“That record was made during a time of absolute chaos — in the world and also in my brain,” Taylor tells Rolling Stone. “I can hear myself struggling on that record. I knew I needed to change it up. If every record felt like Quietly Blowing It, I don’t know that I would want to keep doing this.”
Taking sips of coffee in a café tucked away in a side alley in Asheville, North Carolina, Taylor isn’t in any hurry to be anywhere. It’s early Sunday morning and he’ll be holding court during a solo gig a few hours later at Citizen Vinyl, a record manufacturing plant and music venue in the heart of downtown.
“I’ve struggled with depression for forever and it came to a head,” Taylor says. “I was confused, and I’m still confused. But you’re aware of the confusion: do I grow despondent because I’m confused, or do I kind of celebrate it?”
Taylor chose the latter with Hiss’s new album Jump for Joy, a whirlwind ride of rock and folk elements that is both playful and bouncy, with a lightness of spirit radiating throughout tracks like “Shinbone,” “The Wondering,” and “Nu-Grape.” For the video for “Nu-Grape,” Taylor leaned hard into humor, casting Americana’s most valuable eccentric Jonny Fritz as an adman determined to rebrand grape soda with a jingle from Hiss Golden Messenger.
“People have often told me how they feel this sense of hope from a lot of the songs on my records,” Taylor says. “I’ve always tried to foreground vulnerability in my work, because I always felt this connection between showing that, talking about that, and the way people respond to it. I know the way I respond to vulnerability in art is really powerful. I value vulnerability in art way more than I value chops or anything like that.”
Hailing from Southern California, Taylor was a Gen Xer in the 1980s and 1990s and partook in the ritual of that time and place — surfing, skating, playing music, causing mischief, and letting it all hang out. While attending the University of California-Santa Barbara, he started playing in hard rock, punk and country bands. Post-grad studies led him east, and he exited the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill with a graduate degree in folklore, making his way to Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies in nearby Durham.
Ultimately, however, creating and playing music won out.
“I was putting off [that decision to be an artist] because I was afraid, because I didn’t know if I had the goods, didn’t have what it took,” Taylor, 47, says. “It required a lot of self-discovery — how to write, how to sing, how to behave as a band leader. But I developed over many years as I started to whittle down what I was about as a songwriter.”
In 2007, Hiss Golden Messenger came to fruition. The band is essentially Taylor with whoever he wants to jam with at any given point.
“Coming out of my previous band [The Court & Spark], I made the decision about how I was going to move forward with music. I wasn’t going to be in a band that was a ‘democracy’ anymore,” Taylor says. “I was going to be a benign dictator, which means I was going to deal with all of the responsibilities that came with that — this is me stepping into the role of leader.”
But in the time leading up to the recording of Jump for Joy, Taylor took a quick detour last year with the side project Revelators Sound System, opposite Cameron Ralston. What resulted was the free-flowing instrumental album Revelators.
“I needed to do something that wasn’t Hiss Golden Messenger. I wanted to do something that felt cacophonous, sort of searching, kind of angry and super cerebral,” Taylor says. “And coming back to Hiss after making Revelators, it made me think about self-imposed musical boundaries that I’ve erected over the years for Hiss. Revelators made me realize I can do whatever I want.”
Which is why Jump for Joy sounds so liberating.
Finishing his coffee, Taylor readies himself to head to Citizen Vinyl for sound check but wants to share a favorite story about Pablo Picasso to cement his point.
“He is sitting in a café. An admirer comes up and asks if he could do a quick sketch on a napkin. [Picasso] does the sketch and it takes him a couple minutes,” Taylor recounts. “He hands it back and asks [for a million Francs]. The person says, ‘That’s a lot of money. It only took you two minutes to do that.’ Picasso replies, ‘But it took me 40 years to figure out how.’”