As COVID-19 began, M.C. Taylor’s wife, a public schoolteacher in Durham, told him she was worried. She didn’t know where some of the kids would get food when the virus sent them home. Public education has long been personal for the leader of Hiss Golden Messenger. Both of his parents were public schoolteachers, and his sister followed them into the calling. His kids go to school in Durham. Taylor needed to do something.

Having already donated a portion of his fall tour ticket sales to the Durham Public Schools Foundation, in March Taylor released a live record, Forward, Children, which captured Hiss Golden Messenger’s spiritually probing folk-rock in a two-night stand at Cat’s Cradle earlier this year. All the proceeds—more than $25,000 thus far—went to the nonprofit, which seeks to strengthen the student experience. Magan Gonzales-Smith, the foundation’s executive director, told the INDY that the money has helped fund more than 627,000 meals for students and families since schools shut down.

Today Merge Records announced School Daze, another live benefit for DPSF, which comes out October 2 on Bandcamp and October 9 on other digital services. The album features road recordings from Asheville, Toronto, Denver, and Seattle. It’s a vital complement to its predecessor, with more tenacious, rawer performances—the solos spiral a little more recklessly, the crescendos peak a little more aggressively, the rhythms groove a little more fiercely. 

We recently spoke with Taylor about why public education stirs his emotions, the difference between political opinions and facts, and the freedom of playing on the road.  

INDY: Why are issues of educational equity so important to you?

M.C. TAYLOR: Growing up, the discussion around the dinner table was always about school and how school worked, what was exciting about school, what was frustrating about school. From a really young age, I started hearing my parents talk about the way that public education was often scapegoated for stuff that they had no control over. You don’t become a schoolteacher if you’re looking to make money. You become a schoolteacher because you’re called to it. That particular part of it really is affecting to me, even to this day. It makes me very emotional, actually, because I’m very thankful that they dedicate their lives to kids and do it for very little pay, and I’m very frustrated that people don’t understand how much public schoolteachers do.

I enjoy the contrast of hearing Hiss a little more polished in front of a hometown crowd on Forward, Children and a little rowdier out on the road on School Daze. How much were you trying to showcase those different experiences?

The stakes become different, maybe a little higher, playing at home, just because there’s a certain expectation that comes with playing your hometown venue. There’s a certain looseness to the performances on School Daze that really appeals to me. Those were very crowded shows, too, but we didn’t have any hometown obligations. That record kind of shows us as journeymen and journeywomen musicians—just a crew of people rolling through a town. 

What has it meant to you to put out these live records when you can’t go out and play?

If it’s what we have, I’ll take it. I’ve realized over the past six months that there is no substitute for a live performance. Even the most high-quality stream really pales in comparison to being there and seeing music. And I think a live record, it can get you closer to that space, and so if people are engaging with these live records in that way, then that’s great. We have been making high-quality recordings of Hiss shows for many years. The archives are so vast that it’s actually a little bit intimidating for me to even think about trying to pull out recordings from them, but it seemed like now was a great time. And I wouldn’t put these records out if I didn’t think there was something powerful about them.

You’ve been outspoken about the issues you see the Durham Public Schools Foundation helping to correct. You also frequently express yourself politically through your public platforms these days. Do you think about how that might change the way listeners hear these songs? Are you hoping it teases out meaning that was already there?

I think people’s relationships to any art is just going to evolve naturally without my even saying anything about anything. But at this particular time, it seems to me so clear what’s right and what’s wrong that I don’t feel like I’m expressing my opinion so much as stating fact. The fact is that something like public education is a civil rights issue. The fact is Black lives matter. The fact is that Latinx lives matter. The fact is that “Blue Lives Matter” is not a thing. There are lots of facts. I think people are a little bit confused between what’s fact and what’s opinion.

In the statement you wrote to accompany School Daze, you describe Hiss as “doing what we do best: grooving deep through a selection of some of our favorites and taking the songs, and fans, to whole new places.” How important is it that you continue to reinvent your songs through time?

It’s really important. I feel like part of my musical life is to have the freedom to recast the songs in ways that feel interesting or fresh. My music is not so well known that huge groups of people are showing up demanding that the songs sound exactly like they know it on the record. I love jazz music. I love The Grateful Dead. I love musicians that take a musical theme or a melody and something familiar and twist it into shapes that I wasn’t expecting. To me, that’s one of the most beautiful things that I could possibly think of about music, is sending the music into new places. I think that is such an incredible thing.

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