You know those people who carry around a notebook and seem to find things from everyday life to work into songs? I can’t do that. I hate those people!” says JD McPherson, who, when he does write, is always on the money. Here, the lo-fi leaning, former art teacher from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma discusses songwriting, his new album Signs and Signifiers, and his early ode to Naomi Campbell.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
Don & Phil Everly, Cindy Walker, Nick Lowe, Fats Waller, Joe Strummer, George Harrison, Morrissey/Marr, Smokey Robinson. There are others.
When did you start writing songs? Were they good right away, or did that come later?
My most prolific period was in high school. I had three punk bands: Slippy, The Fjords, and Gladis. I wrote and wrote and wrote, stream of consciousness lyrics. I wrote LOADS of songs. Songs about cartoons, girls, and a high-schooler’s view of corporate oppression. That was a very happy, fruitful, and exciting time… All I wanted to do was listen to records, practice guitar, and write poems and songs. It’s like pulling teeth getting me to write songs now!
What was the first song you ever wrote? Tell us about it.
I’m not completely sure that this is the first, but it’s the first one I remember writing: “Cosmopolitan T-Shirt”. I wrote this one for my punk band Slippy. First line: “Navy blue with yellow stars / Naomi Campbell candy bars / Put your head upon the chopping block.” I was apparently very, very angry about oil production, designer clothes, and the fact that Naomi Campbell wasn’t into me.
What is your approach to writing lyrics?
They come very quickly, but very infrequently. Pressure to write seems to be my main and only focusing mechanism. I usually start with a rhythm or melody that has been stewing in my mind for months, then the lyrics tend to just “appear”. I absolutely hate this method. You know those people who carry around a notebook and seem to find things from everyday life to work into songs? I can’t do that. I hate those people! Well, I don’t hate them, but I do envy them. I sit at a laptop (because I can type pretty quickly, and ideas tend to come and go the same way), with a dictionary and thesaurus nearby. Once the “theme” materializes, the lyrics sort of pour out, and I have to trust that they will do so. That is my thoroughly un-romantic songwriting method.
What percentage of the songs you write are keepers?
Since I’m not the most prolific writer, it’s a pretty high percentage. I did find one on my laptop the other day titled “Dark Hair, Blue Eyes” that was so bad, I deleted it. I also have several files on my laptop that are just song titles. Those were songs that let me down.
Do you have any standards for your songs you try to adhere by when choosing them for an album?
I’m as concerned about the music and recording affordances as I am about the lyrics, so there’s generally quite a lot on my mind when writing a song. I really think about musical arrangements and lyric writing simultaneously. If it’s working in my mind, then I get excited, and it comes a bit easier. There are some chances I’ve taken lyrically… There are certain phrases on the record that I can’t believe I put to paper… but they work. Once example is in “Scratching Circles”… I wrote the lyric “Hot licks, cheap kicks”. I can’t believe I’ve let such a philistinic lyric creep into a song. However, I know it works because at every show, I see the audience putting their fists in the air, screaming “HOT LICKS! CHEAP KICKS!” in a non-ironic way. So there you go.
What sort of things inspire you to write?
Drums. I love drums, and I often think of drums first. Enjoying life gives you every opportunity to write. Extreme pressure and being late on a deadline also inspires me to write, probably more than anything else. It’s like what they say about a gambler’s addiction… they’re not addicted to winning, they’re addicted to the panic they feel when they realize: “I just lost everything”. It’s painful, but it really helps you produce. I also like staying up late and writing in a sleep-deprived state. “Signs & Signifiers” was written that way. It’s what David Lynch refers to as “The Art Life.” That’s the romantic stuff.
What’s the last song you wrote or started?
I have ideas stewing for the new album. Mostly rhythmic and melody ideas. I have a song called “Bridgebuilder” that has some lyrics happening.
What’s a song on your Signs and Signifiers you’re particularly proud of?
I’m proud of “North Side Gal”, because it’s been so good to me. When we were listening to the playbacks in the studio after the first take, we knew it was special. People seem to really like that song, and I enjoy playing and singing it. Wayne Kramer of MC5 recently asked me to play a gig with him, and he wanted to play “North Side Gal”. If you had told me in high school that one day, Wayne Kramer would ask to perform one of my songs, I would’ve set fire to something.
What’s a lyric from the new album you’re a fan of?
“I got Signs & Signifiers / that gossipers and liars / twist me every way they wanna go / what looks like a raging fire are your dreams and desires / ending up like ashes on the ground.” That’s one of the few personal lyrics I’ve written. Most lyrics are non-autobiographical, or from a character’s perspective. But that’s a very personal lyric from a very personal song.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
I want to say that “North Side Gal” is the one, because it’s the most recognizable, but… In Bilbao, Spain, I met a girl who did not speak very good English, but was able to communicate to me that she had had a very difficult year, and that our album was the only thing that got her through. She was crying, and didn’t know how to express her gratitude. That conversation changed my life… I think I was more grateful to her than she was to me.
Do you ever do any other kinds of writing?
Poems that no one will ever see. I also write emails. My grocery lists are very well-organized; structured by geography of the market, and they put you in the dry goods section first, and the frozen foods section last. That way, you don’t have dripping wet frozen turnip greens when you’re checking out.
If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
It would be a gas to get Nick Lowe, Tom Waits, and Keith Richards in a room. I’m not sure there’d be a lot of writing going on. We’d probably all just talk about Hank Williams!