JD McPherson hears the "retro" tag a lot, and no wonder: Signs & Signifiers, his debut album premiering exclusively today on RollingStone.com, rocks and rolls like it's 1955. Listen a little closer, though, and it's clear the album is not what McPherson calls "a time-machine record." Sure, he and producer-bassist Jimmy Sutton drew from vintage R&B and early rock & roll on songs laced with boxy drums, thumping upright bass and slap-echo guitar. But they also mined more modern influences, including, believe it or not, Wu-Tang Clan.
"I love the way that some of that Nineties hip-hop stuff, especially the Raekwon and RZA stuff, is sort of meditative in a way, and has these really organic textures," McPherson says. "That's everything that I like about rhythm and blues and old music."
He came to that music as a kid growing up on a cattle farm in rural southeastern Oklahoma. Steeped in the classic rock of his older brothers, McPherson, 35, started playing guitar at 13, learning every Led Zeppelin riff he could before discovering punk a few years later. Through his father, McPherson was also listening to old blues and, crucially, obscure Buddy Holly sides.
"His pop stuff is great, but his rockabilly stuff, the stuff that usually isn't played on the radio, that kind of scratched an itch for me," McPherson says. "I felt like I was suddenly able to marry the three-chord rock of the Ramones with this rural Oklahoma aesthetic."
Although he started playing in bands as soon as he picked up a guitar, McPherson focused on art in college. After graduating from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in experimental film, he designed his own MFA course at the University of Tulsa – "That's why I have graduate credits in card magic," McPherson cracks – and then landed a job teaching art at a private school in Tulsa.
When he wasn't in the classroom, he was writing songs. After connecting with Sutton through MySpace, the pair spent a week recording Signs & Signifiers in the bass player's Chicago studio in 2010. Sutton released the album on his own Hi-Style label before Rounder picked it up for wider release this spring.
"We had planned to make the record almost as an art project in and of itself," McPherson says. "We knew we would probably play a couple of weekenders, try to play a couple of shows here and there." Then he got laid off from his teaching gig a year ago, and suddenly he had time to tour.
"It was just the most fortuitous of events," McPherson says. "It's very scary to be self-employed after three years of a comfortable teaching gig. But this thing has really allowed me to do everything I've ever wanted to do."
So far, that has included directing a video for Nick Lowe's song "House for Sale" (which premiered on RollingStone.com) and performing with MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer at this year's SXSW festival, where Kramer asked to play McPherson's "North Side Gal."
"Surreal," McPherson says. "I will treasure that."
As for the retro label, McPherson doesn't mind so much. He knows his songs are coming from an honest place that spans more than one particular era.
"It doesn't resonate with people too much if you're trying to make everything spot-on as if it were a 1955 record," he says. "You should write what you want to write about and make it relevant to you as a person. I think that might be why people are listening to the record: They can tell we're not lying."