If you visit Hiss Golden Messenger’s artist page on the Merge Records site, you’re greeted with a brief, heartfelt anecdote describing the origin of one of 2016’s finest records –Heart Like a Levee

M.C. Taylor is the man directing the alt-country four-piece. And he makes it very clear that the band’s latest effort is the product of a great deal of soul-searching:

The writing of the songs that became Heart Like a Levee started in a hotel room in Washington DC in January of 2015 during a powerful storm that darkened the East Coast. At that time I was feeling—more acutely than I had ever felt before—wrenched apart by my responsibilities to my family and to my music. Forgetting, momentarily, that for me, each exists only with the other. How could I forget? Though maybe my lapse was reasonable: I had just quit my job, the most recent and last, in a series of dead-end gigs stretching back 20 years, with the vow that my children would understand their father as a man in love with his world and the inventor of his own days. They would be rare in that regard. And then—driven by monthly bills and pure fear— I left for another tour, carrying a load of guilt that I could just barely lift. But in that snowy hotel room I found the refrain that became my compass: I was a dreamer, babe, when I set out on the road; but did I say I could find my way home?

Hiss Golden Messenger recently visited the KEXP studios to play a few songs off the new record. I love studio sessions like this one because not only do artists (hopefully) let their songs grow and explore a bit in a live setting, but we also get to hear how and why these tunes came about.

KEXP host, Cheryl Waters, asked Taylor about the emotional journey he took in making the record. Taylor called it “sort of leave-taking record in a way,” expanding on the difficult paradox of taking to the road to pursue his passion while also leaving his family behind.

Waters later counters with a great question. What then is the role of music in Taylor’s life?

Does he have to do it? Or just want to?

“I think it’s both,” Taylor told Waters. “It’s a dream come true, in terms of getting to make music with people that I love for a living. It’s hard to put into words what a big thing that is. It’s a really important way to be able to discuss things that I otherwise might not have the language for, because songs allow you to speak in metaphor and you can layer language in such a way. You can have a lot of different meanings in a song. There’s the meaning the audience has, and the meaning that I have. They might not be the same. But they’re all valid.”

The band plays just a four songs in this session. And each conveys a different feeling for me. They open with “Biloxi” – which also kicks off the record – and Taylor’s bright, shiny acoustic melody evokes the feeling of an open road. There’s a looming journey ahead, and I’m lightheartedly taking in the scenery from the backseat.

By the time we get to the closer, “Like A Mirror Loves A Hammer”, our travels have led us to a dimly lit, hazy roadside saloon. Taylor has switched to an electric, and I would be blindly stumbling into danger if I wasn’t following his syrupy licks as they slither across the worn hardwood floor.

Check out the session and let Hiss Golden Messenger take you on your own adventure.

Here’s to hoping we both can find our way back.

-Mike Still