It feels odd to ask “Who is…?” of a guy who has been making music for nearly 20 years, but veteran Michael Taylor is just now finding his largest audience with Hiss Golden Messenger. It’s actually his third band, following the short-lived punk group Ex-Ignota and the longer-lived San Francisco alt-country act The Court & Spark. When the latter broke up in 2007 — after four albums and nearly a decade of near-constant touring — Taylor settled down in Durham, North Carolina, where he started a family, pursued a degree in folklore, and made music more as a hobby than as a priority.
Over several albums — a few self-released, a few more via North Carolina indie label Paradise of Bachelors — Hiss Golden Messenger has alternated between an austere solo acoustic project for Taylor and a full band featuring Scott Hirsh on guitar and Terry Lonergan on drums. For Haw, the fourth and arguably best release under the HGM moniker, they added members of Lambchop, Megafaun and the Black Twig Pickers to the line-up.
Whether alone or with friends, however, the primary elements of Hiss Golden Messenger remain constant: Taylor’s voice, which sounds both genial and mysterious, and his lyrics, which examine thorny issues of faith, fidelity, and family. Stephen M. Deusner caught up with Taylor to discuss North Carolina, the South, and that strange little word “haw.”
On growing up in a musical family:
My father is a musician. When he was growing up during the early to mid ’60s, the folk revival was a really big part of what was going on in the country. He went to high school with Steve Martin, who, besides being a comedian, is a huge fan of bluegrass. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Jackson Browne also went to that school. So he had an interest folk music, and that was how I heard a lot of the music that ended up being the points of entry into traditional folk and country. It’s not that far from the Byrds to Merle Haggard to Doc Watson to The Anthology of American Folk Music.
On moving to North Carolina:
I draw a lot of inspiration from Southern music. It’s one of the big reasons why we ended up here. I felt like I needed to live in the South to understand the music that I love so well. I think about region as very specific places, like there was a time when people could hear a song and they could tell what county is was from. I don’t think my music works the same way, but there’s certainly a sense of place in Hiss Golden Messenger records. I feel very connected to this place. This is my home. We bought a house here. Our son was born here. Our daughter will be born in July and she’ll be a North Carolina native. I’m proud to live here and make music here.
On being a non-Southerner playing Southern music:
I would never refer to myself as a Southerner. That is reserved for people who are born and raised here. I do have a deep appreciation for what the South has given to American culture. I’m certainly using Southern instrumentation and song forms in my music, but I’m not discussing Southern issues or concerns as much as I’m talking about what is going on in my heart and in my head.
On the word “Haw”:
I think of this record as a very dark record, certainly the darkest that I’ve made. And I thought there was something a little comical about calling it Haw, if you think of haw as laughter. It’s the name of a river in this region that I live very close to. There’s Hee Haw, too, which was a great show. It perpetuated a lot of stereotypes that people certainly disagreed with, but on the other hand, it presented a lot of incredible music. It’s a complicated show.
On Hiss Golden Messenger as a solo vs. band project:
I don’t write with a band. I write by myself. There are a lot of parts of Hiss Golden Messenger that are very solitary. When I started Hiss Golden Messenger in earnest, I was pretty isolated out here and I was concerned with writing these internal narratives and puzzling out personal issues I was dealing with. So Hiss Golden Messenger is me and whoever is playing me. If I’m playing with a band, then Scott Hirsch is going to be there. He recorded Haw, he mixed it, he played bass and a bunch of other stuff on there. And Terry Lonergan is really crucial to the full band records we make.
On confronting spiritual issues in song:
I was talking to someone about this last weekend and was flipping through some notebooks. I always have multiple notebooks with me, and as I was trying to sum up the record with a concise thesis, I flipped to a page that read, “I will not pray in fear.” This record is me trying to understand my inner life, my spiritual place in the world. Is faith rooted in fear or is it rooted in peace? I have a lot of questions, but I don’t have any answers to them. It can be frustrating. And I’m not convinced that my ideas of faith and spirituality are getting any clearer they older I get. In fact, I think they’re getting hazier. Let me say, I’m not a churchgoing person. I think the Bible is a great book and also incredibly flawed. I don’t know what my idea of God is. That’s what these records are about.
On re-recording old songs for new albums:
I’ve recorded a bunch of my songs a couple of times. [Haw features a new version of "The Serpent Is Kind (Compared to Man)," which originally appeared on 2010's Bad Debt.] There’s a long history in traditional music of people re-recording songs, but it’s not something that happens so much in the independent music world. I don’t like the idea of a recording of a song being static. These things should live. Certainly the ideas being presented in these songs are worth revisiting over and over again, because a lot of times the words just come through me and I don’t even fully understand them. So it’s good to go back and sing them again, although some of them can be very painful to record and talk to people about. But I think it’s a good pain.
On being part of North Carolina’s music scene:
People have been very kind and welcoming to me here, although I feel like I’m still sort of an outlier — for purely logistical reasons, though. For a multitude of reasons, I’m not out and about very much. But there is a brotherhood — or sisterhood — of musicians in this region that feels very special and very different from other places I’ve lived. For how small of a place it is, there’s a very high ratio of really incredible bands: Megafaun, Mount Moriah, Mountain Goats, Spider Bags, It’s endless. I’m very close with Phil and Brad Cook [of Megafaun]. Phil played on most of Haw. The entire cultural scene here is just really vibrant, from food to writing to music to visual art. It’s a beautiful place to be. To put it this way, my wife and I just bought a house, and I hired Ash Bowie of Polvo to do the electrical work.