Johanna Samuels and Hiss Golden Messenger Talk the “Possibility of Hope”

The singer-songwriters catch up.

Johanna Samuels is an LA-based folk singer-songwriter; M.C. Taylor is the frontman of the North Carolina-based folk band Hiss Golden Messenger. To celebrate both of their new albums — Samuels’s Excelsior!, out today, and Taylor’s Quietly Blowing It, out in June — the two hopped on Zoom to catch up. 

— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

M.C. Taylor: Let’s talk about your record. It’s really great, I’ve been listening to it this morning. You made it a while ago, right?

Johanna Samuels: Yeah, a hot minute ago. Like, it’ll be over two years.

M.C.: That’s hard.

Johanna: It’s hard. [Laughs.] But it’s cool, because it’s time to release the butterflies.

M.C.: Did you not put it out for two years because of everything that’s been happening?

Johanna: Yeah, partially. I think a number of things kind of happened and it just ended up timing out where, by the time it was time, it was just the beginning of March of that year. And then it was suddenly like, Will we ever put it out? Maybe not. 

M.C.: Were you going to put it out in March of 2020 and then decided not to?

Johanna: Yeah. First I felt like I sat on it a little bit because I was just kind of dealing with some personal stuff, and then, yeah, it was supposed to be that spring. And then all of a sudden it was like a year, or a year-and-a-half — four years, five years. [Laughs.] But not really. It worked out well, I think. It’s also cool because I’m getting ready to record another one right away.

M.C.: Do you listen to your records when you’re finished with them?

Johanna: I haven’t been able to listen to this one, [until] recently when it’s been time to play them with a band. I’m like, How do these songs go? I should probably figure out how to play them. [Laughs.]

M.C.: Do they resonate with you still? When I write songs that I haven’t returned to in a while, I just hope that they resonate with me in some way.

Johanna: Definitely, yeah. It was scary to jump in and see if that was true, but it weirdly is. I feel like they mean something totally different now, which is cool.

M.C.: I feel like that’s the mark of a good song, actually, when it takes on any sort of resonance, even if it’s different from the the original type of resonance that it had at first.  

Johanna: Yeah, because you’re always writing with some sort of tunnel vision of your own experience. Even if you’re writing about something kind of raw — I try to pan out as much as I can, an have as much of an aerial view. But a lot of times when you write a song, it’s because you have to work something out, right? So it’s like always kind of tinier, and then time sheds a lot of light on what it could mean. 

M.C.: Yeah, I find that the songs that I feel like I understand exactly what they mean when I write them are songs that I sort of fall out of love with pretty quickly, actually. It’s the songs that I have sort of a tense relationship with, because I don’t understand exactly what I’m saying or I’m dissatisfied with the way that I’m saying something, are generally the songs that I have a longer relationship with. A lot of that is just kind of trying to establish what my relationship is to the song in whatever given moment I’m at with it. Sometimes I’ll have a thing with a song where I really, really dislike the way that I’m saying something, and then years later, I’ll be like, Oh, man, that was a great way to say it, actually. I finally understand what my subconscious was trying to transmit.

Johanna: Yeah, totally. Are you like one of those Bob Dylan people who gets on stage and changes the lyrics because it applies to the current moment?

M.C.: Nah, not really. I mean, I change arrangements of songs a lot.

Johanna: That’s cool.

M.C.: But I find it hard to change lyrics in the moment because, what I’m thinking of is like, I need certain syllables for the phrasing to work. [Laughs.] I’m not that quick on my feet.

Johanna: I totally hear you. I don’t know, those videos of the Rolling Thunder times and Bob was just spewing his own, like, [Sings like Bob Dylan] “And backstage, da-da-da” — but that’s his own thing.

M.C.: That’s why he’s Bob Dylan and the rest of us are over here. 

Johanna: Yeah. [Laughs.] But some people are like, “I need the song to reflect exactly what’s going on in this moment.” But I think that — exactly what you’re talking about — if you let go of what you wrote in that moment, it actually might be true years later.

M.C.: Yeah, that has been the most important part of my journey as a songwriter, making sure that I can write songs that feel like I’m going to have be able to have a relationship with later in life. I think for the most part, I have been able to do that. 

But anyway, so this record that you made a couple of years ago that is just about to come out — how did you make it? I know Sam Evian was part of it, right?

Johanna: Yes. I just had a bunch of songs — me and Sam had talked about making some music together, and he was like, “We should do an LP.” He had just moved into this cabin in upstate New York, and we just recorded all of them [there].

M.C.: You’re from New York, right?

Johanna: Yeah, I was born in New York. I really don’t know where I consider myself from more, but we moved to LA when I was five or six. I had my childhood years here, and then moved back to New York when I was 18. I was there for 10 years, and now I’m back. I feel like I’ve just found the people here — I think LA is a place where you have to really curate the people around you. Because I’m sensitive to my community, I think. [Laughs.] Then I have my lifer homegirls in New York that I met when I was 18, and they’re just like part of my family. But, yeah, there are good eggs here, you just have to find ‘em.

M.C.: Yeah. It’s funny, I haven’t been there in a long time now. It used to be that I was sometimes out in California once a month. I’m in Durham, North Carolina, right now, so I have found myself in the past year really pining for California — I just told my wife the other day, “I’ve been thinking, what would it be like to live in California again?” She was like, “What?”

Johanna: [Laughs.] It wouldn’t be the worst. 

M.C.: Wouldn’t be the worst, but I’m sure it wouldn’t be as fantastic as my brain is telling me it would be.

Johanna: I mean, nowhere is perfect, but I will say, it’s sunny. I spent a bunch of time in New York recently, and then I was when I was there, I was like, My god, how could I forget? This is my place! And then I came back here and I was like, Ooh, this is beautiful. And just slower. North Carolina might be a different pace, too. I mean, New York is definitely its own pace. It’s very fast.

M.C.: I guarantee you that Durham, North Carolina is slower than LA. [Laughs.]

Johanna: That’s awesome.

M.C.: Yeah. It’s nice here. I have nothing to complain about whatsoever. I have a great community of people. But, you know, I have a connection to California and I just haven’t been able to engage it in what feels like a really long time, so I’m missing it. 

So when you went to Sam’s to record, were you not thinking this was going to be a record? Were you just going just to do it, or had you already figured out what you were going to do with it and all that all that stuff?

Johanna: He was like, “If we do it, we should do an LP.” And I was like, “OK.” So I had 11 songs ready. It’s weird now to think of it like that, because now this year, I feel like I’ve written, like, 35 songs, and I’m getting ready to make a record — I’m like, Woah, so I have to pick? Because it’s kind of easier in some respects to be like, Well I got these, this is the record. But now I’m like, Is this song a piece of shit? Because I did write a lot more…  Like, what’s worth listening to?

Did you write a lot this year?

M.C.: Yeah, I did. I was busy this year, but I was also really depressed. You know what I mean? Like, I was really clinically depressed, and so my memories of the past year have been really a year of listlessness, if that makes sense. Anxiety, not sure what the future holds — like, Am I meant to be a musician? What is it to be a musician if you can’t, you can’t play music? I’m a pretty introverted person, so it’s not like I crave being up on the stage. I like being on stage, I love performing live, but it’s not like—

Johanna: You need that high or something.

M.C.: It’s not like I have to have it. But, you know, without it, it has made me kind of question everything. We’ve all had so much time to question everything, and I think that people in the arts have really taken it on the chin in a specific way this past year. I know that has been hard for everybody — my wife is a public school teacher, and that’s like a whole other set of burdens and a whole other type of chaos. I can only speak for myself, but it’s been a year where I have been forced to take stock of what I’m doing. So that’s how I think about this past year. But I’ve also been really prolific in terms of finishing and putting together records  — I’ve put together eight records this year.

Johanna: Oh, my god, of your own music?

M.C.: Yeah, which is crazy. 

Johanna: Fuck yeah.

M.C.: But it sure doesn’t feel that way, you know what I mean? I put together for four live records, two of which people haven’t heard, and I put together four other Hiss or Hiss-adjacent records, only one of which people know about right now.

Johanna: That’s super exciting. I mean, as a fan — I’m sure internally, it’s painful in all the hard uncertainties.

M.C.: Yeah, it’s mostly like, I’m doing this for my mental health. I think that making art has probably saved my life — is saving my life, I’ll say.

Johanna: Yeah. That’s the thing, you have these finished products to be like, “Yeah, I did do this. I put together all these records, I wrote 35 songs,” but I definitely cried, like, four out of five days in my room, you know. But it’s what you have to do to get through it. And it’s cool, because then you do end up with [this work] — even if you can’t bring yourself to love them right now, I as a fan like hearing you have a ton of records that I haven’t heard. But, you know, that’s the connection part with music, I think. Writing is its own thing too, I think.

M.C.: Yeah. I mean, I’ve been trying to be artistic this year in whatever ways made me feel good, and brought me a little bit of peace of mind. One thing that I struggle with, with the press cycle, is that so often we have to talk about these records that we’re putting out into the world as these, like, bounded experiences that have a beginning and an end in which some sort of problem was solved. So I’m having to answer questions like, “You were troubled at the beginning of the record, and you feel good now, right?”

Johanna: It’s so good to be over that! [Laughs.] 

M.C.: It doesn’t really work that way, unfortunately. We sort of do this to ourselves when we put together our one sheets — you’re encouraged to have some kind of hook to grab people’s attention. I’m always just like, Oh, my god, again? OK, here we go.

Johanna: It’s that thing like, “Well, what’s the third act of your movie? How does this end?” Like, I’ve just bundled together these artifacts of me trying to hang on through every day. But it is interesting talking about it as a creator, and then talking about it as a listener. Like when I hold certain records in my hand, I’m like, This is a story to me. Because I think sometimes as a listener, you do need some illusion of control in an answer. 

When I listen to your record, I do feel like it just explores this depth of pain of what it feels like to be someone in this country, whatever side you’re on, [whatever] lens through which you see it all — it just hurts, because we’re a mess. I’ve definitely cried listening to you record a bunch, but there is this feeling of hope. And maybe that’s something I’m bringing to it because I’m like, I just need that right now. But it does feel like that. And then, you know, if you’re doing publicity, it’s like, “So, it is gonna be OK, right?” [Laughs.]

M.C.: Right. I mean, it’s an interesting thing, the place that hope — I mean, for me, certainly these conversations about the place that hope occupies in my work, but also the place of hope in art in general right now. I’m kind of starting to think about it as artworks that leave open the space for the possibility of hope, you know what I mean? Because I don’t think that I’m flying a purely hopeful flag, where I’m saying like, “It’s going to be OK!” It’s more like, there are these little places of hope that I think it’s very important to recognize and hang on to, because we’re going to need those things. I think that’s the relationship that hope has to my work. I am a hopeful person, but I’m also a realist, you know?

I feel like there is a time of music that was being made during a really chaotic era, like through the ‘60s, that actually works in this way that I’m talking about in a really profound way. Music like The Staple Singers and Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions — those musicians were singing about people that had their backs up against the wall. I think part of what their music was about [noticing] those little places of hope. Like the time we’re living in now, I think those times probably didn’t feel particularly helpful on the day-to-day.

Johanna: It’s interesting. I also think, as someone that deals with a lot of depression, I’ve been working really hard to see those little glimpses of beauty. Because I do think without them, it’s really horrible. But I also think that if you’re seeing darkness everywhere, and you’re at the bottom, it takes so little to see profound beauty. I think that that is an irreplaceable gift. When you’re that pushed down and you’re that fucked up, that is really beautiful.

M.C.: Yeah, if you’ve given yourself the space to notice it. I think a lot of people are not able to exercise that muscle

Johanna: People are really uncomfortable with silence. I think that there’s so much denial going on about things we don’t want to see. I think that sometimes if you accept, like, Oh, no, this is very fucked up, this is horrible, or like, We live in this country that truly believes that white people are supreme over all other races — anything that you really struggle to hold, if you are silent with it, that’s when you can see the stuff. When you’re the most uncomfortable and then you just give into it and give space to it, then all these other things can start seeping through and start healing.

M.C.: So do you feel like the songs that you’ve written in this past year feel different to you than this record that’s about to come out?

Johanna: Oh, yeah. For sure. But again, in certain ways, super different, but then in other ways, I was still on the same journey that never ended. There were no closing credits to that record where, like, everyone left the movie theater — I was still here. [Laughs.] But, yeah, I was definitely going through different things. I was definitely healing from a really traumatic year before, and in certain ways the songs on this record now — it was very necessary for me to go inside for a year and kind of grieve. It coincided with a lot of realizations about the country, but also just where I was at as a person, like how I got to a very dark place. 

The first half of these songs that I wrote, I was just processing stuff, and then all of a sudden I had space for other things. 

M.C.: For other trauma.

Johanna: For other trauma, yes. [Laughs.] But you have eight other records?

M.C.: I mean, four of them have come out. In 2020, I put out two live records that were benefit records for this organization in Durham called the Bull City Schools Foundation.

Johanna: Yeah, I saw that. That’s awesome.

M.C.: Those were those were two records that I put out just because I try to stay connected to public education. It’s just something that has been in my life forever and is very important to me. It’s sort of like one of the spiritual centers of our democracy, I think, this idea of public education. It’s no surprise that republicans have it on the chopping block every chance they get. 

So I put those records out, and I have two other live records that will come out eventually. Then I made Quietly Blowing It. I made a record under the name Revelators, [which] is the thing that I have mainly been doing with a friend of mine named Cameron Ralston, who is the bass player of Spacebomb, a band in Richmond, Virginia. That record is kind of like the flip side of Quietly Blowing It, actually. It would be fun for people to be able to hear those records back-to-back, because that would be like the fullest portrait of what I was working on for the first half of 2020.

There’s no singing. It’s kind of like draws on music that has been really formative to me, that for one reason or another, I kind of often have a hard time figuring out how to put into what I do as Hiss Golden Messenger. It’s sort of it’s sort of jazzy, it’s sort of ambient. 

Johanna: That’s awesome. So Quietly Blowing It was made in 2020?

M.C.: Yeah. It was made, like, nine months ago, maybe.

Johanna: You can’t tell. It’s kind of timeless — like, it applies to years ago, it applies to definitely this past year. It’s exciting.

M.C.: Thanks. I’m not a good topical writer, you know what I mean? Like, any time I try and write a topical song, it feels so corny and forced. I’ve realized that whatever ways the outside world is affecting me, it’s going to come out in my songs. I don’t need to say anything specific, it’s going to be there. People will feel it. I just have to sort of trust that part of the process, because I swear, every time I try and do something that is specific to what’s happening outside my window, like sort of naming names, it never works. There are people that do it so brilliantly — I’m just not one of them, I don’t think.

Johanna: But when you write, are you just [finding] something you like melodically, and you kind of see what comes out, or you have one line that you’re like, Oh, that might be something…  M.C.: How do you do it?

Johanna: I feel like I find a melody or I have something that I have written down where I’m like, Oh, I want to just remember that. I don’t know why, but I want to, and then I kind of find one thing I want to say. But I’m usually melody first.

M.C.: I agree. I think that the concept of melody and conversations about songwriting really get short shrift, because the question is always phrased as, “Do you write the words or the music first?”

Johanna: When I was asking that, I was like, Don’t say that.

M.C.: You know that question, because I’m sure you’ve been asked that as well.

Johanna: Totally, and it’s really annoying.

M.C.: I mean, I don’t even find it annoying. It’s more just like, “Nah, you gotta go deeper than that, actually.”

Johanna: It’s just simplifying it so much.

M.C.: Yeah. I agree that the thing that makes a song live is a really strong lead melody — not even necessarily a melody that is sung by a voice. But there has to be something melodic that is so compelling that you keep coming back to it. I feel like that’s generally the way that I write the quickest as well, as it is, starting with the some kind of strong melody.

Johanna: Yeah, it’s the most emotional for me. I guess when I’m listening to a song that I like, it’s always melody first, and then I’m like, What is this? And then I go back and I listen to the lyrics and and then I’m hooked. I definitely think they’re both important, but melody grabs my…  It’s more of a soul thing before a brain thing.

M.C.: What have you been reading or listening to? Or just, what have you been around this year that has made you feel better?

Johanna: Dude, well, I’ve been taking so many baths this year, it’s like scary. I’m a water sign, though, so like… I think I’m just turning into a fish. I have two roommates and they’re just like, “Get the fuck out of the bath!”

 But I just started this book called On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous [by Ocean Vuong]. I’m, like, 10 pages in and I’ve already teared up a couple times. I can already tell I’m blown away by it, and I’m not even fully into it yet. I’ve been watching a lot of really dumb movies, like joyfully dumb.

M.C.: What’s joyfully dumb?

Johanna: Probably things I’ve seen a ton of times. I watched Step Brothers.

M.C.: [Laughs.] OK, yeah.

Johanna: I also have been diving really deep into songs that I have been obsessed. I’ve been taking these classes with this place School of Song my friend Steven [van Betten] started in the peak of like, “Oh, shit, we’re really locked down.” He started giving these Zoom guitar classes, and music theory stuff, and then I kind of fell in love with the idea of just having a bunch of people that are interested in learning. Then they started this songwriting workshop thing twice a week — you basically have to write two songs a week and get out of your own way and share them with everybody. So that’s been very healing for me. 

And then, like, trying to figure out how Elliott Smith plays stuff — that’s a whole portion of my life, probably. I mean, I’m nowhere near his musical capabilities, but even just trying to play like him has been really rewarding.

M.C.: I’m so fascinated by the life that Elliott Smith’s music has taken on since he passed away. You’re younger than me, and I mean, I love him, I think that his music is just absolutely beautiful. But I just have a different relationship to it than I feel like younger people do that — he sort of occupies this place that Nick Drake seems to occupy, maybe, for people my age. [Laughs.] Which is cool, actually.

Johanna: It is cool. It’s also a little overwhelming. I don’t know if Nick Drake is like this for you guys, but — [Laughs] “You guys.”

M.C.: “You old guys.”

Johanna: [Laughs.] That’s not what I mean. But when he passed away, like how old you were during that time, it’s a little bit painful, almost.

M.C.: He was dead before I was born. I love Nick Drake, but I’m not a freak about him — but I think that layer of this person having passed away in in your living memory is… 

Johanna: I remember it like a trauma. I had never heard music like that, that was so vulnerable in its anger, and seeing things in a way that was, again, very realist. Just saying, like, “I’m calling this out and it breaks my heart.” He was kind of like a hero in that way. I remember the night that he died, and I went in my parents room, like, weeping. And they were like, “Is that a boy from your school?” It feels like everyone kind of has their own relationship to him.

M.C.: That’s how it often feels with these musicians that occupy this cult — not that it’s a cult, but he’s not he’s not a widely known musician. In our universe, it seems like everybody knows who he is, but in the in the outside world, he’s not really known. But the amazing thing is, you can go find the people that played on his records. Aaron Embry is—

Johanna: He’s one of my best friends.

M.C.: Yeah, he’s around.

Johanna: He’s the best.

M.C.: He’s an amazing musician.

Johanna: He really is. I weirdly ended up growing close with one of [Smith’s] best friends — her name’s Dorien Garry, and that’s been very healing for me, too, in terms of just reconciling what he’s become. Especially in LA, I think, because he died here. Just kind of understanding who he was as far as, like, a real person, as a dear friend to this other person that I know — like, He was just a person who made music that you really love. But this thing,he became, it almost feels like part of what might have killed him, like people just grasping. 

But, yeah, his chords — it’s fucked up. Talk about melody. I think that’s the thing that makes me keep coming back to it, just on a musical level. There’s always something there that I haven’t really heard. There’s so many tiny little corners of melody that he has.

M.C.: Did you grow up playing music? Do you consider yourself a guitar player or a piano player?

Johanna: I guess I’m a piano player. I don’t really feel like I’m a — well, I think I can also be kind of mean to myself. I play piano and I play piano first, and then I kind of stumbled into playing guitar, and not in any, like, serious way. Really it’s just been a tool to write always. I was in choir from sixth grade through the end of high school — this public school that I went to had amazing choir programs, and that was where I felt like I fit in the most, because I was a slow reader and I overthought everything in math, and I was just not fast enough to test well. But I was just obsessed with the Beatles and blah, blah, blah [Laughs.].[I was] figuring stuff out on the piano all the time — like cuing up the CD player and then running back to the piano and trying to figure it out.

Were you in a super musical household?

M.C.: There was a lot of music around. My dad is a guitar player, he’s a great guitar player in this sort of folky ‘60s mode, a really beautiful singer. He was a public school teacher — he’s still alive, but he’s retired now — but he was like a guy who people would hire to sing at their weddings just because he has this beautiful voice. My brother is a classical trumpet player, and he’s the one person in our family that is trained. Like, he’s extremely deep in theory. So our musical lives kind of run parallel, but they don’t cross very often. 

Johanna: So you’re like an ear person?

M.C.: Yeah, I don’t read music. I pretty much taught myself and kind of just picked stuff up along the way. So I have sort of an idiosyncratic style of playing guitar that works for what I make.

Johanna: Yeah, totally relate. My sibling, tpo played cello growing up, and they always were able to read. It ‘s just a different part of your brain.

M.C.: Yeah. So you’re going to make a new record?

Johanna: Yeah. 

M.C.: With Josh.

Johanna: With Josh Kaufman, your buddy! Are you gonna make another record? Your ninth?

M.C.: I mean, probably not anytime soon. This one that I just finished was really intensive. The first count off for this record was at the beginning of [April], and I walked out of the studio with the master a couple of days ago, so it was entirely finished in a few weeks. Which I wasn’t, like, pulling my hair out like, Oh, my god, how am I going to do this?! But I really had to keep my eye on the ball to make sure that it kept moving forward. 

But it does make you think about, like, Creedence Clearwater Revival — they put out three records a year. Which is unsustainable, but at the same time, it’s like… I mean, I don’t know. I don’t subscribe to this idea that a record is a masterpiece and needs to be treated as such. To me, a record is just like a bunch of snapshots of a particular time. I think that any way that we can destabilize this idea of records as masterpieces that [need] every piece to be in place — we have all the tools at our disposal to treat them that way, we can get everything in place. But I don’t think that’s a very healthy way to make any kind of art. So I’m always trying to leave mistakes and stuff in my records, that kind of makes me go like, Hm, I wish I would have done that better there. But it’s important to have those reminders that it’s not a big deal. It’s just a record.

(Photo Credit: left, Ellyn Jameson)

M.C. Taylor is the frontman and songwriter of Hiss Golden Messenger, whose most recent album, Heart Like a Leveeis out now. Hiss Golden Messenger’s Facebook page is here and its website is here.

(Photo credit: Dan Huiting)