Hitmaker of the Month: Producer Ricky Reed on What Makes Lizzo So ‘Special

With hits from a wildly diverse array of artists including Halsey, the Weeknd, Camila Cabello, Jon Batiste, Leon Bridges, Twenty One Pilots, SZA, Maren Morris, Maggie Rogers, Maroon 5, Bomba Estereo and many more, Ricky Reed is one of the most successful and ubiquitous songwriters of the past 15-odd years.

But it’s his work with Lizzo, both as a musical collaborator and the head of Nice Life, the label to which signed along with Atlantic Records, that has made him Variety’s Hitmaker of the Month for July. The singer’s “Special” album features five songs co-produced by Reed — including the smash single “About That Time” and the closer, “Coldplay.”

Reed (real name: Eric Frederic) began working with Lizzo (real name: Melissa Jefferson) in 2016. His touch was immediately evident on her debut EP “Coconut Oil,” several songs from which appeared on her Grammy-winning “Cuz I Love You” full-length three years later — he brought an effervescent pop touch that was not in evidence on her earlier releases, and helped turn her into a superstar.

It’s a long way from his early beginnings in the Bay Area, where he says he was equally influenced by the region’s punk and hip-hop scenes. While he originally signed with Epic Records as an artist, his breakthrough came in 2013 for his work on Jason Derulo’s hit “Talk Dirty,” which he says “completely changed everything.” A barrage of hits with the above artists and many more ensued.

Reed still releases records under his own name when the spirit moves him — “I almost need to be surprised by it, like suddenly, ‘I need to make an album right now!’” he says — but his focus is on making records for other artists, many via his label. Based in Los Angeles, Nice Life closed its office during the pandemic but its 12-person staff is moving to a new one in Echo Park in the fall. The company is also unusual in that it has no set distribution deal, and instead licenses its releases to the label it feels is best suited to the artist, which in some cases is an independent. Artists on the roster include the Marias, St. Panther, Junior Mesa, John Robert and hit songwriter-producer Nate Mercereau, along with other songwriters.

Reed has won two Grammys, for his work on Lizzo’s “Cuz I Love You” in 2020 (Best Urban Contemporary Album) and this year for Jon Batiste’s “We Are” (Album of the Year).

Your fingerprints are all over “Special,” were you basically an executive producer of the album?

No, Lizzo was the executive producer. I produced five songs and mixed one, and obviously also being the head of Nice Life, which is one half of the label she’s signed to, I’m just around a lot, hearing things and giving friendly feedback wherever I can. But Lizzo is really the one with the vision.

She’s been quoted as saying she wanted the drums to “lead the conversation” on this album — what does that mean?

At the very beginning of recording this album, she was like, “I don’t want the drums to sound like things people have heard before. I want to literally define different rhythmic patterns and different actual drum sounds, so that when this album comes out” — several years from when we started — “it will still be cutting-edge from a drum perspective.” That was what we started with! So you just cast the line as far out as you can and reel it in as the process goes. In fact, the opener for the album, “The Sign,” was one of the first ones we did. I worked on the drums for that for about four days.

Lizzo also said that you guys went through 100 or 120 songs for the album before narrowing it down to the ones you’ve got. Was it really that many?

Yes, it’s really that many. She is so effortlessly creative and prolific. She comes into the studio every day, feeling any number of ways somebody can feel — happy, sad, angry, betrayed, joyous, partying, whatever — and she can she can give you a song to pinpoint that specific mood. We were just getting into the flow of, you know, “What are we talking about today?” Next day: “What are we talking about today?”

So are there dozens and dozens of finished outtakes, or is it more like songs in various stages of being completed?

If you’re getting into triple digits, it’s various stages of completion. But we definitely full-on finished and even mixed some crazy records that didn’t make the cut. I think there are songs in there that still have a story to tell that still sort of are a part of this moment and a part of her story. She worked harder than I’ve ever seen anybody work for this album. She’s sitting on an insane collection of music — I don’t think it’s the last that we’ll hear from the sessions that went into this album.

Each song seems to have a message and a point and an issue — self-belief, body positive, bad relationship, “Everybody Is Gay.” It seems very intentional.

Lizzo is probably the most intentional person I’ve ever met, and also one of the smartest. She appeals to so many different kinds of people who are in different seasons of their lives or are dealing with different things, so she’s going to do her best to try to touch every one of those people anywhere that they’re at. I think of Lizzo’s music almost as a sort of service-related art. Often its primary job, aside from her getting to express herself, is us being able to help the people that need some healing through music. And when her album clocks in at just over a half an hour, you know there’s not one second wasted.

Was the album intentionally kept short? It sounds like it easily could have been a lot longer.

I can’t speak to exactly what the thought process was, but I do know that she really, really wanted to make every second count. And as soon as an emotion is fully expressed, or communicated — go there, right, done. “Let me say what I’m gonna say and then get on with your day.”

What’s the story behind “Coldplay”?

I would love to first say that as of right now, it’s my favorite song that I’ve ever co-written and produced in my career.

The way that it happened was really interesting. We were already at least a year and a half into the making of the album and taking a little bit of downtime. I had been listening to this song “Sudden Death” by the artist Quelle Chris, and it was one of those songs that was helping me get through the early pandemic, when everything was so terrifying and strange, and I thought it could be something for Lizzo.

So I just brought it in, I think it was in June 2021, and that day she was like, “I just want to get on the mic and say some stuff.” We often do this: I’ll loop a beat a few times and she’ll freestyle a bunch of lyrics and melody — that’s how a lot of “About Damn Time” was written. But on this one, she did not sing, she did not rap — she essentially did a spoken-word, continuous train of thought, improvised performance for about 45 minutes. I just kept looping and I thought she was going to be done but she wasn’t. She kept talking about her trip to Tulum [Mexico], her feelings with this guy and trying to figure it out, blah, blah, blah. I thought it was amazing. She stepped out of the booth, “OK, see you later.”

I knew that there was something special there because it was the most vulnerable I’ve ever, ever seen her in the studio. She was saying things I’d never heard her say and being really honest about her feelings, so I held on to it. We went back into the studio in September, I pulled it up and it just blew my mind — “This is definitely a thing!” I was there with co-producer Nate Mercereau and I transcribed the whole 45-minute thing on my on my phone, looking for words that naturally rhyme and interesting phrases, literally copying and pasting things around in the notes doc, trying to get some sort of song structure that I could present to her. And right before she was about to come in, I remembered that there was this cool thing about Coldplay’s song “Yellow” in the verse, and I thought, “I wonder if that would work over this?” I started singing it, with the pitch shifted up a little bit, and I said to Patrick, the engineer, “Can you find me an a capella for Coldplay ‘Yellow’?” I loaded it in and literally 10 minutes later she came in. I said, “Hey, you know that spoken word thing you did back in June?” I played her the beat with the Coldplay and kind of sang — poorly sang! — a rough concept to her. She was like, “All right!,” when into the booth and sang the whole last song in about three hours. It was crazy!

Tell us about the acts on your label, and your goals for them.

When I signed Lizzo, I didn’t even really think that running a record label was for me. But I started to understand that I actually have the ability to choose different voices that I can highlight and amplify voices that may be left out of the conversation, or something really interesting culturally that is going on outside of the mainstream. So the label is getting more and more of my time.

We have the Marias, who are from Puerto Rico and Los Angeles. We’re partnered with Atlantic Records on them, and they’re amazing. When I first saw them play live, they reminded me of the Sade album “Lovers Rock” — it’s like an indie band with a Sade vibe, they were actually featured on the new Bad Bunny album.

We also have John Robert, who we’re partnering with Warner Records for. I met him when he was 16 or something, he sent me a couple of songs and then came in and sang for me. I was like, “Who introduced you to Jeff Buckley?,” because there’s clearly a Jeff Buckley thing going on, and he said, “I don’t know who that is.” Oh my god, sign him! I’m working on an album with him, he’s an incredible, special kid.

On the indie side we have Junior Mesa, from Bakersfield, who’s this kind of kaleidoscope of psychedelia and R&B, he’s mind blowing. St. Panther, from Irvine, who is a producer, and singer and rapper. She started out kind of in an R&B and soul space and has moved into everything from like hip-hop to reggaetón. She’s also very politically outspoken. And Nate Mercereau, we’re friends from the Bay Area and somebody that I work with on the songwriting and production side. He’s done everything from Lizzo to Shawn Mendes, Rustin Kelly, all these great people, but he also makes these incredible experimental albums.

Are you still free to work with whoever you want?

Yes, I will continue to do albums with artists that are not on the label, whether it’s a great musical chemistry or a great friendship, and also because I just love meeting people. Working on the Camila [Cabello album, “Familia”], I got to meet so many legends of Latin music, so I’m always gonna go where that inspiration calls.

 

 

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