JD McPherson is a rock ‘n’ roll guy. His first album, which rocketed the Oklahoma native to the top of many lists of the next-big-thing variety, was an homage to the sock-hop style of ‘50s rock and roll one might associate with Chuck Berry, but his talent and his musical curiosity extends far beyond his initial foray. His latest album, Undivided Heart & Soul, released last month, sees the talented artist stretch his sonic boundaries in many different directions. Old time fans that were looking for more of the same might furrow their collective brows, but most will be thrilled by the variety and the talent on display.
“We’ve just begun playing some shows, and the record has been out for a minute and people are responding a bit to it and that’s great,” says McPherson, of the album’s quick tracks to the top of the Billboard charts for new music and American/folk. “To be honest, I didn’t know how it would go over. But, I’ve been overjoyed to see a positive response.”
Turns out, McPherson is a bit of a compulsive worrier, and the struggle was real over this particular set of songs that didn’t follow a formula.
“The songs that I was writing didn’t seem to be in our comfort zone, it was an expanded definition of what rock and roll is,” he says. “You can only hope that people enjoy it. But you gotta put out what you gotta put out and just hope for the best.”
Music fans do have a penchant to latch on to performers and expect them to hit repeat as often as possible. And, sure, that might happen with some pop artists who rely on metrics and a slew of producers and co-writers to fashion a career, but most artists are always curious and certainly McPherson is a true artist. Still, with popularity comes pressure from many quarters.
“I definitely had to throw off a few shackles I had on myself,” he says. “It was probably one of the most high pressure, least optimal scenarios within which to make a record.”
Perhaps having a hard time moving forward on the record, after what he describes as some false starts and apparently more than a little anxiety, McPherson headed to California for a few jam sessions with Josh Homme and Dean Fertita. It wasn’t about writing new songs, it was about rekindling the fire.
“They were actually working on their new record Villains and took a couple days off to help a buddy out,” says McPherson. “It was just about getting into a room and playing with weird (guitar) pedals and messing around and remembering what making music is supposed to be about — not a chore but joy.”
Also around that time, McPherson relocated to songwriter central, Nashville, and eventually ended up with the opportunity to record the new album at historic RCA Studio B, which at the time was more a museum than anything else.
“It was extra special because it wasn’t even a functioning commercial studio,” he says, explaining how the band had to lug gear in after hours to work. “It felt somehow like we had the keys to the building; it was really special.”
McPherson grew up listening first to his father’s old blues and jazz records, followed by his older brothers ’70s guitar rock. But it was punk that he would claim as his own, after reading about Black Flag’s album Damaged.
Where he grew up, in rural Oklahoma on a cattle ranch, there wasn’t even a record store nearby, so he would tag along on his mother’s shopping trips to Arkansas and pick up tapes or CDs he would order from home.
“The first stuff I bought, I just remember coming back from Fort Smith with my mom, who was a minister, and I had only three tapes Iggy and Stooges’ Raw Power, the Ramones Mania and Never Mind The Bollocks by the Sex Pistols,” he says. “And this was the one and only time she said, ‘Why don’t you put in one of your tapes so I can hear what you’re listening to.’”
But, maybe he won a new fan for punk rock that day, as shortly thereafter, a concert by one of McPherson’s high school punk rock bands at the public amphitheatre in town was almost shut down by the police. His mother came to the rescue and convinced them to let the youngsters continue to play to the crown of 10-15 skateboarder kids.
“Ya, my mom came to the rescue,” says McPherson. “She’s an awesome lady.”
After heading to college and graduating with a fine arts degree, he took a job as a teacher for a middle school. And he was a good one as far as he tells it, crafting a cool modern arts program, which incorporated new media and performance art. The administrative side was not his forte and he was shown the door. But, that did allow for the young musician to put his teaching career on hold and give the music thing a whirl.
“It was definitely a blessing in disguise,” he says. “I had no idea what I was going to do, but that summer I was able to start touring the first record and there was enough spark that I was able to talk to my family and asked if I should give it a shot.”
And, it’s worked out well thus far. McPherson’s debut Signs and Signifiers was released in 2012, and reached number 47 on the Billboard rock albums chart thanks to the band’s most popular song “North Side Gal” followed by Let the Good Times Roll in 2015. Although he is happy about expanding the sound of the band on the new album, he understands how and why he garnered such a loyal fan base at the beginning.
“We will always play North Side Gal, and it’s recorded for posterity, I love it and I’m proud of it,” he says. “There are just people that don’t want it to change, and I understand that, but not every band is AC/DC.”
JD McPherson and the band play Lee’s Palace on Nov. 10.