SALT LAKE CITY — “Somebody said it was too loud and it was not what they were expecting, so they split.”
That’s JD McPherson. The anecdote above happened in Salt Lake City — it was the last time McPherson remembers someone walking out of his show. (For what it’s worth, the musician said he really likes Utah.) Over four studio albums, McPherson has evolved his sound from '50s-style rockabilly to more beefed up 1970s soul/rock. For a musician, making retro sounds your main vocabulary is risky business: Stay too tethered to it and people think you’re plagiarizing; deviate from it too much and fans think you’ve lost touch.
How retro is too retro? McPherson, who headlines the State Room April 1, and Arleigh Kincheloe (known by her stage name Sister Sparrow), who performs at Park City's Mountain Resort Plaza March 30, know a lot about that admittedly loaded question. Both have considerably altered the soul sounds that earned them attention. Sometimes, those changes make fans walk out. Other times, they attract new fans altogether.
“It’s kind of a double-edged sword, and I think it’s really hard to toe the line,” Kincheloe told the Deseret News. “It seems a little unfair that we’re asked to do it or want to do it, in that it seems like an impossible feat. But there’s plenty of people doing it well.”
Sister Sparrow scored more attention in 2017 when the band’s song “Sugar” — a warm, feel-good jam that really typified their old sound — was in the film “A Bad Moms Christmas” (which grossed more than $70 million). But the band’s 2018 album, “Gold,” traded in that sound for slicker, polished studio gems with more pop sensibility. “Gold” is still “soul music” — perhaps just as much as Sister Sparrow’s old stuff — it just references different musical eras. Kincheloe remembers being in the studio, wondering if “Gold” would be too different, or make their die-hard fans upset.
The two singles off “Gold” each have less than 6,000 views on YouTube. “Sugar,” by contrast, has 275,000.
Kincheloe said the response from longtime fans has been good overall — “And for those who aren’t into it, I totally understand that as well,” she added. “As a music fan myself, I’ve had that same feeling when an artist makes a different kind of record and it’s not why I fell in love with that artist. So I understand it. It’s a natural thing for fans. But it’s also great that I didn’t alienate everyone.”
A musician’s sound can be like an iceberg: Influence-wise, there’s a lot more under the surface than above it. Interviewing McPherson, he mentioned everything from bossa nova (Astrud Gilberto) to punk (the Ramones) to krautrock (Kraftwerk). He grew up in rural Oklahoma — “The nearest real proper grocery store was an hour away. I was way out in the middle of nowhere,” he explained — and since there was no music scene there, he felt unencumbered.
“So I didn’t feel weird about listening to Slayer and Madonna,” he said.
Eventually, a record store employee introduced McPherson to early Buddy Holly and rockabilly. It had the same energy and exuberance of his favorite punk acts — bands like the Ramones and X — but with a much different kind of musicianship.
“If you look at the first five years of rock ’n’ roll, you had blacks, whites, Latinos, men, women. Pretty much everybody was making records,” he said. “It was a very inclusive thing.”
That inclusivity has spilled over into McPherson’s fanbase. He said there isn’t any stereotypical JD McPherson fan. It’s a mix of “little bitty kids, 20-year-old hipsters, people my age, and then original rock ’n’ roll fans alike,” the 41-year-old said. “From the very beginning … they’ve all been pretty diverse in just about every way you could think.”
When a musician makes something unexpected, it can seem like forward motion. Appearances can be deceiving, though. Often, a stylistic change is more about a musician aligning themselves with their past — getting in touch with their musical roots or feeling empowered to show it publicly. Take “Matter of Time,” a song off Sister Sparrow’s new album. The song is an unabashed ballad — Kincheloe’s voice is buoyed by a lush string arrangement; it feels more suited for “A Star is Born” than a feel-good Sister Sparrow concert. Kincheloe said that onstage, songs like “Matter of Time” used to induce serious anxiety. It’s not typical Sister Sparrow material, but Kincheloe said the song was actually written nearly a decade ago. For her, the musical path forward required stepping back into her past.
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“One thing I’m not interested in is consistently making music that is an exact copy of something that happened,” McPherson added. “There has to be some element of myself in it, or present times, or some idea that skews the center left a little bit. I’m not interested in Civil War re-enactment music. If I made a record where it was catering to that expectation, people could smell it, and they would be bored.”
If you go …
What: Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds
When: March 30, 2 p.m.
Where: Park City Mountain Resort Plaza, 1345 Lowell Ave., Park City
How much: Free
What: JD McPherson (State Room 10th anniversary celebration)
When: April 1, doors at 7 p.m., show at 8 p.m.
Where: The State Room, 638 S. State
How much: $30 (ages 21 and older only)