Posted September 1, 2017 by Jeff in Tunes

J.D. McPherson’s Undivided Heart & Soul

J.D. McPherson
J.D. McPherson

With 2015’s Let the Good Times Roll, the follow-up to his 2012 debut, Signs & Signifiers, singer-songwriter J.D. McPherson established himself as someone who could take early R&B and rock sounds and update them for modern times. The album has a great energy and the songs come across as really raucous and upbeat. His latest effort, Undivided Heart & Soul, comes across as an even grungier affair. In a recent phone interview, he spoke about what we can expect from the tour and forthcoming album.

Talk about what it was like to grow up in Oklahoma.
I grew up in Southeast Oklahoma. It’s the mountainous part. I grew up on a small cattle ranch. It’s 160 acres.  I went to a small school and there were 11 people in my class. The 11 people I went to kindergarten with were the 11 people I graduated with. I was the kid who listened to punk rock. It was a weird time for me. One thing it did do that I feel grateful for was giving me time and isolation to focus on the things I was interested in. I spent a lot of time drawing and listening to music and reading about music.

How’d you wind up playing in punk rock bands?
It happened in high school. If you can imagine the scenario I just described and having three punk rock bands and two members were in all three bands. We poured everything into it. We played three shows and made a tour T-shirt. One of the shows was even cancelled. That’s the best thing is having something to focus your energy on. Back in the hills, you can develop your interests or get into trouble. There’s a lot of trouble to get into out there. I was grateful to have the opportunity to explore that kind of stuff.

Hearing Buddy Holly changed everything for you. Talk about that.
It brought a lot of things together for me. I was interested in guitar playing as a sport because of my older brothers. They were older than me. I had a healthy dose of Allman Brothers Band, Zeppelin and Hendrix when I was a teenager because that’s what they listened to.  I really liked it and liked all the guitar stuff. When I got older, I started getting into the Ramones and Stiff Little Fingers, which is arguably anti-guitar-as-a-sport type of music. When I found Buddy Holly, everything clicked. It had the youthful exuberance and simplicity of the Ramones but I could identify with a guy from Lubbock, Texas too. He wasn’t from Queens or London.

You would work with Jimmy Sutton on your first album. What was that experience like?
Jimmy and I met at a festival in Spain. We had bands separate from each other. He was putting together a studio in his attic. We talked about doing a project together. At the time, I was a school teacher working in Tulsa. I had this habit of putting everything into music, sometimes at the expense of higher priority. We recorded a record in Chicago. It was just something to do. I didn’t think it would become anything. When my job went away because I was a terrible employee, it gave me the opportunity to go on the road. We’ve been playing together for six or seven years now.

What did you try to do differently with Let the Good Times Roll?
The first record was sort of lo-fi and we wanted to go a little more hi-fi. We went with Mark Neill, the King of Hi-Fi. He had done tons of records I loved and had some success with the Black Keys. He worked on the Brothers record. I got into some phone conversations with him. He’s an incredible guy. We talked about making a ’50s psychedelic record. It’s not too far of a reach from the first record, but we took a few more chances.

When did the songs for Undivided Heart & Soul start to come together?
The first song written for me to sing was written not for me to sing. It was written for the Cactus Blossoms, who I produced, but we ran out of time and money. As per usual, it takes someone saying it’s about time for a new record and that’s when I go into panic mode. The songs that started coming out of me were pretty far out. There is farther than a stone’s throw between the first and second record. I wasn’t sure how people would respond to it, but at some point, I said, “Here it is. It’s what’s coming out.”

What is pushing you in particular direction?
A lot of it is what I’m listening to. Playing shows in larger venues, sometimes the instrumentation feels better when it’s a little louder and fuzzier. I’m also feeling a little bit constricted by trying to write for certain instrumentation. Also, life experience. I’m not the same person I was five years ago. I’m writing concurrently so that contributes. Fear is also a great motivator and constrictor. You write something and you’re worried about putting it out. It’s a weird boa constrictor to try to fight off.

Where’d you go to record the album?
We had a few false starts. Desperation and a few other factors led us to the best possible thing that could have happened, which was recording at the legendary RCA Studio B in Nashville.  I didn’t even think it wasn’t possible because it’s a museum now. It’s the last of the legendary Nashville classic studios. The Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison recorded there. Elvis’ post-Army stuff was there. I asked and they granted us permission to record there. We would load in after the tours and record until 3 a.m. It was like setting up for a gig, but worse. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. It was incredible.

Being in that room inspired the songs and the old equipment added to the songs. The record wouldn’t have existed anywhere else.

It’s just a simple room with linoleum floors.
I’m a sucker for linoleum floors. The modern record studios have LED lighting and carpet, but a lot of the studios in Nashville couldn’t be less inspiring. I think most bands would go for a vibe more than the latest and newest equipment. Putting restrictions on yourself helps too. When you’re limited to the equipment you have access to, you can accomplish some interesting things.

Lucky Penny” has such a great guitar riff. How did that track come together?
I’ve had that riff for a very long time. It’s just something I would noddle around with for a long time. It’s so bafflingly simple. I showed it to a couple of producers but they didn’t like it. But then plugged into a fuzz pedal and immediately it came to life. My drummer Jason added so much to that song. He’s such an incredible drummer. He’s capable of a lot of fancy stuff but was playing as loud and hard as he could. The other thing that made that song was the old vibraphone in the studio. It’s the same vibraphone you hear on Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” We put that all over the record. We couldn’t keep our hands off it. That was a happy accident.

What’s the key to writing a good song?
I don’t know. I want to say I’ve recorded 99 percent of the songs that I’ve written. There’s only one song I wrote that I haven’t released. It’s like, “No. This isn’t going to go.” I tend to write during the project. I changed that a bit this time and started co-writing with other people. Since I moved to Nashville, I’ve been writing with other people a lot. [The key to a good song] has to do with how it’s recorded. My band is really wonderful, and we can usually squeeze something out of a song.



Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].