With heart and groove, MC Taylor wrestles with real life and the often Sisyphean cycle of questions without answers on Quietly Blowing It, the latest effort from Hiss Golden Messenger. Gestating long before the COVID-19 lockdown in the spring of 2020, Taylor attempts to chronicle his own observations and frustrations both socially and personally with a collection of songs that comes across more like an intimate conversation with close friends than a dire debate against challenging opinions. And that’s the point– to look for solutions together and share a singular hope that a better world is simply waiting for better decisions. In a week that has seen school systems across the country reopen to in-person classes despite the pandemic (and in some cases without mask mandates), touring musical acts stand up for concert safety standards, hospitals returning to capacity limits, and anti-masking/anti-vaxxing rhetoric reaching a new dangerous high, it could be that the volume just needs to be lessened in order to discern what’s really happening across the nation and around the world. As Taylor says, “When you hear it, you know it.”
AI- In the beginning, which in this case, I’m talking about last spring with the lockdown and the origins of Quietly Blowing It, I think the paint was still kinda wet on Terms of Surrender. I got a two-part question here– were you intending at that point to start writing a new album, and did you anticipate that it was going to be a much longer period of time than the originally prescribed “two weeks” that they said we were gonna be on lockdown?
MCT- (Laughs) It’s pretty funny to remember back to that time! I generally find myself writing when I have enough time to sink into something. So if I’m not on the road, if I have any sort of time off the road, I’m usually writing just because it’s what makes me feel good. When everything shut down, I think my natural inclination was just to go write for as long as I had. We initially assumed it would be a couple weeks, so I thought like, “Oh, I’ll work for a couple of weeks and see what I can get done.” But things stretched on and I just kept writing and then within a few months, there was a record! Anytime I have enough songs to make up what I think would be a solid record, I just go in and record it.
With Quietly Blowing It, you really do explore, I think, all the emotions you were feeling at that point in time, we were feeling, all of us were feeling at that point in time. Was it as immediate as anything you’d ever done?
It’s important to remember that at that time, everything was unfolding. I wasn’t writing explicitly about where we were at right in that moment of spring of 2020. I was actually addressing just life as I had experienced it for the past couple of years. But everything that was happening, figuratively, outside my window, couldn’t help making its way into the music just because that was our collective experience.
You’ve got a family. Tell me about becoming a full-time member. Because you’d been out on the road for years at this point in time, like steady. What was it like coming home and being dad, being a husband? Was there a point early on where you kinda felt like a Martian? And what about going forward? Do you think you’ll be more inclined to take advantage of that family time in the future?
To address the latter part of your question, because of how musicians have to make a living, I don’t have a ton of choice really about being out on the road. Although, this past year certainly made me question what we have to do as musicians in order to make ends meet. This past year was the most my kids have ever seen me in their lives– which is funny and also is pretty sad actually (laughs)! I really had to reflect on that. I loved bein’ home. It’s unfortunate that it was under a pall of chaos and tragedy. I loved bein’ home and bein’ part of the everyday routine, and understanding the nuance of life for people that don’t have to climb into vans and planes and buses all the time. That sounds like a first world problem– and I think it is– but it’s also my reality. I’m very connected to my family. I always have been. I’m always out on the road looking over my shoulder, counting the minutes until I can get home. That’s always how I’ve been. This past year was good– and it was also really grueling! There was a lot that all of us had to go through– me, my kids, my wife, you, my neighbors, everybody was struggling.
I think I was very conscious at the time that we were reduced to the basics of being alive, you know, food, shelter, clothing. In some ways, I felt like it was just accomplishing something every day that I was able to make sure everybody was safe and healthy. I feel, unfortunately, that I’m getting back into that mentality of, “Okay, today, am I gonna be able to keep everybody safe?”
You mean because of the rise in cases and the Delta variant?
Well, the rise in cases and the active working against the public good that I perceive personally from leaders across the nation.
All of the science is there in support of vaccination. I’m vaccinated. My wife, everybody in my band, my 12-year-old son is vaccinated, and I’m eagerly awaiting [vaccine approval] for my eight-year-old daughter. The science is there. There’s no question that vaccination is helping in the fight against COVID. I won’t even get into the psychology of it, but it’s absolutely baffling to me that there is such widespread dismissal of science by people that are NOT experts, will never be experts, and actually don’t care to go too deep on it. I think a lot of it is done out of spite, which is not the way that me or anyone that I know behaves. But I guess there are a lot of people out there that cannot conceive of any sort of joy in their lives or any kind of world better than this one. So maybe it’s some kind of deep-seated death wish? I don’t know. But yeah, I think that we have a struggle that is twofold. In the future, we have to obviously be working against COVID with vaccination, masking, and all that, but we also have to be working against this deep self-loathing that seems to exist on the right that drives things like anti-vaxxing.
Jason Isbell announced that he would be requiring vaccinations or proof of recent negative COVID tests for shows that he was gonna be doin’. I saw that you had come out in support of that. I also support that decision and that idea. I think that there does come from both sides, the idea that as an artist, “Why are you saying or why are you doing certain things? What skin do you have in the game?” I think it’s important for artists and musicians to step up and make these things known. I saw where you had revealed that you had been hassled, if you will, by an anti-masker, which is an experience that my wife just recently had. And it goes back to what we were just talking about, just being baffled. How are you dealing with that on the road now that you’ve been back out?
Well, I haven’t been out long enough to have that tension really be a part of my life in any serious way. Maybe I will experience that more and have a better answer for you in the next few months? The science is on the side of vaccination, right? I’m not gonna get too deeply into the psychology of it because I feel confident that those of us that are getting vaccinated, wearing masks, and the artists that are following vaccination protocol in partnership with venues, I really feel confidentaly that we’re doing the right thing given the information that we have. I’m not a scientist, I’m not an expert on COVID, but the responsibility is being put on me and other artists to make decisions with the information and expertise we have.
My decision is going to be that people need to be vaccinated at my shows, and if they don’t like that policy, they don’t have to come. I’m not saying that they have to get vaccinated, they just can’t come see Hiss Golden Messenger. I’m sure that’s the way that Jason feels too, and many, many others. I think over the coming weeks, we’re going to see a lot of artists and venues announcing vaccination protocol. And we’re gonna see some pushback from people that don’t think it’s fair, that feel like it’s infringing on their rights. But that’s the way it is. There are consequences for decisions
On the new album, I feel a lot of groove. I hear a lot of influences on the record. I read a piece you wrote about “Glory Strums (Loneliness Of The Long-Distance Runner)” and that endless repetition and trying to find where to be and how to keep that song going over and over and over. Do you listen to things when you’re writing? I ask this because I know that in those early days, we became very dependent on our record collection– and we added to it quite a bit! Have continued to add to it quite a bit! It’s been something that we’ve done as a family, something that we’ve enjoyed. Did you find yourself at the mercy of your heroes and influences when it comes to your album collection? Or do you stay away from listening to other music when you’re writing?
First of all, I am an absolutely insatiable music listener. I have somehow bought more records this year than I have in the past, which is saying something because (laughs) I spend a lot of time in record stores! I think that my relationship to my record collection and the artists that I consider inspirations has evolved as I’ve been an artist. There was a time when I was starting out making records 20 or 25 years ago when I thought, “I wanna make a record that sounds like Curtis Mayfield,” and there was a little bit of putting on a costume because I wasn’t confident in my own musical skin yet.
The more records that I’ve made, the more performances I’ve done, the more songs that I’ve written, I have come to where my influence is in a much easier way. I might be working on a record now and maybe get stuck on how to make a particular groove work. So I’ll say, “Lemme go check this Bill Wither record ’cause I know that a groove like this exists on one of his records.” I might go check it and be like, “Okay, okay. I see how they did it.” If I lose my way a little bit, I might check back in with the masters, you know what I mean? But I’m definitely trying to make records that just sound like me now.
What’s that mean right now? With everything that’s going on, with everything that you’ve experienced with making Quietly Blowing It, what is that looking like for you now? Is it more a concentration on the next step as a performer?
I think it’s both. I can’t really give a snappy one or two-sentence answer for what my music is about– but when you hear it, you know it. Someone was telling me yesterday, “I don’t know exactly what kind of music you make, but when it starts playing, I know it’s you.” And what I do, I’m not inventing anything new! All the constituent parts of my music are very familiar– certainly to people that have any sort of interest in American music at large. I’m not doing anything new, but I’m putting the parts together in a way that is unique, I think.
You’ve wondered aloud what we’re all gonna take from this. And you’re not just talking about the pandemic. We’re still deeply divided when it comes to racial equality and justice. You’ve been very vocal about the ability and the treatment of teachers. There’s an ongoing issue of voting rights in certain states, including mine and yours. “If It Comes In The Morning”, a song I love on the album, I feel like that’s what that’s talking about. Tomorrow, even if everything worked out, would we remember what it was like and would we continue to make change?
I like that interpretation of it. I think there is also an interpretation of that song that works in the inverse way, which is if the forces that we know in our bones to be wrong are to win in the morning, are we going to be able to hold on to our joy, despite that? Do you know what I’m sayin’? It’s really hard to talk about this without going back towards the political, but I guess part of me was thinking had the so-called 45th president won election again, was I gonna be able to hold onto my joy to wake up in the morning with hope to make it through the day and be there as a joyful rock for my kids? That’s my goal, but I think I need to do a lot of work on myself to get to that place where I don’t let these outside forces control me.
Do you think you’re winning?
I think? I find that when I involve myself with things that I really love, like making music, making records, bein’ around art, reading, listening to music, I find that those are all centering activities to me, and I’m very thankful for them. I think a lot of us have had a lot of time to just sit and think in the past year (laughs)! For me, that can sometimes lead me into uncharted waters.