Rock ‘n’ Roll with Oklahoma’s JD McPherson
It’s been a wild ride lately for Oklahoma native JD McPherson. This musician, visual artist, and filmmaker released his album Signs & Signifiersin October of 2010 on Hi-Style Records, a very cool, independent label out of Chicago. Fast forward eighteen months, and McPherson is packing his bags to cross the Atlantic for dates in Finland and Sweden with the ink still drying on his contract with the prestigious (and uber-hip) Rounder records for an April rerelease of the CD stateside. The venerable Decca Records label will be the distributor for the UK release scheduled for May. The album was recently nominated in the best “Rock/Hard Rock” category for the 11th annual Independent Music Awards. That’s some pretty heady stuff for this former school teacher originally from Yanish, Oklahoma (near Talihina, if you were wondering.)
To understand what all of the buzz is about, take a look at McPherson’s self directed and produced video for “North Side Gal”. The artful camera work, wailing musicianship, and growling vocals, along with some very catchy hooks, have struck a chord with a lot of listeners and propelled the band into the national spotlight. “It is amazing,” McPherson commented in a recent interview. “We didn’t plan for this to happen. It was almost sort of like that record was an art project. It’s been a really crazy year…I don’t know what it’s done, but people seem to really like it. But certainly making videos helped a lot and that was really what got spread around more than anything…I just can’t believe it. It was a huge and pleasant surprise for it to have gone this far in a year.”
Signs & Signifierswas recorded in Hi-Style Records, a Chicago studio and label owned by Jimmy Sutton, a well-known Chi-town musician and now the bass player in McPherson’s band. McPherson had long been an admirer of Sutton’s work. “He’s a very well known guy in the roots music world,” McPherson said of Sutton. “He’s had some big success with a band called the Mighty Blue Kings…I just knew who he was for a long time and I really liked his bands and held him in high regard.”
Back when McPherson was playing with his Tulsa band, the Starkweather Boys, he contacted Sutton through Myspace and asked him to check out McPherson’s music. Sutton liked what he heard and invited the band to Chicago to play some short tours. Sutton and McPherson hit it off. “He said ‘hey, man, I’m starting this label. Would you want to be the first thing on it?’” McPherson recalled. “I jumped at it because I knew the musicians were going to be the very, very top guys and I knew that he had a really good ear. So we just got together and I had some songs in my pocket already and I went up and wrote a few more songs.”
The album was made as an analog recording. “He’d been building this studio for a long time and it was all analog equipment, really nice pre 1960s stuff.” Although McPherson’s music is frequently described as rockabilly, he thinks that label is a bit of a misnomer. “Our intention was just to make a really traditional rock and roll record because a lot of people in our community weren’t really doing the rock and roll and rhythm and blues stuff…We’re way more Little Richard and Chuck Berry than Elvis and Carl Perkins.”
While the release pays homage to the past, the music itself is firmly rooted in the present. “Jimmy had this sort of really brilliant idea of hey, let’s not make a time machine record, let’s try to package it like a modern record and let’s not write songs with time machine lyrics. Let’s try to write a couple of songs that are relevant…and somehow that blend of being really into rhythm and blues but not pretending that it’s 1955 seems to have caught some attention,” McPherson commented.
McPherson’s undergraduate focus was experimental film. “There were two ways you could go at OU with the film camera. One way was kind of the commercial way and the other way was kind of the weirdo way, and I went the weirdo way,” he laughed. “But I did learn to shoot and edit,” which was something he put to good use when he made the video for “North Side Gal”.
McPherson’s recent endeavors haven’t been strictly limited to his own music. “I’ve had some little projects come out of this that aren’t music related, well I guess in a round about way. I got the chance to tour with a heroic figure of mine, Nick Lowe, and just from that tour and the relationships and that kind of experience, I’ve directed a video for him…We just finished up the video for Nick Lowe’s new record, so earning a living doing what I really want to do, it’s like an unbelievable blessing.”
-With permission from The Current