The Southern baptism of Hiss Golden Messenger | Music Feature | Indy Week
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The Southern baptism of Hiss Golden Messenger 

On Hiss Golden Messenger's profound new record, "Haw," Michael Taylor delivers songs with complete authority, maybe like a reverend but more like a trusted uncle who's rich with experience and little else.

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

On Hiss Golden Messenger's profound new record, "Haw," Michael Taylor delivers songs with complete authority, maybe like a reverend but more like a trusted uncle who's rich with experience and little else.

The sun was at least an hour away from the horizon when Michael Taylor sent me a text message on a recent Tuesday morning. Taylor makes what's most readily described as folk-rock under the name Hiss Golden Messenger, and I wanted to ask him some questions about his new record, Haw. We had previously decided to meet at a relaxed and affordable Durham bar, the Surf Club, when we'd both finished our day's work.

But before 6 a.m., Taylor had a more comfortable alternative in mind—his new home, about two miles north of downtown Durham. "We could also meet at my house again, and I could pick up a six-pack," he wrote, well ahead of the dawn. "Preferable, actually."

When I arrived that evening just after 5 p.m., Taylor was already in the kitchen with his wife, Abby, and their 4-year-old son, Elijah. Abby had spent the day at home with Elijah, who had a cold but was now picking playfully at his vegetables before his parents put him to bed. He sat in his daddy's lap, answering questions and occasionally sniffling. When Taylor, assorted six-pack in hand, excused himself to head downstairs to his small basement office, Elijah followed.

"Go finish your dinner," Taylor said patiently the second time Elijah poked his head around the office's ridged white walls. "I'll be up to put you to bed soon."

In early April, Taylor released Haw, his sixth album as Hiss Golden Messenger and first proper release since 2011's Poor Moon pushed his cerebral and visceral folk-rock hymns toward a noticeably wider audience. Already, Haw is one of the year's most well-received records, with its meditations on family and faith, sinfulness and saintliness bolstered by a rock band rhythm section and supreme session players.

In the last few weeks, it's aggregated largely unequivocal praise from The New York Times and Pitchfork Media, The Sunday Times and Paste. "Taylor is serious enough to understand that deliverance and pain are eternally intertwined," critic Alastair McKay wrote in his rave Uncut review, in which Haw landed a nearly perfect score.

In spite of the surge of attention, Taylor, 37, has been spending a lot of time at home since Haw's release, more concerned about raising his family than squeezing financial lifeblood from sudden fanfare.

He and Abby are expecting their second child, a girl, in July, and they bought this house just past Northgate Mall in late January. The verdant beginnings of tomato plants in the front yard and the Tetris-like array of boxes tucked in basement corners speak to a family finally setting down deep roots. Sure, Taylor will tour some later this year behind Haw, but as music goes, he's more interested in the new songs he's been writing in the office downstairs. Its lone window opens on the backyard of the place he hopes to call home forever.

"There are a lot of different forces pulling at me right now," he says. "There's home, having a family and this safe feeling of being here as I navigate these existential crises, which is what the making of Haw felt like. To be able to be rooted in a place feels really good."

Taylor's voice is husky and warm, with little tremolo effect or falsetto reach, but with a core that actually suggests the hearth of the family home. If you first heard Taylor in a lineup of folk-rock singers, he might serve as the mathematical mean—not particularly nuanced or idiosyncratic, but incredibly approachable. On the profound Haw, though, he delivers songs with complete authority, maybe like a reverend but more like a trusted uncle who's rich with experience and little else.

With careful takes on what it means to be righteous and wrong, Haw's songs read like that, too, with characters who dip into depravity but fight against it, with sweet redemption that always totes a generous price tag. A California native, Taylor moved to North Carolina in the summer of 2007. His longtime love of the South—its music, folklore, mythos and complexity—served as a primary catalyst for the migration. As such, Haw overruns with those ideas and allusions, from a communion of cold Cheerwine cola (invented almost a century ago in nearby Salisbury) to mentions of string bands and the inclusion of instrumentals that suggest them. Taylor is not particularly religious, but he slyly uses the iconography of Christianity—from the serpent to Daniel's time in the lion's den—to sort through his very secular concerns.

Beneath all of that, Taylor's backing unit often punches as though they're playing funk music. The deep-pocket beats and bulbous bass lines are the muscle within Taylor's one-man mission to let Hiss Golden Messenger be whatever it needs to be. It sounds like very little that indie rock considers cool in 2013.

"The thing is, all of this attention for this record will be gone really soon, in less than a month. The only thing left to do after that is to do more work," he says. "I'm trying to keep it human. I'm glad that I have my family and responsibilities to keep me grounded, because I can see how people just spin off into the ether."

None of this should be mistaken for mid-life complacence or simple defiance of how bands conduct their business. Taylor tried the standard model of band life—existing in squalor, scraping together money to spend in a studio, living and dying by the road—long before he started Hiss Golden Messenger, and long before he relocated to join the folklore graduate program at UNC–Chapel Hill.

As a teenage student at the University of California–Santa Barbara, Taylor was a young punk with swelling tastes. He was raised in Irvine, where his dad played in a folk band, The Settlers, and always had a guitar sitting around.

"That's where I first understood that humans could play music," Taylor offers with reverence.

But he didn't stick around for his dad's folk too long. An avid skateboarder in the late '80s, Taylor rented skating tapes at the local video store, inevitably connecting with the sound of that thriving counterculture. One day, he gathered his coins, skated to the local record store and plopped down enough money for Change Today?, a 1984 tape from Long Beach punks T.S.O.L. More hardcore and hip-hop—particularly the revelations of Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising—followed. He loved the sense of discovery new music provided.

Early in college, Taylor met Scott Hirsch, another young California punk with eclectic tastes. Taylor saw Hirsch's band during their freshman year, and the two soon co-founded Ex-Ignota, a mutated hardcore group that hit the road and enjoyed some regional success.

"Compared to the other bands we played with, we had broad tastes. We were never interested in following just one direction," remembers Hirsch. Instead of beer pong, for instance, they called their college drinking game Anonymix: Each person would take a turn playing the most mind-blowing cut he could conjure. "We were always exploring new things other than what we were actively playing."

Tired of hardcore's confinement, Taylor and Hirsch started a new band that toyed with what was then the bleeding edge of indie rock—the jazz mind-melds of Tortoise and the post-rock precursor of Slint. After college, Hirsch headed north to San Francisco, while Taylor, who had finished school early, headed back to Irvine to live with his parents. He started listening to the records his dad loved, following the country-rock rabbit hole of The Byrds, their progenitors and their peers. Months later, he showed up at Hirsch's door with a beard on his face and a banjo in his hands.

He'd been writing country tunes. He sat down and played them. The Court & Spark were born.

The Court & Spark were a country band in the same sense that Ex-Ignota were a hardcore band or, a decade later, Hiss Golden Messenger became a folk-rock band. That is, they fractured that definition, exploiting their eclectic and experimental tendencies to turn country tunes into spectral think pieces. The Court & Spark made several fine records for mid-level independent labels. More than a half-decade since their breakup, they're clear precursors of the folk-rock rise that's since pushed bands from Fleet Foxes to The Lumineers to massive stages and Billboard charts. But The Court & Spark never made it that far.

"That band," as Taylor puts it with an interrupting sigh, "was a failure in a lot of ways."

He dismisses the music as monochromatic, noting that, sometimes, they paid more attention to technique and tone than emotion and craft. Indeed, Taylor remembers that era mostly for the troubles endured and the lessons learned. Most of the parables deal with the concessions and compromises he made in attempts to turn his hobby into a livelihood. As he puts it, the band peaked early, when its interest in resurfacing country music still felt like a new idea; they spent the next several years chasing their early promise but never quite matching it. A string of producers helped The Court & Spark blanch the color from their songs with what the young band perceived back then as good advice. They plowed ahead, sowing mostly frustration.

Hirsch dismisses Taylor's assessment of abject failure, but he does admit that The Court & Spark tried to tailor themselves to what they reckoned people wanted. "We would never have admitted it," he says, "but there was definitely a touch of, 'Well, maybe we should sing less nasally here' or 'Let's try to do this kind of tune to put on this record.'"

In 2005, The Court & Spark even accepted an invitation to open for the young and promising Kings of Leon at San Francisco's Great American Music Hall. "Everyone's gonna love us, too," Taylor remembers of their internal reasoning. "Trust us."

The gig paid $50, and it didn't tap into the bevy of new fans they'd hoped. Within two years, The Court & Spark were finished. The takeaways were as bitter as they were clear.

"Just do what you fucking want, and only make the music you want to make," says Taylor, scowling a bit as he condenses a decade of music into a musician's fortune cookie. "When all of the other people that are around right now are gone, all that's going to be left is this music you made. Do you want that testament to be these compromises you didn't want to make?"

The best way to make fewer compromises, Taylor found, was to make none at all: As The Court & Spark faded away, he began recording songs that were only his. Hirsch accompanied him on bass, as he still does seven years on, but even now, Taylor makes it clear that Hiss Golden Messenger songs are his responsibility. From the workmanlike lyric building and the strong backbeat to the way he wants to shade these tunes texturally, every Hiss Golden Messenger number begins and ends with Michael Taylor. He has a band, sure, but as he admits without hesitation, "I don't really think of Hiss Golden Messenger as a band."

Though Hiss Golden Messenger technically started in California, Taylor believes that his earliest material under that name mostly worked through The Court & Spark's cobwebs. Instead, Hiss Golden Messenger is a Southern project, born back in the Bay but reared in an isolated rental house on several acres on the banks of the Haw River near Pittsboro. That's where Taylor and Abby moved just after Elijah was born. Taylor had a little office in that house, but he mostly sat at the kitchen table, writing what became Bad Debt with Elijah sleeping at his side. In the morning, before dawn and before the baby awoke, he recorded those tunes. Bad Debt is the third Hiss Golden Messenger album, but in retrospect, it feels like a declaration of intent, a sensation that links it with the best debuts.

"At the kitchen table, alone, with Elijah in his crib: That was powerful. That's the seed of Hiss Golden Messenger that has grown into whatever small tree it is now," Taylor says. "The emotional core of it is really small and really personal. It is music that I like to play, music that I can play confidently, music that sounds only like me."

Taylor didn't know many people in North Carolina outside of the university setting. He'd largely severed his ties with the proper record industry, too, so he didn't make this music with the goal of recruiting new listeners or making a profit by selling it. (Even now, he insists he's never made money with any music.) He simply knew he was a songwriter. Living without writing tunes just wouldn't last.

"Bad Debt wasn't going to be a record," remembers Taylor. "But it got to the place that I had always wanted to be, but I had never been able to get there because I was too afraid. I had to go to that place to make music that was truly enlightening to me."

So he kept going. In early 2011, Taylor submitted a finished version of his new LP, Poor Moon, to Black Maps, the British label that had released his previous records. This time, he expanded the palette a bit, building a full ensemble that included Hirsch on an array of instruments and a dozen session players that added violin and banjo, harmonies and saxophone. But Black Maps flatly rejected the sessions, saying that Taylor should have consulted the label before recording these songs in this way.

Back in the time of The Court & Spark, perhaps Taylor would have heeded their advice. But this was different; Hiss Golden Messenger wasn't about industry demands or deference. These were his songs, dammit.

Taylor gave the record to Brendan Greaves, a folklorist he'd met during his first visit to UNC in 2006. They'd become fast friends, even living across an empty field from one another when the Taylor family arrived in Chapel Hill. Greaves had recently launched his own record label, Paradise of Bachelors. Initially an archival imprint, Paradise of Bachelors debuted with a collection by 76-year-old David Lee, an overlooked songwriter, producer and impresario from Shelby, N.C. But Greaves and his partner, Jason Perlmutter, liked Poor Moon so much that they agreed to make it their second release ever and first by a "new" artist.

Accolades cascaded in, and Poor Moon sold out of its initial vinyl run of 500 LPs within weeks. They re-pressed it, while Tompkins Square—a New York label run by a former major-label executive—reissued the music on CD. Huffington Post subsequently called Poor Moon "the most richly rewarding music to arrive recently," comparing it to Van Morrison's Astral Weeks.

"We weren't trying to fit anywhere. The more we became ourselves and let it be what it is, the more people identified with it," says Hirsch, still surprised by the reception. "If you're trying to do something in the industry of music, you want to fit in somewhere. But now there's none of that discussion—sing the most natural way you want, write the tunes that come out, and let's get it down as fast and without as much fuss as possible. Being successful is being yourself, but that was a really hard lesson to learn."

These days, Taylor wields that lesson like a weapon. Hiss Golden Messenger turns down tours and promotional opportunities that don't make sense. Taylor won't play for free, and he won't play a show that doesn't have some personal significance. He has a record label, a distributor and a publicist, but every few days, he drops off a load of his own LPs at the post office. Rather than retreat into a studio for Haw, he and Hirsch set up shop in his mother-in-law's house an hour north of Durham and invited the band over for a week. And rather than opt for a large label, he stuck with Paradise of Bachelors. In spite of and because of Taylor's past, Hiss Golden Messenger is defined only by the interests and enthusiasms of its architect.

To wit, Taylor deplores the forced spectacle of album release parties, so he opted not to have one for Haw, regardless of the record's early acclaim. But a few weeks before it went on sale, he scheduled a free, impromptu performance at his neighborhood music shop, Bull City Records. His new friends Brad and Phil Cook joined him on stage, as did his drummer and Hiss Golden Messenger's only native Southerner, the groove-heavy Terry Lonergan. Taylor's brother, Graham, added occasional trumpet, with Graham's wife, Alison, accompanying on the French horn.

As he always does, Taylor sat in a chair, guitar in hand, hunching slightly forward. And at his right knee, at the center of the short plywood stage, Elijah stood, casually strumming an out-of-tune guitar as his dad's fans smiled and snapped cell phone photos. Elijah looked nervous onstage, but when he disappeared behind the record store's employees-only curtain, he'd occasionally cry out for his dad.

Taylor apologized repeatedly for what might have appeared to be a gimmick or treacle. But between each song, the audience, which stretched out of the door and toward the street, clapped loudly, expectantly waiting for the next one.

Eventually, Taylor grinned from beneath his Caterpillar Inc. cap and took his leave. "I'm going to go out into this night," he said, "get some beer and call in sick tomorrow."

The audience laughed, as though they'd be there with Taylor later that night, trying to have some fun while not waking Elijah—by now, likely asleep just down the hall.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Go wash in the beautiful stream."

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