JD McPherson: Rock & Roll Savior

JD McPherson grew up on a cattle ranch in rural Oklahoma where he from early on caught up on music, discovering ’70s guitar rock and punk before, as a teen, digging backwards in the archives of ’50s rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly, country, R&B, soul, delta blues and guitar jazz. Sometimes dubbed a rock revivalist and roots resuscitator, his music is highly potent by its own merits.

After graduating from college McPherson worked as an art teacher in Tulsa for a couple of years until his school board let him go, a blessing in disguise that allowed him to spend more time pursuing his musical aspirations. By then, JD had dug deeper into the music of yonder and started to fully shape an authentic retro-sound based on profound musical knowledge and vintage gear.

His debut album Signs and Signifiers saw the light of day via Chicago standup bassist Jimmy Sutton’s Hi-Style label in 2010 before receiving a major re-release by Rounder Records two years later. Rounder also launched his 2015 sophomore album, the more expansive and critically acclaimed Let The Good Times Roll, which was described as ‘flat out sensational’ (Uncut), ‘a foot-stomping, ass-shaking thing of beauty’ (Popmatters), and lauded by American Songwriter, who wrote that ‘to pigeonhole McPherson as some well-intentioned-but-why-bother? retro minded relic is missing the point.’

McPherson has gradually expanded his circle of associates and partners, including Eric Church, Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Butch Walker and fellow Oklahoman Parker Millsap. And as his musical scope has broadened along with his geographical horizon. He recently decided to move his family from Oklahoma to buzzing scene of East Nashville, where the new album was initially born.

The first attempt on recording the material was not successful, however. And while fumbling to find the right direction, JD flew over to California by the invitation from his pal, Queens of the Stone Age leader Josh Homme. Along with QOTSA and Dead Weather multi-instrumentalist Dean Fertita, the three blasted out the songs way outside of McPherson’s comfort zone. Suffice to say, he returned with a clear head, new perspectives and even learned that legendary RCA Studio B was willing to host his band for making the record.

He might never be the latest craze or biggest hype, but JD McPherson is making music meant to last based on some basic, time-tested principles. As he once said: “Everybody likes rock & roll. They just either won’t admit it or don’t know it yet.”

We talked with JD McPherson about his upcoming album, the recording sessions, new directions in songwriting and why Fun House is the most perfect album ever made.

* * *

Congratulations on a new album. What do we get?

Thanks for that. You’ll be getting a truly romantic garage record.

When you started writing songs, did you have a clear idea of what was to become Undivided Heart and Soul?

These songs first popped up when I was producing The Cactus Blossoms’ record a couple of years back. The title track was written during that time, and songs slowly began to appear in the months following.

What inspired you the most, and is there a red thread throughout the album?

I was listening to a lot of rowdy music at that time: Link Wray, The Creation, The Stooges, Broncho… A lot of that music influenced the direction of this record. This album marks three notable – notable to me, anyway – new directions in my songwriting:

1. The first time I’ve purposefully co-written songs with strangers
2. The first time I’ve told secrets in lyrics
3. The first time I’ve told a story about strangers I’ve observed in life.

These may seem normal things to do, but it was all new territory for me.

What can you tell about the recording process and working with this material in the studio?

I think that this record was greatly influenced by where it was recorded

Because the record is so gnarly, you’d never guess where it was recorded in the historic RCA Studio B: home of hundreds of country music hits through the ’50s and ’60s, home of the early Everly Brothers hits, home of the Roy Orbison Monument recordings, home of Elvis Presley’s post-Army career hits… The place is full of phantoms.

It’s a museum in the daytime, so every day, we had to wheel in all of our equipment, record, and tear it down at night. We brought in a ton of old equipment, but there are still a few instruments and pieces of gear there that definitely informed this record

For instance, the vibraphone you hear on recordings such as “Crying” by Roy Orbison is all over the record. The piano that Floyd Cramer played on “Last Date” is on the record. Ray and I wrote a couple of songs on that piano. It was a magic piano. We couldn’t keep our hands off all that stuff.

Another thing to note is that RCA Studio B would seem to pull out songs that sound like RCA Studio B from us… lush, orchestrated… At first, that’s what I wanted… but the longer we were there, the songs got louder and fuzzier and more irreverent. It’s almost like it was in the air, like something in that room was wanting some rebellious music to happen.

How will you pair Undivided Heart And Soul with Let the Good Times Roll?

It has more in common with tracks such as “Head Over Heels” than the other R&B material. More ratty, fuzz guitar, less saxophones. Lots of electric bass. It has a bit of a punk rock streak.

How do you think you’ve developed as a songwriter since your debut?

I’ve been doing a lot of writing on the side the past two years, and it’s caused me to pay more attention to the crafting of a song. What you call ‘songcraft’. My old method was much more stream-of-consciousness; I just wrote what came immediately to mind, and that’s the way it stayed, without really analyzing it too much.

Also, I think about the recording process while I’m writing. I’m always thinking about guitar sounds, grooves, rhythms, instrumentation… even while I’m just writing lyrics.

Please describe the ideal setting to ultimately enjoy your new album.

My friend LJ listened to it and said it was ‘Good in the evening, and it’s good in the morning, too.’ Try to listen on a good system. I’ve been listening to it on good headphones.

Most perfect album ever made and why?

Ask me another time, and I’ll give you a different answer, but for now I’ll say Fun House by the Stooges, because it’s built up from the most salient ideas of the entire history of rock n’ roll up to that point in time. It’s very primitive, and somehow still carries a bit of sophistication. It’s got brains, but it breathes through its mouth. I think I may listen to Raw Power more frequently, but Fun House has the best ideas of the Stooges records.

And finally, how would you pair Undivided Heart And Soul with a meal or beverage?

Black coffee (caffeine) and bananas (potassium).

Bjørn Hammershaug

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