North Carolina's Hiss Golden Messenger will be playing the Levitt Shell this weekend as part of Todd Snider's "What the Folk Festival." We caught up with band founder M.C. Taylor to find out more about Hiss Golden Messenger, what it's like to tour all your life, and to get his take on modern folk rock.
Flyer: What is the biggest thing you've noticed about your reach as an artist since signing with Merge Records?
M.C. Taylor: There is definitely a lot more interest in what I'm doing because Merge has such a long reach, but the music I make has always been a slow burn, not a drastic uphill climb. We aren't a super flashy band; I just write songs that I hope will last for a really long time. It isn't the hippest thing to be doing, but it's what I can do well.
Is it important to work with a label close to home? You've worked with other North Carolina record labels.
The location was something that was attractive about Merge. I can just go down there and shoot the shit for a while. I think it's helpful, especially with the kind of music I make, which is rooted in traditional music from this part of the world. There is something comfortable about having them in your own backyard, but that's not the only reason I started working with Merge.
Do you think the label is introducing your music to a much broader audience? What type of audience is coming to check you out that didn't before?
Yeah, I think so. It's hard to tell how much of it is Merge's doing and how much of it is due to the amount of time we spend on the road. Merge has been in the game for so long, and we have a tight crew of people who are all pushing in the same direction. We talk a lot to Merge, but we also have our own game plan, which is something Merge really appreciates. Everyone in the live band has been doing this forever. We aren't 21-year-olds who just started touring.
In my musical life there have not been any miracles. What I'm doing as a musician is a lot of really hard work. I'm not expecting any handouts or any free rides just because I've never gotten any. It's a last-man-standing type of situation, and all I can do is keep writing songs that are better than the last batch.
How did you link up with Todd Snider? Have you played with him before?
Honestly, this is just a one-off thing. Todd is going to be performing solo, and he called and asked if I'd be willing to play solo, too. Todd isn't really on my radar, but I am stoked to be able to play.
You've been touring with a backing band lately as opposed to going on the road solo. How are those experiences different?
I like the full-band thing just because I played solo for so long that I started to get lonesome. I still love doing the solo thing, because it's a little like tight-rope walking. You have to recover in your own way. I like that pressure. I love the idea of playing alone and in small ensembles. I'm doing a few solo shows here and there over the summer, and the next one will be this thing with Todd. Solo shows are becoming pretty rare. My booking agent also books the band, but when we start booking solo stuff we have to be very specific, because it's a pretty different vibe.
As someone who's been touring for over 20 years, how do you find inspiration to keep creating new music? Are you surprised at what influences your songwriting now as opposed to when you first started writing music?
Yes and no. I mean my core influences have sort of remained the same. My process of working and what appears in my songs have evolved over time as I've gotten older and had kids, but the things that I was attracted to as a 19-year-old still speak to me. My skill set has probably evolved. I'm always looking for something deeper, and that can be hard to put your finger on.
Take the Grateful Dead, for example. So often they sounded so bad, their playing was out of tune, their playing was amateurish at times, you never knew what the hell Mickey Hart was there for. But at the same time their music is so deep and so compelling to me. That's the place I'm trying to get to.
How do you feel about being labeled folk rock? Do you go out of your way to play with like-minded bands?
At this point in my life, I'm kind of up for anything. We say no to most stuff that comes our way, but not because it's a folk festival specifically. There is a lot of folk music in my music, but I don't really deal with folk music in a delicate way. Sometimes my issue with that world is that it feels like there is some Civil War reenacting going on. We can be harder on folk music than we are currently, and it will still be pretty durable. People are kind of scared to experiment in the folk-music world, and I have the complete opposite approach.
Todd Snider's What the Folk Show with Chicago Farmer, Elizabeth Cook, and Hiss Golden Messenger at the Levitt Shell,
Saturday, July 11, 7:30-9 p.m.