After he graduated from high school in Massachusetts, Eli “Paperboy” Reed wasn’t sure he wanted to go to college. So he took a job at a radio station in Clarksdale, Miss. and headed south.
“I didn’t have any other options,” says the soul singer, who performs at the Grog Shop on March 27 in support of his forthcoming new album My Way Home
, via phone from his Brooklyn home. “That was my way out. I ended up moving to Clarksdale because I had this opportunity to work for this radio station, WROX that turned out to be nothing by the time I got there. It ended up being a total loss but I stayed. I didn’t know there was a music scene when I moved there. I found all these incredible musicians and this great thriving juke joint scene and all these people who were down there because of the music. The cost of living was cheap too so it wasn’t too hard for me to make ends meet when I was there so that was good.”
He eventually did decide to go to college and moved to Chicago to study sociology at the University of Chicago. While there, he got a terrific education. But he didn’t attain that education by going to class. Rather, he befriended soul/gospel singer Mitty Collier, who taught him a thing or two about music.
“I had been collecting records and a friend of mine who was a record collector, told me that Mitty was working in Chicago, where I was moving to go to school. I just looked up her number in the alumni directory. I had just started doing this radio show and wanted her to come on my show. She had just started this new church. She didn’t want to talk about secular music but I told her I was a musician. We got together. She came to my dorm and we sat and played some songs and listened to some music and I got the job. After that, I was the minister of music for her church on the South Side of Chicago for the whole year I was there.”
Reed says the woman really took him under wing and taught him how to properly sing in the church.
“I loved gospel records but didn’t know what playing behind the preacher was all about,” he says. “I had to learn fast. She gave me some instruction about singing and just life lessons. I didn’t spend a lot of time going to class. That’s for sure.”
That first year of college, he began recording his first album, Sings Walkin’ & Talkin’ & Other Smash Hits!
while on winter break in 2004. When he moved back home for the summer, he finished recording it and released it.
“I felt like if I hadn’t tried to do it then I couldn’t have lived with myself,” he says. “I did it and we put this record out and I started playing around Boston to see if I could make it a go at it.”
As his popularity boomed, he subsequently signed to Capitol in 2009.
“On the strength of my first album, I got signed to Capitol,” he explains. “Those were the heady post-Amy Winehouse days and major labels were interested in soul music. Initially, they did a good job but as is wont to happen at major labels these days, in the middle of my album cycle, there was massive regime change. EMI was bought by Universal. Even though we had a top 5 single in the UK with ‘Come and Get It,’ I didn’t get a second single. They didn’t drop me. It’s like they just forgot me and didn’t pick up my contract.”
Producer Mike Elizondo, who had worked on that record, had gone to Warner Bros. and told Reed I should go there. Reed took his advice.
“I thought it was a second chance,” he says. “I wanted to make a record that I thought could be a breakout record. They gave me the leeway to make that happen but the same thing happened and there was regime change multiple times at Warner Bros. At labels if the person who initially signs you is gone, the new people don’t feel ownership of the project and aren’t interested and it fell by the wayside. It upsets me to this day the way it all went down. It took me a long time to not be angry and jaded.”
For My Way Home
, he inked a deal with the indie imprint Yep Roc. Since Reed has such a strong international following, it was key to find a label that had international distribution. Yep Roc fit the bill.
“I’m happier now than I have been on a label in years,” he says. “I feel like I have a new lease on life.”
Reed wrote the majority of the songs on My Way Home while volunteering with the Mama Foundation’s Gospel for Teens program in Harlem, where he worked (and continues to work) as an instructor. The album comes off as advertised: “raw, rockin’ and righteous.”
“They do a gospel program for teens,” he says of the Mama Foundation’s Gospel for Teens program. “I got involved with them because I asked if they had done a class that was specific for quartet music, which is my first love when it comes to gospel music. They were interested in having me lead the class and I’ve been doing it off and on for three years. When I was working with the kids there, it hammered home how much I love that music and how universal I felt like the messages were even though it’s gospel music. It’s an incredibly rewarding experience. It definitely influenced the making of this album.”
The experience even filtered into the songwriting process.
“After I parted ways with Warner Bros., I took six months off from touring,” Reed says. “I had written a couple of things that demoed myself and played for the guys in my band and they were excited about how they were sounding and that gave me a kick in the ass to write more like that. Over about three or four weeks last spring, I wrote the bulk of the songs on this record. We recorded all of them in four days last May. It was a pretty quick process.”
Reed recorded with producer Loren Humphrey who has an analog studio set up in his apartment in Brooklyn.
“I meet him and things clicked,” says Reed. “He plays drum in indie bands and is an established musician. He understood what we were going for. He isn’t your average engineer and wasn’t concerned with doing things properly. It was just whatever sounded good. If you wanted to put two mics on the drum and blow the drums out and do it the way we felt comfortable with, that was fine. It was a comfortable experience. It was a good thing, for sure.”
Reed really stretches his vocals and sounds something like James Brown on the scrappy single “Hold Out,” a song that features a nasty mid-song guitar solo and a beefy organ riff. The song has such a brittle quality to it, it even sounds like it was recorded during a different era.
“I wanted to make a record that sounds like the kind of thing I would want to listen to,” says Reed. “It was a bit of a backlash against what had happened to me when I was at Warner Bros. I wasn’t sure when I was writing the songs that it would be an album of material. It just ended up that way. My first focus was to write and record music that I liked and make it sound the way I wanted it to sound.
Able to cross racial boundaries both in his music and his personal life, Reed says keeping an open mind is key when engaging in cross-cultural fertilization.
“I love to sing and I love to make music,” he says. “I happen to believe that the juke joints and the black churches I played in are some of the most open and welcoming places that I’ve ever been to in my life. I love to go to those places. If you’re cool and just there to let your hair down and have a good time, then they’re down. It doesn’t matter what you look like. If you’re there to and praise the lord or however you get down, they’re okay with that. You can’t walk into any places with any preconceptions. You just have to walk into those places and be open.”
Eli Paperboy Reed, Jeremy and the Harlequins, Secret Soul Club, 8:30 p.m. Sunday, March 27, Grog Shop, 2785 Euclid Heights Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-5588. Tickets: $13 ADV, $15 DOS, grogshop.gs.