’50s-style punk JD McPherson scares the squares with his Undivided Heart & Soul
“Being an art-school kid, I learned that there is no more movement,” says retro-futurist ’50s R&B rejuvenator JD McPherson, the pride of Broken Arrow, Okla. “It’s a post-postmodern world, and you have to take advantage of all the languages available to you. Maybe that’s the best thing I learned in art school: to pick everything apart and understand how not just style but sound works to achieve the proper thing.”
Hence the shock and awe that his 2010 debut, Signs And Signifiers, created when re-released by Rounder in 2012. Here was this fresh, vital-sounding record, full of newly written ’50s R&B hip-shakers like “North Side Gal,” with a production so accurately analog it could’ve passed for some newly resurfaced obscurity excavated from the vaults of Specialty or Chess Records. All from an ex-middle-school teacher with a punk-rock past.
“For me, punk’s most valuable lessons came from reading about bands in D.C. like Minor Threat and the whole ethos of economic freedom, the freedom of doing what you want because you’re handling everything yourself,” says McPherson. “That was a revelation to me because I had nothing to do. There was nothing going on. So, I was just going to start my own world.”
That world was increasingly informed by R&B and jump blues upon hearing the aggro-Little Richard pastiches of late Austin-based ’50s-punk guitarist Nick Curran. “Toward the end, Nick was combining his love of the Ramones and the Dead Boys with Little Richard,” says McPherson. “That’s a pretty heavy record, Reform School Girl. I thought that showed a lot of gumption, to scare the squares a bit like that.”
Three full-lengths into his career, with Undivided Heart & Soul (New West), McPherson not only seeks to defy fans’ expectations, but also his own.
“I was definitely forced out of my comfort zone in making this record,” he says. “And through every process: writing and recording and post-production. It’s like I wiggled out of my old skin the whole way. It was pretty transformative.”
McPherson transformed in Nashville’s historic RCA Studio B, birthplace of many Elvis Presley, Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison classics. He also took on co-writers for the first time, most notably fellow rootsy Oklahoman Parker Millsap, Butch Walker and bandmate Raynier Jacob Jacildo. He even did his first Ray Davies-esque character study.
“I was telling a story to somebody about this guy with his throat cut at the Las Vegas bus terminal,” says McPherson. “And they were like, ‘God, where’s the song?’ That became ‘Style (Is A Losing Game).’ It never occurred to me before to write about a character, or an observation from life.”
That “Style” became one of the record’s highlights, in a setting Jack Nietzsche would’ve killed to have helped create, suggests McPherson should always rattle the methodology.