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Complicated faith: Searching for God in the songs of Hiss Golden Messenger

M.C. Taylor, the songwriter who records as Hiss Golden Messenger, near his home in Durham, North Carolina. His new album, “Lateness of Dancers,” is out on Merge Records. (Photo by Bryan Regan for The Washington Post)

DURHAM, N.C. — Michael Taylor is ready to talk about God.

But first, dinner. So he hops into his Subaru Forester — a vehicle with enough room for child seats and guitar amps — and drives off to a restaurant in downtown Durham. Inside, there are fancy pizzas, bartenders who know his name and his manager, Brad Cook, who’s sipping a tequila gimlet and radiating good vibes. He clamps Taylor in a bear hug and quickly launches a tiny debate over which song Taylor should sing on “Letterman” in November.

“Dude!” Cook says. “Trust me!”

Taylor is a trusting dude, a devoted dad and, as Hiss Golden Messenger, an author of still-water folk songs that dive deep into the complications of faith. His superb new album, “Lateness of Dancers,” will be released Tuesday, his 39th birthday, by Merge Records, the macro-indie label headquartered just a few blocks away from this pizza spot. The songs on it feel both ambiguously sweet and deeply personal, but ultimately confident in their own vagueness.

“Mike’s level of thoughtfulness and deliberation is pretty unique,” his labelmate and sometimes-collaborator William Tyler says later over the phone. “His songs aren’t about sexy topics — they’re about being a father and searching for your place in the universe. I think he’s a gospel singer in a lot of ways.”

But not in every way. During his new album’s finale, Taylor sings, “Take the good news, carry it away,” refusing to indicate whether that good news should be shared or shredded.

Most of Taylor’s music inhabits this highly charged middle space, the chasm between faith and doubt. His strongest melodies simultaneously suggest jubilation and despair, comfort and restlessness. His singing is cool and sharp, somewhere between James Taylor’s serenity and Bob Dylan’s agita. He never sounds stuck in the middle. He sounds as if he’s conquering the middle.

“This combination of things that I do — the lyrical content, the rhythmic content,” he says, “it’s this weird alchemy that belongs to me.”

Concurrently, his search for God has been every bit as unique. But maybe not as successful.


After dinner, he heads back to the house where his wife, Abby, has already put their kids — Elijah, 5 years, and Ione, 14 months — to bed. Taylor disappears into the kitchen and returns carrying four beers and a bottle of Glenlivet.


He tip-toes down to a small room in the basement where he writes his songs. There are four white walls, a white paper lantern, vines of white Christmas lights and an old turntable. He cracks a beer and drops the needle on a Byrds song — “Old Blue,” one of the first songs that made Taylor wonder whether he should try writing some songs of his own.

There’s also a bookshelf crowded with poetry by Czeslaw Milosz, fiction by Cormac McCarthy, autobiographies of Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard, and the old Sharp cassette player that he used to record Hiss Golden Messenger’s breakout 2010 album, “Bad Debt.”

“I felt like I had struck on this thing,” Taylor says of those early songs. “This was my musical voice that I’d been searching for for so long.”

Taylor grew up in Orange Country, riding skateboards in the California sunbeams. He joined a hardcore punk band, Ex-Ignota, while at college in Santa Barbara, then moved to San Francisco to lead the Court and Spark, a folk-rock group that burned brightly, then quickly burned out.

Exhausted and discouraged, Taylor relocated to North Carolina in 2007 to get his master’s in folklore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“It would be a great way to restart my brain, which had just atrophied from years of weed and drinking and drugs,” Taylor says of the move. “I just partied through my 20s in a really intense way, and I felt like I had nothing to show for it.”

By 2009, everything was different. He was a graduate navigating fatherhood, ample student loan debt, unpaid heating bills and unresolved thoughts about higher powers. Having already come up with Hiss Golden Messenger — a name that evoked both biblical serpents and the white noise of cassette tapes — he started singing about all of it into his tape recorder. Then he had a breakthrough.

“I hate to attribute it to a guitar tuning,” Taylor says, smothering a laugh. “Here, I’ll show you.”

He silences the stereo, grabs his guitar and starts twisting the tuning pegs. B drops to A. G drops to E. This maneuver allows him to form chords that muddle the distinction between minor and major, the keys that signal sadness and sunshine, respectively.

“So the weight of the emotion rests solely on the vocal melody and the lyrical content,” Taylor says.

He starts strumming “Jesus Shot Me in the Head,” which first appeared on “Bad Debt” and again, fleshed-out, on his next album, “Poor Moon.” It’s a startling ballad about the transaction of deliverance, tallying up what gets lost when someone gets saved: “Hey, everybody. Did you hear the news? Jesus shot me in the head. . . . No more shooting pool, no getting drunk / I’m going to see the king.”

Now seems like a good time to ask Taylor whether he believes in God. And for the next two hours, he’ll talk it out, answering questions slowly and mindfully, as if walking on wet stones.


“I was baptized Episcopalian, but my parents had a hard time with church, so I don’t really have that in my background,” Taylor says. “But I’m not saying I don’t believe in God. I’m skeptical. And the people telling me God does exist don’t seem like reputable sources. I see God being used as a tool for violence and mayhem. Whether it’s the North Carolina GOP totally dismantling social services for low-income people and the elderly, or ISIS causing chaos, or Israel and Palestine killing each other over their prophets.”

He sets down his guitar.

“It never seems like American Christians are ever following the teachings of Jesus as I understand them to be — and they’re not that difficult to understand. I don’t want to be dissuaded from this idea of belief by people who claim to be experts on Jesus Christ. But to me, they seem ignorant. So I’m trying to find this other way to faith. But I’m looking for a back door. All the common entrances seem incorrect.”

He pries the cap from a sweaty bottle of beer.

“It feels funny to be talking about America writ large, but faith is a big part of American culture and I want to feel like I have some sort of sense of what that is, and what it means, and a sense of the good that can come from that. I want to be a part of that.”

Takes a swig.

“I want to be involved. I want to have a connection to people outside of my peer group. Because I don’t want to be talking about music with everybody all the time. I want another connection that’s based on love and wisdom — what I think of when I think of the teachings of Jesus.”

And then he laughs.

“But I’m having a hard time finding that.”

Where has he been looking?

“I’ve read not a ton of theology, but a fair amount. The Bible to José Saramago to A.N. Wilson’s ‘Jesus.’ Do I have any legitimate right to be pontificating about this stuff? Probably not. But who does? You don’t need an advanced degree to think about these things. And I don’t think the teachings of Jesus, at their core, are all that complex. My understanding is that he taught love, and kindness, and generosity. And that’s why he’s such a hero to so many people.”

Do those ideas shape his songs?

“I’m not trying to tell people what to think about this stuff — or even what I think about this stuff. I intentionally construct the lyrics and the narratives in the songs to withhold all of that information.”

The quiet suddenly feels a little weird. Taylor cues up a Van Morrison record — 1974’s “Veedon Fleece” — and turns down the volume a smidge because there are sleeping children upstairs.

“I don’t know what I’m going to tell my kids about faith. We’ve already talked a little bit about it with Elijah. I think he asked, ‘What is God?’ — because he heard someone talk about this concept of God. And I don’t have an answer that’s good. I limped through some answer. But I don’t have an answer for him because I don’t have an answer for myself.”

He sounds entirely comfortable in this uncertainty.

“For me, the resolve is in the journey — going through the days and negotiating my position on faith, over time. It’s not about waking up someday saying, ‘I get it! I believe!’ That doesn’t seem realistic. I’m someone struggling to find his way toward being a productive, good citizen. Maybe that’s my faith. Trying to set aside my pessimism and self-defeat for love.”

And now it’s getting on midnight, all the bottles are getting on empty, and Van Morrison is getting on with “You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push the River.”

Suddenly, everything slows down.

Morrison’s voice turns into one long, yawning syllable, as if he’s plunging into an abyss or evanescing into the next life. Taylor hops up from his chair. His record player just died.

“That’s the end, man,” he says. “That was a good song, too.”