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JD McPherson Returns to Solo Career, Amid Ongoing Plant/Krauss Tour Stint, With the Refreshed Glam-Rock Sound of ‘Sunshine Getaway’ (Track Premiere)


By Chris Willman

It’s difficult to believe that JD McPherson, one of the great classic-minded rock ‘n’ roll singer-songwriters of the modern age, hasn’t had a new album of non-seasonal material out in seven years. That absence of fresh recordings hasn’t caused anyone to issue any missing-person alerts for him in the past few years, though. He’s been quite visible, serving as both the band leader and opening act for three successive Robert Plant/Alison Krauss tours. At last, McPherson is concentrating on his solo career in a bigger way again this summer and fall, starting with “Sunshine Getaway,” a brand new track Variety is premiering today.

“Sunshine Getaway” heralds the coming of McPherson’s fourth album, “Nite Owls.” (Fifth, if we count the original holiday collection “Socks,” since it is one of the greatest Christmas records ever made, but enough of math.) “Nite Owls” will be out on New West Records Sept. 27; pre-order info, including the requisite vinyl exclusives, can be found here.

That album release date is timed to follow the end of the current Plant/Krauss tour on Sept. 1 and exactly coincide with the first date of a fall tour he’s doing, kicking off with a Sept. 27 date at Nashville’s Brooklyn Bowl and continuing through Nov. 23.

McPherson talked about the new single and previewed the new album for us from a Plant/Krauss tour date, where he sounds like he’s still having the time of his life, even as he looks forward to getting back to his day job as a self-made man at last.

“Sunshine Getaway” is a very summery sounding title, but it sounds like the inspiration was more wintery and aspirational, maybe more in a “California Dreamin’” sort of way?

So yeah. I wrote that song with my friend Jack (Torrey) and Page (Burkum) from the Cactus Blossoms, who are. not known as being the jolliest people. They’re from the bleak Midwest, from Minneapolis. They were staying in Nashville when I was still living there, staying at Jenny Lewis’ house while she was gone on tour, and I went by to see them and we were just talking about Minneapolis in the wintertime. They told me like a really bleak story [about being locked out of the house in the freezing cold], and we started laughing, and so we just wrote that song right there. And, yeah, we’ve all sort of been there. I think anybody who lives in the middle of the country or up north knows that feeling of the bitter cold, and it lasts a long time.

The sound of it is very crunchy, very glam-rock. You are known for influences from even earlier in the classic rock ‘n’ roll era, but this brings in some that are maybe less associated with you.

Well, any playlist of mine, you’re gonna see Little Richard right next to T. Rex. You know, I discovered fuzz guitar on my second record and I never looked back. That’s one of the ones we’ve been playing live and really love playing it live. John Perrin from NRBQ’s been playing drums for us, and he’s got such a pocket and that song really grooves live, so we can’t wait to do the tour.

How’s it been being out again with Plant and Krauss?

This is the third year out and it’s by far the best one yet. We’ve got the set down to where it’s very dense and moves by quickly and it’s got quite a bit of uptempo material, so the set list sort of got worked on over the last three years, and everybody is just having the best time. Everybody’s had a lot of things that they’ve been working on (apart from one another), and so this has been a really nice welcome break to jump into this tour. It’s the time of my life. I really, really look forward to it, and this has been the best one so far. Doing my opening set, it feels the best too, I think just because there’s something that’s about to happen, and then just time with the Plant/Krauss band is such a gift.

How would you describe the sounds coming together on the new album?

I remember kind of the germ of the first song came when I had gotten a free Spotify account and I was just trying to see what all was on there, and I was kind of surprised about how much things that I like were on there. And I listened to a recommended daily playlist one day, and they were playing things like Astrid Gilberto and some early Beach Boys music and the Fireballs and Ventures. And it just sort of hit me like, all of this is music near the water. I want to make a water record! That was like the first idea.

And I think “The Rock and Roll Girls” was the first song that was finally finished. I’ve had part of that song written for a long time, because it’s about my daughter as a toddler kicking the back of my car seat. And, so anyway, that was kind of the beginning of the idea. And I started thinking about just surf music in general, and how there’s a common thread between surf music like the Ventures, Ennio Morricone soundtracks and Depeche Mode. There’s this common thread of this single-string reverbing guitar that runs through all those things. And once I had that in my head, songs just started coming out really fast. That’s when “Just Like Summer” came, and those kind of twangy tunes. So this record ended up being … My elevator pitch to people was: This record is if the mid-‘60s to late ‘60s Ventures was the session band for the first New Order record. It’s sort of like my love of obscure surf music plus my dark wave days in high school. It’s kinda my goth-surf record.

Clearly people have seen you out on those tours and know that you’ve not been just sitting around. But, as far as making a new record, seven years is a while. So did the time pass quickly or did it feel like a long time?

If somehow I could say that it simultaneously was a horribly long time and also went by really quickly, both might be accurate. My sense of time since the lockdown has just completely been totally scattered and disrupted. You know, I had trouble with finding my place in time before, but now it’s even worse. So everything seems like some kind of crazy temporal displacement happened. But truthfully, this record could have come out a lot sooner, because the germ of it began well before the pandemic happened. Even some recordings were made before then. But then so many things happened in my life between that time and now. So it’s happening now and, honestly, this is the way it was supposed to go.

The first attempt was, for lack of a better term, a tough lesson for me, because it was with my old band, and we did some sessions at East West Studios in L.A. and stayed in a nice house and everything. And it was sort of my attempt at having a baby to keep a marriage together, and it didn’t work. So, once kind of the old gang started to splinter off during the pandemic, I was sort of done for a minute. I didn’t even really want to think about those songs or do anything with them. You know, in tandem with all that the pandemic offered, I was planning on just doing something else with my life at that point. One thing I flirted with was being someone who recommends what trees to plant in people’s yard. Seemed like a nice job, helping people get the right tree to grow, how to make it grow better. So that was a weird time for me.

When I started to kind of finally want to do something again, I had some old friends that I’d made music with before and some new friends that I’d never made music with, and we got together and did the “War, Covers” EP. It wasn’t my songs, but it was songs I loved and it was recorded in the way that I loved to record them, with a very optimistic and positive group of people. And so that was me really, really, really gingerly approaching making music again. And once that happened, we made a second attempt at making this record, and it didn’t work out just for creative reasons. We had a producer this time, and though I really loved the producer and I love his body of work, for some reason the music wasn’t jelling. And I think it’s probably because we’re the people I surround myself with, we have almost like this secret language twins teach each other. We speak in really obscure music references. And so, unless you’re a freak like us, we tend to lose people.

Then it was sort of like it was the last chance. So I went and recorded with Alex Hall, who has had something to do with almost every record I’ve ever done, whether playing drums or mixing or engineering or something. And we just went back to his place and recorded pretty much live, and now, here we are — now we have a record.

Everyone who loves you knows you pull from a lot of different places, but you’ve suggested you think this might surprise people a bit. Do you think some people will sort of cock their ear for a minute going, oh, this is a little off the path?

Oh, definitely. It is. But I mean, there’s a line from the third record to this record. Like, the song “On the Lips” is like an ancestor of these songs, so there is a thread. And I think “I Can’t Go Anywhere With You” could have belonged on my second record. “Sunshine Getaway” could be on the third record. It’s kind of the more Fleetwood-sy, Beach Boys-y tunes, like “Travel Through the Night Alone” and the last song, “That’s What a Love Song Does to You,” that are, to me, new territory. So yeah, if someone is that rare unicorn of a person who knows every one of my records, it makes sense. But for the people who still only have ever heard the first record, they’re gonna be very confused.

But I’m at a point where I truly, truly am not worried about anything like that anymore. I’m at the point in my life now I have surrounded myself with people who are just kind of full of optimism and living in the present. And I am making what I want to make, and with people who want to make it with me, and in a very happy place as far as making work goes. You know, very few bands have made the same record over and over again, successfully. AC/DC is the clear winner in that regard. AC/DC has never changed their thing. Even the Ramones started adding guitar solos after a point! But AC/DC is the one band that that stuck to their guns and never made anything bad. So, that’s really impossible to do. And for me, I just think what I’m listening to changes so much. What I’m reading about changes the way I think about things. You never know what story’s gonna pop up in your life that wants to be expressed in a certain way that can’t be expressed with, you know, a saxophone section.

And you just kind of have to follow that thread and see where it takes you. I mean, this record really wouldn’t have existed if I hadn’t gotten a free Spotify account and the algorithm recommended those few songs. So blame Spotify, I guess.

“Nite Owls” track listing:

1. Sunshine Getaway

2. I Can’t Go Anywhere with You (Feat. Bloodshot Bill)

3. Just Like Summer

4. Nite Owls

5. Shining Like Gold

6. The Rock and Roll Girls

7. Baby Blues 

8. The Phantom Lover of New Rochelle

9. Don’t Travel Through the Night Alone

10. That’s What a Love Song Does to You