High on a terrifyingly steep and narrow street in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, inside an unassuming house that turns out to be much larger than it looks from the street, lies a hit factory.
Vintage keyboards, guitars and exotic percussion instruments festoon the walls and lie in corners; microphones, amplifiers, wires and other pieces of daunting equipment are in nearly every room, but it’s a surprisingly homey and comfortable house.
“It’s kind of a metaphor for our whole operation: It looks small at first,” says the proprietor of this hit factory — Ricky Reed, Grammy-winning songwriter and producer of songs by Lizzo, Camila Cabello, Halsey, Jon Batiste, Twenty One Pilots, Maren Morris and Bomba Estereo; head of the Nice Life label and Variety’s Hitmakers Producer of the Year. “But then you realize that a big community of people have run in and out of here.”
Downstairs, the main studio is centered around a giant Harrison 4032 solid-state recording console (the same brand, although not the same one, used to record Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall” and “Thriller”), while off in a different room is the battered black Steinway grand piano that Reed purchased from the legendary L.A. studio Sound City. “All kinds of people supposedly played this piano — Fleetwood Mac, Elton John, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers,” he says. “I think there was a Heartbreakers sticker on the bottom side, but I’m not sure it’s still there.” (Journalistic duty compels us to get down on all fours and look — yep, it’s there.)
Yet the album and song that have brought us here are Lizzo’s “Special” and “About Damn Time,” which racked up five 2023 Grammy nominations — including three of the top awards, Album, Song and Record of the Year — and was released on Reed’s Nice Life label through Atlantic Records.
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 although many songs on the album sound positive and empowering, there’s a lot more to conveying that than first meets the ear. (For more on Reed’s career, listen to the podcast below or see Variety‘s interview from earlier this year.) Reed sits behind the console and cues up some tracks.
This is such a cozy and livable environment — do you find it’s better to be comfortable, or somewhere grittier to kind of keep you on edge?
I like newness. If I can both be comfortable and feel some sense of newness, then that’s it for me — I’ve been here since 2015, so the newness is wearing off. But when we go to other spaces, I have my engineers set us up in what I call the “living room setup.” If I’m going to be writing songs or playing with people, we’ll kind of get into this kumbaya circle, as opposed to someone playing bass over here and the songwriter is 15 feet away. Some artists like to go in the booth to sing, but others, like Leon Bridges, whose record we did here, sits right in that chair [he gestures to a seat near the mixing desk] and cut all of his vocals here. A lot of times he wouldn’t even wear headphones. We do a lot of recording in this room.
How did “About Damn Time” came together?
We had been working on this album for a couple of years, and we knew we needed one more record that could be sort of a thesis statement for the album. Lizzo wanted a declaration, so to speak — she wanted to give everybody a warm hug, and say that things are maybe not as easy as they felt a couple of years ago, but to still give people some joy and hope. So in the first or second week of January of this year, I went in with [cowriter] Blake Slatkin and jammed on a couple of ideas. I believe it started with him playing the piano chords that would end up being our pre-chorus. [He plays the song’s isolated piano track, which you can hear on the podcast below.]
And as soon as he did that, I then heard this chord — an E flat minor ninth. What’s really interesting about that chord, for the music-theory nerds out there, is it doesn’t have a third in it. Now, usually the third in a chord is what determines if it sounds major or it sounds minor. If you omit that third entirely, you get a chord that you’re not quite sure how to feel about — “Is this a happy feeling or a sad feeling?” It doesn’t spell that out for you. And building the song around a chord like that, to me, was gonna be the vehicle for Lizzo to give us this kind of message.
Why would an ambiguous chord like that result in such a happy and positive and confident song?
Great question. I think the song is happy and positive and confident, but it also says, “Look, we’ve been going through it, and we’re still going through it, there’s a lot of challenges out here right now.” And having the song based around an instrumental that just felt happy or just felt dark wouldn’t be doing it justice. So once we got that chord, that’s when I sat down and laid in the bass groove, and as soon as it hit, Blake and I yelled — we knew we had a record. Lizzo came into the studio and brought her magic and made the song what it is today.
Did you already have the chorus and the bridge?
We had a pretty good idea of what this would sound like — we didn’t have the bridge, but had that verse groove, we had the pre-chorus, and [another bit]. But as always, Lizzo is the only one who can write Lizzo-isms, and to be honest, getting the lyric and melody right was the longest part. It was probably a couple months of day-in, day-out, talking about the message that she wanted to convey and getting it just right.
It seems like a simple message, but simplicity can sometimes be the hardest and most laborious thing to get across.
Exactly. But in the end, after all the hard work, we’re really proud that we landed it right where we wanted it to be without getting overcomplicated, considering everything that went into it. There are so many alternate versions — I tried countless things, there’s at least a handful of different, fully produced bridges that I made. “Cut it, it’s not good enough.” I worked on a bridge for five full days in the studio, with a whole different chord progression and melody, and something with a vocoder solo on it, or a little bass lick. Blake and Lizzo were like, “Not good enough.”
How do you keep perspective when you’re working on something for that long with that many different possibilities?
That’s probably the greatest unspoken challenge of all this, how to keep track of what’s fundamentally good and exciting when you’re so close to it. I think the way you know is to really, really to stay in touch with your body and what feels genuinely good. I have to do a lot of stepping back and listening to it from the top — does this feel good? Does it make me want to move? That feeling is the ultimate decider. You can cook up a lot of things with your brain and your intentions, but it has to go through the body.
How do you get distance? Do you just listen to something else?
There was a point where I was waking up in the middle of the night and the song was playing in my head — like a verse or lyric we had been working on was literally looping. And I was laying in bed one night like, “What’s a kind of a palate cleanser I could do just to get this out of my head?” And the most far-off thing that I could imagine was the opening guitar riff to “My Own Worst Enemy” by Lit. (Laughter) “Not-not-not-not-not-not, ba-ba…” That did it.
You’ve said that Lizzo recorded a hundred or 120 songs for this album? What’s going to happen to them?
I didn’t produce the entire album, but she and I probably did 20 or 30, all total. And when I think a song has potential, I’m going to take it as far as I can towards completion, even if nobody’s heard it yet. But she is the hardest-working musician I’ve ever seen in the studio, the countless days and hours of experimentation, going back in and being like, “Let me see if I can beat that verse, let me see if we can beat that melody in the chorus.” It’s just so admirable and so impressive to watch. So yes, there are many, many more songs that didn’t make the album. Will they be heard someday? I don’t know. Maybe she’ll put out some kind of “Lizzo From the Vault” or something. But for right now, this was the statement that made sense to her.
The messages in all of the songs on the album are very positive and self-helpful in a lot of ways — was that something she was going for?
Oh, 100%. She’s very aware of the impact the power that her words have, even before she had a massive podium like she does now. I think she thinks of her music in large part like a service to fans, especially on this album with so many people listening. We’d have a great song and she would say, “Yeah, this is great, but the negativity in this is not something I think the world needs right now. It’s off.” Simple as that. Those kinds of small decisions, day by day, lead up to an album, and that’s why it feels cohesive and why the messaging feels so strong.
How did you end up working with her?
I’d had some success with Twenty One Pilots and Icona Pop — Atlantic artists — and first Brandon Davis [now Atlantic EVP] introduced me to [president of A&R] Pete Ganbarg and then both of them introduced me to [co-chairman/CEO] Craig Kallman and they essentially said, “Have you ever thought about doing a joint venture deal with a label?” I had seen producers take label jobs and they didn’t seem as happy in the office as they were in the studio, so I was pretty hesitant. And as he had many times before, my great manager, Larry Wade, said, “Give it a shot. All this means is that if we find something great, we have to bring it to them and no other major label. It’s going to last a couple of years, and if we don’t find anything, no big deal.” Okay, fine.
Probably four or five months after we signed the deal, my booking agent, Matt Morgan, who’s now at UTA, told Larry, “You guys should check out this artist that I’m booking, she’s selling out small clubs and she’s amazing live — her name’s Lizzo.” Larry flew out to see her at Terminal Five in New York, opening for Sleater-Kinney, and was blown away: “You gotta meet this girl.” So she flew from Minneapolis out here for a couple days, she sat where you’re sitting right now, we got familiar and our first day, we made a song called “Worship.” I took the song home to my now-wife and one of my best friends, Bradley Heron, who’s now the president of Nice Life, and I played it for them and said, “We can’t not sign this artist, right?”
What’s happening with the other artists on the label?
Along with Lizzo, we have another partnership with Atlantic Records for an amazing band from L.A. called the Marias. You could call them an indie band, but they play more akin to an R&B group, and their singer, María Zardoya, sings in English and Spanish.
We also have a partnership with Warner Records for an incredible young artist named John Robert. I met him when he was 16 and the first time he played and sang for me, I was blown away. My first question for him was, “Who introduced you to Jeff Buckley? It’s just uncanny.” And he was like, “I don’t know who that is.” I said, “I’m in!”
We also have artists that were signed to us independently, with no major label involved. Junior Mesa, another sort-of-indie act that blurs the lines between psychedelia and soul, based out of Bakersfield. We have an artist from Orange County named Saint Panther, who is a songwriter-producer-singer — I don’t even know had to describe her, she touches on hip-hop, soul R&B, even dabbles in reggaeton. We also have our latest signing to the label, an artist named Stevie. She is from East L.A. County, she plays cumbia woven in with bits of Mexican regional reggaeton. She’s one of the most creative and strange kids I’ve ever met.
And now we are full speed ahead: It’s my job to give them as much time and energy as a superstar, because that’s the promise I make to them when we sign a deal together. We’re all ready for a big, bright, exciting 2023.