Over the course of three albums, Oklahoma native JD McPherson has built a reputation for his soul-filled songwriting and high-powered live shows. Bridging the distance between garage rock and soul and R&B, McPherson's songs speak to the most universal of human experience with both familiarity and originality.
McPherson performs at Wave on Thursday, March 28, with Nashville-based singer-songwriter JP Harris opening.
McPherson recently spoke with KMUW from his home in Nashville, Tennessee.
Your music represents a confluence of sounds, including early rock ‘n' roll, R&B, gospel.
I grew up with what my parents were listening to, which is what most kids do at first. In my situation, I lived in the middle of nowhere, where there wasn't much going on. Whatever was around is what I listened to. My active listening started with my older brothers—my next oldest brother is 16 years older than me—what he was listening to sounded so much different than what my mom was listening to. It was guitar-heavy music: Cream, Hendrix. I liked the guitar, so I started learning how to play from him.
I was so interested that I started seeking out records and magazines. This was pre-internet, right on the cusp. But I think it was another 10 years before southeast Oklahoma got the internet. [Laughs.]
I had to do all the treasure hunting on my own. But in all that reading, I'd always find a new kind of music. Getting into punk rock was a big thing for me because it was obvious that there was this whole other world of music out there, made by people who were on the outside ... politically, musically. They were doing this with the resources that they had.
That made sense to me because I was pretty much isolated where I lived. There was no scene. But all I wanted to do was listen to music, read about music, make music. One advantage that afforded me was that there wasn't anybody in any scene telling me what I could and couldn't listen to.
You had a pretty open mind and some determination.
At some point, I put a little band together. We wrote our own songs. We had three bands with the same two members. [Laughs.] Just different types of bands. We played for nobody, but we put as much work into it as we could.
At some point, I discovered Buddy Holly as somebody who wasn't just on oldies radio from time to time. There was a girl who worked at a record store in a nearby city who gave me a Buddy Holly boxed set. Everything that I loved about the Ramones was in there, within Buddy Holly, the exuberance, the wildness. But there was a really good guitar playing. Really good songs. Not that the Ramones didn't have great songs, but it was easier to identify with a kid from Lubbock, Texas, than four guys from Queens, New York.
It got me interested in this whole other world of rock ‘n' roll I knew nothing about. My brothers dismissed it as "the roots of rock" but I thought of it more as, "This is rock ‘n' roll. This is it." I became more and more interested in where the beginning sparks were. That led me to rhythm and blues music, which is basically the greatest music that ever was. Then I got into old country music. It was always looking forward and backward simultaneously.
My introduction to your music was through the album Signs and Signifiers and the song "North Side Gal." I love that lyric because, depending on where you're from, that can be a very different woman.
Most people assume it's about Chicago for some reason. I think it's just because we had such a strong Chicago connection in the early days. So many of the band members [had ties there], the label was there, Chicago [was written on everything to do with that]. So, I understand why people thought that. In fact, the Chicago Cubs wound up adopting "North Side Gal" as a song that they'll play at most home games.
North Tulsa is completely different than North Chicago. There's a long, and I would say even tragic, history in that part of Tulsa. But when I wrote it, I just asked my wife what part of Broken Arrow she was from. And that's what she told me.
Officially, it's about Broken Arrow. Everybody likes to apply it to their city. I hear that a lot, "I'm a north side gal." It doesn't matter whether you're in Berlin or Charleston, you'll hear that. They all want to say it's about them.
How did your life change after that album?
Before that album, we gigged strictly on the weekends. I had a job; I was a schoolteacher, right out of grad school. I had a family. I put way more work into it than was probably responsible to do. That record wasn't supposed to be for mass consumption. It was the record I always wanted to make, but I didn't think many people would know about it. But, in keeping with going too far with something, we ended up making videos for it. [Laughs.]
Me and the bass player basically made the "North Side Gal" video. If I'm in the shot, he's holding the camera; if he's in the shot, I'm holding the camera. The rest of the time it's on a tripod. Then I edited it all. We went way too far without thinking about it. We were just making music. Then, it became apparent that people were interested. Then a couple of festivals were interested. There was a European tour that was about to happen. That all started to bubble up just as I lost my job as a schoolteacher. If that hadn't happened, I probably wouldn't have had the courage to go out and pursue it.
How did your family react when you said, "OK, I don't have a job. I'm going on the road for the next few months"?
It was about giving it a year. That first year was really tough because I was gone for 225 shows, something like that. All the time. That was really tough. But you put in the work and good things will happen.
Your latest album, Undivided Heart & Soul, came out in 2017. How was that different than the first one?
[With] the first record, you're just making it. With the second record, it's "We gotta make another record." It's a little tougher. The third record was tough because the songs that were coming out of me were a little unusual and left-of-center compared to what people expected. It was much more influenced by garage rock, ‘60s rock; there's more of a loud guitar presence. There's not a lot of horns on the record like there had been on previous records.
It was a natural progression for me but it was enough to give me pause and think, "Are people even going to accept this at all?" Couple that with [us] having a couple of false starts. You're given a budget to make a record and when you burn through three-quarters of that on a couple of false starts with lodging and producers that didn't work out, it's pretty tough.
But what ended up happening was the right thing, which was that we were able to record at RCA Studio B in Nashville. They're a museum, they're not a recording studio anymore. Their last professional days were in the ‘70s. But you're talking to me and this was a gold mine of inspiration. This is where the Everly Brothers recorded all their first stuff; Roy Orbison did his most memorable tracks there, his Monument stuff. Tons of country music history in there. Anybody you can think of probably has recorded in that room.
We basically asked and were given the keys to go in at night and so, in a lot of ways, it was good fortune to have all of those bad things happen at the beginning. [Laughs.]
Tell me a little bit about your approach to live performances.
We kind of built our reputation on the live show. We take it very seriously. There are a few things a little different about our show. One is that we have a lot of gear. [Laughs.] We have a Hammond M3 and a piano and a Leslie on the stage, just a lot of toys to play with. We try to have zero dead air. Basically, when the song's over, even if we're swapping out instruments, there's something happening. There's something happing to keep the energy up. That's our goal, to never have the set dip in energy. We really truly love to play and sometimes it gets a little loosey-goosey, but it really is a good time. We certainly have a good time, and we try to make sure we do everything we can so that the paying audience has as much of a good time as they can possibly have.