“Singer Bryan McPherson has a tattoo of the unmistakable silhouette of the United States of America on his right arm – the contiguous 48 states, at least. This may seem a strange idiosyncrasy for an artist who is largely considered a protest singer. Truly, McPherson pulls no punches when pointing out the darker side of his homeland, and given the dynamic, folk-punk delivery of his songs about the labor movement, race relations, income inequality, women’s rights, gay rights and other causes of the oppressed and marginalized, it is nearly impossible to not be moved by his message.” — Joe Armstrong, Independent Day
Benny NoGood, of Indianapolis’ the Enders, told me I needed to listen to this songwriter coming through the Melody Inn on December 14th. “He’s up your alley,” he told me. “I promise, you’ll want to talk to him for your website.”
Benny’s never steered me wrong musically, and this time was no different.
The moment I started listening to Bryan McPherson’s brilliant 2015 album Wedgewood, I was hooked on his blend of politically-inspired folk songwriting and beautifully rendered portraits of working-class people living their lives in a world we all still struggle to comprehend. Much in the vein of Matthew Ryan, whose career-redefining album Boxers remains among my all-time faves, or Jason Isbell, who has for more than a decade cornered the market on that vein of intimate storytelling, McPherson is a songwriter you won’t want to sleep on.
And when he really gets amped up, talking to “Hear! Hear” about his “riding a wave of anger” as a s songwriter, his time as an Occupy protester, and Americans getting what we’ve deserved with Donald J. Trump, having stayed silent during our nation’s slow slide toward authoritarianism during the Obama administration, it’s impossible to drown out the man’s distinct passion.
For more about McPherson’s live appearance at the Mel, with support from NoGood and Caleb McCoach, visit this Facebook page. Doors open at 8:00, tickets are only $5!
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I’ve had a lot of time to listen to your latest album Wedgewood. And I really got hooked on “Dark Hearts,” especially after talking to Matthew Ryan. I’ve been playing that song a lot, and I’d love to hear the story behind that album because I’d been listening to a lot of your older, more politically overt songs and the newer songs sound more ‘subtle.’
Yeah. There’s a couple songs on there that are [still] kind of in your face, but the other ones … I can’t really, I’ll talk about that song and then I’ll talk about the album. That song is like a memory. Those are real people that I know, and knew, and that’s about a neighborhood in Boston where … I’m a sober human being now, but years ago I was pretty involved in drugs and alcohol and so were some of my friends back then. So it’s kind of about selling drugs and doing drugs and being in a dark lifestyle. For me it’s a song about addiction, or the darker side of being a human being. And the end of the song is about coming out of that: “And I don’t think I’ll ever get away / chasing hope in this basement parade / down there I speak from the heart / and I’m gonna leave it in the dark.” That’s what that song’s about for me, but granted, someone else might hear it and get something completely different.
So the rest of that album, that album came about I was given some money from somebody to make a record. It kind of fell out of the sky. And I ended up staying with some friends, they had a shack in the Sierra foothills of California. I stayed there and I worked on all the material I was playing around with, and basically that album starts off with a journey. The last song on American Boy / American Girl was called “Upon An Open Road” and that was sort of like ‘OK I’m going out onto the road so to speak,’ and “Born On A Highway” is the first song on Wedgewood. So it’s a continuation of the journey. And then the album as a whole for me, to think abstractly, is kind of like going into the fire and then getting out of the fire.
It’s personal for me, as I’ve ridden a wave of anger in my songwriting life for many years. And Wedgewood is the culmination of that, the breaking point. Obviously there are some angry songs on there, but the album is a smoldering sort of angry record. I definitely placed the songs in order, there’s a flow to it, a ‘Side A’ and a ‘Side B.’ The second side is more politically charged, you ease into it and then there’s “Here We Go” which is about protest, “Kelly Thomas” about a man who was murdered by the police in Orange County, and then “Wasted World” which is about the horrors of war. “Burn It Down,” another song about rage …
Yeah, I wrote that one down in my notes, “Burn It Down.” That song really stood out.
What that song makes me think of is when I was involved in protesting, so to speak, with like Occupy, the Occupy movement. It just seemed to me that things escalate and escalate and escalate to the point where it’s how wars break out, you know? Because people protest and then the State reacts and then people react to that, and react to that, and react to that until people are just so enraged that we have a revolution. So that song is tapping into that vibe. And then the last song, “Oh Darlin’” is just the end of all that shit, just ‘alright the war’s over,’ it’s something of a love song I guess.
But for me the album is a journey more than a collection of songs. Whereas my previous albums felt more, at least to me, like collections of songs. And I did try to put them in an order but this one feels more like a total package.
It’s been hard since the election for people to find a balance, especially in the Punk community between the anger over Trump’s victory and a balance within music. You almost want to burn everything to the ground, but yet then there becomes no room for anything but. Do you struggle to find that balance in your work between fighting everybody and staying in a frame of mind to actively create?
Yeah, it’s a very angry time. There’s something sinister in the air. I don’t even want to go on the Internet half the time because it’s just … and I don’t support Trump. I didn’t vote for him, I think what everyone else seems to think, he’s very frightening. But what pisses me off is nobody — everybody’s been asleep for a very long time! Everyone kind of took time off during the Obama administration and ignored [the fact that] all these songs I wrote, they came about the last eight years. These are not Trump songs!
America has been moving towards authoritarianism. The wars have never stopped, the PATRIOT Act is still alive, the National Defense Authorization Act which takes away people’s right to a lawyer, and these are things that have been happening over the years and everyone’s ignored. It’s much more frightening when you have someone who’s as explicitly hateful and possibly a tyrant as Trump now. I’m just like ‘it’s too little too late, guys!’ We should have been in the street when they stole the election from Bernie Sanders, you know?
Because I know people who are still working class people who sling a hammer who don’t care about racism, sexism, transphobia or any of that because it doesn’t affect them. It doesn’t mean they’re racist, homophobic or any of that. They just vote with their own interests. And they would have voted for Bernie Sanders because he was speaking to the same things to some of what Trump was speaking to, besides all the hate. And it makes me just throw up my hands and say we did it to ourselves. We got what we deserved, with corporate interests and putting another puppet war hack up there to … this is the best we’ve got! And guess what? This is what we got.
I’m interested in your songwriting process. Do you do a lot of writing while you’re on the road, or do you tend to sit down when you’re ready to work on an album?
Pretty much when I’m on tour I’m on tour. It’s all encompassing. You’re constantly driving, finding places to eat, sleep, all that. You’re always going. I don’t really have a process for writing songs, they just tend to come when they come. And I have very little to do with that. They usually show up at an inconvenient time, that’s all I can say about it. If I have to go somewhere and I have ten minutes suddenly I’ll be inspired and start writing a song. It’s a mysterious thing. Every song I’ve ever tried to write just ends up being a terrible song, and rarely ends up getting written. I just leave it to whatever forces out there that this stuff comes out of.
But dressing up a song, like ‘let’s put a trumpet here,’ that kind of stuff can happen anytime once the song’s been written. It’s kind of like giving birth to a child. You pop the kid out and then you can dress him up however you want. ‘Here, wear a hat today!’ That’s how I look at production and arranging songs. The essence of the song, that comes about in it’s own weird way.
Do you have songs of yours that you’ve written years ago that you’ve radically changed over the years to where it’s almost not even the same song?
Yeah, sometimes I screw around with songs. There’s a song I had called “O.F.D.” and it was on my first record. On the album it’s got a full band, electric guitar and all this and that. Lately it’s kind of turned, since I play all my shows mostly solo acoustically, into a quiet finger-picking sort of song. So it sounds a lot different than when I first recorded it. I also look at songs as being like a hand. When I record a song I’m taking a photograph of my hand and all my fingers are stretched out. But once that photograph is done I don’t have to keep my hand stretched out like that. I can make a fist or give a thumbs-up, move it in all these different directions. It’s still my hand but it has a different angle or shape to it.
I really latched on to “I Saw The Devil” when listening to that album earlier. It seemed really appropriate in this current climate.
Oh, right on! I do play that one from time to time. [Laughs.] Have you seen the cover of Time Magazine? They did that [the Hitler comparison] and they also gave him devil horns, the ‘M” makes devil horns! They totally did that intentionally. I thought that was a really nice touch.
Is there a song you admire that you wish you’d written first, and now perhaps you’ve added it into your live performances?
Sure! Lately, you should mention, I’ve been doing a version of “Fields of Athenry.” It’s an Irish folk song. It got in my head and I keep meaning to go find the guy or girl who wrote it [Editor’s Note: “Fields of Athenry was written by Pete St. John in the 1970s.] but I first heard it while playing with the Dropkick Murphys when I’d opened up a bunch of shows for them. And they do that song. They do a really good rendition of it, and I just love that song so much I went and learned it myself and picked it up pretty quick. It’s just a dynamite song. So that’s something I’m like ‘oh man! If I could have written a song this is one I wish I’d written!’