Eli “Paperboy” Reed loves soul music. The boy-faced, Boston-bred singer, guitarist and bandleader released his major-label debut, Come and Get It!, on Capitol Records this year, and was in the middle of a half-country tour when OffBeat caught him on the phone while driving through the plains. With a classic soul sound reminiscent of everything from early ’60s Solomon Burke to gritty ’70s funk—think horn sections, tambourines and calling out dance moves—he naturally gets lumped into the same scene as other contemporary retro soul/funk artists, like Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings or Mayer Hawthorne.
Like those artists, his own music seems to derive from his passion for the sounds he’s found on old records, and in fact, his vinyl discoveries even led him to make a real-life connection that will culminate in a surprise at his Voodoo show. It was interesting to hear how, at times, Reed seemed less interested in himself than in the artists and songs he’s probably pored over countless times—their fables, myths and odysseys more compelling than any real-life facts in his own contemporary world. The love comes through in his singing and playing, and anyone with a similar passion for ’60s soul should look forward to his set at Voodoo.
So, where are you right now?
I’m on the road, driving from Omaha to Kansas City.
You’re on tour right now?
Yeah, we’re out for about a month, coming into Voodoo Fest at the end. We’re going to head back east and then go down the coast to New Orleans.
Have you played here before?
I’ve been to New Orleans, but I’ve never played there.
You used to live somewhat close in Clarksdale, Mississippi. How did you wind up moving there?
It’s sort of a long story, but to make a long story short, I had an opportunity to work for a radio station and so I moved down there after high school. The job fell through but I ended up staying and living there for about a year.
And you started playing with some of the local musicians?
I got to play a lot with [blues drummer] Sam Carr, who was a big influence on me down there. There’s a lot of great local musicians that I was able to work with.
How did you wind up getting your first gig without knowing anyone there?
It was all about going around and making my acquaintances with people. There’s a lot to say I guess, but they were excited to have me down there because I knew a lot of songs and I was willing to play for not a lot of money. I just sort of found my way into the scene.
Was that the first time you played with people that weren’t your peers, who were older than you? Veterans?
Yes I would say so.
Was that a big change?
Not really. I learned a lot from the guys down there, but music is music so it’s really just playing with people.
Any specific lessons that stuck with you?
There’s a lot I could say about it, but basically I learned about how to keep and entertain a crowd, and how to be an entertainer. You have to work hard. Audiences are tough and discerning down there.
Are there musicians you particularly like from New Orleans?
Oh yeah, for sure. There’s Lee Dorsey, and Eldridge Holmes is one of my favorite New Orleans singers. He has that real rough voice, real raw but the production makes you think of New Orleans. I love Aaron Neville’s early records, Ernie K-Doe. The list can go on and on.
You know, Eldridge Holmes isn’t one of the names we hear too often when people talk about New Orleans singers.
Yeah, he’s a deep soul singer. There are a million New Orleans singers I could talk about, like Smiley Lewis. I love Professor Longhair and my favorite New Orleans singer is Johnny Adams, the Tan Canary.
Do you remember if there was a first record that really lit a fire in you?
I was initially blown away by the Ray Charles Atlantic recordings. That was kind of an early influence on me.
When you started playing in high school were you playing your own songs already?
I wasn’t doing too much playing back then. Mostly just listening and learning. Getting a little practice in at home.
Were you collecting records at that point?
Sort of. I had my dad’s records. I was buying a lot of music, but it wasn’t really like “records”. I started really collecting when I came to Chicago. There was a huge supply of readily-available 50-cent 45s I could buy on the south side of Chicago.
That process of digging, collecting and finding old records, did that affect your playing or songwriting?
Yes and no…I wasn’t really looking for obscurities necessarily, I was looking for things that had fallen by the wayside, things that were popular regionally. The popular records are the ones that are good. Most of the time the records that are obscure are obscure for a reason, some of them are great but they’re often lacking somehow. Because I was doing a radio show in Chicago, I was looking for stuff that was popular locally but that didn’t stand the test of time—most people didn’t remember those records.
The regional hits at the time.
Exactly. I would go back and look through old Billboards and see what was popular. You would see what was in the Top 100 R&B charts and it would be records that you had never heard of. And these were mildly successful records that no one remembers.
How did you first end up meeting Gospel legend Mitty Collier?
It was exciting. She’s such a sweet lady, and she was just really nice to me. She took me under her wing, taught me a lot about music and about singing, and took me into her family.
Had you had any previous experience with religious or gospel music growing up?
I grew up with gospel music in my house all the time, but I had never played really in church. My dad would play Soul Stirrers or Mahalia Jackson around the house.
Was it a jarring change going from the records to actually being in the church, or was it pretty natural?
It was pretty natural. I feel like I had an understanding of how the whole thing worked. But it was more just about understanding the cues and responding to the preacher and listening to the congregation, and making sure you were on your toes all the time. Somebody in the congregation would stand up and start singing a song and you would have to figure out what key is this in what are the chords were.
What prompted you to move back to Boston?
I felt like I wasn’t getting a lot of use out of the ridiculous amount of money that I was spending on an education at the University of Chicago, so I felt that I ought to give music a go for a year. While I was on Christmas break at Chicago I recorded my first record, and then I came back [to Boston] that summer and I was like, alright, I want to press this record myself and put a band together around it and sort of see what happens. And now here we are seven years later.
Did you guys start touring after putting that record out?
No, we just played locally. We didn’t start touring until 2007, around the time we finished our second album [Roll With You].
How did Capitol Records end up signing you?
After Roll With You came out it was pretty successful in Europe and here too, and I think they just took notice. There was actually interest from several major labels. Capitol made an offer and I really liked the people there, so they signed me up.
Are they pretty hands-off when it comes to letting you create your own sound and go in your own direction with your records?
For the most part, definitely. Initially they were trying to get me to write with other people, and I said, ‘Let me just kind of do what I’m going to do and I’ll come back with the things i think we need for this album.’ I did, and I think they were happy and satisfied.
For your most recent album you wrote all the songs except for the first one, “Young Girl”?
Yeah, it’s a Boston soul record. I don’t know if you read the story about what happened to [the singer] Frank Lynch, but I got to know the guy who wrote the song and produced and arranged it. His name’s Herschel Dwellingham, he lives in Bogalusa and is going to come to New Orleans and play drums with us on that song. But I recorded it because it was a song that I felt deserved more attention. It was from Boston, which is my home town, and I just thought it was a great song that deserves more recognition.
Did playing as a DJ in Boston influence your own band’s music that you were writing and performing?
Not really. I like DJing—I think it’s sort of a challenge in the same way as performing a concert to put together a set that flows well and keeps the audience dancing. I think that some DJs don’t understand that, but I just wanted to play good records. It wasn’t about collecting rarities, I wanted to play records that were hits that people might not necessarily know, but were just as good as the records that you did know.
Is that the ultimate goal of your own songs—to write things that seem timeless or that people feel they recognize?
I just try to write good songs, I don’t really have that much philosophy behind it. Not to belittle it, but it’s pop music, so I want to write good pop songs that I think people can really relate to. Not to say the songs aren’t important, but in essence it’s just pop music.
You mentioned earlier that your label suggested you work with other artists. Now that you have that first album under your belt and have been touring, are you thinking about doing any collaborations in the future?
I would love to, it just depends on who pops up. I would love to work with [Wu-Tang producer] Rza. I would love to work with [country stars] Alan Jackson or Brad Paisley, on the other side of the coin. I think collaborating with people as writers is always kind of more fun than just doing a song with somebody.
The country influence on R&B records is something that used to be strong, but has been lost today.
I think the interesting thing about country music now is that it synthesizes a lot of American genres that have fallen by the wayside. Country music now is encompassing of traditional country music, bluegrass, southern rock, soul music, gospel, blues, all this stuff has become part of the country music movement, and in Nashville, all of that stuff is at their disposal to use in the writing process.
That synthesis is something familiar to you too, right?
It is. I think it’s great, and that’s why i still love country music. Even today I think there are songs on the radio that I think are powerful. I love Nashville songwriting. Even if it’s formulaic I sometimes I think it’s great.
Eli “Paperboy” Reed plays the Voodoo Experience Friday, October 29 at 3:30 p.m. on the Sony Make.Believe Stage.