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Grammy-Nominated Producer Ricky Reed Opens Up

The man behind the hits of Twenty One Pilots, Kesha and Jason Derulo talks new music, a solo career and a new baby

When Ricky Reed jumped on our call, he was sitting in his studio in Echo Park, California holding his two-week old daughter Mae. This is the same Grammy-nominated producer and writer behind hit records such as Phantogram’s “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore,” “Ride” by Twenty One Pilots and “Boss” by Fifth Harmony. Without doubt, Reed has had his fair share of work behind-the-scenes. But now, he says, it’s time to turn the microphone onto himself. 

“As I go through this process and am realizing that my songs are increasingly becoming a journal for very real-life experiences, it’s getting more and more honest. It’s not always going to be great. Life can be hard,” Reed says of his new solo work, which is inspired by personal stories and honest emotion. 

After being nominated for a 2017 Grammy for Producer of the Year, Reed started working with Charli XCX, Mark Foster (Foster the People) and James Fauntleroy on his new song “Joan of Arc.” And upon the music video’s release in April 2017, Reed quickly garnered significant praise from within the music business. 

Here, Ricky chats with DuJour about the challenges of fatherhood, honesty in music and how he connects with artists before sitting down in the studio. 

Tell me about your new song, “Joan of Arc.”

It’s a song about the devotion and perseverance required on both sides of a relationship to get through some really tough shit. In this case, it was getting through severe depression over the course of my wife’s pregnancy. To have this little one I’m holding now, we had some rocky times. I love her so much and I love our new daughter so much. It’s about reminding people that there is beauty on the other side. Sometimes you have to stick it out together.

Was it difficult to be that vulnerable in a song?

I’ve spent my whole career with Wallpaper trying to conceal a lot of that vulnerability. Everything I’ve done as Ricky Reed now has been the opposite. I’ve been trying to burrow and dig deeper into myself and be honest with what I’m going through. I think a lot of people are going through difficult times, be it in their personal lives, with the political climate in the U.S. or whatever it is. I just think that life is too short to not be honest.

What kind of feedback have you received from fans or friends about your new music?

Everything I’ve gotten back has been amazing. People who know me hear these records and think, ‘this is the “you-est” you’ve ever been’. I think this sound is sustainable. I could sing these songs for years and years. We’re literally soundtracking the first days of my daughter’s life. Songwriting is such an intimate process and you are really forced to find that sacred perspective on things. Digging for, writing and recording it feels like a sacred process. There are some big challenges that come with fatherhood. There isn’t a lot of conversation about it though. 

You’ve done a lot of behind-the-scenes work with producing and writing. How has it been creating music for yourself?

If the music is honest, it falls into somebody’s lane very comfortably. If you’re just trying to write bubblegum, Top 40 hits, that’s when people start fighting over who gets the song. It could be sung by anybody. If it’s about my experience or Kesha’s experience or Tyler Joseph’s experience, it’s more obvious.

How do you balance working with an artist on a professional level and having them get emotional or vulnerable during the creative process of making music together?

What makes me effective as a producer is sitting down first and foremost and asking an artist, ‘how are you?’ I figure out what’s going on, what’s up, what’s down and what’s good and what’s bad. We don’t write songs immediately. We take a walk to the coffee shop or hang out in the backyard for a bit and kick it. Once we get to that place of comfortability, I can turn on the heat and make some tracks. It starts with the personal and ends with professional. All the artists I’ve worked with have worked with so many producers and co-writers. They’ve seen it all. I have to form my own connection with them and gain their trust before making something special. 

If you weren’t in the music business, what do you think you would be doing?

I’ve always wanted to open a restaurant. I think music for me is a means to be able to meet people. I like to socialize and hear stories. I feel like with food, it’s the same sort of avenue into people. When I met the woman who is now my wife, who is a raw-vegan cookbook author and has worked in restaurants a lot, she told me there were two things we’d never do: 1. Go on a cruise and 2. Open a restaurant. She said it was the most stressful and crazy job. In theory, it would be the coolest thing, but in reality, I know I couldn’t do it. I’m just going to stick with the music thing. It seems to be working. 

What is an artist or band that fans would be surprised to know you listen to?

I think a lot of them because I don’t know what people would really expect from me. I listen to a lot of West-African music and Afrobeat. Especially since having Mae, we’ve been listening to a lot of that around the house. Our new baby is going to have an eclectic taste in music. We listen to a lot of Gospel music in the house, as well. I’m not religious but I listen to Anthony Hamilton and some other soul music. It lifts your spirits.   

Main image: Matthe Salacuse