JD McPherson is a Broken Arrow, OK-based singer-songwriter, filmmaker, and visual artist. His album, Signs & Signifiers (originally released by Hi-Style Records in 2010, and re-released by Rounder last year) is an album that fuses equal parts classic rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and rockabilly, with the man's own unique charismatic swagger. The video for the single, "North Side Girl" exploded, and JD has been off and running ever since. One of the most enjoyable rock n roll records to be widely released last year, Signs & Signifiers is a record that gets your fingers tapping, feet stomping, and face grinning.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with JD McPherson regarding his many modes of artistic expression, including the making of Signs & Signifiers.
Can you talk about your experiences growing up in Buffalo Valley, OK (by Tulsa) and how that influenced your musical trajectory?
JD McPherson: Broken Arrow is where I live now; I grew up in Buffalo Valley. Buffalo Valley is a very rural, hilly, part of Southeast Oklahoma, between Buffalo Mountain and the Potato Hills. There are lots of little country communities nestled within this valley, including Tushkahoma, Yanush, and Hoot Owl Hollow.
The greatest impact this area had on me was the isolation, which provided me with the motivation to spend time playing guitar, listening to music, and reading rock magazines!
Which artists and albums inspired you to begin learning and playing music?
JD: When I started seriously applying myself to guitar, I was into what my older brother was into: Allman Brothers Band, Hendrix, Led Zeppelin. I read an article on punk rock and hardcore (I think it was SPIN magazine), and it was intriguing enough that I bought three cassettes on my next trip to Ft. Smith Arkansas: Ramones' Mania, Iggy & the Stooges' Raw Power, and Black Flag's Damaged.
Those albums sent me on a new trajectory. Nirvana was happening at that time, and I loved it. I started a band with my best friend Mitchell, and we wrote and recorded constantly.
How and when did you discover rockabilly, hillbilly, and old-time music?
JD: My dad had instilled a love of blues in me. He had grown up in Alabama, and loved that music. He also discovered Jazz while he was in the Army. So I suppose that was my first exposure to roots music. My hard-boiled interest happened when I first heard Buddy Holly. My brothers called it "Roots of Rock", but I called it "Rock". I sure do love that stuff.
After digging for rockabilly, I grew more and more interested in Black Rock N' Roll and Rhythm and Blues. Being an Oklahoman ultimately will lead you to Western Swing and Hillbilly Music, which I also love dearly.
Can you describe your experiences as a visual artist, filmmaker, and musician? How do these different modes of expression culminate for you?
JD: It's all creative production. Each "discipline" informs the other... That's 100% true. Most of my gallery work was in the world of video installation. I dig video because it's temporal, leans toward the narrative, it emits light, there can be an audio component, and it can be really poetic when you let it.
Film is Blues and Video is New Wave. I spent most of my time developing a personal visual language with which to make my stuff: there's lots of forest imagery, tractors, and split logs. Some of it is funny (to me). I've been able to use my video chops to create music videos. The one I'm most proud of is the one I did for Nick Lowe ("House For Sale").
Can you describe your transition from pursuing a career as a visual artist to a professional musician?
JD: I'm afraid that my art career has currently been cut short by my musical career. I was actually installing a video show at a Tulsa gallery when the owner came to tell me that I had to choose between art or music (which is preposterous, by the way... see: David Byrne). I have a few solo shows under my belt, and dozens of group shows. I'm hoping to try and get the visual stuff going again properly at some point, but I definitely see an "intertwining" of the two happening.
I was intrigued about something I read regarding the arrangement of your cover of Tiny Kennedy’s “Country Boy” that it "incorporates not only the tambourine beat of Ruth Brown’s 1955 Atlantic single “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean,” but also Raekwon and RZA’s “abstract, out-of-tune piano loops” on Wu-Tang Clan’s ’93 LP Enter the Wu-Tang.
JD: Well, the original recording of "Country Boy" has that tambourine, but we dropped it. Jimmy and I had just been talking about how we'd like to approach the song with a certain kind of "texture", and we had also been talking about 90s hip hop. There's loads of good stuff in the Wu Tang catalog, all those organic, creepy loops. We basically took that idea and played it on our own instruments.
I find it helps to be informed by what you listen to... and the more input you have, the more output you give. I love all music, but what scratches my itch is early Rock N' Roll. The most important thing is to write in the present.
How would you say these influences surface in the recordings? In what ways do these sources connect for you to the music you create?
JD: You have to be careful that the incorporation of influences spanning several decades don't unbalance a song. I prefer things to be simple and subtle. It's not really a formula, but I definitely see the "jumping off point" for everything we do to be traditional R&B and Rock & Roll. Letting other things creep in is just going to happen naturally.
Man, I sure do love Terence Trent D'Arby and Amy Winehouse. The Smiths made some of my favorite records of all time. Johnny Marr was totally into Scotty Moore and Bo Diddley, without question. You can't play tremolo guitar without consciously or subconsciously referencing Bo Diddley and Pops Staples!
You have called Signs & Signifiers “an art project disguised as an R&B record.” Can you elaborate?
JD: We always thought that the record would probably only ever reach our "scene". But I think we had the courage to write outside the box, and to package it as a modern rock record. We were completely immersed in the process of making that record. I think that this honest approach is why folks outside the scene are digging the record. It's the best thing I've ever been a part of.
In order to make sure the album got heard by your potential core audience, Sutton pressed up a limited run on his brand-new Hi-Style label. You followed it up with a video for “North Side Girl". What has it meant to you both personally and artistically to build your fanbase and the the record's following this way?
JD: The video is now over 1,000,000 views! I certainly didn't think this would happen. It's a dream come true. I'm happy to see such a diverse audience every time we play, and I'm also so proud that our initial core audience haven't left us. They're extremely important to us, and I think they are the measuring stick for everything we do in the future. We just worked very hard to make the best record we could make, all the rest is a nice bonus.
Can you take us through your songwriting process?
JD: I'm trying to transition between my old process of "waiting until the last minute and just letting things happen", to "actually taking time to sit and work out songs". It's very difficult for me. I'm easily distracted and scatterbrained, so I actually think extreme stress has been the primary driving force to keep me focused enough to make it happen.
I've been lucky enough to spend some time with some pretty great songwriters, and I've learned a few tricks. Melody and groove usually come first. Listening to music always helps.
Was there a tune(s) that set the course for the record?
JD: "North Side Gal", "Fire Bug", "Dimes For Nickels" and "Scandalous" were written beforehand. I was comfortable sending those to Jimmy. The weirder stuff like "Signs" and "Gentle" came after I learned that Jimmy was very open minded.
Did you have a set vision for the record as you began? What changed along the way?
JD: I just wanted to make a good, traditional Rock N' Roll record, and to make it with Jimmy and all those amazing Chicago guys. Getting to know Jimmy, who is my business partner now, is the best thing that ever happened. We have very similar taste but we are very different people, and that's a great combination. We trust each other, but we're not afraid to argue a point. Trust me on that!!
What are your biggest sources of non-musical inspiration?
JD: The woods, Terrence Malick and David Lynch movies, traditional archery, Dust Bowl literature, cooking, eating, and Belgian Beer. Not necessarily in that order.