Welcome Back: Hiss Golden Messenger – masters of alternative country

Photo of MC Taylor from Hiss Golden Messenger

Two years ago Hiss Golden Messenger’s The Lateness Of Dancers made a surprise appearance in Classic Rock’s Top Ten Albums Of The Year. And Heart Like A Levee might just repeat the trick. It’s another collection of low-key, quirky Americana steeped in southern tradition, magic and fable, but crackling with the kind of weird electricity that suggests the album was somehow formed in the ether rather than being recorded down here on earth. It’s been a strange journey for Hiss mainman MC Taylor since his early days playing hardcore in Santa Barbara.

How did you navigate the path from punk to what you’re doing now?

Well, I grew up. That’s not to disavow that music – it was very formative for me – but I was eighteen or nineteen years old and my world started to expand. And in the spirit of punk rock, the thing that felt like it would break the most rules was to get into traditional American music, like country and western, bluegrass, old-time music and blues. I was young and wanted to make a statement.

There’s something of a resurgence of bands using ‘country’ sounds. Are you a part of that?

I don’t pay attention to that. I started playing round with rootsy sounds in my early twenties, so I feel like my pathway has been one long journey on which I’ve been trying to use what I love from that world of music in a way that feels genuine. I’ve seen bands come and go over the years who seemed like they were drawing from that well, and some people do it in a really beautiful, compelling way; some people feel like they’re playing dress‑up, with the long hair and the turquoise jewellery and the flared jeans, but I need something more than that.

The new album cover is a striking photo of a young boy’s face. Who is it?

His name is Billy Cornett, who’s a frequent subject in a collection of photographs by William Gedney. I couldn’t get away from his eyes, so we had to use the photo.

Is the south important to you?

I love the southern part of the United States. We’ve seen the pictures of horrible civil rights abuses and all manner of injustice, but it’s also a gorgeous place that’s the cradle of so much good, and so much of what I love about American culture. Not only music, but literature, food, faith. It’s a place I felt like I needed to be when I made the decision to put myself into the world of roots and traditional American music.

Given that traditional music has often had a political voice, do you have a take on the current state of US politics?

It’s a bit scary. I have two little kids, and it’s hard to imagine what sort of world we’re leaving them. But as an artist, making the kind of art that I do, my goal is to put something constructive into the world, and something thoughtful, and something beautiful. Not that anybody needs anything of mine, but I think people have a real craving for art and music that feels genuine; that they’re not being tricked by or hooked into. And I feel like Hiss music is that music, for some people at least.

Fraser Lewry

Online Editor at Louder/Classic Rock magazine since 2014. 38 years in music industry, online for 25. Also bylines for: Metal Hammer, Prog Magazine, The Word Magazine, The Guardian, The New Statesman, Saga, Music365. Former Head of Music at Xfm Radio, A&R at Fiction Records, early blogger, ex-roadie, published author. Once appeared in a Cure video dressed as a cowboy, and thinks any situation can be improved by the introduction of cats. Favourite Serbian trumpeter: Dejan Petrović.