JD McPherson is something of a music history buff, which makes his own brand of rock and roll - which often draws from old school R&B and the energy of punk rock - all the more engaging.
His association with reputable labels like Rounder and New West has afforded him the chance to make records in rooms like RCA Studio B in Nashville, and those resulting recordings have an undeniable vibe and sonic character.
McPherson, who comes to town for a Savannah Stopover pre-show at The Jinx on Sat., Feb. 23, has made a number of acclaimed albums and tours constantly to an ever-expanding audience of fans who’ve latched on to his unique sound and organic approach to song craft and performance.
Ahead of his Jinx show, we spoke to him about his career and what it was like recording in one of the most storied studios in the world.
Let’s start by talking about your last album, which was a Christmas album. What made you want to do something like that?
McPherson: It was a lot of things. One thing that happened was that I went from swearing I would never do a complete Christmas album to doing it, because I had a really good Christmas a couple of years ago. It was the first time that the whole family was together and we didn’t do any traveling at all. Another thing was that Nick Lowe made it okay to do one. He made a really intelligent, almost subversive Christmas record. It was really inspiring. The main thing that taught me was what to eliminate.
He’s also the Jesus of Cool!
McPherson: He is! It’s his time of year. Lastly, it ended up being a very healing, fun return to form for my band. The previous record was much louder and fuzzier than what the band started out being. You know how bands are - it was a way that we could do this thing we’re pretty good at without it confusing people because the language of these sonics apply directly to this kind of music pretty easily. We can go back and do R&B and rock and roll, and it’s like a path to it.
You’ve been able to record for some really renowned labels over the last few years - labels that by all accounts are very art-centric. What has that been like to be with companies that have a history of really fostering and encouraging artistic growth?
McPherson: When we first started talking to New West, we went out to eat and were sitting with the head of A&R, Kim Buie, and John Allen who’s the president of the label. And we just sat and talked about hardcore punk for an hour and a half. [I thought], “Okay, we can do something together here. I can actually talk to these people about music and they’re excited about music that maybe isn’t currently en vogue.” It felt very comfortable for me.
When we were making our third record, it was a really scary time because it was a really big departure for my band so we didn’t know if people were going to go for it. They were really supportive and said, “Do what you do, do what feels right, and we’ll back you up.” And then to go in a completely different direction for the next record and do a Christmas album, they totally got out of the way. That’s been really great. I haven’t really had an experience yet in my career with people going, “I don’t know if you should do this or not.”
That’s such a rare and great thing in today’s industry to be on a label that encourages you to do your thing and gets out of the way. So when you go in to make a record, do you come in with a concept? Is there a sonic goal or production aesthetic that you aim for at the beginning of making a record?
McPherson: There’s definitely been, up to this point, a direction heading in. When writing for a record, I think about production as much as I think about lyrics or vocal melody. I’m almost always thinking about instrumentation and sounds. I just can’t separate 11 years of weirdsville art school [laughs]. I can’t get out from under that thing. I haven’t really done a lot of experimenting in the studio, but I’ve done a lot of experimenting in the writing process, I guess you could say.
I will say that on Undivided Heart & Soul, going into RCA Studio B, we were like, “Well, we’re going to have some of the technology that that studio can afford. It’s going to end up sounding like a Studio B record, like, from the 50s or 60s. But the longer we were there, it actually ended up sounding louder and more fuzzy. I didn’t really intend on that, but it was kind of encouraged by the space there.
Was there a moment that stands out in your mind from being in a room like that? I’d imagine it’s hard not to feel some semblance of a presence from the history when you’re there.
McPherson: Absolutely. Almost every second in that place had something like that. [You’d realize], “This is the piano that Floyd Cramer played ‘Last Date’ on.’ I remember at one point we were doing this guitar solo on a song and running it through the board, chained together some compressors and then ran it through the echo chamber. And, that’s the echo chamber. So it was stuff like that constantly.
I remember our keyboard player was making charts, and he folded the music stand off of the piano and the light hit it a certain way. He called everybody over, and you could see that decades of charts had been written out on that table with a ballpoint pen, just like he was doing. We’d be working on a simple piano part and then stop and all of the sudden just freak out for a second.