Inside Listening: Hiss Golden Messenger

MC Taylor and the Band Wrestle with the World’s Opposing Forces on Their 12th Album

On June 22nd 2021 » By Caitlin Wolper

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Photos by Elijah Lee Taylor

In Inside Listening, a new series from VMP, we’ll be holding up a lens to the sacred listening spaces of various vinyl collectors from all over, one collection at a time.

In honor of his new album, Quietly Blowing It, which is out June 25, we took a visual tour through the personal listening space of MC Taylor (Hiss Golden Messenger), as Taylor gave us a track-by-track breakdown of the new record.

Over the past five years, MC Taylor has been seeking peace. The creation of Quietly Blowing It, Hiss Golden Messenger’s 12th album, was a part of that — for the longest time in a while, he was off the road, recording the album in his hometown.

Between harsh capitalistic critiques and rosy-eyed optimism exist a series of songs focused on relationships, intimacy, dependency and loneliness; he’ll sing “Up with the mountains, down with the system,” then say “Love ain’t a weapon / Pay your debts / Don’t love in vain” on the very next track. Heartfelt and intimate, Quietly Blowing It explores Taylor’s own faults alongside the forces that work against us all.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity

“Way Back in the Way Back”

VMP: Why did you pick this song to start the record?

MC Taylor: It wasn’t always there, actually; I was thinking of it as the last song. And it wasn’t until I sent it around to some friends — because I was having trouble sequencing the record — that they all separately from one another said: “This song, ‘Way Back in the Way Back,’ is clearly the first song on the record.” I think that part of it is the way that it starts: It starts kind of sparsely and grows into something bigger. And I think the other part is that it sets up one of the big animating themes of the record, which is the way that we deal with forces in our lives that seem like they’re working in opposition. … There’s a lot of things working in opposition and I think in that little middle space is where a lot of creative tension exists, for me anyway.

“The Great Mystifier”

That’s quite a specific and big name to give someone. How did you get to that? What’s so perplexing about “The Great Mystifier”?

It is in part a play on that old song, “The Great Pretender.” There’s a history of the great so-and-so or the great such-and-such. I don’t know that I’m talking about the great spirit, or God or anything like that.

One line that kept jumping out to me was, “Ain’t the truth just dying to cut you.”

The truth, the bare, naked truth can feel different than we expect. I feel like this song in a way is maybe addressing the ways that we can misuse love, we can twist it into something that is painful. This idea of pure, animating love is … people are just looking for the smallest shred of affection or compassion or empathy to make them feel connected to other people. And sometimes, other people can take advantage of that.

“Mighty Dollar”

What specifically compelled you to write a song about capitalism?

I am going back to this tension of things that feel like they work in opposition to each other. There’s a very clear manifestation of that idea in this song. The chorus goes “Oh, that mighty dollar / Ground beneath that mighty dollar / Oh, that mighty dollar / How I love it / Wanna holler.” There’s something there about this idea that money, capitalism can be such a toxic force, right? It’s arguably why we’re so tangled up in the climate crisis, it’s arguably why Palestinians are living in an apartheid state in Gaza, it’s why the GOP is fighting so hard to redefine reality. But goddamn — when you have a little bit of money, it sure feels good. It’s a very, very fucked up relationship that we have with money, including myself.

I was going to ask a little bit about what your relationship with money is like.

I’ve never had any, you know what I mean? I never had any money until the last couple of years when I actually started making a little bit of money, not a lot, but just a little bit of money from playing music. I spent most of my life spending money to play music and somehow, you know, stretching pennies to make it work. I certainly feel like I know the value of a dollar. I didn’t come from money, my parents were both public school teachers. I didn’t have a monied experience.

Now, with this money you’re getting from performing — has that changed your life at all? Has it changed your perspective?

To make a little money regularly doing anything alleviates a certain anxiety. Who said “Money can’t buy happiness?” That is such a bullshit statement. You know who said that? A rich person. I truly believe that. Money is not going to satisfy our fundamental needs for love and compassion, but if you have enough to pay the bills it sure changes your outlook on life day-to-day.

“Quietly Blowing It”

Could you tell me a little bit about how the song came together?

I think it was actually written before the chaos of 2020. And maybe, in a way, perhaps it’s connected to “The Great Mystifier.” It feels like a reckoning of the ways that we escalate our emotional wars with each other. And that sometimes the roots of those wars come from very fragile and tender places, and this idea of “It was good while it lasted / But that ain’t the answer” — why can’t we find happiness that feels more than fleeting? This idea that those of us that are born happy or born into happiness are also capable of doing emotional damage, like “Born on the level / Quietly blowing it.” I have every reason to be more understanding than I’m being right now.

And for what is kind of ostensibly a relationship song, I would say it’s one of the more mutual ones.

I wanted it to feel that way. I wanted it to feel shared. I have to assume responsibility for my role and emotional breakdowns as well.

“Hardlytown”

You wrote this during COVID, and it’s so much about our obligations to one another. Since you’ve written it, have your ideas about those obligations changed?

Anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers make it so hard to want to uphold our obligations to one another. “Hardlytown” is also about the sacrifices that we make to do the things that we love … I’ve given a lot away to make this very particular kind of life that I lead, and I’ve had so much fun doing it, but the math gets really tricky when you try and factor in joy, sacrifice, sadness, loneliness, all of these emotional components beyond the dollars and cents of how we do the things that we love.

There’s this line in the song: “They’ll say we’ll understand it / Better some day / But who was it said that? / He never worked a day.” We have very conflicting notions about what labor means: What does it feel like, what it looks like, how much we give ourselves to it. Is it important to love what we do, is it important to love the thing that pays our bills? … It’s so complicated, it’s about so much more than money. But at the end of the day, you need to make money to make it through.

“It Will If We Let It”

I feel like this song is talking a little bit about dependency. Does depending on others scare you?

(Laughs) I can be a little more explicit about this one, because this song feels like a love song to my wife Abby. She knew me long before Hiss Golden Messenger existed in any way, shape or form. … I think I sometimes get so wrapped up in telling this musical story that I can neglect some of the things that are right in front of me, but like the song says, “I had to try it.” And “I wanted some.” There’s certain things musically that I have to try, certain paths that I have to travel. I feel like Curtis Mayfield was a big influence on this one, sound-wise, like the falsetto voice that I’m using on the chorus.

“If It Comes in the Morning”

Writing about hope in 2020 — what was that like?

This song was me thinking about how I would behave if things went my way, whatever things those might be, and if things don’t go my way: Is my emotional center strong enough, or resilient enough to find peace regardless of whatever is swirling around outside me. … I think that it is a song about the potential of hope. I wasn’t feeling super-duper hopeful on the regular this year. But I feel like this idea of the potential of hope to be transformative and healing was something that was floating around my head.

There were a lot of songs in the ’60s — and it’s not a coincidence that they were written by Black Americans — about the potential of hope. I think that The Staple Singers, again Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions were writers that were so good at singing about the potential of hope with their backs against the wall in situations that couldn’t have felt very hopeful.

What keeps you motivated and hopeful for the future?

I have two kids, and they’re still relatively young, they’re almost 8 and 12. I have to carry some flame of hopefulness, if only for them. I don’t feel like I have the option of throwing in that particular towel because they have futures that stretch far, far beyond me, but I’m pretty instrumental in the way that they see the world right now, and their sort of foundational emotional understanding of what it means to be human. I feel like that is my biggest job. So even if I’m not feeling hopeful around my kids I’m probably — not necessarily gonna fake it — but I’m gonna look for those little sparks, because it’s pretty important. I also feel like imagination, which is where art comes from, has been very healing for me in the past year.

“Glory Strums (Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner)”

I’m going to start with a little bit of a silly question, but I’m curious about how you kind of chose a long-distance runner as your focus.

That subtitle of the song comes from a short story called “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner” by a British author named Alan Sillitoe. It is about this boy growing up in working-class Nottingham, and he is this delinquent boy that gets blasted for a robbery and gets sent to a borstal, which is a juvenile detention facility. At this facility, he discovers that he excels at long-distance running and he becomes the star runner on the borstal’s track and field team … he’s just about to win this race, and then he just stops and lets everybody else pass him in defiance of the headmasters of this school, and then he gets taken back and has to serve out his sentence. It’s so masterfully written. I didn’t lift any specific language or plot narrative or anything for the song but it’s really a meditation on solitude, and certainly on class, and trying to get through each day with ourselves intact.

“Painting Houses”

I know that you have worked a number of jobs over your life. I didn’t think painting houses was one of them.

[No, but] I know that painting houses is really hard work. (Laughs) And I think there’s something poetic about one person being paid to beautify a place where another person lives, and for someone to have their house painted, they have to have a little bit of money. There might be a little dissonance between the person doing the painting and the person living inside of the painted house. I love how this song turned out, it felt like a real collaboration between myself and Gregory Alan Isakov. I liked how this line turned out: “They say a new day’s coming, I don’t doubt it / I’m stuck on the roof, still painting houses.” I felt that in my bones so many times in my life. I think everybody has.

There’s the sense that no matter how hard you work, you can’t really catch up or go above the work.

It has so much to do with how we think about work, how we put a value on work. That’s our real mission, as laborers, is reimagining the worth of labor.

“Angels in the Headlights”

This is a very short song. Why did you decide to include it? How did you know when it was done?

I thought of it as some connective tissue for this record; I’m not even sure that I think about it as its own song … I think about it almost like a poem.

But it still felt important enough to have on the album.

It kind of resonates with the rest of the sounds on the record. Even though there were other songs that were like song-songs that we recorded for the album that I ended up leaving off, this one always felt like it was in the running just because it felt like it shined a very specific type of light on all of the music.

“Sanctuary”

I noticed that, in your album notes, you described your recording space as a sanctuary. When you think about sanctuary, do you have a picture in mind?

It’s not just a place where I get to be to do my own thing. It’s more just like a place where my being can be articulated in ways that I don’t feel guilty or ashamed or embarrassed. The song feels like it’s maybe about how hard it is to find that space sometimes, and the amount of, I don’t know, gaslighting maybe, that goes on when people actually do go and search at those spaces, places where they can be honest.

You said earlier that you were thinking of “Way Back in the Way Back” as the final song, so how did “Sanctuary” fall into that place instead?

In terms of tempo and specific language, it felt like an uplifting note to finish the record on; there’s something that feels finished about the recording. It felt like the right place for it to be.

Caitlin Wolper

Caitlin Wolper

Caitlin Wolper is a writer whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Vulture, Slate, MTV News, Teen Vogue, and more. Her first poetry chapbook, Ordering Coffee in Tel Aviv, was published in October by Finishing Line Press. She shares her music and poetry thoughts (with a bevy of exclamation points, and mostly lowercase) at @CaitlinWolper.

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