Before jetting off to Europe to join Michael Chapman on tour, as well as playing a few gigs of his own, Mike Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger took a few minutes to tell us about North Carolina, American vernacular music and performing for John Sayles, among other things
Hi Mike, you’re just about to go on tour with Michael Chapman, how are you looking forward to that?
I’m very much looking forward to it. Michael Chapman is a musical hero of mine. I have a great deal of respect for lifers who do it because they have to, artistically-speaking. Chapman has probably forgotten about more music than I’ll ever know about.
In fact, I just spotted that you’ve contributed to a Michael Chapman tribute album on Tompkins Square, along with Lucinda Williams, Thurston Moore, Black Twig Pickers and others…
We recorded his song ‘Fennario’ from his 1972 album Wrecked Again. I sent it to Michael and his wife, Andru, and she sent their approval, which was something of a relief.
Your new album Poor moon is also on Tompkins Square, a label perhaps best known for reissues or archive releases, how did you hook up with them?
I got a call out of the blue one day from Josh Rosenthal, who owns Tompkins Square. He said that he liked the record (which was a vinyl version that had been released on the Paradise of Bachelors label) and asked whether I would like to issue it digitally and on CD. I never looked for a proper label, it was serendipity. Tompkins has been great, extremely supportive and open. I can be something of a curmudgeon about my music.
Can you tell me a little about the logistics of the recording – your main collaborator Scott Hirsch is based in Brooklyn so there were some long distances involved…
Some long distances, but plane flights are affordable. And when I’m writing, I usually need to be alone for a few months, so I’ll do that prior to thinking about how the songs would sound with a full group of musicians, and then Scott and I will start talking. I won’t lie, I wish Scott lived in North Carolina, but that’s as much for reasons of friendship as it is for music.
I read somewhere that for a previous record you handed the producer two albums to explain the sound you were looking for (by Traffic and Fairport Convention, I believe) – did you have similar ideas in mind for Poor moon?
We’re generally referencing a handful of albums that we love — Low Spark of High Heeled Boys and Full House being two of them — while we’re recording. Not in order to sound like those records, but to understand how they approach their music and production. There’s a big difference. We can only sound like Hiss Golden Messenger. I’m not interested in Civil War Reenaction, only continuing on my personal journey to understand my life through our music.
It’s slightly unusual for a recording artist to maintain a blog – http://hissgoldenmessenger.blogspot.com/, at least one not exclusively about their own music – yours includes interviews with people who play music for the love of it and appreciations of old bluesmen. How much does that kind of enquiry inform the music you make yourself? Also, I believe you’re a lecturer in Folklore, does that feed into your music much?
Yes, I think so. It’s important to me to think about music in as many different ways as possible. Much of that material comes from my work as a folklorist for North Carolina, during which I conduct fieldwork throughout the eastern part of the state. To me, music is true expression. If there is glamour in music, it’s in the way it celebrates life and soul like no other art can. Music has been turned into a vehicle for riches and fame but I don’t understand it like that at all. It’s a holy thing to me.
I see “American vernacular music” credited by you as an influence – an interesting phrase, one I hadn’t come across before, although I have an idea what it might mean. Can you explain what that is? It suggests a connection with the weight of tradition or history …
I prefer the term ‘American vernacular music’ over ‘traditional music’ because it’s more inclusive. Try as we might to redefine the word ‘folklore,’ it’s linked with a very particular body of sound that excludes so much other music that is important to me personally. I loosely think of vernacular music as everday music — Merle Haggard and Katy Perry and the Grateful Dead and anything else I might hear in a day of my life. I’m not so picky.
Similarly, the religious, or biblical imagery, running through the album…
Over the past couple of years, scripture became a prism through which I could shine different lights and see what the effect might be. But let’s be clear — I remain a sceptic. Jesus Christ was a good man and a teacher and that’s as far as I am willing to go right now.
For people not familiar, can you tell me a little bit about Durham NC?
Durham is a jewel. It’s a mid-sized city in the eastern part of the state of North Carolina, a bustling, red-brick town when Bull Durham tobacco was king throughout the 20th century. Durham is widely considered the home of the first sit-in of the Civil Rights Movement in 1957. It is a working-class city — it has grit, it has a real façade, and it has a very vibrant arts and food community. Kudzu vines and decay and hot summer evenings on the porch. It has beer and wine. It is a very good place to live.
How important is place to your music?
I heard on the grapevine that you recently met the film director John Sayles. Can you tell me about that?
I was asked by esteemed local playwright and actor Mike Wiley to collaborate with him on an adaptation of Sayles’ Matewan for a dinner and awards ceremony that Duke University was holding in his honor. It was a pleasure to perform Sayles’ work for him and his longtime collaborator, Maggie Renzi, but the real honor was working with Mike Wiley, who is a master of the highest order. I look forward to doing more together.
Hiss Golden Messenger plays Whelan’s Dublin on April 30th, with Michael Chaman & Amanda Shires, also The Pumphouse Kilkenny on May 5th as part of the Kilkeny Roots Festival
Poor moon is available on Tompkins Square now