Hiss Golden Messenger searches shadowy corners to reveal life's emotional richness.

Hiss Golden Messenger searches shadowy corners to reveal life's emotional richness.

After 20 years of holding down a full-time job while also performing and recording as folk-rock act Hiss Golden Messenger, M.C. Taylor quit his day job around the same time he was making his new album Heart Like a Levee, which came out last fall on Merge Records.

The change has made for what Taylor described as a simple, creatively satisfying existence. “I get the kids to school, and sometimes I'll go for a run. Then I'll write all day, and then I go pick the kids up from school,” Taylor said recently by phone from his home in Durham, North Carolina. “It's the best.”

While holing up in a home office for most of the day may not seem dissimilar from a day job, Taylor said that rather than forcing himself to write a certain number of words each day, he sees these songwriting sessions as a way to open himself up to whatever thoughts may arise.

“Sometimes that means being really clear-headed and chasing an idea down that I have in my head, because I know that I just need to push at it for a little while and it will come,” he said. “And other times I'll walk into my office with no idea of what I'm about to do. I'm just trying to get my brain used to being in that open place. … When I'm not on the road, I spend my days searching through these shadowy corners and seeing what I find.”

“Shadowy” is an apt descriptor for Taylor's music, which lives in those medial moments between light and dark. “Part of Hiss Golden Messenger has been about embracing emotional ambiguity. Maybe a more fun way to think of it is emotional richness or complexity,” he said. “I'm trying to present songs that feel emotionally unresolved. There's something about that that I find powerful and maybe a little uncomfortable in a good way.”

While on the page, a lyric like, “Go easy on me, I'm not doing too well / Do you hate me, honey, as much as I hate myself,” from Heart Like a Levee's title track, can sound dark as night, Taylor bathes it in light with a buoyant rhythm, background vocal echoes, hints of spritely mandolin and a plucky vocal delivery.

“My self-loathing is not forever. It's temporary. It's a moment,” he said. “I'm always surprised when I hear music that feels like it's just straight up in A minor. It's sad. Sometimes I need that kind of music, but generally speaking I need more, and music can easily provide more, so why not go deeper?”

Making music a full-time career comes with its challenges, too. Since the beginning of Hiss Golden Messenger, Taylor's music has had a homespun, emotionally bare vibe, especially on an album like Bad Debt, which he made in his kitchen with a cassette recorder while his son slept in a nearby room.

Now, Taylor necessarily asks more of his music. “I need to understand what I'm going to be doing every month that's gonna bring in enough money to pay myself and my band, and I feel like that's the first place that people start to get lost,” he said. “You have to be careful about protecting the thing that people came to your music for in the first place. … There's an intimacy to my music that, however many people come to my music over the years, I have to make sure to at least remember that it started with a naked intimacy — a very personal feeling.”