In 2006, Creative Loafing hyped an intriguing four-band smorgasbord at the newly renovated Amos' Southend. The line-up included avant jazz/noir popists the Dead Science, Jonathan Meiburg's Shearwater just prior to their Matador Records signing, Evangelista featuring Carla Bozulich of Ethyl Meatplow and Geraldine Fibbers fame, and country rock-flecked outfit the Court & Spark, led by MC Taylor.
The mid-week crowd that night was abysmal even by Charlotte standards — perhaps a dozen people scattered in a cavernous airplane hangar. For Taylor, it was the nadir of a road trip that spelled the end of the Court & Spark, despite eight years of reviewer love for four full-lengths and peer respect up the wazoo. It felt, he said, like the end of his professional musician road.
"Low turnouts, long drives, playing to nobody, not selling any records," Taylor said with a chuckle, remembering that dismal night years later. "That was the story of that band, really."
He couldn't have known it then, but that door slamming shut led to a new and more successful musical venture. Back then, Taylor disbanded the San Francisco-based C&S and left the Bay area for North Carolina, eventually earning a masters in folklore from UNC-Chapel Hill. Making music was still in the mix, of course. But now it was there on a scale more conducive to both his new life — his son, Elijah, was born in 2009, and his wife recently gave birth to the couple's first girl, Ione — and the digital music era's new realities.
Taylor's shift to a cheaper, home-based solo musical enterprise, little touring and limited releases through North Carolina-based label Paradise of Bachelors made sense from every angle.
"Part of what Hiss Golden Messenger is about is having the opportunity to play with anybody that seems like they could translate what I'm hearing in my head," said Taylor, who plays the Milestone Aug. 13 with Sub Pop's Daughn Gibson and Charlotte's Ancient Cities. "I've sort of lucked into a pretty consistent cast of characters that can play anything now."
Living in Pittsboro with access to the Triangle's fertile musician pool has been as big a recording boon as it has been an inspiration. Taylor's HGM records do feature stripped-down solo moments (chiefly 2010's Bad Debt) recorded near the moment of song-creation. But it's the full-band records — 2009's Country Hai East Cotton, 2012's Poor Moon and this year's Haw — that reflect a Taylor freed from the commercial concerns that the late-'90s/early-'00s music scene demanded of the Court & Spark.
Ironically, freedom from the tour/release/tour-again grind and label promotion merry-go-round has resulted in a bigger buzz for HGM than C&S ever enjoyed. Since Haw's March release, Taylor's been featured on an Indy Week cover, in the Huffington Post and the New York Times, and in music publications ranging from Britain's Uncut to American Songwriter.
The high point so far of Taylor's second musical life came during last year's Hopscotch Festival in Raleigh. There, previewing several songs from Haw, Taylor was joined on the Fletcher Opera Theater stage by a sparkling lineup featuring Nashville guitarist William Tyler and his sublime Telecaster fills, Black Twig Pickers banjo maestro Nathaniel Bowles, Megafaun brothers Phil and Brad Cook, New Orleans-bred drummer Terry Lonergan and longtime C&S collaborator Scott Hirsch.
Though they'd contributed to Haw, it was the first time the seven had played together live. Yet these relaxed versions of Taylor's songs were shaded in textures as rich as the studio versions and goosed by lively sections of fresh improv. The rich sound suited Taylor's songs to a transcendent tee, and the gig emerged as a festival highlight for many of the 600 in attendance.
But as suggested by Ronnie Lane and Michael Hurley covers on 2012's Lord, I Love the Rain, Taylor's songs still spring from the same "dark, weird, dusty corners of American music that I really get off on," he said. Thematically, Taylor's songs depict the struggle for the soul through Biblical metaphors and analogies, framed through modern-day scenarios. But proselytizing is absent in Taylor's soul searching — unless you count the rhythm section's ability to swing a secular thrill with spiritual powers.
"I am trying to figure out my position to the spiritual world — I don't know what it is, which is why it's something that I sing about so much," Taylor said. "If I was trying to do something and it felt like I was trying to pull a mule up a ladder with getting the other people on board, then I would figure out another way to do it, of course. I'm not going to force anyone to do anything that doesn't feel right to them. But I need to write a good song because that's going to save my soul — I do it because it's the way that I'm saving myself."