Music

The Wisdom, Worry, and Wonder of Hit-Making Producer Ricky Reed

Photo: Chantal Anderson / Courtesy of Sacks & Co.

As the go-to producer for everyone from Lizzo to Twenty-One Pilots, Ricky Reed is at the top of his game. Discussing his new solo venture, The Room, the hitmaker opens up about his inspirations, collaborators, and hopes for a better future.

The Room
Ricky Reed

Nice Life

14 August 2020

Whether you're aware of it or not, unless you've managed to make your way off the grid successfully, producer Ricky Reed's hits have been inescapable over the last decade.

Even against hitmaking titans like the virtuosic Greg Kurstin, the chameleonic Jeff Bhasker, or the inimitable Pharrell, Reed has a natural gift to adapt to the demands of any style presented to him. Reed's credits span a vast spectrum of genres ranging from acts like Lizzo, Twenty-One Pilots, Leon Bridges, Fidlar, Jason Derulo, Maggie Rogers, Ke$ha, and the Weeknd. After years of helping stars hone their artistic voice and bringing it to the largest possible audience, Ricky Reed has taken the time to make his first proper debut solo album under his own name. The Room is not just a testament to Reed's gift for connecting with other humans but also his absolute need to do so.

Cut off from the traditional lifelines to the rest of the world in the times of COVID, Reed began livestreaming his recording sessions for his first solo offering under the "Nice Live" banner (itself a play on the name of his recording house, Nice Life), offering a rare glimpse into the process and makings of an in-demand songwriter. This revealing streams served as a complete document to how songs like lead single "Real Magic" develops from a loose idea to it's highly refined artistic conclusion. "Aside from when we weren't sheltered in place, we could be in the same room, that's still pretty much how most of the songs I make are written," says Reed when speaking to PopMatters. "And if I'm being frank: especially the hits. That comes from real moments, real conversations, somebody working on a chord progression or drumbeat in the background while we are sort of chopping it up. And it ends up turning into a song, and sometimes a great song.

"[At] the beginning of the whole shelter in place, I wasn't planning on making an album, then Nice Live number ten happened, which is the one where 'Real Magic' happened in real time on air. It sort of broke me down. I cried in front of everyone watching. It was pretty intense. That was what set the whole thing in motion. As I started to think about making an album with collaborators, I was like, 'You know, everybody's at home, nobody's on tour, nobody's doing anything, everybody's home."

Assembling a team of collaborators featuring the roster of Nice Live extraordinaires like St. Panther, John-Robert, and Nate Mercerau, a frequent collaborator and a signee of Reed's whose 2019 album Joy Techniques is a work of brilliance in its own right. As for the recording of The Room, Reed also enlisted the efforts of fellow producer, saxophonist, and jazz icon Terrace Martin and indie-rock legend Jim James of seminal indie rock stalwarts My Morning Jacket. The Room corrals together all these extensions of Reed into a deeply intimate and atmospheric experience that cycles through many experiences of isolation, loneliness, and loss.

"I've been a fan of My Morning Jacket since the Z album," Reed continues. "That's one of my top ten albums of all time. They are so like -- oh my god, they're magical. I had just heard through a dear friend of mine that Jim was just interested in doing interesting stuff. Collaborating with people. So he connected us, and Jim was so immediately open-handed, and kind, and egoless, and truly collaborative. Like, 'Hey man sending you this thing, man. Let me know what you think. I'll try some more stuff if you want.' I was like, 'Bro, you're Jim James dude. You realize it's cool to be a dick if you want to, right? I'm such a fan you can go there.' But he is such a consummate sweetheart and incredibly, incredibly impressive musician.

"The time he and I were collaborating the most heavily was probably April, May, early June when the darkness of the pandemic was setting in and was really taking a toll on my mental health. I never really put this to him so clearly, but every time Jim would text me or send me an update on our song, it felt like a guardian angel. He didn't realize it, but it would brighten my day so much, or just remind me how grateful I am for the career I have, and that I get to collaborate with one of my heroes. He was there for me probably more than he'll ever know."

What becomes apparent from talking with him is that you learn a lot more about Ricky Reed as a creative force listening to him talk about others than you do him talking about himself. When you question Ricky on his songs, he tends to be slightly more consumed by the process, hidden behind a layer of humility. Whereas when asked about the artists he works with, you get to witness him honing in one the special details that develop into great songs. Conversations with Ricky tend to make you feel kind of like a popstar of your own. His focus gravitates towards emotional tangibility even when discussing non-musical affairs. Even small stories tend to be laced with tiny details that breathe humanity of subjects at hand.

"Honestly, 'Truth Hurts' is a great one to start," Reed notes as recalls working on Lizzo's signature chart-topper. "You're recognizing something that I'm very proud of. I just listen. I do a lot of listening. I actually don't listen to that much music aside from the kids music I listen to with my little kids. I listen to the way people talk, what the universe -- what the sort of ether is throwing back at me. For 'Truth Hurts', Lizzo texted me one night, I think, while she was on tour. And she texted me, 'Why are men great until they gotta be great?' and I was like, 'Bro, that's a lyric. We gotta hold on to that.' Somebody said to me one time, great song lyrics read like an angry text. And I always held on to that. Something full of detail and specificity, emotion, straightforwardness. So I just listen to how people talk, and what they say, and what they're thinking about, and then we try to put melody to it."

Reed cut his teeth in the late 2000s and early 2010s, working on Wallpaper, his satirical response to the trends of the state of pop music around him. The not so ironic success of a comic outfit like Wallpaper. eventually led to him producing the mega-hit "Talk Dirty" for Jason Derulo, proving he could tap whatever zeitgeist listeners were seeking out. Even while transitioning through everchanging the trends and demands of the pop music ecosystem, Reed has retained the most endearing qualities that defined the early 2010s sound of pop music.

Take something like DRAM's "Cash Machine" and Twenty-One Pilots' "Ride". While stylistically in two quite different places, they both succeed in making larger than life sounding compositions, with lyrics that explode with catharsis. Even Lizzo's recent 2019 Grammy-winning smash full-length Cuz I Love You is the pudding in the proof that with songs like "Truth Hurts" and "Juice", there is a certain timelessness to these massive keys assisted with heavy-ass synths.

"Comparing 'Ride' and the DRAM record -- super interesting comparisons, I think I only did those a year apart maybe tops," Reed marvels. "What's really interesting is the sort of size of both of those records. It's true they both have a big chordal feeling to them, but what they're really both doing is they're fusing multiple genres. I mean the DRAM record is a Ray Charles lick; you have this sort of classic blues going on the piano. DRAM's delivery is everything from hip-hop to like a Parliament sort of George Clinton flow. Twenty-One Pilots record has alternative, hip-hop, reggae. It has all this stuff in it. For me, when I think about those tunes, and I think about the sound, it still comes back to communicating the feeling the most effectively. And I think with both of those, we nailed it."

Reed's trajectory has been an unpredictable one. Exploding on the scene with multi-platinum Jason Derulo singles "Talk Dirty" and and "Wiggle", Reed had finally achieved the credentials establishing himself as a contender in the ring of bonafide hitmakers. But success following was relatively modest. While certainly performing and releasing hits at a professional level, only the select few ever do, his following records weren't quite at the heights of success he'd established himself capable of with his early hits. At least, not until roughly a year later, until teaming up with noted alt-rockers Twenty-One Pilots to record the songs that would go on to become the vast majority of their breakthrough full-length Blurryface.

Years after its initial 2015 release, Blurryface continues to break records. It's the first album in the digital streaming era to have every song on the album go Gold or Platinum, and to this day, has yet to leave the Billboard Top 200 album chart. Unsurprisingly, Reed's fingerprints are all over it, and it soon served as quite the calling card. Reed went on to co-write and produce more hugely successful records: Meghan Trainor's platinum effort Thank You, Halsey's radio hit "Bad at Love", and select songs off of Ke$has critically acclaimed 2018 comeback record Rainbow (like "Boots", "Hymn", and "Bastards"). His work with Lizzo and her breakout album Cuz I Love You earned him Grammy nominations for Record of the Year, Album of the Year, and he has now been nominated twice for Producer of the Year.

Photo: Chantal Anderson / Courtesy of Sacks & Co.

On paper, it seems like the kind of career most any musician or producer would dream of having, but to hear Reed tell it, he still can't believe it's happening. "I have a bit of an imposter complex," he admits, "which for the entirety of my career has prevented me from ever feeling like I'm in it. There's a side of it I'm proud of and a side of it I'm not proud of. The side that I'm not proud of is that I don't want to be the guy that's like, 'It's cool that I got into this party, but I really wish I could have got into that other party.' Or be like 'It's cool to be number one, but I want to be number one for three more weeks.' That creeps up inside of me sometimes, and I hate it. I've done therapy to try and get that voice inside of me quieter. That voice drives me to make decisions not based on my heart, not based on art. And to work harder than is good for my health and my family's well being.

"That side of my sort-of imposter complex I'm not proud of. The side that I am proud of is that I always feel a little bit like the underdog. That drive to work as hard as anyone. It gives me space to relate to new artists. To look for left-of-center artists I see myself in, or I see a whole new movement in. To never be too cool to open up a DM and listen to some somebody's random song. Or give somebody advice. I don't feel like I'm inside the castle walls, and I'm not sure I'll ever feel like I'm there."

"I get more excited about one of my artists getting a write up in The LA Times," he continues, "or like cool left-of-center Spotify playlist placement than I do having a chairman of a major label congratulate me on my many successes. I don't live for that. I live for the small wins by the new artists."

What becomes quickly apparent when learning about the artists signed to Nice Life is the cumulative essence of earnestness, genuity, and just overall niceness of every single person on the label. It's so genuine that a more cynical soul might be taken aback by something so real.

"What draws me to an artist, in the beginning, is the simple stuff," he explains. "Like oh, what a voice, what a song, what a look, what a movement they're spearheading. The kind of thing you can see without even talking to them. Like from a few Instagram posts or a YouTube. Where it starts to get interesting, what sort of starts separating the wheat from the chaff is when we start to hang out with these people and be like, 'I think your heart is in the right place, why are you in this race, and what are your values?' Lizzo and I match up one to one on that. As do all the other artists and me on the label. It's not even necessarily that all of them are as politically engaged as one another, or have the same perspective or lens. But everyone has a good heart. That is just mandatory for any artist I'm going to work with in a long term way."

The Nice Life crew comes together, almost like a made-for-TV family and all the feel-good moments and lessons learned to cap it all off. With Reed sitting in as the Danny Tanner-esque adoptive father figure to characters like the living embodiment of an adventure time character that is Junior Mesa. The brilliantly cool, savvy, and head of the curve St. Panther. Tranquil Nate Mercerau, the Uncle Iroh of the label. Tranquility awaiting to unleash generations of knowledge and skill with grace and patience.

"I met Nate probably around 2007 or 2008," Reed starts. "I saw him play guitar in Berkeley 0- what was it called? Download on Chattick? Anyways, I walked down there with my then-girlfriend drinking Jack Daniels splitting a fifth walking down Berkeley, got there, then had a few more. So I was pretty inebriated when I talked to him. He was playing with some friends of mine, and he was the guitarist for this band I was friends with called the Park, who have all remained friends of mine to this day. I saw Nate play, and I came up to him afterward and said, probably slurring, 'You must have lived at least a couple of past lives to play guitar like that.' I'll never forget it because Nate was either 18 or 19, and he was playing the blues like an 80-year-old man who had seen enough tragedy to have lived five times over. It was incredible. That was the first time I ever saw him play.

"And then we went on to play in lots of bands for a while," Reed continues. "He would back me up on my Wallpaper. gigs, and this and that. But I didn't realize he was producing and making amazing music as a producer until way on like 2015 or 2016. Brad, one of my best friends at Nice Life who has also been a friend of Nate's for a long time, was like, 'You gotta check out some of Nate's demos.' And I was like, 'OK.' And it timed out perfectly, because I had just started working on the Leon Bridges' album Good Thing, and Nate came in right when I needed him. And that would not have been remotely the same thing without Nate's work on it."

That relation with Mercereau would grow to be a bountiful one. Mercereau's genius is somewhat of a secret weapon to a good many of Reed's post-2016 output, providing godly, Prince-like guitar riffs for some of Lizzo's most iconic tracks ("Boys", "Tempo", and "Juice"), soulful jazz licks to Leon Bridges' "Good Thing", heartbreaking leads for Ke$ha's "Bastards" and "Boots", and even Brian Eno-esque textures for Mike Posner's "A Real Good Kid". Nate would also be one of Nice Life's first signees after Lizzo. It sometimes feels as if Reed is playing the role of a Shamanic musical sherpa radiating the harmony and wisdom of a Jedi Master.

Despite years spent winding through a journey of uncertainty and self-doubt, Ricky Reed is now rounding the corner of an all-time career landmark. Within only a few years, he helped take his first signee Lizzo to become a household name. Nowadays, music legends are seeking Reed out personally, seeking out his distinct musical touch even as the cult followings of Nice Life artists are growing rapidly. Now that the shroud of darkness is slowly unveiling, Ricky Reed looks to the future for a brighter tomorrow.

"When I was trying to get my career off the ground, I was somebody who worked in music for 15 years," he explains. "Since early high school and had not had a break. And I was lucky that my first break was 'Talk Dirty' because, at the very least, it wasn't something that was hard to pigeonhole. Even though pigeonholing did soon come. With just a little taste of success, I was trying to do anything to keep my foot in the door and keep that door open. The world is so different right now, and the feelings I want to convey are intimate and personal, and they're singer-forward. All of these songs are about the lyrics, and the melody, and the way the singer recorded themselves.

"So what you have on this album is the same idea of trying to get the feeling right, but it's all about intimate experiences and conversations, and that's why it sounds how it does. I have a lot more hope than I did at the beginning of this thing. The social progress that has kicked off since the untimely passing of George Floyd and countless other Black and brown Americans. I am really charged up with hope and optimism about the world that we're going to walk into after this one. It's grim right now, but I have started just with the last few weeks to feel okay about where we are headed."


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