JD McPherson pushes beyond the throwback tag

JD McPherson aims to shake the retro moniker with an edgier approach on a new record due this fall. He’ll preview some new tunes to the Jefferson audience on Thursday. Publicity photo JD McPherson aims to shake the retro moniker with an edgier approach on a new record due this fall. He’ll preview some new tunes to the Jefferson audience on Thursday. Publicity photo

JD McPherson may be about to piss a lot of people off.

The singer-songwriter and virtuoso guitarist’s first record, Signs and Signifiers, was a faithful reproduction of old school rhythm and blues. He and his team, working with vintage equipment in a Chicago studio, knew there was an existing (mostly European) fan base just waiting to lap up McPherson’s good old boy accent and swingin’ guitar licks.

It’s that group of fans that may be coming around with pitchforks when McPherson’s second effort, which has yet to be titled, hits shelves this fall.

“The material is more broad this time,” McPherson said. “I was able to kind of stretch myself. All the time when we were touring for Signs and Signifiers, it was tough because some of that stuff got old. This is going to be an edgier record.”

Charlottesvillians looking to catch McPherson when he plays the Jefferson Theater on June 26 will likely be spared the disappointment and treated to a good mix of the old and the new. McPherson said the current tour is an attempt to remind a few key markets of his nostalgic noisemaking, while at the same time getting audiences fired up about what the songwriter can do if he gets a little more “sonically daring.”

For his own part, McPherson feels he’s had the ability to step outside of the old timey mold since the jump. While he admits that certain tracks, like the broadly appealing sock hopper “North Side Gal,” recreate a retro sound, deeper cuts like “Scratching Circles” and “Scandalous” have moved beyond the genre.

“The goal was to produce these songs that were indicative on a lyrical scale of stuff that was like Lieber and Stoller,” McPherson said, referencing the songwriting duo that penned “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock,” among a handful of megahits. “But I think I got more interested once I realized I could get away with pushing the boundaries and writing songs with a relevance to my own life.”

Whatever the lyrics, rock and roll and the blues are still the jumping off point for McPherson. He said he distinguishes his sound from other groups on the retro scene because “not a lot of folks are doing the R&B stuff.”

“It’s weird to me because there are countries on the planet that never moved on from those sounds,” McPherson said. “Whenever America has a really good thing going, it moves on to the next thing so quickly.”

One thing that won’t change on the second record is the role of guitar playing. The kid from Tulsa, Oklahoma has been honing his skills on the axe since he was 13, but he’s not a fan of egregious riffs for their own sake. 

“Guitar playing to me isn’t interesting when it’s served on a platter,” McPherson said. “The most interesting stuff Clapton ever did was when Cream was making records with all the elements working together. I was less interested when it became an innocuous record with the guitar right up front. The important thing about guitar for me is it should be serving the song.”

It’s been a long time since McPherson served up a song with a side of guitar—his first record was released on his indie label in 2010 and then re-released on Rounder Records in 2012. The four years since the initial release have given McPherson a lot of time to tour and reflect on his music career. When he first started in the business, he was still a working middle school teacher. He toured overseas even as his art students were left behind in Oklahoma.

And while the break has given McPherson time to ease into the role of full-time musician, it may have cost him some momentum—“don’t remind me,” he lamented. Still, he’s confident the time spent on crafting the forthcoming release will bring in a new legion of fans. 

McPherson turned to producer Mark Neill (The Black Keys, Old 97’s) and his Soil of the South Studios to develop his new aesthetic.

“We had access to some of the best sound humanly possible,” McPherson said. “He can get pretty much any record or any sound from any record.”

The result is what McPherson calls “a little more hi-fi,” and it’s pulled off by a band that has “really hit its stride.” While Signs and Signifiers was produced using bassist Jimmy Sutton’s house band in his Chicago studio, McPherson is now working almost exclusively with his own band, composed of himself on guitar and vocals, Sutton on bass, Ray Jacildo on keys (organ and piano), Jason Smay on drums, and Doug Corcoran, a multi-instrumentalist who plays sax, guitar, keyboards, and anything the band might need for an arrangement.

“I lean heavily on those guys, so I try to give as much credit there as possible,” he said.

McPherson said the strongest markets for his R&B tunes are in Minneapolis, Chicago, Philadelphia and his hometown of Tulsa, but he also has some ties to Charlottesville. One of his managers, Wes Kidd of Red Light Management, is based in town.

“It’s a good hang,” McPherson said of C’ville. “We love that part of the country.”

Time will tell if this part of the country still loves him.