Photo by Chantal Anderson
Ricky Reed Invites You Into 'The Room' Where It Happened
When Los Angeles-based producer and songwriter Ricky Reed appears on Zoom in early August, it feels no different than his new normal pandemic routine. The GRAMMY-winning musician has, since the early days of quarantine here in the U.S., invited fans to take a magnifying glass to his process in regular live streams (cheekily called "Nice Live" in a wink to the name of his record label, Nice Life) with artists, singers, songwriters, producers, instrumentalists, mental health experts and fans alike. The streams have provided an urgent way for a creative community and fandom to gather and support each other when gathering in-person is still inadvisable. They’ve also been a beacon of hope for brighter days ahead.
And the Nice Live streams were not only a window into the world of one of the most in-demand hitmakers in Hollywood—including Lizzo’s "Truth Hurts" and recent beloved collaborations with Maggie Rogers, Halsey, Leon Bridges, Kesha, Camila Cabello and more—but also the springboard Reed needed to help him gather the materials for his first "solo" album in seven years, The Room. Though prior Reed solo material featured his vocals, The Room adopts his new chosen family as contributors and guiding voices throughout, including Bridges, Alessia Cara, Dirty Projectors, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, Terrace Martin, Kiana Ledé, St. Panther and more.
The result is a 10-song album radiating with warmth and hope at a time when we need those things the most. "Real Magic" finds joy and light in the mundane. "Fav Boy" brilliantly pairs Alessia Cara and John-Robert on one of the year’s most connective duets. Bridges and Ledé intertwine emotional vocals on the smooth, stunning "Better." At every turn, The Room does what Reed himself does best: it not only supports its myriad guests, it elevates them to sweeping new heights.
Earlier this month, Ricky Reed spoke with us about The Room, helping Lizzo tell her story for the past half-decade and the lessons we should all be learning from the ongoing global pandemic.
How are things?
We're stable and safe. Seven is the new 10, you know? I was going to say I can't complain, but I don't subscribe to that. I think that everybody should be allowed to grieve the changes to their own life. Empathy is not finite, right? So you can grieve your own situation or the changes in your life, even if you don't have it as bad as other people, and you can still have empathy for them too.
Plus having conversations like this help us unpack those changes. And making music—like you’ve done with this new album, The Room—seems like it’s done that for you too.
I didn't know that I was doing sessions for the album until I was halfway done with it. When the shit hit the fan, just like every other knucklehead in the music industry, I was like, "I know what to do: live stream, along with 1000 of my peers." In an anxious or a depressed state, my response is overfunctioning—planning, checklists, tasks. The live stream started as this... maybe unhealthy outlet that I was using to escape the terror that was all around, and the walls that were caving in.
10 streams in, I was doing this thing where I produce stuff on the spot and talk to people. And I'd gotten a keyboard part from my friend, Terrace Martin, earlier in the day. As I was sitting down for dinner with my family, I texted it to [singer, producer, and instrumentalist] St. Panther and just said, "If you can lay a vocal on this, I'll work on it tonight on the stream. People in the chat can hear your voice. It'd be cool exposure and I just need something to do." I had had a really rough week that week. This was like mid-April, so things were pretty heavy.
I listened to her vocals live on the air for the first time. The combination of the rough time I was having with how transcendent her vocal part was? It brought me to tears in the middle of a live stream. I cried in front of the whole community watching me. It just got me. It may have been the first time that I'd let myself cry since the pandemic had really hit in the States. It let me let my guard down—which as a father can be a really complicated thing.
I worked on the music the rest of that night, and I felt actually relieved. The process was an actual salve for me, as opposed to this escapism overfunctioning I had been doing. I was like, "I need to do more of this because this is actually good for me. And I need to make sure this comes out because if I could share this feeling that I'm having, this need for cracking yourself open, having a good cry or a good honest moment with yourself, and then maybe using that to find a little hope, I need to share this with other people." Over the weeks that would follow, it started to become evident to me that I was making my first album in seven years.
How did that song unlock what became the rest of The Room for you, creatively or otherwise?
I think I realized that live-streaming became a form of therapy for me because of the community that started to gather and galvanize around the music that I was making. They're just really amazing people that show up every week and hang out. I've continued to try to make the process more about tapping in, checking in with yourself and listening to your body. In realizing that it was therapy for me, I tried to let it be therapy for anyone else who needed it.
The music-making didn't change. What did change is that I started to also work on music not during the live streams, because then I had officially been bitten by the bug and things were getting progressively more intense. The heat was rising as we moved into summer, including the untimely death of George Floyd. The social progress movement happening in this country is incredible and long overdue, but obviously with it comes even more heat and tension and the expenditure of emotional energy. So I felt like I had more to say, and I also needed to process. So music-making started happening in the daytime too.
Were you having conversations with yourself about like, "Is now the right time for this?"
Oh yeah, major. It was interesting because this album was made as a response to the pandemic, to put it plainly, and it's something that's given me some respite and some hope, and something that has helped keep me close to my community, my collaborators, my friends.
But there have been a lot of conversations with myself. Why do something, why do this now? Is this of any value? Are you adding to the conversation in any way? A white, cisgendered male putting out his art project in the middle of all this. Is it necessary?
With The Room, I decided that in place of how you would traditionally market an album, we’d put this art to practical use. When we released "Us," we tied it to a campaign which was focused on how lucky we are to still have the ones that we have around. Use this as an excuse to check in on relatives or friends or family you haven't spoken to in awhile. Then we launched the Room-Aid Community Fund with this organization called The Solutions Project. We're raising money for three amazing grassroots community organizations, each of which is tied to one of the singles. All three of these organizations do everything from fighting climate change, to creating green jobs and green spaces, like the Life Garden—all black and Brown and indigenous-owned or led groups.
This album was made by a community of people that I'm really grateful to be a part of. I want to make sure that through the process of telling this story, it's always community first.
Your life and career have only continued to blossom and expand since the last time we talked. What does it mean to you now, this many years into such a successful career, to be able to work with newer and underappreciated voices instead of just the A-listers I know you could be pulling into a project like this?
For me, it's music first, but it's also people first. Michael Sneed is a great example. I did the song [album-opener "Shipwreck"] with him, brought him on the live stream, and was like, "This guy is just great." I loved the music and also thought that we would click as people. From a career perspective, I spent a lot of time chasing down the legacy artists. That gives you something to talk about when you're home for Thanksgiving. You can say, "Oh, I worked with famous artist X." Maybe it's a little less cool to go home for Thanksgiving in 2014 and say, "I'm working with this band called twenty one pilots. They're going to be huge.” And they're like, "Oh, that's cool. Do you still talk to Pitbull?"
Everything about working with new artists is so exciting. Seeing St. Panther on the Michelle Obama playlist? That shit goes 10,000 times further for me than congratulations or back-patting from people about working on famous artist XYZ. I live for those moments.
Has the role you play as a producer changed in this all-digital moment—and as you focus on your own project instead of working with and for another artist?
The thing that was cool about doing these records remotely was that the artists are recording in their own spaces, on their own time. I would send most of them anywhere between three and 10 things. "Do any of these speak to you?", as opposed to, "I need you to cut a verse on this song here, and it should be about this." I'd say, "Whatever inspires you. The only rule is to be honest and be current. What are you feeling now?"
What that allowed for is these incredible performances and songwriting that is beyond reproach or critique from me. How am I going to tell an artist, "Be honest, do this at your home on your own time,” and then get it back and say, "Meh." The only times that there was workshopping with the artists would be: they would send me something, I'd say, "Oh my God, that gave me an idea. Well, what if we tried this? What if you pushed that 10% further? What's the idea that we're trying to say here?” Doing things remotely for a project like this was really nice, because it forced me to be hands off.
You’ve been running full speed for as long as I’ve known you. Did this project allow you to slow down and enjoy the process more, given the circumstances?
I have three small children now—a three-year-old and twin one-year-old boys. Home life is crazy. I have to do basically all my work late at night, but I am a lot more grounded. I'm a lot more centered in myself. And I'm listening to how I feel a lot more than I was for a lot of the last decade. That means some really, really hard days, and it means some really great days. I have a garden here at home that is a pretty big priority of mine. I make popcorn on the stove at three o'clock almost every day.
I almost wish that for the last 10 years I’d had some other things to do besides music, some other things that would help me tune into myself, because the process of making music is a lot more rewarding when you're not just able to be in a studio 12 hours a day. When I get that hour now, oh boy, I'm on fire and it feels great.
Now that we're firmly on the other end of Lizzo's groundbreaking album cycle and ensuing GRAMMY glory, can you sum up what it was like going through that time with her?
Bro. Man. My first number one song was "Truth Hurts." I think it's one of the first times in my career where success felt as good as everyone says it's supposed to feel. It was mind-boggling just to get the news of the nominations, let alone attend the GRAMMYs.
That night, I was in the fifth row, but right on the center aisle. Lizzo opened the show. For people who have never attended the GRAMMYs—most people, and myself until recently—the lights, the sound, the pyro, everything has to be 10000% overblown when you're in the room for it to actually look big and colorful and fun on TV. So to be at the GRAMMYs is a sensory overload, an explosive experience. To be in the fifth row, right on the catwalk, is so explosive that it's hard for your body to even handle what you're getting hit with.
To watch the artist that you signed and helped develop open the GRAMMYs 20 feet away from me with lights, and pyro, and choreography, and blaring music? I felt like my rib cage had split open and there was a beam of light shooting out of me to the sky. I was f**king screaming and tears were streaming down my face—I didn't realize that until afterwards. It was an actual out-of-body experience watching her perform at the GRAMMYs. And then when she thanked me, when she won on stage, I immediately wept. My whole upper body whipped forward uncontrollably and I cried into my hands when she said my name on stage. My body just took control and was overwhelmed by the whole thing. It was one of the most incredible nights of my life.
It's a reminder of why working with new artists is everything and I'm proud for that to be the lifeblood of my career.
This is the silliest question that anyone has likely ever asked you but: you'll continue working with her as long as she wants you to, right?
Completely. We are definitely continuing to rock, without saying too much. But at the same time, she is a true visionary, and part of what made her last album so special was that she executive produced it. She knew exactly what she wanted and knocked it out of the park, so I'm super stoked to continue being a part of her story and a part of her journey. But it is her story and I'll contribute to it in any way that I can.
You mentioned "Truth Hurts" topping the Hot 100 was the first moment for you when success felt like what people said it would. How do you define success for yourself in 2020?
Success looks like not having fear. Success looks like having real hope. I think being able to be present with my kids and my wife, success means being able to wake up and water the vegetables and make popcorn at three o'clock every day. That's all it is.
I'm not the kind of person that's going to say money isn't everything, or money is overrated. It's just not fair to me that you have to acquire a certain amount of money in this country to feel safe, to feel peace, to have hope, because all the things I'm talking about are things that anybody should be able to do. I hope I'm clear-eyed enough to really understand that my success has allowed me to enjoy these simple things. I just think it's regrettable in this country that to enjoy the little things, to not live in fear, to not live in constant worry, you have to have some amount of money. You have to buy peace of mind. I think that's terrible.
You’ve long been politically active and socially conscious, constantly using your platform to amplify voices and causes for the betterment of the greater good. How can people follow you in stepping up to the plate?
Try to vote in local elections, because when you vote in local elections, it causes you to read up on things and educate yourself about what's happening around you. For me, the big change that needs to happen is: we need to save this planet and to recognize that climate justice and racial justice are the same thing. It's only going to come from a lot of learning and understanding that, regardless of what side of the political spectrum you're on, we need to be pushing our leaders to take care of us—to really be pushing them. Just because the guy on your team wins, it doesn't necessarily mean that they're going to make your life better and it doesn't even mean that they have the ability to make your life better.
It might be laws enacted at the state level, like Gavin Newsom refusing to shut down this leaking gas facility in Southern California that's caused health problems for tens of thousands of people, or Eric Garcetti continuing to allow oil to be drilled in neighborhoods across the street from schools in South L.A. I'm talking about two Democratic leaders. I would vote for them before I'd vote for someone on the other side of the aisle, but I think if we don't really start to pay attention to whether our leaders are taking care of us or not, then we shouldn't expect them to take care of us. They're not going to unless we beat them up a little bit.
Educate yourself as much as you can. Vote. Find some great community organizations or advocacy groups. Man, just get educated. Voting is everything.