This musical discovery process explains two separate but linked elements of the artist’s career: McPherson’s decision to sign with Rounder and his personal affinity for hip-hop. He expresses particular admiration for the Wu-Tang Clan, especially Raekwon and RZA, who incorporated off-key piano figures, music from B-movies and obscure jazz samples into their music. Like McPherson, Raekwon, RZA and other hip-hop masters were crate divers, discovering new music and injecting it into their own work.
“Those were really intellectual guys,” he said. “A lot of hip-hop guys were musicologists. They had to look through stuff from the past to find samples and inspiration.”
Ties to literature
That same deep study of music is what attracted McPherson to Rounder. He met Ken Irwin, Bill Nowlin and Marian Leighton-Levy, who founded the label in 1970, and was impressed with both the trio’s dedication to finding important and elemental music and the label’s roster.
“They were going to see Little Richard when he was no longer popular, and trying to find the lost harmonica player for Jimmie Rodgers, setting up fake businesses so they could find Jimmie Rodgers recordings for RCA, who had no idea that he had done anything for RCA,” McPherson said. “I mean, they were digging and excavating for this American music.”
And then there is the title of the record. “Signs & Signifiers” is a reference to literary criticism — a required area of study in McPherson’s MFA program at TU. It is not often that an album of traditional R&B and rock ’n’ roll makes reference to structuralism and the work of Roland Barthes and Ferdinand de Saussure.
“Yeah, jeez Louise, that’s an arduous process,” McPherson said of his literary criticism class. “You gotta read that stuff, but it’s tough. It’s almost like you’re reading about something that you just kind of know innately, but you’re having to find extremely complicated words to describe it.”
And that might sum up “Signs & Signifiers,” an album full of songs that feel natural and loose, but reveal the many layers of McPherson’s musical influences upon “close reading.”
McPherson said the title and the cover, which depicts McPherson in deep thought while holding a literary text, are inside jokes about his educational background, but the music comes from someplace more primal and less intellectual. It comes from finding the right beat, the right sound, and the right feeling that will make people scratch those circles on the dance floor.
“It’s sort of making fun of myself in a way, because we made this really straightforward record and then made this ridiculous, seeming coded album cover, and then the album title itself promotes this convoluted, coded way of thinking,” McPherson said, laughing. “But that is not necessarily the case.”