Eli Paperboy Reed is starting a new chapter. New label, new album, new tour and a return to form. His unique, rootsy, Motown inspired sound remains with an unmistakeable new edge. His new tour kicks off at U Street Music Hall on Saturday. He took a few minutes out of his tour prep to give us his thoughts on the new soul scene, his exit from a mega label and whether music and social issues are inextricably linked. Full interview below.
If you were to walk into an open mic night and see a young musician you related to, someone with a little bit of soul, what advice would you give them and what records would you urge them to listen to?
I would probably tell them to go listen to some gospel records. I think that gospel quartet leads are the most soulful singers ever, and you can still learn so much by listening to them. I’m constantly blown away by the vocal power of people like Ira Tucker of The Dixie Hummingbirds, Johnny Jones of the Swanee Quintet and Julius Cheeks of The Sensational Nightingales. My advice would be to keep listening to new music and try to synthesize the parts you like to create your own particular style. It’s also incredibly important to always be writing and trying to come up with new things.
It’s been almost exactly a year since your complicated divorce from Warner Brothers. Looking back now, how has that situation changed the way you think about the music business?
I think my main misconception in doing the deal with Warner was that I needed a major label to have a successful career. I think that might be true if you’re trying to have a massive pop radio smash, but as an artist trying to make a decent living and continue doing what you love, you really don’t need that at all. In the age we’re in now, there are so many more ways to serve your fans and so many more opportunities to connect with them. I do think that Warner Brothers missed an opportunity by opting not to promote “Nights Like This” and it’s tough to not be bitter about that, but I believe that everything happens for a reason and that whole series of events led me to record My Way Home and sign with Yep Roc where I feel more at home than I ever did at Warner. I’m very excited about the future and really happy with the team at Yep Roc and all the work they’ve done so far.
The new album My Way Home starts off with a bang in the form of the barn burner lead single “Hold Out.” Does this album, as the title suggests, represent a return to your roots both in terms of being on a smaller independent label and in terms of sound?
It does, in a way. I think this record is actually even more raw and aggressive than anything I’ve ever done. I had the benefit of being able to make this record with my friends in a very low pressure atmosphere, so I was basically able to do whatever I wanted to do. Honestly, I wasn’t even sure this was going to be an album when we recorded it, but when I heard the tape playing back for the first time I knew it was the right move to make and the right direction to go after leaving Warner. I really can’t wait for people to hear the whole thing, I think it’s gonna blow some minds.
I don’t know whether you saw this NPR piece regarding Leon Bridges or have heard Macklemore’s “White Privilege,” but I am curious if you feel any sense of social or artistic responsibility being someone who makes soul music and more specifically a white guy making soul music? Or is your only obligation to cultivate a sound that your audience wants?
I won’t comment on Leon Bridges or Macklemore as I don’t think it’s my position to do so, but all I can do as an artist is to make music that makes me happy and that (hopefully) my audience wants to hear. I grew up with the set of influences that I had, and I certainly don’t feel that I can make music any other way. I hope that people can see and hear that what I do is “authentic” to me and not anything other than that. My responsibility is to myself and to the listeners and I think that’s it.
There has been a resurgence of soul inspired music over the last number of years perhaps starting with Amy Winehouse and now with Leon Bridges, Sharon Jones, Alabama Shakes etc. What are your impressions of this new crop of artists and where do you think the genre evolves from here?
It’s kind of amazing that I’m now considered one of the early adopters! I’ve been answering this question in some form or another since 2007, and all I can say is that I’m glad people are continuing to gravitate towards simple, soulful music. More than a decade in to this “fad” it’s still going strong! I’m certainly thrilled to be making records and playing shows in 2016. Last year I celebrated the 10th anniversary of the release of my first album and if you had told me in 2005 that somebody that sounds like Adele would be selling millions of albums and that Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings would be getting nominated for Grammys I’m not sure I would have believed you!