Author: Sandra Davidson
M.C. Taylor and Phil Cook are anchors of Durham's indie music community. Phil is known for making music with his band Megafaun and The Guitarheels and for playing in M.C.'s American folk band Hiss Golden Messenger, an outfit widely praised for its genre-blending soul-searching music.
Both M.C. and Phil transplanted to North Carolina in the mid 2000s, and they met each other in 2012 at a Hiss Golden Messenger album release show in Chapel Hill. They started working together the following week.
Collaboration, community, and a deep appreciation for southern music bind Phil and M.C. together, and last summer they reflected on all those things in an interview recorded at Brad Cook's (Phil's brother and M.C.'s manager) studio, where they've recorded many Hiss Golden Messenger songs. Listen to the interview on the latest episode of the podcast Arts Across NC or read an edited extended transcript of the conversation below.
Arts Across NC · 50 for 50: M.C. Taylor and Phil Cook
This episode featured original music created by Phil Cook for the 50 for 50 project, and excerpts from two Hiss Golden Messenger songs: Caledonia and Heart Like a Levee.
You're both North Carolina transplants. What brought you here...and what makes this a good place to be a working artist?
M.C. Taylor: First of all there is a deep musical history here that I’m interested in that has been important to me to my formation as a musician. The thing that drew me to this place at the very beginning was that I wanted to live in the South because I love southern cultures, and I knew that if I had any hope of understanding it on a deeper level I had to be here.
Phil Cook: Same. Same. Same.
M.C.: Yeah. But you know [even] with having this musical foundation here people are also willing to push at it and stretch it and grow it and evolve it, and that’s also important. I and Phil and everybody in the band recognizes and understands the debt that we owe to all kinds of American music that was born here in the South especially in the Piedmont region, but also we live in the 21st Century and we’re doing our own thing. I feel like I can walk out my front door and be in touch with all of that. Someone was here doing an interview with me a couple of years ago from England, and I was able to drive them down Pettigrew Street and show them where Blind Boy Fuller would have played outside of the tobacco warehouse on payday. If you’re into American music, that’s a marker of American music. You could go find where Reverend Gary Davis lived. You can listen to an Etta Baker recording and know that she was doing her thing just a couple hours from here. Having that foundation to me as an artist is really important.
Phil: My favorite thing about this place that I keep taking away from it is we all recognize the journey in each other.
I love seeing all these different artists and songwriters and producers and people that have these common goals of making great records [and] making great music.
We have a big opportunity in front of us to just coalesce all of that and realize we’re all on that same path and all on that same mission. It doesn’t matter what scene we’re talking about ...if we’re talking about the jazz and the hip-hop scene which is so vital and living in Durham [or] if we’re talking about our songwriters scene and things that are more folk-based [or] things that are more bluegrass-based like Mandolin Orange and Mipso...we all have started to recognize and see each other in the last five years. I think that's a great foundation to build community on: the artists all finding each other in the night and the evening and the dawns of our existences and just realizing we’re on that same path together. We’re all trying to do that same thing.
How has your creative collaboration impacted your individual work?
Phil: Finding Mike and meeting Mike made me realize all these things that had been true about myself since the beginning of my musical journey that were just there all along. He opened up my own permission to realize how many skills I wasn’t using that have been there the whole time that are the most familiar to me. The most sacred things to me ended up actually becoming the focal point of how I was in a band and understood how to really be in a band for real. It was like working in my first kitchen. That gave me the confidence to open up my own kitchen because I see the formula and the ingredients for making something that is meaningful and something that speaks to people especially because it just has to speak from you. It has to speak from exactly where you’re at in an honest way with integrity and vulnerability, and that’s I think Mike’s biggest strength as a songwriter. He’s able to just open himself up and talk about his kids and his family and his wife and also just talk about where he’s at with his relationship with the universe.
M.C.: I mean here’s a crazy thing to think about...before Phil started playing in Hiss, he wasn’t playing piano in Megafaun. I mean come to a Hiss Golden Messenger show and watch Phil play and just remember that when he started playing in Hiss, he had put his piano playing on the shelf. Now he’s also one of the great guitar players of our time in my opinion.
Phil: That is so nice.
M.C.: [And] people see that more. But it’s really been transformative to what we do in Hiss. I guess I kind of forced you to do it but...
Phil: ...That’s great. It’s still the thing that’s my favorite go to...realizing how comfortable I am sitting in a piano bench and sitting in front of your music. I realize over and over again this is exactly where I need to be.
Durham-based musician Phil Cook, who moved to North Carolina from Wisconsin in the early 2000s, reflects on why he loves living and working here.
Musician and folklorist M.C. Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger, a widely praised American folk band based in Durham, says the best job he had outside of playing music was working for the North Carolina Arts Council.
How does a song come together for you guys?
M.C.: I spend a lot of time alone when I’m writing a song. Phil and Brad his brother can read music. They have a pretty serious understanding of theory which I don’t have, so it takes me a long time when I’m writing a song to understand what the landscape is in terms of the harmonic content of a tune and melodically. So I usually sit with a guitar and do my thing [and] get the lyrical idea down. Then I bring it to Phil and he helps me understand what’s happening in the song. The most important thing for me at that stage is that I can show Phil what part of the song I really like and feel we need to emphasize because it pulls at the heart in a way, and then Phil can say, “Oh well that’s because there is this happening in the song...because there is this interval that is pulling right there."
Phil: It’s a burden of knowledge. I’m thankful for my burden of theory knowledge. So he’ll come to us with a pocket of songs. He’ll write in these really great cycles. I’ve written 10 songs [total as a solo artist], so it's a longer trajectory for me. The last thing that happens is I write lyrics. I’ve got probably 300 to 400 thirty second voice memo clips on my phone that are just me screwing around and playing guitar for 10 minutes. Then in the tour van if I see a long drive ahead of us I just scroll through them all, and I name them something like “Noodle Boy 1A” [or] “Sub noodlist 7B” or if it’s really good I’ll just put a thumbs up emojicon next to it. Then I have to somehow turn those thirty second things into a three minute song with the others sorts of ideas that I have. That’s our process for writing separately and together.
M.C.: Yeah I tend to just throw songs out and not everything is perfect. A lot of the stuff is junk and this would be stuff nobody’s ever heard except for me. Phil…if you hear Southland Mission (Phil's first solo record) that’s just a meticulously crafted album. It’s pretty watertight in a really beautiful way. It’s like a really beautifully cut gem. Hiss Golden Messenger...sometimes that vessel is a little leaky. But that’s okay. I’m okay with that. I think there’s a place in art to be really exacting and just follow the vision to the very, very end. Then there’s also a place to leave imperfections alone.
M.C.: For me those are the things that I learn from. If I hear something on an old record, and I’m like "I wish that I would have fixed that," that’s always going to be a thing that lives for me as a reminder like a little flag that says remember that you can do again. Remember that you can do it better or remember to leave the imperfections in because it’s going to be a thing that gives you your bearings as you make art.
Why does public funding for the arts matter?
M.C.: I think public funding for the arts matters if you value culture and art.
I think that art is an important reflection of the places that we live and the things that we think are important.
I think on a cosmic level, the world is a lot less interesting of a place without place-specific artwork. There is less of that now than there once as. The way that we communicate with each other around the world now has sort of flattened culture. There was a time when you could hear a gospel quartet in North Carolina and you could tell what county they were from by what song they were singing [and] the way that their harmonies were working together. There’s less of that now. I personally think that's a beautiful thing, and I think that art doesn’t come free. It just doesn’t. If you want vibrant, progressive, rich art it’s gotta be paid for in someway. I think every little bit helps, but you have to figure a way to communicate that culture is important even when you can’t quantify it in the same way that you can a car. Culture is important because it tells other people who we are in the most beautiful way. That to me is something of value.
Phil: I think Mike speaks really beautifully about it. Since moving to North Carolina, I’ve had a pretty fair amount of experience teaching kids about art. I’ve taught rock band camps in both Raleigh and in Durham for about 10 years now, and making kids work together through music...I’ve just seen over and over again how many other things are at play there and how many other little pieces and little seeds are planted. Ten years later I'm able to run into those same kids and see [that] some of those camps really unlocked something for them because we weren’t just learning a rigid form of something that they needed to only recreate off of a staff paper. We were learning about how to play with something...how to actually manipulate sound, and how to work together with other people towards a common goal in a way that’s not a science project...in a way that they can add something to. I love seeing music be with somebody through their whole life. You’re just planting seeds when you’re helping kids [through the arts] and you don’t know what they’re going to sprout like, but they’re rarely not beautiful things when they blossom.