M.C. Taylor has been singing about his kids since before they were even born. Before his eldest child, Elijah, arrived in 2009, Taylor — who for the past 10 years or so has made records with a revolving cast of musicians under the moniker Hiss Golden Messenger — wrote a sweet back-porch hymn called “I’ve Got a Name for the Newborn Child.”
But on his new album, Terms of Surrender, the tenor of Taylor’s relationship to his children feels different: more high-stakes, almost desperate at times. In several songs, he carries on imagined conversations with his son and daughter. Sometimes, they give him a pep talk (“Daddy, take down your sorrow”); more often, he’s apologizing to them for his shortcomings. “When you think of me,” he pleads to his daughter, Ione, in “Happy Birthday Baby,” a crushing song he wrote for her fifth birthday, “think of me better than I think of myself.”
When asked about this stark lyrical shift, Taylor pauses, then confronts the question head-on.
“I had this feeling that I could not shake that maybe I’m not going to be around for much longer, that maybe something’s going to happen to me,” Taylor says. “These tunes are, in part, imagined conversations that I am having with the people that are close to me, as something to leave behind, almost a last-testament type thing. I’m still here. I’m feeling good. Things are great. I love my family. They love me. But, you know, if I die somewhere out there on the road, what do I want my last sung words to be? That was definitely something that was on my mind.”
Since 2008, when Taylor self-released a collection of off-kilter folk tunes called Country Hai East Cotton, the Durham, North Carolina–based Hiss Golden Messenger has evolved into one of the most vital roots-music projects of the past decade — part solitary singer-songwriter outlet, part communal roots-rock collective. Taylor’s music turns the most banal of musician woes — the tribulations of life on the road, spending extended periods of time away from family— into gorgeous meditations on love and lack. Perhaps not coincidentally, Hiss Golden Messenger have became a favorite among fellow musicians, adored by everyone from Mumford and Sons and the Hold Steady to Jenny Lewis and the National’s Aaron Dessner, the latter two of whom appear on Taylor’s new record.
Taylor has grown his following, in part, by churning out an unusually large quantity of music, releasing nearly an album per year during the past decade. As Phil Cook, who’s become Taylor’s right-hand multi-instrumentalist (Cook’s words: “a sous chef in the kitchen of Mike Taylor”), puts it: “Mike has got a prolific bone to pick with the universe.”
But after several years of incessant gigging, recording, and writing, Taylor’s life ground to a halt in 2018. His father had a heart attack. He went through a “pretty huge interpersonal drama” with a close friend (chronicled, in part, on his new song “Katy (You Don’t Have to Be Good Yet”)). The meds Taylor had been taking for his depression, which had gotten worse in recent years, were simply not working. And he continued to struggle with what he calls the “spiritually complicated” parts of being a touring musician, the parts that involve spending a healthy chunk of the year away from his wife and children.
Terms of Surrender, Hiss Golden Messenger’s latest collection, documents — in sometimes frighteningly honest specifics — the crushing lows and precious saving graces of this turbulent time. Typically, after Taylor writes an album, he goes back and tweaks his lyrics “ever so slightly, to make it something that I’m going to be able to sing every night.” Terms of Surrender did not go through such a process.
“Mama, I’m standing on the ledge-i-o,” he mumbles, as if to obscure what he’s saying, on “Down at the Uptown.” “Run, jump or fly? I think I caught a bad one.”
Taylor has made several personal strides since the period chronicled on Terms of Surrender. During the making of Terms of Surrender, he started seeing a therapist for the first sustained period of time in his life, and it’s helped him “understand that it’s OK to have these feelings of anxiety, and that there are ways to let them pass through you and not destroy you.”
“I’m not putting this record out under any sort of duress,” he continues. “Making this record was an absolute ball; I was trying to get my meds right, and nobody really knew that, so I’d be going into the bathroom and having all these weird side effects and would be trying to shake it off and splash water on my face, and then go back out into the tracking room. It was amazing and terrifying, but great. The biggest danger that we have in our lives is forgetting how hard or complicated something was. For me, to have this reminder offers a path towards not going through that in quite the same way again.”
Taylor has a nervous, reflexive laugh that tends to surface right after he says something particularly intense, as when, discussing his father’s recent heart attack, he says, “Emotional heart trouble is big in my life, but shit, so is physical heart trouble.”
Emotional heart trouble is a helpful way of thinking about Hiss Golden Messenger as a whole. The central tension in Taylor’s music is the gulf between two distinct emotional zones: one, a brooding world of midlife angst and parental anguish; the other, a peaceful refuge of familial bliss and vivid Southern landscapes. In his best songs — 2012’s “Balthazar’s Song,” 2016’s “Heart Like a Levee,” 2019’s “I Need a Teacher” — these two spheres collide, each one informing the other.
“Sometimes I’m writing about things as they are in my life, and sometimes the songs are aspirational, where I’m trying to imagine a world in which things exist the way I posit them in the songs,” Taylor says.
The central challenge of Hiss Golden Messenger, then, has been how to hold room for both breezy major-key folk and dark, rhythmically stormy country-blues. Figuring out how to do that, Taylor says, was the foundational discovery that helped define the group and differentiate it from the previous musical lives he’s lived — with the hardcore band Ex-Ignota and alt-country outfit the Court and Spark — in his teens and twenties.
“I had found all these ways to create harmonic suspensions in the chords through different tunings to conjure that bittersweetness, the happy-and-sad-at-the-same-time thing,” he says. “I really had to search to figure out how to make those feelings appear in the chords, how to not commit to a major or minor chord so that it’s very hard for people to understand what they’re supposed to feel.”
The upshot is that, though Taylor works within well-established musical traditions, Hiss Golden Messenger — Taylor has said that the odd moniker holds no special significance — don’t sound quite like any of the scores of similarly minded Americana-based bands that have proliferated during the past half-decade. A few years ago, Taylor was playing with Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench, who, upon trying to learn the Hiss Golden Messenger song “Drum,” remarked, “Man, this song is crooked.” This delighted Taylor.
“There are a lot of parts of my music that are rhythmically a little bit crooked,” he says. “There’s a lot of crooked old-time songs, and maybe I sort of picked that up by osmosis.”
Taylor, who has a graduate degree in American folklore, goes on to say that he envisions his music as “country-soul, but I’m thinking of country-soul as an existential quest, a quest to understand and position the vast musical traditions of the South as a living and contemporary language that gave birth to everything good in American music.”
Perhaps because of how eloquently he’s able to articulate his musical project, Taylor is sometimes paralyzed by the idea that people regard him as someone who has capital-A “answers.”
“I get the sense sometimes that people might think I know something more than I do, which I really don’t,” he says. “I’m not a churchgoer. I wasn’t raised a believer. I just feel like love is a powerful, animating force in the world, and I’m trying to say that in the most non-hippie way that I can. I feel like, when people are talking about God, they’re talking about the animating force of love. That’s the way I understand it, that sort of holiness. For me, that makes belief and hope easier, because it’s something we’re not necessarily asked to take on faith. I can create love in my own house, and I can show my kids how to create it as well.”
Taylor laughs, perhaps realizing that, in answering a question about his fear of people feeling like he knows some greater truth, he has, inadvertently, spelled one out. “I’m sorry,” he says.
Phil Cook thinks of it this way: “The world is full of love songs, pretty cheap love songs, and I think Mike’s songs are about something that is much more difficult to pin down,” he says. “Not things people can sit down and say, ‘Here’s what it’s all about.’ I think Mike is just searching, he’s got a lot of questions, and he’s not shy about saying: ‘I don’t know the fucking answer to any of this shit.’”
In February 2018, Taylor headed to a cabin in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia to begin writing songs for what would eventually become Terms of Surrender. Before he started to write, he took a small dose of mushrooms, “just enough to feel them,” and went outside.
“It was dusk and it was really cold and still,” Taylor says. “I could just hear the wind and the evening birds, and there was not another soul around. But then, out of the corner of my ear, I heard the faint sound of voices, kids laughing and playing. I thought I was tripping. I mean, I was tripping, but I thought that maybe I was tripping even harder. But then I realized that the property I was on was abutting this other piece of property that I couldn’t see. There must have been a family out doing their thing. For that minute or two, when I was just standing on this hillside in Virginia, completely alone and hearing these voices, and laughter, it was really beautiful, actually.”
The scene Taylor describes feels uncannily like something straight out of a Hiss Golden Messenger song. And then, almost as if prompted, he goes on:
“It was like being in this liminal space, not really knowing where I was or what I was experiencing, and it was really nice. It wasn’t terrifying, actually; it was comforting, in a way. It was a very particular feeling, and it really stuck with me. It was almost hopeful, we’ll say.”