“How To Draw Everything isn’t just Bryan’s latest record; it’s a whole new beginning for him as an artist. On the meditative “2 Birds,” he muses, “There’s something about the sky that makes me grateful to be alive.” From the perspective of age comes a spiritual death of what was, and in its place, a re-discovering of peace, country, and self are found. Hope finally outweighs despair and can be reclaimed, like a child wondering at the seeds of a dandelion. Bryan defies us to admit hope was there all along.”
— Aaron Carnes, Author and Critic at Playboy, Salon, Noisey, Sun Magazine, Bandcamp Daily, and Music Editor at The Good Times Weekly Santa Cruz CA
Bryan McPherson has never let go of his desire to be vulnerable with his listeners. Wedgewood (released in 2015) is an angry record, a searing criticism of the American government fueled by the Occupy movement and filled with a passionate impulse to burn the whole damn thing to the ground. Yet the album opens with "Born on a Highway," a plaintive heart-on-your-sleeve ballad where Bryan acknowledges the transience of life and affirms to be "a willing participant of an incredible dream." Even amid incredible disillusionment, he seems to be saying there is hope for tomorrow.
Bryan grew up in Dorchester, a working-class neighborhood in Boston, where crime was high and music venues were nonexistent. Armed with a guitar and an opinionated mind, he began writing songs as adversarial as they were melodic. With nowhere to perform, Bryan headed to upper-class Cambridge, where his edgy, plain-spokenness contrasted wildly from the more flowery, contemplative singer-songwriters. He stuck out like a sore thumb and audiences didn't know how to feel about him. But one thing was clear. Bryan fell in love with the directness of folk music.
In 2006, the anti-folk scene was bubbling up in New York. Bryan admired the lively experimentations and how musicians were challenging the norms of conventional songwriting. But their overall sarcastic presentation didn't jive with his intense sincerity. He wanted more than to get a rise out of people; he wanted to be heard. A year later, back in Boston, he found a music scene that appreciated his aggressively tender style of folk music: the punk scene.
In Boston, it was just Bryan, his guitar, and whatever happened to be on his mind at the time. He was known to jump on dive bar tabletops and rouse the patrons from their drunken half-slumber with a deafening tenor and some seriously pissed-off political lyrics. The punks were starting to notice. Locally revered street punks The Ducky Boys and Celtic punkers Dropkick Murphys became fans. Local producer Hendrik Gideonse wanted to produce him. The resulting album, Bryan's raw debut Fourteen Stories, was released in 2007. Suddenly people were showing up at the dive bars to see him play.
Rather than bask in his growing local popularity, Bryan moved west, landing in Berkeley, California. It had been a few years since Fourteen Stories, and he was sitting on a batch of powerful new songs that resembled a manifesto for a better country. The world was currently experiencing festering unrest that would soon coalesce into the Occupy movement. Bryan began recording during this climate. On the opening track he sang, "if there's one thing I know, the god that I know, knows no creed, no class, no nation." While recording American Boy, American Girl (released 2012), the Occupy movement exploded. Fed-up Americans were echoing much of what he sang about on the album.
Equipped with some solid songs and running on a season of protesting, Bryan hit the road, ready to confront the public with meaningful performance. One night in Pasadena, the audience walked out just a few minutes into his set. The bartender turned up the house music while he was still playing. No one was interested in his meaningful performance. Undeterred, he joined the crowd outside and sang in their faces while they smoked cigarettes and chatted about their dead-end jobs. No matter where they looked, he was there, singing his punk-gospel melodies, winning them over with vulnerability and persistent, patient confrontation. From then on, Bryan would often get up and sing at people to shake them out of their ruts. Audiences frequently thanked him after shows for forcing them to be present.
When it came time to work on Wedgewood, he thought back to his many hours with Occupy Oakland and the anger he was witnessing across the country. Fury mixed with a deep longing to fix systemic problems inspired his songwriting. Wedgewood was the result, capturing the moment's rage and foretelling the coming polarizing times that would soon overtake US politics.
After the ferocity of Wedgewood, Bryan felt like he needed to take a step back. Anger was negatively impacting his relationships and sense of well-being. He started conceiving his next album, How To Draw Everything, using songs he'd put on the back burner because they were too sensitive and didn't fit tonally on previous albums.
But that project was sidetracked when Bryan decided to take a look back at his life. He re-recorded a batch of old songs from 2001 off of an old demo—the first he'd ever written. These personal portraits revealed an image of a frustrated young man struggling with drug and alcohol addiction, trying to find his identity in a world that didn't understand him. Now almost two decades sober, Bryan wanted to share the beautiful struggle found in these songs. He titled the album Kings Corner (2019), which was named after the street corner he and his friends hung out on, growing up.
Afterward, he returned to How To Draw Everything, but with a plan to make it sound brilliant. He enlisted notable producer Ted Hutt, who has worked with Flogging Molly, Gaslight Anthem, The Violent Femmes, and won a Grammy in 2015 for his work on Old Crow Medicine Show's Remedy. However, at this point tensions in the country had worsened. Everyone hated each other. Bryan felt more determined than ever not to contribute to the "Us vs. Them" attitude that overtook the nation. In 2020 he wrote the 15-minute-long song "American Dream," which chronicles his years on the road, visiting every corner of the country and meeting good people wherever he went. It's an optimistic song, much like 2012's “No creed, No class, No nation," which insists that good outweighs the bad no matter how imperfect the country is, and there is power in recognizing our similarities.
In the Spring of 2021, after a long, grueling year of ironing out arrangements during lockdown, Bryan hit the studio with Ted and an all-star cast of top-notch musicians, including ex-Dropkick Murphys' Marc Orrell, Dustbowl Revival's drummer Josh Heffernan, remarkable violinist Chris Murphy, who has worked with everyone from the Waterboys to Mike Watt. In addition to the powerful "American Dream," he recorded several emotive tracks. "Lightning Lullaby" is a unifying anthem that speaks to the power of music in connecting people during times of struggle. "Sweet Kari" is a gentle folk song about finding peace after moving on from lost love. "Alameda Street" captures the excitement and confusion of running around LA, trying to figure out what to do with your life, and what lies deep in your heart.
How To Draw Everything isn't just Bryan's latest record; it's a whole new beginning for him as an artist. On the meditative "2 Birds," he muses, "There's something about the sky that makes me grateful to be alive." From the perspective of age comes a spiritual death of what was, and in its place, a re-discovering of peace, country, and self are found. Hope finally outweighs despair and can be reclaimed, like a child wondering at the seeds of a dandelion. Bryan defies us to admit hope was there all along.