Observations: Rockabilly revivalist brings it on home from the Northside
On first hearing JD Mcpherson’s record Signs and Signifiers, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a previously undiscovered gem from the late Fifties.
With a sound that recreates the earliest era of rock’n’roll, and lyrics referencing Cadillacs, sleazy dives, pretty women and hitting the road, most people are surprised to learn that the 32-year-old is in fact a former art teacher, who spent most of his youth worshipping The Clash, and met his musical partner and producer, Jimmy Sutton, through MySpace.
Raised on a cattle ranch in Oklahoma, the Mcpherson household was filled with music. “My dad is a singer and he loves the Delta blues and jazz, and my mother was very into country,” he recalls, in his charming southern drawl. After being introduced to punk rock by his older brothers, Mcpherson joined a number of bands in high school. And while he might now sound like a modern day Little Richard, it took a while to get there. “It wasn’t until college that I started really thinking about singing instead of just hollering and screaming,” he says. “It was only then that I realised I could carry a tune.”
After college and teaching for a few years, Mcpherson decided he could no longer ignore his desire to make music. He made contact with Sutton, who ran a label in Chicago, and the two soon set about recording an album. “We were both like, let’s make a good traditional sounding rhythm and blues, rock n roll record,” he says. “But we both love other sorts of music too and eventually we found the courage to work up to the fact that we had a lot of other influences as well. We like a lot of modern music so some of that subtly crept in.”
Mcpherson will happily carry on about The Smiths or Led Zeppelin, even hip-hop. In fact, he re-arranged Tiny Kennedy’s Country Boy, which he covers on the album, to copy Wu-Tang Clan’s use of loops. “We didn’t want to make a time machine record,” he insists.
His art background has also come in handy for providing a strong aesthetic. He and Sutton do all the project’s artwork themselves and they even made the video for rockabilly hit ‘Northside Gal’, which has notched up over half a million views on YouTube. “Jimmy’s an artist too and we both talk a lot about not just the music, but the visuals and the packaging and all those kind of things which are really important for us. Anybody who’s a David Bowie fan knows that.”
And with high profile fans such as Tom Waits and Keith Richards, it’s not surprising that Mcpherson’s star is steadily on the rise. When the band played their first UK show back in February, it completely sold out. Fans that couldn’t actually get into the venue danced on the street outside instead. Did he know that they had already gained such a following? “We had heard some rumblings that it might be a pretty well attended gig, but we had no idea that it was gonna be like that,” he laughs, incredulously.
One of the great things about Mcpherson’s shows is the type of crowd they attract. People sing and jive, make-out and drink; they are pretty raucous affairs. Many are dressed in retro attire: neck scarves and victory rolls for the ladies; bowling shirts and quiffs for the men. “Those folk are hardcore, they live their lives that way. They were the very first fans,” smiles Mcpherson. “But all sorts come. I find that those who would never consider it, always end up enjoying themselves when they’re exposed to it. People really dig it.”
Signs & Signifiers is released on 7 May by Rounder Records. He plays The Borderline, London, on 11 May. www.jdmcpherson.com
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