Ricky Reed’s Good Vibrations
In a world where empathy is often in short supply, it is the driving force behind the pop hits of Ricky Reed.
Ricky Reed is an award-winning music producer who has worked with many of the leading pop artists of recent years. He is also a solo musician and the founder of electronic pop group Wallpaper.
Reed was born Eric Burton Frederic in 1982 in Berkeley, CA. He formed progressive indie band Facing New York in 2004. The group toured extensively and recorded two albums with independent record label Five One, Inc. Reed released his first EP as Wallpaper in 2006 and scored a hit in 2012 with a single from the album #STUPIDFACEDD.
He cowrote and produced Jason Derulo’s international sensation “Talk Dirty,” which reached number 3 on the Billboard singles charts and topped the charts in many countries. He has also produced hits for Twenty One Pilots, Meghan Trainor, and Halsey. He received three of his four Grammy nominations for his work on Lizzo’s 2019 album Cuz I Love You, including the Billboard number 1 “Truth Hurts.”
Producer Ricky Reed has had his share of hits in the past few years. And despite the simplicity inherent in a great pop tune, Reed says there’s no formula for what he does. For him, every song is an exercise in empathy.
Ricky Reed: Sort of a motto we have in here is like, “Write the song of the day—the song that the day wants.”
AJC: But I’m guessing there are days when it just doesn’t come.
Reed: And then that, too.
But Reed wasn’t always quite so serene. While still a student at UC Berkeley, where he studied Western Music Composition and West African Drumming, Reed created an intentionally obnoxious electro-pop project, called Wallpaper.
Reed: The very, very beginning of Wallpaper., it was 100% ironic. I was trying to make a point that I felt like singers and artists were so disconnected from the music, and from themselves, that it might as well just be gibberish. I had a lot of anger at that point in my life.
Reed: As Wallpaper. began to get popular, and even, like, sort of low-level gain some fame, I’m like, “I’m just perpetuating the thing that I set out to…”
AJC: To mock.
Reed: Mock. And I was like, “I just need to be straight with people.”
And it is this capacity to be straight with people that has become one of the reasons artists come to Ricky Reed—that, and his canny ability to get to the emotional core of the music.
Reed: This kind of goes back to me studying West African music and drumming from Ghana, when I was in school. And my teacher taught me how drums, how rhythm can be emotional—just raw rhythm, no singing, no chords… Even the most simple rhythm, how you can put emotion into it—or not! And I started to realize that, if you really make the drums deep, you make the drums funky, and you have that feeling that makes you have to move in your chair or jump out of your chair. And that’s a feeling, you know? That’s like a real sentiment. And I kind of got to the point where I was like, “No matter what the genre, or the singer, or the subject matter, let’s make the rhythms, let’s make the bass and drums feel like people. It’s irresistible.”
But Ricky Reed doesn’t only make music with other people. His own songs are both deeply personal and, in many ways, fundamentally different from his works for hire.
Reed: My “fences” are my abilities as a singer. There’s some kind of records that I can carry as a vocalist, and some that I can’t. I’m not gonna try to sing a High C or rap or something. I can find this smaller world to live in as an artist. But that’s gonna allow me to communicate the feelings that I think are important. And, for my music, that’s the most important thing.
The song “Joan of Arc” is a love poem to his wife, Laura. He credits her with changing him for the better, as an artist and as a man.
Reed: I think that I didn’t actually start to have success as a producer until I let my full self be in the room with other people.
Reed: The same me that’s around my mom and dad, my wife and my daughter, is the same me that I bring to every room, every day.
AJC: That’s quite a revelation, though.
Reed: It’s big. And it didn’t happen overnight, but I started to understand that.