JD McPherson Rolls On With an R&B Influence

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JD McPherson‘s Let the Good Times Roll doubles down on energetic rhythm & blues (“Bossy”) with sharp narrative songwriting (“Shy Boy”). The Oklahoma native, whose debut album Signs & Signifiers launched his star in 2012, spoke with CMT Edge about the new project.

“I’m not going to say this record came together quickly and I’m not going to say it came together easily,” McPherson says, “but I’m very happy with what came out.”

CMT Edge: What exactly wasn’t easy about this record?

McPherson: Have you got an hour and a half? (laughs) Man, you know, there was tons and tons of touring going on. That can play with your brain a bit after a while. Also, I was missing home and that kind of stuff was leading to the first batch of material coming out. We were trying and failing and trying and failing and trying the old process for demoing and nothing was really working out.

What ended up working?

We started looking for some outside production help. I’m glad we found [producer] Mark [Neill]. He was able to reconcile the new songs with the sound that I was hearing in my head. Then, on top of that, we were still playing shows and flying back and forth to Georgia [to record] was taking a long time. We hit a lot of speed bumps, but you forget that stuff once you have something you’re proud of.

Tell the story behind writing the title track.

Yeah, that was the one and only time I’ll write anything under the influence of something. Unfortunately it won’t look really cool in my memoirs, but I took some expired over-the-counter cold medication. I don’t usually even take Aspirin — I’m stubborn and would rather just tough it out — but I was really sick. I couldn’t sleep. I took this cold stuff that was a couple years expired and I thought, “Oh, this will be fine.”

Obviously not.

No, I went on this horrible, horrible journey through the depths. It just so happened that an episode of Frasier was on as I was going through this thing. They were doing a high school Shakespeare thing in the episode and I started off with all these crazy ideas. I remember thinking, “This can never see the light of day,” but the next day I was like, “All right! Not a bad song.” You never know what’s gonna trigger a new song, so you have to stay open.

Explain how these songs represent your evolution as a songwriter since Signs & Signifiers.

Well, the first record, those were songs that had been floating around for a while, songs I had in my pocket, for a couple years in some instances. Back then, I was doing this as a very important hobby and sometimes the avocation took over the time I should have applied to my vocation. I worked really hard on it even though I wasn’t doing it for a living.

I was really trying to be Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. I mean, I was writing like them. Songs like “Scandalous” are me doing my best Leiber and Stoller impressions. This record is much more personal and I’m much more invested in this one in every way possible. I’m thinking for myself more.

What other songwriters are you drawing from besides Leiber and Stoller?

Probably my biggest songwriting influence is Nick Lowe. He’s probably everybody’s. I’m just in awe of him. I will never be able to write like that, but his is a songwriting style I admire so much. He and guys like Ron Sexsmith are ones I really love. Willie Nelson, too. I’m really blown away by how these people can solidify it and also turn a phrase in a clever way. That’s a lost art. I aspire to be half as good as Nick Lowe someday. He’s just my favorite.

You toured last year with Hayes Carll, another great songwriter.

Hayes Carll! Yeah, man, he’s a really good dude. We did a few shows with him. Sometimes he brings my friend (guitarist) Travis Linville on the road. That was a really good hang. The best thing that ever happened on that tour was on the last show he invited me and a couple other guys to come up and sing John Anderson’s “Wild and Blue.” I’m a rabid John Anderson fan. That was a dream come true that I’d never dreamed.

Explain what exactly draws you to John Anderson.

Well, he has a completely unique vocal style. He’s as much a stylist as Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra or any of these people who have a totally unique presentation. Plus, I like his songs. It’s just the right stuff for the right time in the right place. When he was making those records, John Anderson really stood out. I think he’s the coolest and he’s always been rocking that beard! He looks like he came out of a swamp on one of those boats with the propellers on the back and started the show.

Describe your songwriting process.

I would say about seven times out of 10 it starts with a beat or a groove or a drum part I’m obsessed with from some old R&B track. Sometimes I do have a lyric pop up and that will turn into a song, though. “Shy Boy” started with the lyrics, but, yeah, it’s usually a rhythm rather than a lyric or melody that starts the songs.

Tell the story behind writing “Bossy.”

“Bossy” began with this loop. That’s the first thing you hear, that weird little guitar loop that confuses everybody so much in the band as far as figuring out when to come in. (laughs) It’s in a really amorphous time signature and that’s because that loop wouldn’t leave my head. I kept messing with it and putting guitar parts over it. At one point, I thought, “Well, this needs to turn into something.”

Explain the lyrics.

The lyrics are little vignettes from past relationships all put together. It’s my “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before.” It’s about admiration, a theme song from the dude who remembers.

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