M.C. Taylor reflects on box set of early material and hints at new album that asks, 'How do we go on?'

M.C. Taylor was buddies with Jason Molina before the Magnolia Electric Co. frontman died in 2013, and Molina used to jokingly tell Taylor that he made music about wolves and ghosts.

“It was a funny way to summarize his music,” said Taylor, who records and performs as folk-rock act Hiss Golden Messenger. “He was being silly about it, but actually he did make music about wolves and ghosts.”

A similar train of thought occurred to Taylor as he was readying a Merge Records box set of three early Hiss LPs — Bad Debt (2010), Poor Moon (2012) and Haw (2013) — plus a rarities album, Virgo Fool.

“Those Hiss records are about rivers and spirits and children,” Taylor said, and he named the box set accordingly: Devotion: Songs about Rivers and Spirits and Children.

“I'm still making music about rivers and spirits and children, actually,” Taylor said. “But those records seem pretty thematically self-assured. Being forced to go back and listen, I was pleased with how they hold up. Also, it's not like it was 25 years ago. I still wear all the clothes that I was wearing at that time.”

“What I'm striving for,” Taylor continued, “is to be making work that conveys some kind of truth about myself to myself. I'm trying not to lie to myself, and I didn't really feel like I was lying on those records.”

For the Durham, North Carolina, songwriter, part of staying honest means embracing life's emotional ambiguities and complexities in Hiss Golden Messenger's music, as Taylor did on 2016's Heart Like a Levee and 2017's Hallelujah Anyhow. Recently, though, maintaining the balance between light and dark has proven more difficult.

“We are inundated with clickbait news that is meant to make us feel a powerful emotion,” he said. “The past couple of years have gotten harder for me to navigate my way towards an equilibrium. I'm not against existing in that beautiful little space between happy and sad, of course, [but] it is easier to find your way to the dark side if you're inclined in that direction, which I kind of am.”

That tension found its way onto Hiss Golden Messenger's new album, which is finished but not yet announced. “The new record that we're going to put out is about exactly that: How do we go on?” he said. “How do we not commit suicide — the worst-case scenario? What is the balance and how do we find it?

“I certainly don't have any answers. I badly am looking for answers myself. But the asking of the questions is a step towards some kind of understanding. All of my best art is the type that asks questions. I'm less drawn towards things that claim to have the answers because the answers are changing all the time.”

And while Taylor acknowledges his ambitions and his desire for people to hear and enjoy his music, Hiss Golden Messenger's humble beginnings have helped to keep him grounded in an industry that tends to uproot artists.

“One thing I'm extremely thankful for on this journey is that I made music for so many years with very little in the way of public accolades. For most of the time that I've been making music, people just didn't care,” he said. “I learned to make music first and foremost that resonated with me.”