Of the music firmament
JD McPherson brings new material home to Tulsa
Joshua Black Wilkins
While writing his new album, JD McPherson didn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, he said, but he “exposed maybe one or two chambers.”
A lifelong Oklahoman who relocated with his family to Nashville last year, McPherson recorded the deeply personal Undivided Heart & Soul with his band at the historic RCA Studio B, recording home of Chet Atkins and Elvis Presley and a major player in the creation of the Nashville sound. Permission to do so was an unexpected, saved-by-the-bell twist of fate that capped a series of creative frustrations and false starts. The album is full of lyrical tension and release, experimental work with equipment steeped in history, and, in terms of McPherson’s career, unprecedented levels of collaboration in production and songwriting.
McPherson and band (guitarist Doug Corcoran, keyboard player Ray Jacildo, drummer Jason Smay, and bassist Jimmy Sutton) will play Cain’s Ballroom Saturday, Dec. 16, at the tail end of two months of intense touring in support of the album, which was released in October.
Becky Carman: You’re calling this a “truly romantic garage rock record.” What does that mean?
JD McPherson: I was a little more transparent with thoughts and experiences. I love it when music is sort of jagged and maybe even a little abrasive, but it’s coming from sort of a tender place, and I kept thinking about music like that when I was writing. It was almost like I had this fear of the music being an unexpected twist for fans of our band, and somehow I was already in the muck and decided to let more personal things out. I guess it’s probably the most vulnerable I’ve allowed myself to be yet. When you think about garage rock or any kind of loud fuzzy stuff, it doesn’t usually conjure images of vulnerability. I kind of wanted it to be a little of both.
Carman: The record seems to be doing really well critically. At what point in your process are you most at peace with the finished product?
McPherson: I am happy with it, but I’m still a bit haunted by some of the inner-band politics that happened during the making. The band was having a really hard time when we were making that record, and it was probably because of the nervous breakdown vibe I was putting out. I felt like I was dragging a refrigerator across a parking lot. There were some tough decisions that had to be made, and we’re still feeling that on the road. Looking back, it was a fond experience, but the other side of that is you’re still trying to play these shows with the band, and you put them through a lot. We’re gonna be okay, though.
Carman: You had a plan to record in a different studio. What happened?
McPherson: I’ll play both sides here. It was very detrimental to morale and to the budget, but the producer pulled the plug after the first day. Nobody’s making Van Halen bucks anymore, so record budgets are pretty small, and when the session gets canceled and nothing comes of it ... that was a huge loss, and it just made everybody feel bad. Everybody was like, wow, one day, and we can’t cut it?
On that producer’s side, the songs really weren’t ready, and the band wasn’t, as far as morale goes, in shape. I guess it wasn’t moving fast enough for the producer, so he pulled the plug. I’m actually quite happy with the way it ended up, even though for a while it felt like we were just the scum of the earth. It took a little bit of nursing our wounds, but being invited to RCA Studio B was the best thing that could have happened. For history nerds like us, you couldn’t have picked a better spot.
Carman: What are a couple of specific things on the record that only happened because of RCA Studio B?
McPherson: Anytime you hear a vibraphone. We put a vibraphone track on pretty much every song. The bell sound on “Lucky Penny”—that’s vibraphone. The marimba on “Style (Is a Losing Game).” The Floyd Cramer piano was the reason Ray and I started writing together. That piano was a really magic piano. Two things about it: The studio staff has to clean out the piano, because people will come on the studio tour and dump a relative’s ashes into it. The other thing: One day we pulled the music stand out to write a chord chart, and the light hit a certain way, and there were decades of ballpoint pen remnants of people writing out charts. Indentations from the golden days.
Carman: There are many influences people have picked up on on this record. As somebody who hoards musical knowledge and really loves those subtleties, has anyone drawn any parallels or noticed something that surprised you?
McPherson: The one word that 80 percent of people use—incorrectly—is “rockabilly.” I’m not purposely excluding rockabilly as an influence; it’s definitely a thing in my mind, and we’ve never done that thing. But as long as people are talking about the album, I’m grateful. In Birmingham, Alabama, this guy came up to me and said, “You guys really remind me of my favorite band, Sonic Youth.” I couldn’t figure it out but also was really pleased.
Carman: You did several co-writes for this album. Do you have a dream co-writing partner?
McPherson: Yes, and what’s really, truly sad about it is that I already had a crack at it and failed miserably. I was Nick Lowe’s first co-write. Nick Lowe visited Nashville, and his manager called me and said Nick was flirting with writing with other people and “We’d really like you to be the first guy.” So I’m in Nick’s hotel room, and he’s lying on his bed in his socks with a guitar, and the news is on, and I didn’t really have any ideas. If you told me there was gonna be a co-write with Nick Lowe, I would have taken a year to prepare for it. I played him some songs I was working on, and he played songs he was working on, and, you know, what do you say? Like, oh yeah, there’s another brilliant example of perfect songcraft. I was punching myself in the forehead on the elevator. I don’t think there’s anybody better or cooler than Nick. Maybe one day I’ll get another shot.
Carman: How do you feel about Cain’s Ballroom? For somebody with your appreciation for the history of music, it seems like it might mean a little bit more to you than it does to others.
McPherson: The first shows I ever went to were at Cain’s. At that time, there were pews. It sounds really, really hokey, but in the back of my brain, there was some sort of church-like image I summoned up whenever I thought about going to Cain’s. It became my favorite place to be, to play. I think it’s pretty much everybody’s favorite place to play. To me, the music firmament of the United States is an example of what can be right and what can be good, and Cain’s is my favorite example of that. I think about that every time I’m there.