A funny thing happened when I started jotting down notes for my interview with Michael Taylor, who plays and writes as MC Taylor in Hiss Golden Messenger. Our interview was set up to preview Pit Stop Music Festival in Bloomington. I knew going in he had recorded a split with Bloomington's Elephant Micah ["Hiss Golden Messenger Plays Elephant Micah Plays Hiss Golden Messenger, released in 2012]. And I knew he toured with Magnolia Electric Company members during a set of Jason Molina tribute shows [whose music was released almost entirely on Bloomington's Secretly Canadian.] And I knew he'd had a longtime creative relationship with illustrator Nat Russell.
But once I got on the phone with Taylor and started asking questions, Taylor's connections with Central Indiana just kept unfolding. It's a funny thing for the California-turned-Carolina transplant, who has never spent any significant time in Indiana, besides tour dates. “There's something about that part of the world in independent music that is really resonant for me,” Taylor said.
He'll return to Bloomington on Saturday for a show at The Bishop with Mike Adams At His Honest Weight and William Tyler. The last year or so brought an explosion of popularity for his project, with the extremely well-reviewed LP Lateness of Dancers bringing him to a spot on David Letterman's show that quickly went viral based on Dave's extremely enthusiastic response. (We liked it too, Dave.) Quite a change for the songwriter, who commented at a Molina tribute show at Radio Radio last year that when his heartbreaking album Bad Debt was released, only three people cared about it – and one of them, fittingly, was another Hoosier: LUNA Music's Todd Robinson.
NUVO: I remember you calling out Todd Robinson from LUNA as a supporter at your show here last year. Can you elaborate your connections to LUNA and Indiana?
Michael Taylor: Nat Russell is someone I've known for a really long time. Nat lived in California when I lived there, so I probably met him – man, I can't remember when Nat would have moved there, maybe in the early 2000s? You'd have to ask Nat about that. Nat and I were friends out there. He did some artwork for an old band that I was in [The Court and Spark.] We just kind of ran in the same circle. I think Nat is an incredible artist, and definitely someone whose work is getting better, and more refined and more thoughtful over time. I think his stuff is incredible. In fact, most of the art that's in the main room of our house upstairs is prints of Nat's.
… When Secretly Canadian first started as a record label, I sort of knew about them from the very beginning. Chris Swanson, who runs Secretly, big boss man, he was someone that I've known forever. Since '97 maybe, '98. He's always been someone that I've sent a copy of a record that I've just finished to, not necessarily to put it out, but to circle back to him. I've just known him for a long time, and I love a lot of the records that he's put out. Back in '97 and '98, when we would come through Bloomington, we would stay with Chris. There's something about that part of the world in independent music that is really resonant for me. Mainly because of people like Nat and Chris Swanson and Secretly Canadian.
NUVO: And Elephant Micah [with whom Taylor recorded a split 7'', where O'Connell and Taylor covered each others songs.]
Taylor: And Elephant Micah. Yeah, exactly. And the dudes in Magnolia, of course. … And actually Elephant Micah, Joe O'Connell and Jason Groth from Magnolia both live here now, in Raleigh. … Here's a funny thing about Joe. Joe is probably the person, who of anyone that has Bloomington connections, I've known the longest, because when this band that I was in called The Court and Spark did a tour in 1999, I would say, we played a show in Louisville and the opener was Joe. He was like 17 years old. And I thought what he did was so beautiful, his music is what he was doing back then, too. He was really young, but I remember talking to him and staying in touch for several years after that, just on the basis of that one show at this place called The Rudyard Kipling. I just remembered that place.
We stayed in touch for a long time, and I've always sort of checked in on what he's doing. We sort of fell out of touch for a few years, and then I came back in touch with him through our buddy Nathan Salsburg, who lives in Louisville, another musician and folklorist. I was totally surprised to find out that Joe was doing the same thing I was. It was strange. Now he's out here, doing that kind of work.
NUVO: As most Molina fans tend to be, I'm a pretty dedicated listener. How has his work affected the way you think about music through the years?
Taylor: I think the thing that stays with me about his music, and struck me whenever I was around him when he was alive was just how impulsive he was with his music. That's something that he was lightyears ahead of me in that regard. He was full steam ahead, leave the mistakes. I think he had this understanding that perfection is not the goal. The goal is emotion. Do you know what I mean? It took me a long time to get to that place, where I understood what I heard as mistakes on records that I made, other people didn't notice. What people are listening for is this sort-of full commitment to emotion. And Jason was good at that. I don't think he even though about it. He just did it. I think that impulse also can be frustrating, especially when you're working in a situation with other musicians, where everyone is trying to do the best they can. In my own experience, often when I'm trying to retain the emotion of a performance, and finish it – do you know what I mean? Not spend too much time with it – other people can be like, “Well, can we do just one more take? I think we can get it better with one more take.” You have to be fully invested in saying no, or moving on. That didn't deter Jason from his method.
NUVO: I imagine you've been asked to speak about him a lot, and that feels like it would be stressful to me, if I was imagining myself in your position. Thank you for speaking about it.
Taylor: No, no, no. It's not stressful. I'm always glad to speak about him. I'm not a Jason Molina expert by any stretch. There were so many people who knew him way better than me. But he definitely played an important part in my life.
NUVO: What's interesting or frustrating about the changes that have happened in your life during this period of increased attention, bigger venue sizes and headlining tours?
Taylor: I'm not sure, because I've been living in it for this whole time. It's kind of hard to get any sort of purchase on it, any context. I was thinking about the record Bad Debt the other day, thinking, I don't think I could make a record like that again. Not that I couldn't make a record with that much personal importance or attachment. I was just in such a different place in my life then, and that record really saved me, in a weird way. It could have gone either way with me at the point, for music. I don't know what my relationship with music would look like now, had I not written that collection of songs. Also, I wasn't thinking about that collection of songs as a record. I was pretty disassociated from the “music business” world. It was really just for me. It was a very personal exercise. I'm just not in that place anymore. I'm still devoted to songs, and really interested in using music to understand myself better, but I'm not in that place anymore.
I think more than ever, certainly more than the time when I wrote Bad Debt, I'm really trying to focus on the personal aspect of making music. … I think that's what people find compelling about Hiss Golden Messenger music. To lose sight of that would be to lose sight of a big part of it.
NUVO: Can you find a demarcation in the music you made before coming a father and after becoming a father?
Taylor: Well, we had our first child, Elijah, and then I wrote that record Bad Debt. He was like three or four months. I definitely attribute any interest that people have in my music to becoming a father. For me, I see a direct correlation. I know that's the reason that my musical life got really rejuvenated because it shook my world up in such an intense way. It made me reevaluate what my obligations were to myself, to my family, what I had time for, what I did not need to be wasting my time doing. I lacked focus, before I had kids. I have a little bit more focus now, and a lot of that comes down to purely logistical reasons, like there are this many hours in a day that I can work on stuff. But I'm always going to need to be cognizant that there's a little person in the house that is going to need something.
It's very emotional having kids, as well. I feel a lot more vulnerable as a father. Whatever protections you put in place for your kids and your family, you can't control the weather. I'm always thinking about if my kids are okay. Even when I know they are, it's just like … I don't know. I'm a Virgo, and my mind just goes in those directions.
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NUVO: Who are you bringing with you to play in your live band?
Taylor: I usually have Phil Cook, Scott Hirsch and on this upcoming tour Matt McCaughan will be playing drums, and then we'll have William Tyler with us.
NUVO: I've seen Hiss Golden Messenger described as a duo in several interviews. I always thought of it as your solo project. Could you clarify that? Have I been misunderstanding this project the whole time?
Taylor: It's a little confusing, and honestly I haven't articulated [it]. It gets all jumbled. It's like a game of telephone.
In Hiss Golden Messenger, the risk is all mine. I have a lot of constant collaborators. Scott Hirsch being the longest-term. I've been working with Scott for 20 years. But at the end of the day, all of the ultimate decisions and all of the risk is on me. If I bring a band out on tour and don't make any money, everyone is still getting paid, but I'm going to lose a shit ton of money. Do you know what I mean? Maybe the best way to say this is that Hiss Golden Messenger is very dependent on this very tight relationships. Relationships that have a lot of musical sympathy.
I have a crew of people that play on and make the records that is pretty constant, and we're all really close. We've made a lot of records together, and we still are having a really great time. I feel like in some way, those relationships are born out in a way on the records. Scott and I have been playing together for so long, and at this point, honestly Phil and people like Matt McCaughan and all of these people that play on the records are just such good friends of mine that I feel like you end up hearing that. Or I end up hearing that when I listen to the record.