For any artist, quitting a day job to pursue art full-time represents a huge leap of faith. It’s even more potentially fraught in music, a profession that tends to involve prolonged stretches of travel and absence from loved ones. Against this backdrop, the title track to Hiss Golden Messenger’s new album Heart Like a Levee (due out October 7th on Merge Records) truly cuts like a knife. (Listen to the full album below.)
“Go easy on me, I’m not doing too well,” sings Mike “M.C.” Taylor apologetically, in character as the departing artist. “Do you hate me, honey/As much as I hate myself?”
“Yeah, that’s a line my kids have asked me about,” Taylor says with a laugh. “‘Why do you hate yourself, Daddy?’ I tell them it’s not permanent, but we all have feelings you have to recognize even if they’re passing. Thinking about all the times I’ve climbed into the van to go on tour, that’s very hard and I feel guilty because it seems selfish. Culturally we’ve been told that the things you love and the things you have to do are mutually exclusive. What artist doesn’t have some degree of self-loathing?”
Undercurrents of life, death, art and the struggle to reconcile it all animate the 11 vivid songs on Heart Like a Levee, a stately collection of gospelized country-soul featuring an A-Team of Taylor’s fellow North Carolinians in key support roles. The Cook Brothers, Phil and Bradley from the band Megafaun, are both here, along with drummer Matt McCaughan (Bon Iver, Portastatic, Elise Davis and many others), plus Tift Merritt on backup vocals.
It’s a collection that feels lived-in and true to life, although it involved some evolution along the way. Heart Like a Levee started out last year as a university-sanctioned commission, when Duke Performances enlisted Taylor to write a song cycle to accompany a set of pictures – stark black-and-white portraits of life in a coal-mining camp in Eastern Kentucky, taken in 1972 by documentary photographer William Gedney.
Taylor was game, but ultimately his muse pushed him in a different direction and the songs he wrote were less about the thousand-yard-stares of the images than his own situation as a struggling artist and family man. They have points of emotional crossover that resonate on similar frequencies – the steady rolling opening track “Biloxi” has a chorus of, “It’s hard, Lord, Lord it’s hard,” which sums up both the album and the pictures perfectly – but ultimately the connection between songs and photos registers at a more abstract level. Some of Gedney’s pictures have also been retained for the album’s packaging, including the cover art.
“There came a point when I had to take the Gedney photos off the wall because I was not trying to write for that world anymore,” Taylor says. “Even so, I’d still take them out to check in occasionally. There’s an emotional quotient to those photos that really spoke to me on a universal level, something very deep about those pictures. I felt like they were a good mirror for the emotions rising out of these songs I was writing about my own experiences.”