Welcome to Songwriting School, where we talk to songwriters about the craft of songwriting.
Like all good things in life, M.C. Taylor’s songwriting practice typically begins in a notebook. But lately, the Durham, NC singer-songwriter has been indulging more in the art of making a racket. Taylor has been releasing music under the moniker Hiss Golden Messenger since 2007. On February 28th, he’ll be here in Jacksonville performing at the Intuition Ale Works Bier Hall. In advance of his show, we talked with M.C. Taylor about his songwriting process.
The following interview has been condensed and edited from the original recording.
How would you say your songwriting process has evolved over time?
I think that my songwriting process has gotten looser, honestly. I’ve been doing it for a long time.I think that the way that I wrote songs when I was just learning how to write them probably would look pretty diligent to somebody from the outside. I feel like I had more of a routine. And as I’ve gotten older, as I’ve written more songs, I’m trying to have an easy relationship with the process of creation. I work very hard when the spirit is on me. But there might be weeks where I don’t touch a guitar.
I’m always writing. I always have multiple notebooks going, and I feel like that’s an important part of it. It’s almost like gathering. Gathering fuel for the fire that that always comes eventually. Nowadays, I kind of work when I’m feeling it, and I do other stuff when I’m not feeling it. I’m always trying to surprise myself and put myself into situations where I can’t predict or know what is going to come out.
I’d love to hear more about this gathering process that you do in your notebooks. How do you know when something is worthy of being considered to be put in a song?
You know, there’s nothing in those notebooks that is some kind of masterpiece of writing. It’s more just a sentence here or the combination of words there. A certain type of rhyme that I thought of or that I heard, lists of books or records or snippets of poetry that I like. It’s all just kind of scrawled all over.
Sometimes I come back to the notebooks because I’m looking for a certain type of vibe that may appear to me in the words as I’m flipping through the pages. And sometimes I’m looking for a rhythm. I’m on the hunt for something that has the right amount of syllables. I’m using those notebooks for a lot of different things related to songwriting. I’m looking for words. For vibes. I’m looking for poetry. I’m also looking for, like, nuts and bolts stuff. Like, do these words actually work in this space?
You seem like a very lyrics-driven songwriter to me. Would you agree with that? Or does songwriting typically begin more with melody for you?
I feel like people do have this conception of me as, like, a “writerly” songwriter, and I really love that. I think that’s so cool. And I do feel like part of my job is to be a poet, for sure. And I love language. And I love the way that words feel together. But at the same time, I don’t feel like I ever have really been in a situation where I was, like, pulling my hair out to find the right evocative phrases. I don’t know if there’s any truth to this, but I envision someone like Leonard Cohen as pulling his hair out, looking for the right words. I feel pretty easy-going compared to that. Finding the right words are important, but not if it’s going to stop the song from getting finished.
You had a new record come out back in August called Jump For Joy, and the songs on it feel deeply personal. What was going on in your life that led you to write this collection of songs?
I mean, I just have been living my life. I’m a dad. I have two kids. The kids are getting older. The world is insane. I’m just trying to find peace and hope where I can find it and reflect on the past. Meditate on my relationship to music, but not let it drag me backwards. I wanted the record to feel reflective, but also fresh.
For this new record, who were some of the songwriters you drew inspiration from while writing these songs?
I mean, my songwriting inspirations have kind of always been consistent. I love someone like Bill Withers. I think Bill Withers had an exquisite touch with writing and melody. I love Curtis Mayfield. The way Curtis blends really deep rhythm with politically astute songwriting is incredible. And I like all kinds of people. Willie Nelson. Waylon Jennings. And then I have a lot of stuff that you wouldn’t think of as songwriting music: reggae is really big for me. Gospel music. Jazz. Lots of jazz.
What has songwriting been like for you lately? Have you been working on something new?
I have been working on a ton of stuff. I’ve been doing a ton of songwriting, and I’m feeling really excited about it. Just making sound is a big part of it for me. These days, sometimes I just have to go make a racket, sort of, and just see what comes out, and see if I feel like there are words that need to accompany the sounds. That’s been my process lately: throwing lots of stuff at the wall. It’s been super fun. It feels like this is what I’m going to be chasing this year.
Hiss Golden Messenger plays Intuition Ale Works on Wednesday, February 28. You can find tickets on our live music calendar (here) or Intuition’s website (here). Doors open at 7 p.m. and the show begins at 8 p.m..