A strange thing happens when you listen to the new Hiss Golden Messenger record Hallelujah Anyhow. You kind of don’t know how to feel. At least that was my reaction, which I tell leader MC Taylor at the beginning of our interview.
He responds with a knowing chuckle, as though this is exactly the reaction he was hoping for.
“I’ve always been interested in whether there’s a way to translate that tangle of emotions into a song—a mix of joy and confusion and anger and sorrow all at the same time. That feels real to me,” Taylor says. “That is something that I like and definitely mean to have in there. Especially with the way that America feels right now.”
There is something particularly poignant about the record in these polarizing times, and what often feel like catastrophic moments in history. It’s almost as though Taylor read our collective unconscious despair, and set our confused emotional state to bittersweet indie-Americana music.
There’s a whole range of contradictory emotions on the record. Opening track “Jenny of the Roses” has the line: “I’ve never been afraid of the darkness/It’s just a different kind of light.” He tells me I’m not the first person today to point out that specific line to him.
Joy in the midst of despair was a particular area of focus for him on the record, Taylor says. The title of the album basically says it all.
“I’m trying to find hope in small corners. We need that joy. We can be horrified about separating children from their parents at the border, and we can also find joy in certain moments in our day-to-day lives. They’re not mutually exclusive,” he says. “Maintaining that level of horror and shock alone is too exhausting. I think it leads to a normalization of the policies that show up in the news so much these days.”
Not that there are any specific references on the album to anything happening in our world.
“I have an aversion to feeling like I’m going to compose ‘protest music.’ I had absolutely no compulsion to speak for anybody other than myself and my family,” Taylor says. “My job as an artist is to make something that feels real.”
The album is an extension of what he’s been doing since his 2010 masterpiece Bad Debt, a landmark moment for him in terms of expressing contradictions via music. He’s been making music before that for years, and although it was still within the Americana world, it never quite had this depth. Ever since, he’s taken the same approach with each subsequent album.
“There’s nothing drastically different about how I went about composing the songs for this record. I think it has to do maybe with the way that this album rubs up against what life feels like in our country right now,” Taylor says. “With Bad Debt, I just hit some emotional something. I felt like the only way my music is going to be worth anything to anybody including myself is if it feels real.”
Hallelujah Now, he tells me, just poured out of him. He’s not even sure why. He’s currently working on his new record, which he says isn’t coming out with nearly as much ease. However, it’s all relative. Ever since he struck gold with Bad Debt and learned a way to express himself in a sincere way, it hasn’t ever really been too hard.
“I’m always surprised to hear people talk about how difficult song writing is for them. I’ve never really had that feeling,” Taylor says. “Even with the latest batch of songs, it’s not like it was hard. It’s more like, ‘Am I going to want to live with this song forever?’ That’s one of the questions that I ask myself a lot.”
Hiss Golden Messenger performs at 8 p.m. on Tues., Sept. 25 at the Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. $20. 429-4135.