M.C. Taylor will tell you that he's not a narrative songwriter. There may be a story behind the songs, but they don't really tell a story. And even if they did, he wouldn't tell you what those songs are about because that's not his duty. Taylor would never dare tell you what meaning you're supposed to glean from his lyrics. "Part of my mission with Hiss has been to make emotionally complex music, where you play it for someone and they can't quite tell whether it's happy or sad. That's the core of my music: using it as a mirror for what my life feels like, because my life is both happy and sad, usually at the same time. My songs are about whatever you want them to be about. You have your idea and I have mine, and I would never disabuse anyone of their notion." he told me.
It's no surprise, then, why the Hiss Golden Messenger frontman loves poetry: its ambiguity and metaphor. Poets will also never tell you what their poems are about, and Taylor loves poetry because it allows the reader to "fill in the blanks; the reader has permission to invent in a way that is hard to do in fiction." He's a big fan of Japanese haiku; while the minimal aesthetic appeals to him, it's often the blocking of the words on the page that draw him in. I've always considered Taylor to be an exceptional lyricist because, like a poet, his words are playful. Not playful as in "funny," but playful in the literary sense: the ambiguity in the words leaves a gap in meaning. There's always a measure of uncertainty, which makes for a more joyful experience because meaning can always change.
Hiss Golden Messenger's Heart Like a Levee was one of my favorite albums of 2016, and you can read all about Taylor's creative process after the video.
How much writing do you do outside of songwriting?
It depends on where my head is. I always have a journal with me, so I'm always jotting down lines. Generally speaking, those lines aren't really connected from one line to the next, so if you look inside my current journal, it's just words and sentences, maybe groups of sentences, but there's a randomness to it. At most, five sentences might be connected. The journal is more about remembering words and phrases that moved me in the moment. Then, as I begin to write, I go back and see if I can fit them into a framework that makes sense.
Do you try to write every day, or is it more about writing when the urge strikes?
Right now, I write mostly when the urge strikes. But I do write something every day. It might be something I read in a book or a poem that I looked at. I might write down exactly what I read, or I might write down the thoughts I have about those words. It could even be the name of a place that I see in my travels. That's often the most beautiful thing: finding a word in its natural habitat, seeing a place name and understanding that it is the signifier for a place that I'm passing through. There are also certain writers I will revisit, and those writers give me that little tweak that I find dependable, that tweak that keeps me writing and thinking.
Naturally, I must ask who those writers are.
I can tell you that I packed too many books for this tour, and most are shoved into the back of the van. It's a pretty even split between fiction and poetry. Packing books of poems for a tour is pretty ambitious, though. Laughs. At this moment, I'm reading The Land Breakers by John Ehle. It was given to me by Hiss's drummer Darren Jessee, who is also a deep reader. The book takes place in the 18th century, and it's about a couple of different families moving into the mountains of western North Carolina. You would think there'd be a lot of books about that, but there aren't that many. It's beautifully written.
There are some writers, as I said, that I often revisit. One is Wendell Berry. His poetry in particular feels almost Biblical. He's obviously a Christian so there's a great deal of writing about spiritual matters, but his writing is filled more with questions than with answers, which I really appreciate. I also love Barry Hannah; I'm at the point with him where I'm rereading his books, but he has a vernacular that's fun for me. It takes me about fifteen pages to wrap my head around how he puts words together. He has an out there way of assembling sentences that I love, plus he's funny and deep at the same time.
I'm always surprised by how few songwriters read poetry when I ask about their reading habits. Is there one genre, either within poetry or fiction, that influences you more than others as a songwriter?
I like the way that words appear physically on a page. When I look at those words, I can appreciate the way those words and those lines take shape within a stanza before I even read them. That's always been how my brain is wired. I like to see words blocked out on a page, which is why I love early Japanese haiku poets like Issa, Buson, Basho, then later 19th century poets like Santoka and Ryokan. I love the brevity in haiku: conveying as much richness as you can in as few words as possible. I like a minimal aesthetic. That's how I've always been. That's why haiku speaks directly to me.
I'm also partial to poetry because it leaves the door open to ambiguity and metaphor. There are half-told stories with rich language where it's up to the reader to fill in the blanks. Poetry gives the reader permission to invent in a way that sometimes fiction might not. I've never thought of myself as a narrative songwriter in the way that others songwriters are. I'm an imagistic songwriter. There are narratives in my songs that I'm aware of, but nobody else could know what those narratives are. I'm not really interested in writing a song with a beginning and end. It's not my default setting.
Are there any rituals to your writing process?
At this point in my life, my ideal is to be at home in Durham (NC), where I have a writing room. I'll take the two kids to school and go for a run, then make a cup of coffee and head downstairs to work for a few hours. That's the absolute ideal, but my brain is always, always looking for distractions. But in those times when I feel like I'm on a roll, it's easy to go down there and write.
We have four kids, and I've found that having kids has made me a disciplined writer because free time is so scarce. Is that the same way with you?
Laughs. I think so. Hiss Golden Messenger didn't really receive any recognition until after my first kid was born because I didn't even put out the first album until after that. So there's definitely truth to that. Having kids has made me prioritize. I've had to jettison things that in my heart of hearts I knew I was never going to excel at anyway. Instead, being a father has made me focus on the things that, with some work, I could actually sharpen.
You mentioned running, and there's a clear link between aerobic exercise and creativity. Do you ever get song ideas while running?
Running helps more with peace of mind and anxiety. It's helpful to me mentally, so to that extent when it puts me in a good head space, my songwriting will be better. It's hard to do on tour, so the trick is making it as much a part of my routine as possible so that I miss it when it's not there.
Do you set writing goals for yourself in terms of words or pages, or do you write until the well runs dry?
Sometimes I can tell when I have enough fuel in the tank to finish something and finish it well. If I can just get past the part of me that wants to look at the internet, it can be done. Laughs. Other times, something will be incomplete, but I know that forcing it will lead to something I'm not happy with. It depends on what I'm working on. For example, there's a little record that came with some copies of Heart Like a Levee called Vestapol. It's just me and some guitars and a tiny bit of piano. When it came time to turn in the music to Merge, the stuff on Vestapol wasn't quite done. I was doing a solo tour at the time and had a little studio set up that I'd bring to hotel rooms. I told myself I had to finish everything on that tour, and I did. Of course, that meant I getting up at 6:30 or 7am, but it was almost a self-imposed deadline. I knew it was there; I just had to focus.
Is it hard to write on tour?
Generally speaking, home is the place for me. I need a place for my instruments and writing utensils, and I need to have a place where I can write something, step away, and return to it with fresh eyes. That's hard to do on the road. That's not to say that I can't, because I starting writing Heart Like a Levee on the road, but what I was sketching out was pretty crude. It tightened up a lot more when I got home.
Speaking of tightening up, how much revision do you do to your lyrics?
Not a ton, honestly. I might revise or replace a word here or there, but it's rare for me to even rewrite a verse. My litmus test is whether I'll be able to sing something every night and give it the emotion a performance needs. And then it's a question of whether I really mean what I'm saying. Sometimes I'll put in a line that's a placeholder, and it ends up being integral to the song. Other times, I'll put in a line that I don't fully understand that may be a bit clunky, but then it ends up at the heart of the song. Then there are certain lines that go in as placeholders that I know no one will ever hear.
You mentioned earlier "a fresh set of eyes." Is that an effective tool when the writing process isn't going as well as you'd like?
Yeah. A lot of times, I know in my heart that something isn't working, but I don't want to admit it to myself. Sometimes, I'll be perplexed by something I'm working on. In theory, it should be working, but it isn't. In those times, fresh eyes are important. I have to step away even if I don't want to. I've worked and worked at stuff that was driving me crazy trying to figure out why it wasn't working. I didn't want to step away because I wanted to solve it and finish it. I didn't want to be bested by this thing I had created. But that's really the best time to step away.
Can you give me an example of when that's happened?
The tune "Happy Day" on the new album is one of my favorite songs. It went through so many versions. I was excited at first that it was a heavy, almost Small Faces version, but that was me being seduced by something outside of what that song wanted to be. If I had just sat down next to the song and paid attention to it, we would've gotten there a lot faster. As it turns out, we went through a lot on that song. We put stuff on the final version that wasn't even a contender when we started out, but it ended up being integral to the song. There's an acoustic guitar part, a finger picking that Phil Cook plays, for example. That happened because we had a mic up where Phil was standing when he was messing around with an acoustic guitar. That ended up on the record.
So I guess the songs that give me trouble are those where I'm not engaging with them in the way that they've asked to be engaged with. Each song has a personality, and if you sit and let it tell you what it wants, the creative process is easier.
When you write about ideas or emotions that are close to your heart, how important is distance from that idea to be able to write about it effectively?
It depends on the emotion. Some you can really catch with their vibe and cadence right in the moment. Others you need to feel, then sit back and process.
What's an immediate emotion you can write about?
Things that make me happy and joyful are easier to write about in the moment. I like exploring that language immediately because I'm feeling good. Things that affect me in a darker way are things I like to sit with, because when I'm in an emotionally dark place I'm also in an emotionally complex place. And it's important for me to convey the complexity of those emotions. To do that, I need to think about them.
I've talked before about not being interested in music that's in A minor. I mean that theoretically, of course, but also figuratively. A minor is your straight up minor chord: if you want to write a sad song, start with that chord. I'm not interested in making that kind of music. Part of my mission with Hiss has been to make emotionally complex music, where you play it for someone and they can't quite tell whether it's happy or sad. That's the core of my music: using it as a mirror for what my life feels like, because my life is both happy and sad, usually at the same time. It's funny how, in the course of doing interviews for this one record, someone will ask me what it's like to make the happiest record of my career, then the very next person will ask me what it's like to make the darkest record of my career. It's both of those things, but it's not my place to tell anyone whether it's a happy or a sad record.
That's why we both find poetry so appealing, I think. Poets bristle whenever anyone asks them what one of their poems is about.
Exactly. That's also why I'm so hesitant to talk about what the songs are about. They are about whatever you want them to be about. You have your idea and I have mine, and they are both right.
I'm wondering if that's why you don't revise that much, because revising removes the emotional immediacy of the moment in which they were written.
Maybe, but one thing we haven't touched on at all, but that is central to Hiss, is rhythm. That's also what draws me to poetry and haiku, and specifically to poets who have such a minimal aesthetic. That's why I like Wendell Berry: he's both concise and rhythmic. I'm always looking for a way to swing a verse. There's always a pocket in my music. I'm intent on putting together the most powerful rhythm section I can. As soon as I start thinking about making a new record, I think about how the rhythm section will work together. Not just the bass and the drum, but also the rhythm guitar and the piano. All of that supports making the words swing. Every once in a while, something might appear clunky on a page, but it swings when it's sung. If I have to choose, I'll usually go for the swing.