Music in Your Gardens: Q&A, Hiss Golden Messenger

This summer, we’re proud to present Music in Your Gardens, a free eight-week online concert series showcasing nationally renowned artists who call Durham and the surrounding area home. The series shifts Duke Performances’ longtime summer series, Music in the Gardens, normally held outdoors at Sarah P. Duke Gardens on Duke’s campus, to an online format.

This Wednesday, July 1, we begin the series with Hiss Golden Messenger. The pre-recorded performance will be viewable at 7 PM ET online, free of charge, on our website and on our YouTube page.

Each week, in advance of these performances, Duke Performances’ Michaela Dwyer “sits down” over email to chat with each artist.

We encourage you to check Duke Performances’ blog to read previous Q&As with artists participating in our spring 2020 livestream series. We also invite you to explore or contribute to Duke Arts’ “Arts & Artists Are Essential” collection of voices, opportunities, and offerings, or you can subscribe to receive weekly updates.

We’re excited for you to open this summer series. Could you share with us a text, an intention, a song, or a ritual that’s helping you move through your days and your work right now? 

I often return to this short poem (“February 2, 1968”) by Wendell Berry.

In the dark of the moon, in flying snow, in the dead of winter,

war spreading, families dying, the world in danger,

I walk the rocky hillside, sowing clover. 

In general, I find poetry to be medicine at this particular time. Berry, Mary Oliver, Joy Harjo, William Blake, Bashō, Pauli Murray: These are people that thought hard about the connection between joy and desolation.

You’ve described the many lives and affects of the songs that became 2019’s Terms of Surrender: as raw, as therapy, as church-like, as collective release. How has Surrender — its compositions, its originating mood(s), its performance life — evolved to resonate with you in the present moment as we live and work through pandemic and protest?

When I wrote and recorded Terms of Surrender, I didn’t yet know how to make the songs live in the world that way I do now. Now, with some hindsight, I understand what I was writing about at that time much better. The songs that I’ve written that I feel most ready and able to live and grow with for as long as I’m making music are probably well-suited for these times of pandemic and protest not because they’re specifically about either, but because they’re about being human: Trying to love, trying to communicate, living with fear and anxiety and searching for daily joy and celebration in spite of, and because of, the trouble that surrounds us. That’s the way my favorite art works, and maybe that’s where I learned it from. 

You’ve performed through Duke Performances several times — including your 2015 “From the Archives” commission that incorporated archival William Gedney photographs and later became your album Heart Like a Levee. I’m interested to hear what sort of creativity compels you lately — whether it’s interdisciplinary, collaborative, solitary, and in what ways. Do you find yourself reaching beyond music?

Well, my usual methods of working — spending a few months writing and then a few weeks or months with a group of musicians learning how to play the songs, often in a very piecemeal way — have been completely upended, as have those of everybody that relies on collaboration to work. For a long time, I’ve considered myself something of a solitary person, but I very much miss the touch of people, the way we greet each other, the way that we make sound in a room together. That said, I’ve used the last several months to sink down into my own practice of songwriting in a way that I’ve never had time to do before. I’ve written a whole group of new songs that will form the basis for the next Hiss record, and I’m very excited about what the songs feel like, and I feel like I know the songs very well and I know what I want to accomplish with the recording. I’ve also begun work on a new record — not one that will bear the Hiss Golden Messenger name — that draws on music that is very important and influential to me, but rarely shows itself on Hiss records. And in a strange way, the creation of that music has been deeply collaborative because everybody is adding their voices to the mix without my being in the room, so I’m getting a clearer sense of their personalities reacting to what I’ve sent them. 

I’ve also spent a lot of concentrated time with my family, which has been wonderful and challenging. This has been the longest amount of time that I’ve been home in ten years, at least, and I’d be lying if I said that it hadn’t made me think pretty hard about what my life will look like when a vaccine for the virus is found. I’m interested in making art, communicating with people, being inspired. I don’t know if I’m interested in spending half of each year in a van. But we can revisit this conversation later; it’s looking like we’ll have plenty of time. 

I’ve also been using this time to get in touch with work that has been on my list for years, but has eluded me for one reason of another: I read Crime & Punishment for the first time! I watched Fellini’s 8 1/2 for the first time! I’m currently reading Octavia Butler’s Patternist series for the first time. So, I’ve tried to stay as busy as possible, because open-ended time with nothing to occupy me is dangerous. It’s very easy for me to spin out.

One of the Hiss lyrics that’s always floating around in my head is from “Southern Grammar”: “Teacher, come teach me / Another way to be happy.” I hear a throughline in Terms of Surrender’s “I Need a Teacher.” I’m curious about this thematic thread of guidance, learning, instruction, pedagogy in your work.

I suppose I would answer that by saying that we all need teachers, and that teachers work and exist in all sorts of different ways. I think the most important things that I know about in my life, I’ve learned from someone else: Either because they explained something to me, or I watched them do it. Teaching is communication. All of my immediate family members are teachers — both of my parents, my brother and sister, my wife. So I suppose instruction writ large is on my mind quite a bit.

Speaking of “I Need a Teacher”: you’re deeply invested in advocacy around public education in Durham. Recently you’ve volunteered as part of the Durham Public Schools Foundation effort — in partnership with local restaurants — to continue providing breakfast and lunch to DPS students during the pandemic. In what ways has direct action work informed your artmaking, your living? 

In September of 2019 — around the time of the release of Terms of Surrender — I started donating a dollar from every ticket sold to every Hiss Golden Messenger concert to the Durham Public Schools Foundation. When the pandemic closed down public schools in March, I put together a live Hiss Golden Messenger album with my friend Luc Suer called Forward, Childrenall proceeds from that album have also gone to the DPS Foundation in their efforts to feed students dealing with food insecurity. At this point, we’ve donated around $30K to this organization that is doing such great work in our community on behalf of public students and educators. I’m always going to use my voice and resources to support public education because I believe that conversations about public education are conversations about race, class, privilege, equity and equality. Public education is a civil rights issue. To properly fund public education — something that our country does not do — shows a dedication to the idea of access for all. As long as I’ve been alive, public education has been scapegoated and defunded. There’s not a doubt in my mind that privatizing eduction is a callow, self-serving and racist move to keep poor folks on the bottom. That’s not the world I’m going to live in.

I’ll leave this intentionally open-ended: What’s next?

I was going to ask you that!

Duke Performances presents Music in Your Gardens in collaboration with Duke Arts, WXDU, Sarah P. Duke Gardens, Duke Continuing Studies, and Duke Summer Session. Hospitality partners include The Palace International and Locopops.