JD McPherson on the Inspiration Behind His New-old-fashioned Rock ‘n’ roll & Why He Loves Chicago

This interview was originally published by Indieball.com

Chicago Cubs fans have no enviable fate, but JD McPherson’s propulsive performance of “North Side Gal” on opening day had listeners all over the city ready to root for Wrigley Field. The first single off McPherson’s debut Signs & Signifiers is a wicked ride that’s rooted in swinging R&B and rock ‘n’ roll with up-to-the-minute attitude. He returns to rock Chicago tonight at Lincoln Hall.

Originally recorded at Chicago’s Hi-Style studio, an all-analog space built by producer and bassist Jimmy Sutton, Signs & Signifiers was rereleased by Rounder Records on April 17th. McPherson was recently kind enough to chat with me for Indieball about the experience of recording the album. “The quality of the old rhythm mics and tape equipment had a lovely impact on the warmth of the sound,” he said by phone. “On an atmospheric level it was cool stuff to be around. Similar to the equipment, the studio has an antiquey, industrial vibe right down to Jimmy’s record collection. There’s a strong aesthetic quality, which is good because we didn’t really leave the studio during the recording process!”

Growing up, the Oklahoma native was as much influenced by the American roots heritage as punk and surf rock. “There is a ton of great music out of Oklahoma and not everyone is influenced by Bob Willis and Woody Guthrie or the fact that Buddy Holly recorded at Tinker Air Force Base, but it definitely affected me. On the other hand, Jimmy’s first concert was The Ramones and my favorite band was The Pixies.”

For all of its rollicking rhythm and throwback hat tips, Signs & Signifiers doesn’t feel dated but rather timeless. “Early 50’s R&B is the drive and focus we were excited about on this album, says McPherson. “Yet most of the comments we receive agree that the influence feels contemporary. People can tell we’re not coming from a place of falsehood, and that we want to write songs that are relevant today.” This earnestness, it seems, is what invigorates these musical traditions – a return to what made people rock in the first place.

On the seemingly heady album title for an enjoyably forthright style, the former teacher admits to deliberately jabbing his art school background. “In the ideals of post-modern art education you get trained to have to analyze things in code. With this album I was trying to make something that is pretty straightforward.” McPherson’s degree in experimental film and MFA was put to use in the making of videos for “North Side Gal” and the soulful, lingering “A Gentle Awakening.” He and Sutton shot the videos which he then edited. Although McPherson’s visual arts pursuits are on hold at the moment, he also recently directed a video for Nick Lowe.

Chicago has become something of a second home to JD McPherson. “In an overarching way, it was the perfect place to record this album.” He mentions the musical legacy of the city’s blues tradition, Chess Records, Vee-Jay and the “spiritual sense of influence” their records had on his music. “Chicago is my favorite American city,” he says. “It’s comfortable because it’s still Midwestern but has incredible culture and the best food.” Where does JD head when he’s in town? “Jimmy is from the South Side so he’s shown me all around and we’ll go for a spin on Lakeshore Drive. I love to grab a Polish at Fat Johnnie’sAl’s Beef, and the Green Mill which is a very special establishment.”

As for all those aspiring north side gals, the title of his breakout single is not specific to the Windy City. “It can be about Chicago,” McPherson acknowledges, “but it can also be about the north side of Tulsa or Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. It’s for everyone.” McPherson’s music is for everyone – everyone who resonates with a distinctive style and the infectious abandon of new-old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll.

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