out of that lineage of '70s country and '70s songwriters," says Greaves, "and some of the innovations in terms of prog rock and reggae, and taking these influences and pushing them forward."
Poor Moon also works within what Greaves and Perlmutter call the Southern vernacular, not only in terms of sound but also through the spiritual nature of its songs. The album rounds out a song-cycle that Taylor began with last year's rough, acoustic outing, Bad Debt—in short, Taylor's reckoning with his religion.
"I've been thinking a lot, especially since we had Elijah, about this idea of God," Taylor says, "and whether God exists and what my relationship is to something that I can't really understand and can't comprehend except through evidence of things that are so subtly spiritual, like the way leaves change."
The images and allusions in Taylor's tunes are mostly Christian, but his view is very much a struggle to find some greater meaning to hold onto while criticizing the parts he can't quite handle. Bad Debt's "The Serpent is Kind (Compared to Man)," for instance, twists familiar folk and gospel imagery, pointing out an essential problem that Taylor sees in the Christian myth: God, as creator, is directly responsible for the wickedness of man. In the song, a poor farmer advises his son, "Don't be afraid when a snake is at hand/ A serpent is kind compared to man." Perhaps the most universal symbol of sin in the entire Christian tradition, the serpent works here as a sign of innocence.
But Taylor isn't trying to offend or even subvert. He's simply working through alien ideas, yearning for the embrace of some kind of faith to make him feel at ease about his fragile place in a crazy world.
"I think being a father sort of reminded me—or not really reminded me because I'm not sure I ever knew it before—but explained to me that I'm in control of so little in this world. I'm in control of like 5 percent of what happens in my life," he says. "Wouldn't it be nice to feel as though there was something else at work that was helping me get through? I mean, I think this is what church-based religion is so often about, this sort of comfort in the darkness."
"Call Him Daylight," from Poor Moon, rumbles with a dark, driving country stomp that's awfully menacing for only bass, acoustic guitar and piano. Taylor pulls out his most metaphorical brush, painting a tale about a powerful deity that comes each day with the dawn. "You come at such a time as you see fit, no compromise/ That's why I call you Daylight," he sings of something equal parts savior and destroyer. This force sends "doe-eyed children" to war and takes ownership over our souls. Still, in the refrain, Taylor exults, "When my ship comes in, I'm going to lose control," indicating that faith in this force may be rewarded in the end.
In the last lines, Taylor exchanges perspectives, becoming Daylight and singing with an audible sneer and smirk, "Now, do you know me?/ Your one and only." The switch affords an intriguing mix of faith and fear.
"What Hiss Golden Messenger's been doing lately relates to gospel music traditions in ways that are contrary to the style or genre that you might immediately place the music in upon first listening to it. I think that kind of tension is really interesting between sacred and secular and how [Taylor] is navigating those realms in the last couple records," explains Greaves. "It is in some way inherently spiritual music."
Taylor's songs are built on eternal questions; then again, Taylor himself is actually never done with them. He revisits and rebuilds four numbers from Bad Debt for Poor Moon. He was interested to see how they would hold up in the context of a full band, but he also just wasn't through exploring the aesthetics and themes he created. As he sees it, revisiting a song and performing it with a new perspective can be just as powerful as a new composition.
"Nobody does this anymore, but songwriters from the early 20th century on were always recording different renditions of their songs," Taylor says, citing artists like Van Morrison and Bert Jansch as more recent examples. "I appreciate that. I think it's interesting to see an artist re-visit songs throughout the course of their career because the song changes. The delivery changes just with the age of the person singing it. I think it's interesting to continue that engagement with a song because my relationship with songs that I write doesn't end when I record them and put them on the record."
As Taylor says this, he gazes out at his revitalized neighborhood, still teeming with young families. In his art and in his life, Taylor is in the business of making the old new again. The spiritual upheaval he explores remains crucial, even if it's been a part of American songwriting since its beginnings. His sounds are antiquated but recombined.
Hiss Golden Messenger is interested in styles and themes that are both eternal and immediate. Taylor could revisit these tunes a hundred times, and it wouldn't really matter. With songs like these, the returns don't diminish; they just change.
Correction (Nov. 27, 2011): Paradise of Bachelors is based in Durham (not Hillsborough).