JD McPherson: Rhythm, Blues And ‘The Tyranny Of The Artist Statement’

Tiffany Lee
The New Now (NEW)

Oklahoma native JD McPherson and his slick backing band of Chicago-based musicians had people lining up around the block at the Echo in Los Angeles for a show that even guest listed people couldn't get into. And no wonder: The show from his sold-out West Coast tour in June was fresh off a performance on Conan, the group's first "honest to goodness" television appearance. Sweltering inside, the packed room jumped with the sweet sounds of retro rock n' roll and rhythm and blues, making for the perfect cruising summer soundtrack.

"We really wanted to be on Conan because he's is a fan of this kind of music and we found out he likes our band," McPherson told Y! Music before his show at Santa Monica, California's historic McCabe's Guitar Shop. "You can watch the video back [of the performance] and we were going three times faster than we normally do because there's so much adrenaline."

With a sound that is vibrantly reminiscent of 50s after hours dancehall hits mixed with angsty tunes to appease the most brooding bluesman, JD McPherson went from being a middle school teacher to touring internationally and making an appearance on one of TV's most beloved late-night shows in just a year. Granted his debut album was released on anther label in 2010 then re-released on Rounder in 2012, once he got a foothold his success has grown exponentially.

McPherson's backstory sounds like a quintessential slice of Americana: Grew up on a cattle ranch in a rural part of Southeast Oklahoma with a music-obsessed father from Alabama who sang at church and played the kind of Delta blues and jazz that would've been frowned upon for a white southerner in the 60s to listen to. McPherson played guitar in church, but never sang because he was too nervous. Still sort of is, even with his distinctive, swoon-worthy vocals.

But what gives this tidy Southern tale a twist was McPherson's jump from his older brother's Led Zeppelin guitar lessons into becoming a punk as a teen, and later earning an MFA in "Open Media" studying mostly video installation and sculpture. Not exactly a common hobby in the roots music community. He may be from a small town, but the articulate McPherson has a cultivated palate--sans the pretension (can't beat that Southern hospitality)--that bypasses any sort of homegrown affect he may be pinned with. And the art degrees aren't gone to waste now that he's doing music full-time, McPherson put his visual talents toward directing all of his band's simple, yet cinematically emotive music videos.

Watch the official self-directed video for JD McPherson's hit single, "Northside Gal":

"My own artwork is probably too esoteric for public consumption," the musician says with a chuckle when asked why he stopped pursuing art. "For one, the contemporary school is post-post modern, so everything is heavily coded or it has to have this sort of slant to it. I used to refer to the 'tyranny of the artist statement,' meaning you are sort of expected to have a statement [smacks hand] by the door to explain your work. The last show I had, it was a dual channel video installation and I had bee pollen getting pumped in so it had a honey smell and all this really loud sound. But I had to have an artist statement, so I just typed out a conversation between the poet Rumi and his mentor and stuck it up there [laughs]."

Even in music, McPherson stays away from being boxed into an artist statement-like definition. Just because you see cuffed Levi's and greased pompadours, don't call his music rockabilly. With core collaborator Jimmy Sutton (who nearly stole the show) on standup bass and drummer Jason Smay, their "primary interests lie in rhythm and blues in the 1950s, and frankly the black side of rock 'n roll in the 1950s," McPherson said.  "A lot of folks brand us rockabilly, and as much as I like rockabilly, we're not that at all... We had a couple of moments when we were experimenting a little bit in the studio, and that's where I'd like to go. The title track 'Signs and Signifiers' and 'A Gentle Awakening' are songs that are taking the stuff we love but kind of switching up the vocabulary a little bit."

JD McPherson's twice-debuted album "Sounds & Signifiers" is out now and has already hit #1 on the Americana chart. Following their summer tour throughout Europe, they hope to get back into the studio to record their second album in September.

For a taste of what JD McPherson meant by "switching up the vocabulary," check out his video for "A Gentle Awakening":

Follow Tiffany on Twitter: