Eli “Paperboy” Reed
With the release of his new record, ‘99 Cent Dreams,’ Eli“Paperboy” Reed begins his second decade as an artist much in the same way he began his first: completely and utterly in love with soul music. Reed is ten years older and ten years wiser this time around, though, writing with the kind of freewheeling confidence that can only come from experience, and the result is the finest and most emotionally sophisticated music of his career. Cut at the legendary Sam Phillips Recording in Memphis, TN, and produced by Matt Ross-Spang (Jason Isbell, Margo Price), ‘99 Cent Dreams’ is an exuberant and uplifting collection, a celebration of life and love delivered by an ecstatic messenger who’s still in profound awe of the power of both. Reed’s arrangements on the album are lean and muscular, filtering vintage R&B, soul, and gospel through the heart of a modern songwriter. His stunning voice remains front and center, of course, but his performances here have grown in their assurance and matured in their delivery, a sign perhaps of the newfound perspective he’s gained with fatherhood.
“My daughter is two years old now, and she’s completely changed the way I approach music,” says Reed. “Having a child alters your perception of time and teaches you to get right to the heart of things. When I started writing these songs, all I wanted to do was tap into the root of what it is that I love about soul music.”
The new album follows the Boston-via-Mississippi singer’s universally lauded 2016 release, ‘My Way Home,’ a comeback record of sorts that rose from the ashes of a doomed major label deal. Hailed as “inspired, raw and powerful” by NPR and praised for its “urgent, electric energy” by Uncut, the album marked the beginning of Reed’s fruitful relationship with Yep Roc Records (who will also reissue his 2008 debut album, ‘Roll With You’) and showcased his resilient spirit and rafter-raising voice. The songs harkened back to the timeless music he fell in love with as a young man playing organ and guitar in the Chicago church established by gospel legend Mitty Collier, and they helped him process the wild journey he’d been through.
“After the whole major label debacle, I needed to make that record,” explains Reed. “This time around, though, I wanted to move the needle in the other direction and make something a little more thoughtful and measured. I wanted to make music that was representative of where I was in my life, music that was a bit more grown up.”
For Reed, that meant stripping away any sense of artifice and building his songs from the ground up. He went back to writing on an acoustic guitar with just a pad and pen by his side, inviting friends over to his Brooklyn apartment to collaborate on music while his daughter was at daycare. He wrote without agenda, creating simply for the sheer joy of it, and he let the songs tell him when they were ready.
“I’m a firm believer that if a song doesn’t grab you in its simplest of form, then it’s probably not going to grab you no matter how much bullshit you add on top of it,” Reed says with a laugh. “That was my guiding principle when I was writing, and that continued to be the guiding principle in the studio.”
In Memphis, Reed and his band were joined by drummer Ken Coomer (Wilco, Uncle Tupelo) for a series of whirlwind recording sessions that resulted in a fully mixed album in just nine days. Nearly everything on the record was captured live, including Reed’s pulse-pounding vocals, which made their way through the same echo chamber used by the likes of Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Levon Helm, Johnny Cash, and Robert Plant.