Man and his MEASURE

Although he cultivates a low-key, often-gnomic presence, Michael “MC” Taylor has actually been operating in a consistent artistic vein for nearly 20 years. The LA native started off kicking out hardcore jams with Ex-Ignota before he began mining a deep well of alt-country and Americana in the late ‘90s with longtime friend Scott Hirsch as The Court & Spark. After that band burned out, Taylor decided in 2007 to get out of San Francisco and move to Durham, NC, so he could pursue a master’s degree in folklore at the University of North Carolina. And that gave the world one understated masterpiece after another with Taylor writing and performing as Hiss Golden Messenger.

The band name and origin story may seem perfectly positioned for the grainier corners of the psych-folk realm. But even on 2012’s Poor Moon, produced in a limited run of 500 copies for cult label Paradise of Bachelors, Taylor struck a eminently listenable lode star: folk-inflected soul recorded with 16 different contributors, all led by Taylor’s unmistakably high-pitched delivery, which Wall Street Journal once called “cool and sharp, somewhere between James Taylor’s serenity and Bob Dylan’s agita.”

Taylor and his crew quickly became renowned in underground music circles for mining both arcane Piedmont art forms and popular AM Gold song structures, creating music both enjoyable and challenging. Haw (released in 2013) and Bad Debt (released in 2014 but originally recorded in 2009, when Taylor’s son Elijah was an infant) found Taylor confronting his own spiritual and religious doubts before elevated support from Merge Records allowed Taylor to stretch his legs on 2014’s Lateness of Dancing. That loose, funky album celebrated a certain level of indie rock success, with guest spots from acclaimed musicians like William Tyler, Matt McCaughan of Bon Iver, Phil and Brad Cook of Megafaun, Alexandra Sauser-Monnig of criminally underrated folk act Mountain Man, and Taylor’s old friend Scott Hirsch.

The accolades poured in. Universal rave reviews from every taste-making outlet in existence. A network TV debut on Late Night with David Letterman. The aforementioned WSJ profile (in the Style section no less!). And, most crucially, a more comfortable life for Taylor’s wife and two children, culminating in the purchase of a brick ranch house he raved about in a hilarious 2014 interview with Pitchfork (“Dream merch table item: A poncho, a signature chef’s knife, or a vaporizer. I like things with utilitarian value.”)

And yet Taylor still found himself, at 40, lost: touring more than he ever had (including opening stints for big bands like Dawes in large venues like Ponte Vedra Concert Hall), spending more time away from his family than he ever had, all while pondering the interconnected meaning of everything. Enter 2016’s Heart Like a Levee, a rousing yet heartbreaking document of Taylor’s arrival at a personal, professional, creative, and domestic crossroads. “The writing of [the album] started in January 2015,” he said in press for the record. “At that time I was feeling — more acutely than I had ever felt before — wrenched apart by my responsibilities to my family and to my music. Forgetting, momentarily, that for me, each exists only with the other… In the end, I learned more about myself making this record than any in the past, and that’s one important way for me to gauge whether an album was worth making.”

That rich interplay resulted in a staggeringly beautiful end product, though: sparse, meditative moments like “Cracked Windshield,” sexy strutting on “Like a Mirror Loves a Hammer” and “As the Crow Flies,” horn-drenched slow burners like “Highland Grace,” upbeat country-fried numbers like “Biloxi” and “Say It Like You Mean It” that would slot right in on FM radio and the summer festival schedule. Even though Hiss Golden Messenger has produced seven full-lengths, two EPs, and one live album in just nine years, “Heart Like a Levee represents MC Taylor at the peak of his powers — a climax reinforced by his longtime backing band and guest spots from new collaborators like alt-country firebrand Tift Merritt.

The command Taylor wields over his material at this point in a long, circuitous career makes sense, however. After the success of Lateness of Dancing, Taylor quit what he vowed would be the last in a long line of dead-end part-time jobs: “I wanted my children understand their father as a man in love with his world and the inventor of his own days,” he said in press for Heart Like a Levee last year. “Then — driven by monthly bills and pure fear — I left for another tour, carrying a load of guilt that I could just barely lift. But I found the refrain [repeated on ‘Cracked Windshield’] that became my compass: ‘I was a dreamer, babe, when I set out on the road/But did I say I could find my way home?’”

That speaks to the sensitive sophistication of MC Taylor and his broadly consistent body of work. When asked last month about the story behind his songs, he told, “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.”