Musician J.D. McPherson on Signs & Signifiers

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These are busy times for musician J.D. McPherson, seeing as this week he will be making the rounds at SXSW, then next month will see Rounder Records re-release his album, Signs & Signifiers (initially released by his bass player Jimmy Sutton’s HiStyle Records in 2010). McPherson is a singer/songwriter who clearly has an affinity for music’s history, but with a distinctive voice that defies any comparison and that is garnering him an increasing amount of attention. Last week he learned that his music had been nominated in the rock/hard rock category by the Independent Music Awards. This was on the heels of learning last month that Decca Records will be releasing his Signs & Signifiers in the United Kingdom, news that pleased him so much that he tweeted “This is more special than gold to me”. McPherson was recently kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the making of his album in this email interview. After reading the interview, be sure to check his tour page to see if he’s playing near you.

How important was it to you to be able to record Signs & Signifiers in 100% analog?

It was my first experience recording in this way, and I can promise you that I have no interest in recording in any other environment from here on out. It was a completely exciting and rewarding process.

How early in the CD’s development did you realize you wanted to record a cover of Country Boy?

It was a couple of weeks before I had left for Chicago. I was listening to Tiny Kennedy’s version of Country Boy in the car. I really liked the groove of the song, and the repetitiveness of the lyrics. During recording, we had discussions to make it have more of a hip hop influence, in the way that the music mimics a “loop”. It’s a very sparse arrangement, one of my favorites on the record.

Does it creatively liberate you to avoid being labeled/classified as any particular musical genre?

Getting classified is unavoidable, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. We are very clear about having a starting point in 1950s Rhythm & Blues and Rock N’ Roll, but we’re trying to write songs and arrangements that are forward-thinking.

In what ways does your album benefit from collaborating with fellow musicians, Jimmy Sutton (Bass, Guitars) and Alex Hall (Drums, Piano, Organ)?

Jimmy is my collaborator, as well as the bass player and producer of the album. His greatest strength is his ability to inject style into a recording, and discovering hooks to make a song infectious. We are told quite often that there’s not a lot of filler on this record, and I attribute that to Jimmy’s input. Alex is also a huge part of the process… he’s a brilliant engineer, and a musical prodigy as well! He’s also a great contributor to the creative process in the studio. I’m the luckiest kid in the world to be working with these fellows.

Signs & Signifiers also features a number of appearances from guest artists, including Scott Ligon on piano, as well as Susan Voelz on violin and Allison Chesley on cello. In the case of guest artists how much effort does it take to establish a rapport with the artist in a short amount of time?

As far as Scott Ligon (piano) goes… I didn’t know him from Adam. He came into the studio, sat down at the piano and started producing the most brilliant piano playing I’d ever heard… He’s not afraid to really push the envelope, and he’s also this amazing blend of traditional and avant garde! He plays guitar with Terry Adams in NRBQ, and I know that Terry’s playing is a huge influence on him. I look up to Scott in a major way. He’s such a musical guy. I never met Susan and Allison personally, but I’m so moved by their contribution to “A Gentle Awakening”… their playing is so beautiful.

Can you walk readers through the experience of making the video for A Gentle Awakening?

We wanted to shoot something in Oklahoma, on the ranch where I grew up. We had already shot North Side Gal in Chicago, so we wanted to get the other side as well. Jimmy and our buddy James Ventrella drove down from Chicago in early February, and we shot nonstop for three days straight, waking up before the dawn to try to take advantage of the beautiful light that happens just before the sun rises. We did the same thing at sunset. At night, we’d talk about what we were going to shoot the next day. Jimmy has this beautiful vintage portable Ampex recorder, and we used it in the shoot. It’s sort of an homage to the [Alan] Lomax field recordings. Everything you see in that video is on the McPherson ranch, still operated by my parents in Southeast Oklahoma.

Speaking of that video, when did you find out that it had been selected as AOL Spinner’s video of the day?

That was great news! It wasn’t too long after we had released the video. People seem to enjoy it.

In 2011 you played a series of dates in Spain, how is your music perceived abroad?

As it stands right now, the folks in Spain are the most enthusiastic fan base! Each show on our Spanish tour was sold out, or even oversold. We played very large halls in Barcelona, Bilbao, Santiago, and Madrid, and it was an incredible response. A very diverse crowd, as well. Things are also going well in Germany and the Benelux area.

Recently, we were named one of the Top 5 bands to know about in 2011 by NPR here in the states, and that has been a huge help getting things going here at home! A dream of mine is to play Cain’s Ballroom here in Tulsa… It’s the most amazing venue in the world. Here’s hoping for 2012!!!