Boston-born, Brooklyn-based soul singer Eli “Paperboy” Reed cut his chops in Southern juke joints and Chicago gospel choirs, waiting side-stage in Mississippi clubs for a chance to sing between acts. He released his first LP of original songs, Roll With You, in 2008, a major-label debut followed in 2010 and four years later, he and his writing partner Ryan Spraker have finished up Nights Like This. The LP is a departure from his soul roots and a head-first dive into the pop ether. It officially arrives next week, but is available to stream in its entirety below.
Nights Like This has a modern pop feel that’s new for you. Did that come naturally or was it a conscious decision?
I’d say it was a little bit of both. We released Come and Get It! and Roll With You back to back, so we didn’t really have a chance to stop and think. We toured for two years, took two months off to make a record, then toured another two years. After that, I had almost two years off to start working on new music. And I feel like if there was any time to break out of the niche and do something that was new and a little bit more exciting, it was then. I had to do it, otherwise I was going to be making the same record for the next 20 years, and I just didn’t want to do that anymore. I wanted to try something different.
What’s the songwriting process like for you?
Well, this was actually a very different process in terms of songwriting than we had ever employed previously. Up until now, I would be in a hotel room with an acoustic guitar trying to demo something, and I would just play it all at the same time – chords, lyrics, melody – and it would all just kind of come together. But I had time to step back a little bit this time. We took some writing trips out to L.A. to work with different writers and different producers, to see how different people made music.
On the single, “Shock to the System,” you collaborated with Michael Fitzpatrick of Fitz and the Tantrums. How did you two get involved?
That was actually the first session that we ever did. Ryan and I had been working on our own, but the first session we did with somebody else was with Fitz and Dave Bassett. And “Shock to the System” came out of that. We were only in the studio for maybe four or five hours. Fitz is a great writer, and he in particular focuses on melody a lot, and that was a really interesting thing. With soul music a lot of the time, it’s more about virtuosity and aggressiveness and energy in the singer. But for pop music, the melody is paramount. You want something that’s going to get stuck in people’s heads. So I wanted to try to combine those two things: really aggressive, virtuosic singing but also a really strong melody that people can relate to. And that was kind of the overarching idea behind writing songs for this album.
What music were you listening to while you were working on it?
I listen to a lot of gospel music. That’s still where it’s at for me, is gospel singers. Ryan was really good about keeping his ear to the ground for pop and hip-hop, and he would play me stuff, and we would take our points from that. We both listen to Beyoncé a lot. A lot of Beyoncé. Ryan would also play radio stuff that I wasn’t super aware of, whether it was Kendrick or Katy Perry or Emeli Sande. A lot of female singers, funnily enough. I get a lot of inspiration from female singers.
A year ago you released a single from the album, “Woo Hoo,” on vinyl first. Where did the idea come from?
That version of “Woo Hoo” was the initial version that Ryan and I did before we did the album version. It was a little more aggressive, a little bit more suited to vinyl. And then we had this version of Robyn’s “Call Your Boyfriend,” and we wanted to put that on the B side. I wanted to have a place for that to live. That was a lot of fun. And we still played that song in the last show, even though Robyn apparently hates it.
Really, why does she hate it?
This is crazy. We sent the record to her, just as a courtesy. And she came back, and not only did she not give us permission, but she actually sent a cease and desist letter for us to not put it out. I really don’t understand why she doesn’t like it. It kind of bummed me out. But, if Robyn reads this, I love your song, and I like singing it. So there you go.
Speaking of pop, did you listen to Carly Simon as a kid? Because your song “Not Even Once” is a lot like “You’re So Vain.”
Oh! It is like that. I’m glad you get it. Good. Because most people, when they hear it, like my manager for instance, didn’t understand there was a subtlety. It’s supposed to be about how the guy, the protagonist, the singer is really just being an idiot. That’s the whole point of the song. And I hope that people can pick up on that.