JD McPherson has no idea where he’s going. “I really don’t know,” the singer-guitarist says with a chuckle. “They just point and I go where they tell me.”
He’s kidding, of course. McPherson knows he’s calling me from Seattle. And he’s fully aware he’s about to cross the border for his first swing through Western Canada. When it comes to his next stop as a recording artist, though, he’s at a crossroads. Some 18 months after the release of his acclaimed third album Undivided Heart & Soul — which was followed by last year’s cleverly creative holiday offering Socks — the Oklahoma-born Nashville resident is still trying to chart his musical course. After a decade of being typecast as a retro-rocker due to his love of classic sounds and styles, he’s ready for a change — and leaning toward jazz-influenced beach music next time out. But punk is also in the running. And disco is always an option. If you think he’s kidding about that, read on.
As he marvelled at Seattle’s fast-moving weather — “It is literally changing every five minutes” — the amiable 41-year-old chatted about being inspired by Julie Ruin, confusing his listeners and living in the now, baby!
It’s been about a decade now that you’ve had this career. How’s it working out in comparison to what you expected?
Well, first off, there’s a whole lot of gratitude. Because I remember all the other jobs I had. Definitely, there’s challenges. But nothing to ever complain about. The biggest issue, you know, is that I have a family. So I have to have certain things that I’m prepared to be present for or not be present for, and I have to try to plan ahead as much as I can. For the most part, I do get quite a bit of time at home, so that’s really good. The first year, I was gone for like 250 shows, so that was a massive, massive adjustment period for myself and my family. But I would say that’s really the only thing I still have to deal with.
You still feel gratitude after a decade?
Every day. Every day.
Do you think you appreciate it more because you were kind of late to the game in terms of not being successful until your 30s?
That’s absolutely true. In the beginning, I had no hope of it ever being a professional thing, but I still put as much work into the weekend gigs or whatever two-week tour was going to happen with my burgeoning band at the time. So having it go from an avocation to a vocation in my 30s just put me in the headspace for a couple of years where I thought, ‘Oh God, please don’t take this away.’ That makes you start thinking nervously about, ‘Should I do this, should I do that?’ But I learned pretty quickly to adjust and to just do what you want to do. People can tell if you’re happy or not.
I would think in your 30s you’re just older and wiser — you’re not as likely to fall prey to the things somebody in their 20s might.
Yeah. Well, I was always pretty square. I’m just joking. I did some really dumb things in my 20s. But for the most part, I wasn’t in front of people when that happened. I was kind of lucky. I did my dumb stuff in the shadows.
And before cell-phone cameras.
Oh God. I can’t even imagine.
You grew up listening to all kinds of music. What is it about older music that speaks to you enough that it ended up being your home base?
I’ve thought about that more and more as the years go by. I kind of think of it in art-school terms, because that’s another world I’m really familiar with — I went to art school for a very long time. So it’s more about language and music and sounds and all these things being part of a larger vocabulary. It’s things mixing together. That’s how I think about it. I think as much about sonics and production and instrumentation as I do music and lyrics. And there’s this great big world of music history that you can build a battleship out of. So it didn’t seem strange for me to try to mix the earliest version — which to me is the most fun and raucous stuff in the history of rock ’n’ roll music: The best grooves, the coolest sounds. It just made sense. But you do one album that way and then 10 years later people are still talking about, ‘What’s going on with the retro thing, dude?’ So it’s a weird push and pull.
But your style has clearly changed and evolved. Let the Good Times Roll had ’50s sounds, but Undivided Heart & Soul was more ’60s.
Yeah, I think so. It’s funny. When I was grappling with the idea of the third record and making it, I was going, ‘Are people going to freak out about this?’ And then it was like, ‘Well, the next record is going to have to be a disco record. (Laughs) Because it’s going chronological.
How long until you make a punk record?
Well, I’m actually working on one right now. For a long time, I’ve had stuff that definitely would not fit in with my band dynamic. So I’m making a bedroom record. It’s original material, kind of a dance-punk thing. I’ve been messing around with a Linn machine because I’m not much of a drummer. It’s heavily influenced by Wire and Crass but also Inxs. (Laughs) No, but seriously, I’ve been working on it for these last few months when I’ve had some time off. I’ve had a few of the songs for years, and I’ve never done anything with them because I didn’t have the outlet until now. You know, what really sparked it was listening to that Kathleen Hanna record, the Julie Ruin record she made in her bedroom. She was like, ‘Well, for a lot of girls the bedroom is the creative space.’ And I’m not a girl, but I did grow up in that way where I never had anywhere else to go or make anything except for the bedroom. So I was like, ‘Well, I’ll just do it myself, and see if I can make something out of it.’ Whether it sees the light of day, I don’t know.
If anything would tear the retro-rock thing to shreds, it would be that.
Eh, people probably wouldn’t even notice.
Would you release it under your own name?
No. I have a couple of different names I’m considering. And I’ve already asked a couple of friends in other bands if they would be interested in playing live shows. So we’ll see.
Is there a new band record in the works too?
Yeah, I have some songs for that. The concept is kind of coming into shape a little more. Basically, it happens this way: I don’t write all the time. When it feels like it’s time to make a record, song ideas start to kind of pop up. In a way it’s really frustrating because I’m not always working on it. But on the other hand, I do feel like some kind of switch turns on in my brain. It’s like swimming upstream for salmon, I guess.
Are you doing anything different this time?
This is the first time I’ve thought about a concept. I don’t want to say it’s a concept album, but it is definitely inspired by a certain type of thing. I’ve been thinking about beach music, whether that’s surf music or bossa nova or anything like that. I’ve just kind of found myself listening to a lot of that. And this isn’t going to make sense to anybody but me in my head, but if you think about the second Stooges record, there’s elements of jazz in there. I don’t want to go too crazy with it, but I do like the idea of mixing some soundscapes or instrumental jazz into the record here and there. If I had to point to a sound from my last record, I would say the song On the Lips would be the closest touchstone to where my head’s at for this next thing. But you know, it may change as I continue to work. It’s not going to be ready until 2020.
What prompted you to make a Christmas album — and to write all the songs?
Well, I had been asked by my management and publishing and label to write more Christmas material. They asked me in the first year to do it, and I was like, ‘Yes! Please don’t take my career away from me! I will do anything you ask me to do! Here are some Christmas songs, thank you very much.’ And after I did that, I was like, ‘I’ll never do that again.’ Every year they’d ask, and I was like, ‘That is the lamest.’ And then Nick Lowe made his Christmas record (Quality Street), and I went, ‘This is actually a pretty interesting thing, what Nick did. It’s a really smart, maybe kind of sardonic Christmas record.’ I was really attracted to that. And I love Christmas music. Especially from the golden age of rock ’n’ roll. So I thought, ‘If we did make one, it would have to fall under really strict parameters for me to be OK with it.’ The main thing was to just make a rock ’n’ roll record. Let’s not use a whole lot of shmaltz. Let’s not record any jingle bells. Let’s try to make something that would be confusing to someone if it popped up in a playlist. So we made a lot of rules and stuff. But man, I will tell you, it was the most fun I ever had making a record. And writing? It was like it was just falling out of me. I wrote those songs very quickly.
And now you’ve got something that can generate income and gigs every year.
Well, we’ll see. I think we’re going to do another little tour this Christmas. The one we did last year was a blast. Again, it’s about not being anything obvious. So it’s a little louder and snottier than your average Christmas show.
Speaking of performing, I understand you hate dead space between songs. Tell me the truth: You’re just trying to get the gig over with quicker, right?
(Laughs) No, we play a regular set time. We just try not to have dead air. It’s like a James Brown idea: There’s just stuff constantly happening. We don’t have roadies, so when somebody has to switch guitars or something, we’ll have these little bits where the drummer and keyboard player will do a little duo thing to fill up the space. It just keeps the energy up for everybody. All those new bands that I love, I’ll go see them, and they’re tuning and moping around between songs. It just feels weird and awkward.
You were a teacher. Do those skills come into play when dealing with an audience?
No! I had no skills as a teacher whatsoever, other than enthusiasm. But then I was fired.
So you had to go into rock ’n’ roll.
After 10 years, do you still have imposter syndrome? Or have you realized nobody’s going to take your career away?
I’ve really learned to live in the moment a little bit more. The last five years especially, it’s been really important that I stop looking ahead to the future and just start enjoying the moment now. But if things ever start to slow down, I’ll find something to do. I’ll be happy.
So you’re not living in the past, and you’re not living in the future. You’re living in the now.
Now, baby! Now!
JD McPherson’s Upcoming Canadian Shows
April 10 | Starlite, Edmonton
April 11 | Commonwealth Bar & Stage, Calgary
April 12 | Amigos, Saskatoon
April 13 | West End Cultural Centre, Winnipeg