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Interview – Hiss Golden Messenger


MC Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger
MC Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger: ‘I do what I do and I do it well.’ Photograph: Remedy

“Help yourself to scotch,” says MC Taylor, motioning at an unopened bottle of Whyte & Mackay. Most of the backstage rider looks untouched, truth be told, and just as well – Taylor and his entourage are about to drive from Edinburgh to Dublin with a five-hour pause for sleep and a shower in East Kilbride.

The American, who dishes out a stew of country soul, sad-eyed porch songs and southern rock under the alias Hiss Golden Messenger, is sitting in a dressing room at the Usher Hall, where he and his three colleagues have just met wholesale indifference from the twentysomething crowd gathered to worship at the altar of Devon singer-songwriter and double Brit award-winner Ben Howard. After more than two decades in music, the 39-year-old is unfazed by the response to his band. “It’s cool,” he says. After all, he adds, “The shows are huge.”

It’s a subtle, steady miracle that Taylor is here at all. After years of unrewarded toil in hardcore punks Ex-Ignota then indie-rock outfit The Court & Spark, he “didn’t want to be in a band any more”. So he relocated from San Francisco to North Carolina, where he put his masters degree in folklore to good use and earned a living cataloguing customs and stories. He and his wife Abby also had a son, Elijah, during whose infancy Taylor crafted what would become the debut HGM album proper – Bad Debt, a snapshot of one man and his guitar playing quietly into a tape recorder so as not to wake his dormant baby.

“It came after a long string of making records on which I was trying to maintain my personal relationship with music but making concessions I was told I had to make in order to succeed, whatever that meant,” he says. “Ultimately I was at the end of the road. None of that stuff worked, none of the people who gave me that advice is even in the music business any more. They weren’t even musicians.” He smiles wryly. “So I had to figure out a new compass.”

Cut off from his past contacts, the new father simply pleased himself. “And it’s ironic that it’s the record where I feel I found myself musically in a very profound way and the record everybody connected with in a way they did not with other records I’ve made.”

Five years and three long-players on, the live iteration of Hiss Golden Messenger numbers between one and five, depending on the continent. Nip on to YouTube and search for their rollicking appearance last year on The Late Show With David Letterman and you’ll be treated to a brass section and backing singers swelling the ranks to nine. There’s more than a flavour of Little Feat to the rendition of Southern Grammar from Taylor’s latest album Lateness of Dancers, a live radio version of which was released last week and brings the band to Glasgow on Monday, though there’s more to Lateness of Dancers than lissom boogie.

The album is both rootsy and voluptuous, half of it scratching forlornly at the soul while the other half coasts along on a sea of fluid grooves. It’s a record of instant heft and gravity, yet one striped by sunlight and optimism. “I’m glad you feel that way,” he says. “There’s not much to the record but it’s good that it comes off as lush.”

Lateness of Dancers was recorded in a friend’s barn in rural North Carolina and in Taylor’s mind will forever be hitched to the season in which it was created. “For me, it echoes the red and golds of the fall,” he says. “We were very conscious of where we were – the barn is surrounded by pasture and chickens and big trees, and they were all turning colour. It felt good to be there. The music felt like it was in its natural habitat.”

There are palpable similarities on Lateness of Dancers to the Celtic and Caledonian soul of 1970s Van Morrison and his ilk, which kidnapped American roots music and reintroduced it to many of the tributaries that initially fed it as a consequence of the Scottish and Irish diaspora. “There’s definitely a connection to Scots-Irish fiddle music,” says Taylor animatedly, “and stuff that would’ve travelled over into the Blue Ridge mountains and would’ve taken on a vague new shape. That’s in our neck of the woods.

“Maybe that’s why I have such an affinity for the music from the mountains of North Carolina and Virginia. I love it and feel connected to it, and that’s maybe why when I come to Scotland and Ireland I’m excited. It’s like all the stuff I’m interested in– the way a vocal melody sits against a chord progression, the way harmonies work in Scots-Irish music, the unaccompanied singing tradition – that’s all stuff I feel close to at home.”

It’s a home young Elijah Taylor now shares with his little sister Naomi. The two children and their parents feature in a touching video for the ravishing country rock of Mahogany Dread from Lateness of Dancers, a song in which MC Taylor mulls over his dual roles as father and musician. “I had some misgivings about that,” he says. “I didn’t just say, ‘Yep, go and get the kids.’ But that song is so connected to my life at home. I felt it was going to be a cool thing to have in 20 years when I can show Elijah and Naomi themselves as tiny people.”

To cap off a period in which his group released a slow-burning classic album and enlivened living rooms throughout the USA thanks to the endorsement of David Letterman, the MC Taylor-produced Follow the Music by 80-year-old bluegrass singer and banjo player Alice Gerrard is up for the Best Folk Album Grammy on Sunday night. “The heat has been turned up,” says Taylor, “but I’m realistic about it.” No pressure, then? “I don’t feel pressure,” he says. “I’m almost 40 years old. I do what I do and I do it well. [Music] is such a personal thing for me that if people like it, great. If they don’t like, they don’t have to listen to it.” Or in other words: it’s cool.

Southern Grammar EP by Hiss Golden Messenger is out now on Merge.

Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.

Interview – Cass McCombs

US songwriter and musician Cass McCombs
Cass McCombs: ‘Life is a crazy science experiment and it could go one of a million different ways’

Cass McCombs is trying to describe where he lives these days. “New York … California … on the road,” he says, his speaking voice as candied and languorous as it is on record. “I try to live light.” It’s not by choice, he emphasises, but rather necessity.

Forward motion and restlessness are themes that pepper the 37-year-old’s canon, which swelled to seven albums with the release of double LP Big Wheel And Others last October. The rumbling, rolling title track opens with: “I dig the taste of diesel and the sound of big rigs/ Rubber, metal, oil and stone/ Scoring at truck stops, lot lizards and driving far alone.”

McCombs’s music is neither folk nor country, rock nor soul, yet touches on all four, as nomadic as its creator.

There’s no money in touring at his level, he tells me. He can’t put his band on a wage – “There’s nothing to pay them with” – and he can’t afford roadies. So why tour? “It’s a reward, it’s what it’s is all about,” he says. “We get to travel and talk to people and learn about what’s up in these different places, instead of reading it in a newspaper – which is valuable – but to hear what people are saying about politics or whatever, it’s essential.

“What it comes down to is feeding off that moment. It takes a long time to create the space where that microsecond of creation can exist. Because life is just a crazy science experiment, like a mad doctor’s laboratory, and it could go one of a million different ways.”

With nothing but musical satisfaction to offer his band, how does he keep a steady – and happy – line-up? “There’s a loose policy to the band, how it’s organised,” he says. “It’s like a tag team. I understand people come and people go – that’s natural. Everything should be fluid and natural, and imitate the natural world. So if you’ve got to go you’ve got to go. But I’ll find a replacement.”

The singer is speaking from New Jersey, where he is spending time having just completed a North American tour before heading to Europe next week. McCombs’s show in Scotland on Thursday will be his third time in Glasgow. Asked for his fondest memories of the country, the road takes centre stage once more.

“It’s always so wonderful driving into Scotland,” he says. “It’s such an emotional experience just to watch the terrain turn … Scottish,” he chuckles.

McCombs’s oh-so Californian evenness vanishes briefly at the suggestion he should visit the Highlands. “Oh, I would love to,” he says animatedly. “One of these days.”

Until then there is the endless road and recording with which to keep busy. Having delivered seven albums in 10 years, besides his debut mini-LP Not The Way in 2003, McCombs is among the most industrious artists around. How does he view the evolution of his music?

“I don’t really think about it, y’know? I don’t like mirrors. I have this thing with some friends of mine, where if a question is too personal we say: ‘That’s a mirror.’ When you look in a mirror you can do your make-up or fix your hair but it doesn’t actually show you what you look like.

“It’s a reverse image and it’s a distortion. It’s not even three dimensional. It’s a two-dimensional reverse image of yourself. I feel the same way about trying to assess my feelings on myself. It’s not up to me to know.”

While his records are dotted with musical and technical imperfections (his second album, PREfection, concludes with 10-plus minutes of a car alarm going off), it’s possible McCombs’s profile is most hampered by what can be interpreted as prickliness, but which is in all likelihood little more than a distaste for the rules of the game. Here is a songwriter with all the chops of, say, the late Elliott Smith, Josh T Pearson or Jimmy Webb, but little of the kudos. Is he a square peg in a round hole? “I don’t know if I’m a square,” he says, sniggering. “Maybe a rhombus or a triangle. A giant triangle trying to fit into a tiny hole.”

How, then, does McCombs explain his failure to prosper, financially if not creatively? “There are so many factors to making music. There’s music, that’s number one. That exists beyond any business model, before all the chatter. It’s a very tranquil dimension. Then you sprinkle in the physical reality of trying to perform that music, and the gas it takes to be able to do that.

“Then there start to be corrupting agents, and it takes effort to maintain music as just music. You want to keep it music, and everyone wants to turn it into some kind of dialogue. Well no, I don’t want it to be a dialogue. No-one wants it to be a dialogue except you.”

At this juncture McCombs is at his liveliest. Whether by “you” he means music writers or not is unclear.

“It’s not a dialogue. It’s not a concept. It’s not a genre. There’s no reason – it’s just music. Can’t we just have our music be music? Why does everything in the world have to be commerce? I don’t get it.”

His point made, McCombs collects himself and continues: “I actually like this business. It’s fucked up and stupid and wack, and everyone’s wrong, but I kind of like it. It’s like prison – it’s evil and awful and scary but it’s real, and in some ways it’s better than not being in prison.”

I ask what he’ll do when he hangs up the phone. “I’m just gonna walk around in the snow a bit. It’s a winter wonderland out here.” Another echo of restlessness. For Cass McCombs, drifting beats standing still every time.

Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.