Walkin’ and Talkin’ with Eli “Paperboy” Reed

I first heard of Eli “Paperboy” Reed in 2010 after reading a feature on him in MOJO. I bought the magazine for the Tom Waits cover story, which was well worth the read, but was hooked on this story about a young white dude singing soul music. He started as a busker, recorded an album of old ’50s and ’60s soul/R&B covers, then followed it up with two albums of original material in the same vein. So, I checked him out and became a fan of the way he combined the greasy groove of Stax Records with a smooth voice reminiscent of Motown.

The Satisfier” is a tasty jam reminiscent of James Brown’s early funk phase. “Come and Get It” was the infectiously catchy lead single off an album of the same name. It appeared on Capitol Records, part of a major label debut. The album was solid and it seemed that Reed was an artist on the rise.

Then it all went awry with the release of Nights Like This. He recently went into more and better detail than I can (which you can, and should, read here) about the situation, but basically it comes down to this: he abandoned a lot of his trademark sound in favor of a more commercially palatable style. He seemed to be receiving a big marketing push and the singles released in advance and licensed in movies/TV/etc. recouped recording and production expenses, then when the album finally dropped, Warner Bros. stopped caring and stopped promoting.

The experience soured Reed on the music business and made him question his desire and ability to continue as a recording artist. But, his love of music persevered over the bullshit and in March, he’ll be releasing a new album entitled My Way Home. I recently interviewed Eli “Paperboy” Reed about the album, his frustrations in the music industry and his other gig, spinning soul records as a DJ at clubs. His answers are in bold.

When Nights Like This first came out, I didn’t necessarily dig it since it was such a departure from the retro-soul of your prior album. I recently listened to it again and found myself getting into it and as far as pop-rock albums go, it’s great. Despite all the bullshit that went into how it was released and promoted (something I know you’ve delved into before), how do you feel about that album now, as a piece of music?
It’s tough to listen to that record, because of all the baggage that went with it, but I still love it and I’m absolutely proud of how it was made and how it came out. I think the songs are great, the production is the right balance of modern and gritty, and the performances are spot on. I appreciate you listening to it again, and I can understand how, if you put it on expecting a “Soul” record you might be disappointed, but from my perspective, it wasn’t made for the diehard Soul fans, it was made for everybody. I think that the average listener who comes at the record without any preconceptions will love it. Unfortunately, the record label didn’t see it that way and I think part of the problem was that they couldn’t get past their own preconceived notions of who I am as an artist and couldn’t understand how I would make an album like this. It’s a shame that it all went down that way, but hopefully it’ll continue to be discovered and appreciated down the line. 

You recently played your new album My Way Home live in its entirety. Sonically, is this more akin to your prior albums?
It’s similar and different at the same time. We actually recorded it all on tape in my friend’s loft here in Brooklyn and did the whole album in 4 days, so it was sort of the anti-Nights Like This in that way. I was sort of in backlash mode, so this album is much tougher and more aggressive than anything I’ve ever done, but musically it’s more in line with my previous stuff than Nights Like This is for sure. 

Was it hard getting back out there, writing, recording and playing live after the fallout with Warner Bros. Records? What helped you get back into that groove of going out and doing your thing?
Absolutely, it was really difficult! I was in a pretty serious musical rut for a while, and had a hard time climbing out of it. One of my closest friends, Noah Rubin, who has also played drums with me over the years was working at a bar near my house. Before his shift he would come over and we just started playing as a duo, messing around with some ideas. I played him a couple of things that I had demoed on my own and he pushed me to start writing more stuff like that, like, calling me every day pushing me to do it so last spring I ended up writing about 10 songs in 3 or 4 weeks. After we had the songs he introduced me to his friend Loren Humphrey who plays drums in the band Guards and has this awesome all analog set up in his apartment and that’s where we made the record. So really Noah had a big hand in getting me back on the horse.

What’s the plan for the release of My Way Home – do you have a new label, are you crowdfunding?
I do have a new label, but as of this moment I have to keep it under wraps until we do a real press release. I promise to let you know as soon as I can! 

Who is in your backing band now? Are the True Loves (Eli’s original backing outfit) still a thing, and if not, what are they up to?
The True Loves were always sort of a rotating cast of characters and, in fact, they never really stopped playing with me, we just stopped using the name after a while. I felt like being another “and the” band, pigeonholed me in a way and I wanted to avoid that, especially before the release of Nights Like This. The original True Loves bass player Mike Montgomery still plays with me and is one of my closest friends and I still work with a lot of longtime band members like J.B. Flatt on Organ, Attis Clopton on Drums and Jesse Barnes on guitar. True Loves alumni have made their mark all over the music world: The original drummer Eli Keszler is now a successful experimental musician and artist, trumpeter Patriq Moody lives and performs in Japan, saxophonist Freddy Deboe plays with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings and Charles Bradley and organist Alonzo Harris works with some of the top R&B acts in the country. One of the earliest members of the band Ryan Spraker is now a producer and songwriter in LA and we wrote and produced Nights Like This together so the True Loves are still going strong musically in many ways. 

I first heard of you back in 2010 from a feature in MOJO and it opened my eyes to not only your music, but acts like Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings and Black Joe Lewis and the Honey Bears. Now, with the success of Leon Bridges, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats and songs like “Uptown Funk,” it seems like the retro-soul movement is bigger than ever. You’ve been at that sound for a while. Does it make you feel encouraged in advance of your next album, or is that something you aren’t even really thinking about?
It’s a little bit frustrating, but it’s also not something that I worry about much. There’s certainly room for all of us, and I hope that in some way I helped to pave the way to make all of that happen! It does make me hopeful that the musical landscape has changed for the better since I started doing this. 

Best concert you’ve ever been to?
Tough to choose, I’ll give you a top 3:

  1. The Dixie Hummingbirds live at a storefront church in Roxbury, MA
  2. The Impressions backed by The Dap Kings at Southpaw, Brooklyn NY
  3. The Violinaires, Sensational Nightengales and more at LaGree Baptist Church in Harlem

How did the DJ gigs come about? What are your favorite tracks to spin?
I started DJing at Soulelujah in Boston more than 10 years ago now and I’ve become a pretty serious collector of Soul and Gospel 45s over the years. There’s a great community of Soul DJs and Soul dance parties all over the world now and I’m glad to be a part of that. I’ll do some DJing locally here in New York and I’ll also DJ clubs and show after parties when I’m touring. It’s tough to pick some of my favorite tracks to spin, but here’s a link to one of my most recent DJ sets playing all Soul records recorded and produced in Boston: https://www.mixcloud.com/Soulelujah/eli-reed-boston-soul/

When did you know that making music was what you wanted to do for a living? When did you know you could actually make that happen?
I was in college at The University of Chicago and, aside from the time I spent playing in church and digging for records, I was pretty miserable. When I was home for Christmas break that year we recorded the first album Walkin’ and Talkin’ and when I got back to Boston the following summer I decided to borrow some money and press it up. I guess that was the first move towards trying to really do it for a living, even though I wasn’t 100% sure that was going to happen. I took a “year” off from school (going on 11 years now) to focus on music. I feel like I still don’t KNOW that I’ll always be able to make a living in music, but honestly, who is really sure about anything? I’m amazed I’ve been able to do this for 10 years without having another job! 

If you could assemble a supergroup to make an album and play a show, who would be in it? The band can comprise people both living and dead and be as many or as few people as you’d like.
Oof, that’s sort of an unanswerable question because there’s so much good music out there still today and so many amazing musicians from every era that I’d love to work with. I’d love to sing with The Violinaires when Robert Blair was still the lead or The Swanee Quintet with Johnny Jones or any of the other killer groups from that era of Gospel Quartet music, but at the same time there’s still a ton of great stuff out there today that’s just waiting to be discovered!