Photo: Daniel Mendoza/Recording Academy
Exclusive: JD McPherson On 'Undivided Heart & Soul' & More
If you're unfamiliar with the music of Oklahoma-born, Nashville, Tenn.-based singer/songwriter JD McPherson, you're in for a treat. His blend of soul, rock, blues, and R&B feels as good as it sounds — and it sounds incredible. His command of each of these styles shows he's done his homework, and his music reveals something altogether original built on the foundation of music's rich history. On his third album, Undivided Heart & Soul, McPherson adds a dash of experimentation, a layer of fuzz and plenty of his signature swagger.
We sat down with the rock and roll scholar (and rebel) backstage at Newport Folk Festival to hear how his latest project came together, what went into two of its most unforgettable songs and what he's cooking up next.
Can you talk a little bit about what went into Undivided Heart & Soul sonically and musically? Where were you coming from on this album?
It was a really difficult birth. It was tough. We had a bunch of false starts. We usually do 'cause I'm so scatter brained. It was like an act of desperation and we were trying to find a place to record 'cause a couple of things fell through. And then … my friend Scott had the idea to contact the Country Music Hall of Fame, who operate RCA Studio B, the storied facilitator of the Nashville sound through the '50s and '60s. It was also the home of Roy Orbison's most memorable recordings [and] Everly Brothers' first stuff. A little guy named Elvis Presley recorded there two or three times. Everybody from Dolly Parton to Charlie Pride recorded music there, so it seemed impossible to land that, but with a simple email I asked is there a way we could record something there? And initially they said, "You can record three songs." And we're like, "We'll take it."
When we got there the studio managers [said], "We're not doing anything at night. We make the whole record here." So after the tours are over in the daytime we would load in, record all night, tear down, load out, reset for the tours coming in the next morning. It's seven days a week. So that was difficult. For people like us who are really excited about [the] history of music and digging into the sounds and sonic profiles and the language of music from that time, it was a dream come true. Every night we're tearing down we're listening to Roy Orbison sing "Crying," and knowing it was recorded in that room on that vibraphone, on that piano and just tripping out on that.
You opened your set today [at Newport Folk Festival] with "Crying's Just A Thing You Do." Can tell us how a that tune came together?
"Crying's Just A thing You Do" is the song I wrote with Butch [Walker]. I had the basic skeleton of it and he … encouraged it to go the way it was going. … He's a great lyricist so he was making some things happen. But secretly that song is about my childhood fixation on Lilith from "Frasier" and "Cheers." Frasier Crane's wife on that show was Lilith and that was my childhood crush. Yeah, I have a thing for girls that wear black clothes and speak in scientific terms. So it was a song about willingly spending your life with someone that has a really bleak clinical outlook on life. It's actually a lot more fun than you think.
How about "Lucky Penny"? Where did that one come from?
I had that riff for a long time but it was ... playing it further down the neck. It was a meditation on the blues. I played it for a couple of people, a couple of producers on our second record actually. … I felt like [there] was something there, and other people, I don't know. But then I got my hands on this fuzz pedal, a Havelina by Way Huge, and played that riff through the fuzz and there it was. It woke it up. So, wrote that one in Nashville too.
Can't beat a good fuzz. What's next for you? What are you working on for the rest of the year and what do you have coming up?
We've been recording [and] touring a lot. We've got touring planned around the east coast and the Midwest this November [and] December. But we do have a project that's going to come out pretty soon that we just finished up, and actually have ideas for the next record. It's weird, I don't know what happened. It was three years between my first record and second record, two years between the second and the third, and now it's just singularity. … So pretty soon albums are going to be releasing 30 at a time. [laughs]