No instrument has ever been more influential to singer-songwriter JD McPherson than his ‘61 supro dual tone guitar. It’s not a particularly popular guitar, but it’s one music fans might recognize in the hands of Rick Ray (Neurotic, the Rick Ray Band, Riot Act). “It looked like some kid started a band in ‘61 and gave up and just put it under his bed,” McPherson describes. It was a chance encounter, which ultimately resulted in the sound of his latest record, “Undivided Heart & Soul,” just released in October.
“This thing was like a siren’s call to me; I had to have it,” he tells. “I bought it, took it home and played every Rick Ray song I know. Before you know it, all I wanted to do was play every fuzzy, ratty, garage chord. This album is definitely a by-product of that purchase.”
“Undivided Heart & Soul” is a combination of McPherson’s love of jagged garage music and taking a few chances. The first song McPherson wrote, with the intention of making his next album, was “On the Lips.” Yet, he didn’t have himself in mind to sing it.
“It was kind of throwing me for a loop,” he explains. “On one hand, it was a little more personal than what I’m usually willing to go for; as for the music, it was pretty far-out, considering what had come before. Now, [‘On the Lips’] is my absolute favorite. It felt like I opened myself up a little more than I usually do and it was something I was kind of scared of.”
McPherson always has been drawn to the straightforward songwriting of those classic pop songs of ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll, a la The Everly Brothers and the like. “Those are very wonderfully crafted examples of pop music,” he muses. “The words are sentiments that everybody can understand, there’s no subtext there, but somehow they’re not ‘plastic.’”
Nevertheless, there’s something within McPherson that always wants to take something “easy to swallow” and skew it just a bit. Some folks might interpret McPherson’s first record, “Signs & Signifiers” (2010) featuring Jimmy Sutton and Alex Hall, as an example of what every ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll record is: blends of country, jazz, boogie woogie, and rhythm and blues. Lyrically, however, it’s filled with fun, “weird” little tales like in “Fire Bug”: “Burn it up / burn it down / let it burn across the town / My heart will catch afire when my fire bug’s around.”
“But with [‘Undivided Heart & Soul’], I went a little further than usual,” McPherson says. “And the best example I have of that is that I co-wrote with people. . . . Finding people who could get in my head, knew what I wanted to say and bring it forward—some of things I wanted to say weren’t the most salient of points sometimes.”
McPherson doesn’t typically think about things like narrative arc or vindication at the end of songs. So, he brought on songwriters like Butch Walker, Parker Millsap and Aaron Lee Tasjan to add their often effortless, unfiltered insights. They quite literally added missing pieces to McPherson’s lyrical puzzles.
“Butch Walker was really good at saying, ‘Why don’t we just boil this down to what it really means?’” McPherson details. “For the song ‘Crying’s Just a Thing To Do,’ the only lyric I had (besides the title) was ‘black is very slimming.’ And I don’t know why, but I’d read that lyric and chuckle to myself. And I just remember [Walker] when we first sat down and I was reading off lyrics to him; I read ‘black is very slimming,’ and he said, ‘I like that! How ‘bout ‘You’re at the whitest wedding / Your black is very slimming / But everybody’s staring at you.’ . . . It’s exactly why I thought that line was funny but I couldn’t put it into words, and it was like breathing for him.”
McPherson is interested in co-writing again for another project, particularly with his keyboardist Raynier “Ray” Jacildo. In fact, the two are so in sync, they churned out about three songs in a day for “Undivided,” including “Jubilee,” “Hunting for Sugar “ and part of “Let’s Get Out of Here While We’re Young.”
“Ray will say he’s not a lyric guy but I know he’s writing lyrics—I know he’s hoarding them,” McPherson quips. “But as quirky and different as it may seem, to me, [Undivided’] is still just a rock ‘n’ roll record. And that’s what I’m interested in. I’m really proud of it.”
McPherson and the rest of his bandmates—Jimmy Sutton (bass), Jason Smay (drums) and multi-instrumentalist Doug Corcoran—also have built a reputation upon and take a lot of pride in their live shows. One of their next high-energy stopovers is at the Brooklyn Arts Center this Thursday, Dec. 7.
While McPherson admits life would be a lot easier if he was the type of artist who carried a weathered notebook everywhere he went—filling it with insightful observations of life in lyric form—his songwriting process is less consistent. Accompanied by the fact most artists these days have to tour to make a living, and literally can’t afford to hunker down for weeks or months to churn out new songs and albums, it took McPherson quite a while to complete “Undivided Heart & Soul.”
“But, for the most part, I tend to procrastinate,” he adds admittedly. “Or maybe it’s a subconscious ‘dodge artistry,’ where I force myself into a corner and when it has to happen it has to happen. . . . But it’s really one of those things where you really need to get a record out to ‘get the machine going’ and create your audience again. It was just time. But it also was a really difficult record to make.”
Tack on a big move from Oklahoma to Nashville, some internal turmoil within the band, false starts, losing their first producer originally slated for this record, budgetary issues… Moreover, many of these songs were “pretty left of center” from what McPherson fans were used to. He wasn’t sure if they’d still resonate.
“Anything you could think of that could deter a record happened,” he says. “Looking back now, it doesn’t seem that bad, but back then I was literally laying on the floor at some point having a nervous breakdown, and asking how we were going to finish this. It was a difficult birth, for sure.”
Sometimes the most difficult harvests yield the sweetest fruits. Wilmingtonians most likely have heard one of McPherson’s most popular tracks, “Lucky Penny,” on the Penguin’s airwaves. It’s a funky blend of electric-rock-country that gets toes tapping, combined with what now seems like a familiar story of bad luck. However, the catchy tune isn’t about McPherson’s troubles with making “Undivided.”
“[‘Lucky Penny’] was written pretty early on and for another purpose,” he tells. “I had an idea for the guitar part five years ago, and it wasn’t until I put a fuzz pedal on it that it came to life. It was a blues song [with] a typical down-on-your-luck lyric, but the music side of it was a little more in the psychedelic realm. It was just fortuitous that there was so much bad luck—the irony wasn’t missed on me when I was recording the lyrics singing about bad luck over and over and over again.”